Tampa, really?

What's worth a look in the historic — and exotic, even — Gulf Coast city.

Rowers on Tampa's Hillsborough River.
  • Rowers on Tampa's Hillsborough River.

Tampa’s melting pot of cultures – as well as access to the freshest seafood and sun-kissed produce – has contributed to terrific restaurants. It’s a sophisticated city that has authentic global flair, unlike other nearby cities with a strong tourist focus.

Since the area was first discovered by Spanish explorers in 1528, they’ve had nearly 500 years to develop a special identity.

What to do

Yes, there really is a lot to do in the city, even if it’s super-hot out. One of Tampa’s neighborhoods, Ybor City, is a National Historic Landmark District. Start out at the Visitor’s Center, which also has a mini museum.

This vibrant part of town is jam-packed with colorful, unabashed fun. It was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers from Cuba, Spain, Italy and to an extent, other immigrants including Germans and Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Cigar rollers can be seen working their trade; they like a little tip for their poses. The architecture styles, cafés, music venues and shops can make you feel like you’ve left the U.S. behind. In fact, José Marti Park, open to the public weekday mornings, is (still) owned by the nation of Cuba!

Stroll to several museums, and take in nature and city skylines along the Tampa River Walk.

What Flagler did for Miami – bringing the railroad, wealthy friends and later settlers – Henry Plant did for Tampa. The former 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel is now the Henry B. Plant Museum, offering a window into what life was like at the turn of the century. The Tampa Bay History Center delves into the contributions of First Peoples, Spanish and French explorers, and immigrants who make Tampa the city it is today.

Tampa's Ybor City.

Tampa's Ybor City.

What to eat

The Columbia of Ybor City is Tampa’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, founded in 1905. Several other locations around town have opened, including at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Among other specialties, you can order the original Cuban sandwich. See, the real “Cuban” sandwich was created at a fancy club in 1894, complete with Italian Mortadella and German sweet cheese. Once you know Ybor City’s heritage and flavor influence, you realize that sandwich could never have been invented in Miami. They have an annual Cuban Sandwich Festival to celebrate that fact.

The Oxford Exchange is a beautiful-people brunch spot, coffee house, chic gift shop, bookstore and more. You might see sports stars and other famous folk wandering around this huge venue divided into different sections. They serve local, seasonal and organic fare; order as healthy or as decadently as you please.

Bernini is a very popular for both lunch and dinner, right in the heart of Ybor City. It’s in the former Bank of Ybor, giving this Italian restaurant a stunning interior. Lots of locally sourced items are on the menu, too, including fresh Gulf Coast grouper crusted in pistachios.

A cool place that’s so new, many locals haven’t discovered it: Cigar City Cider. They make 100% natural ciders and meads out of Florida-grown ingredients. They’re way outside the traditional flavor box: think starfruit habanero, watermelon, even caramel. They offer tours of their cider works.

One of Florida’s most special (but come as you are) restaurants is Ulele. It’s on the Hillsborough River next to the Ulele Spring and adjacent to the Water Works Park. The restaurant and brewery is named after a local Native American woman, and it's native-inspired. They incorporate fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, beef and wild game from Florida. You’ll find duck, venison, alligator, wild boar and frogs’ legs on the menu.

Courthouse Ballroom at Le Méridien.

Courthouse Ballroom at Le Méridien.

Where to stay

Le Méridien Tampa, a centrally located luxury hotel, gives a glimpse into Tampa's history as a former federal courthouse. The hallways still feature different clerk’s offices, the ballroom was a courtroom, and a judge’s bench has been repurposed into a desk downstairs.

The hotel's modern interior is nice and cool after a hot sunny day. Their Bizou Brasserie includes full-spread breakfasts with fresh juice.

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