Tampa Bay Area has a reputation for its pristine beaches such as Clearwater Beach, its theme parks like Busch Gardens and its strikingly beautiful, yet challenging golf courses. These attractions are still there, but I invite you to look beyond these past highlights and discover the modern-day allure of Cigar City.
Over the past decade, Tampa’s urban core has undergone a transformation that’s worthy of exploring its diverse outdoor adventures as well as its urban gastronomy. In the wake of the global pandemic, Tampa’s tourism authority is thrilled to welcome visitors back to experience the city, starting with the great outdoors, “We are encouraged to see research that shows an increase in travel intent and we are committed to taking the right precautions to keep people safe while allowing them to get some much-needed fresh air and adventure,” said Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.
Areas such as Hyde Park, Channel District and the Heights have blossomed into a delectable melting pot of history, culture, diverse food and craft beverage businesses that has attracted young families and professionals as residents and visitors. Yet, despite its cultural renaissance and bourgeoning foodie scene, Tampa doesn’t feel overcrowded like many up-and-coming destinations – an ideal situation when personal space has become a coveted travel amenity.
Accommodations and the Greens
A staple in Tampa Bay Area’s golf community since 1970, Innisbrook Golf Resort is welcoming guests back to its Palm Harbor location after an extensive renovation completed earlier this year. With four championship courses that host the PGA Tour each April, Innisbrook is a golfer’s paradise. Accompanying families will also enjoy the six swimming pools, tennis courts and variety of restaurants during the stay. Rates starting at $156 this summer; visit innisbrookgolfresort.com.
As part of Marriott’s prized Autograph Collection, the Epicurean Hotel boasts what its name suggests – the ultimate destination for dining, activities and amenities to please the palate, complete with cooking classes. Located in South Tampa just north of bayfront Bayshore Boulevard, the Epicurean offers luxury accommodations, savory culinary experiences at its three restaurants including a rooftop bar with panoramic views of the Tampa Skyline and full-service Spa Evangeline to unwind. Rates starting at $202 this summer at epicureanhotel.com.
Waiting until 2021 to travel? The highly anticipated Tampa Edition is set to open in spring of 2021. Cigar City’s first 5-star luxury hotel will be located in the Channelside District and will feature a one-of-a-kind rooftop pool to be shared by its mix of guests and condo residents. “Offering an experience unlike any other hotel in Tampa Bay, The Tampa EDITION will reflect our city’s lifestyle through its timeless design, impeccable service and engaging amenity spaces that will connect guests to the neighborhood in a unique way,” said James Nozar, CEO of hotel owners Strategic Property Partners, LLC., in a recent press release. Nightly rates not yet announced – visit waterstreettampa.com/hotels/the-tampa-edition.
If a boutique hotel in the city sounds more appealing than a golf resort, there are several other terrific options to hit the links nearby. Just north of downtown, golf like a local at the Club at Cheval, a family-friendly establishment with a semi-private 18-hole championship golf course and an assortment of other fitness activities. Visit chevalgac.com for details.
History buff golfers will enjoy a round at city-owned and operated Rogers Park, open since 1952 right on the Hillsborough River. During the time of segregation, the present-day 18-hole championship course was once the only public recreation area where black Americans could gather for a picnic. See rogersparkgolf.net to book a tee time.
Exploring the Bay and Beyond
There is an abundance of indoor and outdoor activities to do in Tampa, and many of them are family-friendly. In particular, these activities are enjoyable for travelers who enjoy a day on the water while learning about Tampa’s origins.
The Tampa Bay History Center is the perfect first stop to learn all about Cigar City’s culture, heritage and economic evolution. Conveniently located on the Tampa Bay Riverwalk, the center has three stories of permanent and temporary exhibits that date back 12,000 years to Tampa’s early peoples through its role today as a major port and tourism destination. View exhibits on the Tocobaga and Seminole tribes, Spanish settlements in the 1500’s, the establishment of Ybor City’s first cigar factory that brought in Spanish, Cuban and other European immigrants.
Next, canoeing down the Hillsborough River in a 16,000-acre wilderness park provides a unique experience in the freshwater wetlands of the Tampa Bay Area. Just 15 minutes from downtown, guests can rent a canoe for two hours up to a full day to take in nature, get in a solid workout paddling and view wildlife of Florida’s swamps such as alligators, delicate American white ibis birds, turtles, deer and wild hogs.
For boat captains and ocean enthusiasts, embark on a full-day trip to the crystal waters of Egmont Key, a national wildlife refuge and state park just outside of Tampa Bay. After a quick boat ride, visitors will reach the seemingly untouched white sand beaches of the island, which is relatively uncrowded since it’s only reachable by boat. Locals recommend Tierra Verde rentals to get set up for an ocean excursion.
For inexperienced boaters, take a ferry from Fort Desoto Park on your Egmont expedition. Visitors can explore what feels like ancient jungle ruins, but is actually an old military fort, all the way to historic Egmont Key Lighthouse that has stood since 1858. Arrive early to admire some of the best seashells on the beach.
Once you’ve experienced Tampa’s marine life in the wild, visit the indoor-outdoor Florida Aquarium in the Channel District to learn about the bay and the surrounding area’s marine ecosystems including exhibits such as the Wetlands Trail, which emulates Florida’s beautiful mangroves, rare seadragons, a living coral reef with corals grown by the aquarium exhibit curators, bays and beaches.
Families on a budget will enjoy the FREE Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Visitors can view manatees in the wild, walk through different habitats on the half-mile tidal walk and pet sting rays. Manatees can best be seen in cooler months because they’re drawn to the heated waters of the nearby Tampa Electric Energy Plant, which partnered with state and federal authorities to open the center.
Where to Dine and Imbibe
The Columbia Restaurant is a family-owned Tampa Bay tradition. Look no further than this historic Ybor City establishment to find authentic Cuban dishes and live flamenco dancing entertainment. What began as a small corner café in 1905 that catered to Cuban immigrant cigar workers has evolved into the largest Spanish restaurant in the world with seven locations – but be sure to choose the flagship venue in Ybor to see the live flamenco show. For a more casual option, the Tampa Bay History Center location has a Riverwalk café.
For beachfront dining and a tropical atmosphere overlooking Tampa Bay and the St. Petersburg skyline, plan an evening at Sunset Grill at Little Harbor. With unobstructed sunset views over the harbor, the restaurant is right near Apollo Beach and minutes from the Manatee Viewing Center. The affordable, seafood-heavy menu will delight guests with Caribbean-inspired fare and evokes nautical vibes on the Intercoastal beach.
Head to the Heights to visit two of Tampa’s hottest gourmet dining venues that couldn’t be more different: Armature Works and Ulele. Geared toward individuals seeking an authentic market experience, Armature Works is a sophisticated waterfront food hall and co-working space aimed to connect Tampa’s Riverwalk district to the growing neighborhoods north of downtown. Set in an artfully restored factory building that was once home to Tampa Electric’s streetcar maintenance in the early 1900’s, the public market with communal seating features street-style dishes from classic pizza slices to Cuban sandwiches to vegan empanadas, as well as craft beer and third-wave coffee. Once you devour a Tampa Cuban, it will be difficult to enjoy them anywhere else. The outdoor dining space is terrific for kids and adults, with oversized checkerboards on the lawn and Adirondack chairs overlooking the Hillsborough River.
Directly adjacent to Armature Works is Ulele, with native Floridian-inspired cuisine, its own craft brewery and an upscale dining ambiance appropriate for a date night. Ulele’s indoor and outdoor décor pay tribute to Princess Ulele of the Tocobaga tribe, while the fusion of flavors by Chef Keith Williamson will celebrate the area’s rich heritage.
For a refreshing craft beer under the hot Florida sun, embrace your inner artist, hipster and historian at Coppertail Brewing Co. Located just outside Ybor City, this six-year-old brewery is home to fascinating relics from Old World Tampa with artwork driven by the owner’s daughter’s imaginative interpretation of ocean folklore. The brew pub offers 20 rotating taps serving quality beer with an emphasis on creativity and a kitchen cooking up shareable plates and innovative items such as the Tikka Masala Flatbread and Grouper Tacos.
By Katie Soltas