This Florida Vacation Spot is on a Winning Streak

Jun 3, 2021

Tampa Bay was all over the news this winter as the host of the Super Bowl (and, yes, the home of the winning team). But this city on the Florida Gulf Coast isn't just sunshine, mild weather and championship sports teams (though it does have an abundance of all three).

With a vibrant waterfront, fresh-air fun that ranges from mild to wild, and a craft-beer scene with serious street cred—not to mention stylish hotels and a well-connected airport—Tampa can also claim the title of one of the country's best vacation destinations. 

Follow along as we explore why Tampa's winning streak is just getting started.

Pedal or Paddle: There's Plenty to See and Do

Tampa's downtown is flanked by the Hillsborough River, and one of the first places that visitors should explore is the Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile path that links parks, cafes and popular attractions from The Florida Aquarium to the Heights Riverfront. Many of the city's top hotels are located very close to the Riverwalk, including the new 5-star JW Marriott Tampa Water Street. Make sure to set aside part of an evening to stroll down this path (maybe after dinner at Ulele or watching a game at the Amalie Arena) to see the bridges lit up and the LED light show on the exterior of the Tampa Museum of Art.

Tampa Riverwalk

If you wanted to ride on the Riverwalk but didn't bring your own wheels, find a Coast Bike Share station right on the path or around the city (rent by the minute or get a 1-day pass for $20). Across the river, Bayshore Boulevard is another popular spot for a casual bike ride with five miles of uninterrupted sidewalk bracketed by stunning skyline views and the expanse of Tampa Bay on one side (keep an eye out for dolphins) and the affluent neighborhoods of South Tampa on the other. Beyond the waterfront, the city has more than 100 miles of bike lanes to help you take it all in on two wheels.

To really experience Tampa you need to get out on the water, and there's a lot of options to float your boat. On the wild side, you can leave the city behind at Canoe Escape, and paddle through an ancient cypress forest past turtles, birds and the occasional alligator on the upper reaches of the Hillsborough River. Back in town, take advantage of the placid waters of the river and bay to give your core a workout while you stand-up paddleboard your way past skyscrapers or try your hand (and feet) at riding a water bike, which is basically a bike that floats on two hulls as you pedal (not paddle) your way across the water.

If you'd rather ride than glide, take the helm of a Tampa eBoat and check out the waterfront mansions on Harbour and Davis islands. Or, join Captain Larry Sulkin aboard the Tampa Water Taxi for a dolphin-spotting tour of the bay. 

Tame Tampa's Wild Side

Once you've taken in Tampa's skyline from land and sea, it's time to tackle Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, about 20 minutes from downtown. This theme park is home to skyscrapers of a different variety, like Tigris (Florida's tallest launch coaster), Cheetah Hunt (nearly a mile of twists and turns) and the highly anticipated Iron Gwazi, which will take several "-est" coaster claims (tallest, steepest, fastest) when it opens in spring 2021. Limited capacity rules mean shorter lines and more space to get your adrenaline rush. Once you've screamed yourself silly, you can settle down at one of the country's largest zoos, also on the Busch Gardens grounds, including an open-air safari tour where you can hand-feed giraffes. 

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Most cities are lucky to have one world-class zoo. Tampa has two. ZooTampa at Lowry Park is home to more than 1,300 animals in an open-air, tropical setting that features a tram ride through an African elephant herd and an entire section of the zoo devoted to Florida wildlife, including an acute care facility dedicated to rehabilitating manatees injured in the wild. 

Located at one end of the Riverwalk, The Florida Aquarium was the first aquarium in the nation to reopen after COVID-19 closures, quickly pivoting to time-based online ticketing and limited capacity to protect guests in this sprawling facility. That leaves even more space to explore the 500,000-gallon coral reef habitat, a wetlands trail that includes a mangrove forest and aviary with free flying birds, plus a 100,000-gallon exhibit that features species in the aquarium's three conservation programs—sea turtles, sharks and coral. Other highlights include a penguin meet and greet opportunity and an outdoor water play area for the kids called the Splash Pad.

Get Crafty

No less exciting is Tampa's craft beer scene, which has exploded in the last decade and is quickly claiming a spot among one of the best beer cities in the Southeast. 

The best-known of the bunch is Cigar City Brewing Co., which in 12 years has risen to prominence on the back of its citrusy Jai Alai IPA, along with seasonal brews only available at its West Tampa taproom and special releases so popular that you literally have to win a lottery drawing to get a bottle.

Near the nightlife of Ybor City on the other side of town is Coppertail Brewing Co. What started as a home brewer's idea 10 years ago has grown into a 50-barrel brewhouse with a tasting room, and beers like the Free Dive IPA and Night Swim Porter with locally roasted chocolate. Don't miss the wall-sized mural featuring the mythical beast (named by the owner's then five-year-old daughter) that gives the brewery its name, and the beer cans its art.

No matter where you go, you'll find a variety of flavors from the intense Electric Funeral stout at Zydeco Brew Werks to the tart Raspberry Berlinerweisse at Brew Bus Brewing. And, it's not just beer on tap in Tampa. Ybor City's Cigar City Cider and Mead brings flavors like Thai Tea and Orange Blossom Honey into its creative craft brewing, along with its staple Homemade Apple Pie Cider.

What's with all this Cigar City talk, you might ask? Several Cuban businessmen moved their cigar-making factories from Key West to Tampa in the 1880s. As business boomed, so did Tampa's profile and within a few decades the city's Cuban cigars were considered among the world's finest. At one point, Tampa's cigar rollers in Ybor City were producing more stogies than the entire island of Cuba. You can still see cigars hand-rolled in shops on Seventh Avenue.

A Menu of Options

For a taste of Tampa, you'll want to venture into the city's neighborhoods to find innovative chefs and cool dining spaces. With such good weather, outdoor dining is pretty much a year-round thing here.

Start downtown at Sparkman Wharf, located right on the waterfront near The Florida Aquarium. Among its 10 outdoor dining choices are Edison's swigamajig divebar and fishkitchen, where Chef Jeannie Pierola is a five-time James Beard semifinalist. The menu pairs seafood bites (think: elevated fish and chips) and cocktails with clever names like the Loose Cannon (Espolòn 'Reposado' tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime and agave). If this sparks your curiosity, check out Pierola's Edison:food+drink lab in Hyde Park Village for an ever-changing menu of "flavor experiments".

Sparkman Wharf

On the other end of the Riverwalk is Ulele, which features fresh Florida ingredients with Native American cooking styles. Indulge in dishes like char-grilled Gulf Coast oysters, alligator hush puppies and pan-seared Florida pampano, while you sample craft beers from their in-house brewery (and you can even get a to-go cup for your stroll on the Riverwalk).

Branching out beyond downtown (but staying on the river), head to Armature Works in Tampa Heights, a food hall in Tampa Electric's old streetcar warehouse with great views of the Hillsborough River and a ton of dining options ranging from sushi burritos at Zukku Sushi to sleazy brownies (cookie dough, Oreo & brownie batter) from Bake'n Babes to tampa girl empanadas (think Cuban sandwich) from Empamamas.

Armature Works

For classic Cuban cuisine, you have to head to Ybor City to dine at Columbia Restaurant, operated by the same family that opened it in 1905 with mainstay dishes like chicken and yellow rice, boliche and paella. They also have smaller cafes at the Tampa Bay History Center on the Riverwalk and at the airport. While you walk along Ybor's narrow streets, get a cafe con leche and a cuban sandwich to go from La Segunda Central Bakery.

Still hungry? Good, because there's more on the menu. Head up to Seminole Heights where among the bungalows you'll find one of Tampa's top restaurants, Rooster & The Till. James Beard semifinalist Chef Ferrell Alvarez serves up farm-to-table goodness, along with an ever-evolving tasting menu.

Bern's Steak House

One final stop on this foodie tour takes you to South Tampa for an old-school icon, Bern's Steak House. Wear your Sunday best when you go for the dry-aged steaks and extensive wine list, but make sure to leave room for dessert—literally; there's a separate room for desserts, where guests sip after-dinner drinks and indulge in decadent treats while they sit in booths made from wine casks. 

Ready to go? Unlock your next Tampa Bay adventure with these insider tips, more ideas on things to do and where to stay.

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