Nearly 120 years ago, a visit to Tampa Bay meant a trip down the railroad built by Henry Plant, often for a vacation at the Tampa Bay Hotel, the most magnificent hotel of its time.
There, beneath the Moorish minarets*, the cream of US society partied in the most luxurious surroundings that money could buy, in rooms furnished with 41 train-loads of treasures from around the globe.
Today, the Tampa Bay Hotel is the University of Tampa, but many visitors to Tampa Bay know Busch Gardens, the Columbia Restaurant, and the golf courses and beaches of Clearwater and St Petersburg. However, they visit the area but they leave without a real, broad taste of what the region has to offer.
There is more to Tampa Bay than restaurants, roller coasters and some of the best beaches in the USA. (And yes, that includes the beaches of Hawaii.)
We often encourage visitors to begin by looking into the area’s history, beginning with a visit to the Plant Building itself. This was once the Tampa Bay Hotel and is now part of the University of Tampa. Like Flagler College in St Augustine, students are able to use and enjoy the grand, historic buildings daily.
The magnificence of the Henry Plant building is an experience. Part of the main building is now a museum, and this is well worth visiting. Ask the staff about the short video that shows the history of the hotel, and the early growth of Tampa Bay. There are furnished hotel suites and function rooms to view, each decorated lavishly from Henry Plant’s trainloads of European shopping sprees for art and furniture.
Five minutes drive from the Plant museum is the Hyde Park district, where preserved houses, set in shady streets, might make you think that you have stumbled into historic Charleston. The Hyde Park shopping area itself is home to some good restaurants and bistros, elegant boutiques and high-end decorating stores.
Another option is to cross into Pinellas, to visit attractions such as the 21-acre Heritage Village, a free, living-history museum set in a natural pine and palmetto landscape. It has been reconstructed by moving some of Pinellas County’s oldest buildings together, to create the village, including a school, church, railroad depot, store, and various historic homes.
If you are interested in the Seminole Wars, you might like Fort Foster, a State Park and reproduction of a 1836 fort, on the actual site. Artifacts, tours etc. explain the history of this period.
Food, Craft Beer, Festivals etc.
Not far from the Plant Museum, you can lunch at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbor Island, relaxing beside the waterfront, overlooking the Gasparilla Pirate ship. This ship is used annually for Tampa’s Gasparilla festival, or Mardi Gras, when Gaspar and his pirates invade the city, and take the Mayor hostage. (You can decide for yourself whether this is truth or legend.)
Your historical tour can continue to Ybor City, the old Cuban part of town, which was once the cigar capital of Florida. The Columbia Restaurant is on most visitors’ agendas, and Ybor is the place to go clubbing at night. The restaurants are improving and vegetarians should try Istamblu for salads, hummus and amazing bread. There is 2.5 acre park (Centenial Park) in Ybor where there is a Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.
Other places for vegans and vegetarians is Byblos or places like the Mellow Mushroom, if you are in Brandon or Citrus Park. There is a move away from chain restaurants, and places like The Refinery showcase locally-grown produce, sustainable fish, local craft beers etc. Skipper’s Smokehouse is a famous Tampa experience, with music and fried alligator that won’t bite back.
There are many breweries and even whiskey distilleries in the area. Cigar City is the big gorilla in craft beer, but the choices are endless. There are tours of both Cigar City and Yuengling breweries. The Independent is a pub (opposite the Refinery) with an amazing range of beer options. Most are very affordable, but they have also have some rare (and pricey) bottles for the beer connoisseur.
Whenever you travel between Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, try to take a different causeway. There are three of these; each about 8 miles long, and they are engineering marvels. A fourth causeway links Pinellas and Manatee counties, and features the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, rated third (by the Travel Channel) on “Top 10 Bridges in the World”. All roads are well sign-posted, but a GPS ensures stress-free travel.
Ecology, flora and fauna
One of the “must sees” of Tampa is Lettuce Lake Park, an unspoiled mangrove forest on the Hillsborough River, off Fletcher Avenue, near the I-75. Here you can explore primeval Florida from endless boardwalks, and often peer into an alligator’s eyes. There are a series of these parks, including the neighboring Trout Creek Park, along the river. All of these parks are free, all have picnic shelters, and some have play areas for children.
Kayaking companies offer canoe trips down the Hillsborough River if you want a closer look at the water’s inhabitants and the bird-life. You can swim with manatees at Crystal Springs.
It is illegal to harass the alligators, who are generally terrified of you. The birds are often ridiculously tame and confident, but don’t touch – they may peck. Many are protected (e.g. the large sandhill cranes wandering around the sidewalks).
The Florida Aquarium gives visitors a complete education about the ecology of the Bay area, with gorgeously-designed exhibits of birds, fish and animals living in natural habitats. The Aquarium also offers daily dolphin-viewing sea-trips, but these sell out early in the good (cool) weather, so it is best to book them in advance.
The cooler weather also means that a large number of manatees are attracted to the warm water next to the power station at Apollo Beach. The local power company has built a viewing station, complete with an educational exhibit, to teach the public about preserving this gentle species. You can swim with manatees at Crystal River (a scuba diver’s paradise) or see them, and many other animals, at Lowry Park Zoo, one of the best and most family friendly zoos in the country.
If you’re on the St Petersburg side of the causeways (the long ‘bridges’ that join Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties), Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is 245 acres of natural Florida habitat with five distinct eco-systems. Shaded trails wind through a subtropical forest and into coastal uplands. The preserve features hiking/ nature trails, plus guided tours, and gift shop.
Art and Drama
Art thrives in Tampa Bay. St Petersburg has the biggest Dali museum outside Europe, so art-lovers should put that at the top of their list. The building is new, and specially designed to house the collection, and the different exhibitions that are shown with it, on a regular basis.
The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is now the Straz, and is ranked as a premier location in the US. It often has Broadway shows in one of its theatres. The Ruth Eckerd Hall also attracts major performances, and is famous for its acoustics. The Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete often attracts international class performances, while many of concert-type events are at the St. Pete Times Forum, and even community theater thrives, receiving considerable public support.
Beaches and Birds
Beach choices are numerous in Tampa Bay. You can wander down to Fort DeSoto, clamber over the old fort, and then drive on a few miles to the main Fort DeSoto beach, named (by the Travel Channel as one of the Best Ten Beaches in the USA). Or perhaps you might take the ferry to Caladesi, also a top-rated beach, without any human habitation on the whole island. Honeymoon Island is another great option. There is no ferry – merely is a short, driveable, causeway – and the island is home to masses of ospreys that you can view on the osprey Nature Walk.
A good time for the nature walk is the late afternoon, when the ospreys sit in the trees, eating their fishy dinners. After your walk, you can set out your own meal at one of the picnic tables provided in the grassy picnic area, or relocate to the sandy beach to watch the sun setting over the bay.
Water and Fish
Tampa Bay has a myriad of free parks and picnic areas, with plenty of space for everyone, clean restrooms, tables and benches, shelters from the heat and rain, and convenient parking. Many of these are along the coast and intercoastal waterway (between the mainland and barrier islands), so endless watersports are available for the cost of your equipment and transportation.
There are good websites that guide fishing enthusiasts about fishing license requirements, and the counties continue to build new undersea reefs to attract fish and expand coral areas, as part of excellent recycling programs.
If you have a few free hours, pop into one of the recycling facilities – tours are available. Trash is burned into energy, landfills are made of minimal amounts of biodegradable ash and anything that can be recycled, reused or repurposed is processed accordingly.
The United States is for shoppers, and Tampa has malls, outlet malls, specialized stores, Ikea, etc. Whatever you want, you can buy it. The “higher end” malls are International Plaza and Westshore Mall, both near the Airport. Brandon Mall, Citrus Park Mall, Wiregrass Mall etc. are popular.
Ellenton has an outlet mall, a Tampa one opens in October 2015. Many international visitors arrive with semi-empty suitcases, and delight in “The American Experience” of endless options with discounts on everything. Don’t forget to print out the coupons available from the free VIP clubs on outlet mall websites, before people go shopping. We find that our European visitors enjoy nabbing their high-quality bargains, and have great fun being “Americans for a day.”
Theme Parks and Other
If you are staying in Tampa for a while, you probably intend to ride all of the giant roller coasters at Busch Gardens, visit Adventure Island and maybe visit the Disney and other theme parks nearby in the Orlando area. If you haven’t seen enough animals at Busch Gardens, try the Giraffe Park at Dade City, which has some charming little restaurants too.
New Tampa residents might invest in Bill Murphy’s series of One Tank Trip books. We have them if you visit us. These offer a wide range of activities and attractions, all within a one-tank radius of Tampa.
Or you can simply go back to where you began your trip, reading with the students on the vast verandahs of Henry Plant’s grand old Tampa Bay Hotel, waiting for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to gallop past again, and dreaming of days gone by.
*Jim Morrison referred to the minarets in Soul Kitchen. Morrison spent a number of his early years in Clearwater and was a frequent visitor to Tampa. He caught the Trailways Bus over the causeway, and liked to get off at the downtown terminal and then walk west along Lafayette Street (now Kennedy Blvd.) to the House of Seven Sorrows Café, just west of the Hillsborough River at Parker St. Long. The beatnik coffee house (now razed) was a gathering place for budding writers.
Links: Video about Tampa Bay: http://www.tampabay.org/about-us/news-media/multimedia/2013-07-31/tampa-bay-shines-original-version
www.visittampabay.com/ welcomes vistors to Tampa Bay with updated information about things to see, places to go, current events etc,
Tampa Bay: More than Bucs, Baseball and Roller Coasters. Copyright Hilton & Glynis Ross-Munro