8 Brilliant Reasons to Visit Tampa, Florida - Or an Ode to Home
Let’s face it, Florida gets a bad rap. One mention of Tampa, Florida as my childhood home and the response I get is either, “oooh, Magic Mike” or “oh yea, second-rate California” or “Isn’t that near Disney?”
But this Tampon (yes, I said it) and travel blogger is here to shoo away the unfounded slander and tell you why this Central Florida city is worth a visit in her own right, alongside all my tips for the coolest things to do in Tampa. This post is more personal than most, because no matter how much I’ve explored the world, Tampa will always be home sweet home. But perhaps this sentimentality will help give Florida’s underdog the justice it deserves - and have you booking your flight to Tampa before you’ve even had time to think up a good Florida joke.
Having grown up in Tampa, I sometimes see the city through my suburban kiddie lens: my sweaty self running across a freshly-cut lawn, straight towards the sprinklers to get some respite from the intense July sun. Or cycling through the neighbourhood, chasing the ice cream truck (or the Polar Cup man as we knew him), only to suffer an immediate brain freeze after drinking my weapon of choice - the extra-sour blueberry / raspberry cup. Age sixteen is nothing but long, breezy drives to Clearwater Beach, dressed in only my striped pink and yellow bikini, rapping along to Ludacris with all my besties in the backseat.
Of course, between then and now, Tampa (and I) have grown up. A lot. And what was once known as nothing more than a quiet suburban Florida city with a rather meagre skyline has grown into a cultured, dynamic - but still blissfully beachy - town that’s drawing young creatives from all over the States.
You might say Tampa has come into her own. Because - well - she has.
It’s like the city’s realised just how great she really is. Or better yet - how great she’s been along - with her white-sand beaches, her rich cultural history and her beautiful Bayshore. And with her newfound confidence, she’s also given herself a mini-makeover. You know, so she can flirt with all those new hipsters.
Tampa: Everything to Know Before You Go
But before we get into the juicy travel tips, first a few suggestions to make your trip to Tampa as seamless - and glorious - as possible.
First and foremost, be sure to hire or rent a car. Tampa doesn’t have a good public transport system so rather that watching the costs stack up as you book Uber after Uber, hire yourself a car for the duration of your stay. You can thank me later.
Also, book more than just a weekend in Tampa if you can. You’ll be surprised at all the things there are to do, and you’ll really want to soak in those chill Florida vibes. So plan for at least one or two extra days so you can do as the locals do and “stay salty” and move slow.
Finally, pack light. Tampa is boiling most of the year. Think of the tropics, or Southeast Asia, just with an American twist. Plus, you’ll probably end up living in your bikini anyway.
The Coolest Things to Do in Tampa, Florida
Now, onto why you’re actually here. Here are the reasons why Tampa, Florida should be on your travel bucket list, as well as some of the coolest things to do when you get there.
1) Sunbathing on Tampa’s best beaches: Of course I’d start with the beach. Because as beaches go (and - at the risk of sounding pretentious - I’m seen a fair few), Florida knows how to do them right. And Tampa is absolutely no exception. You’ll obviously be spoilt for choice but top of my list are Anna Maria Island and Siesta Key.
Each sits along the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the former was even voted Number 1 beach in the United States. But both get everything right. The silky-soft, sink-between-your-toes sand. The dunes and their reeds that blow gently in the breeze. And daily sunsets sweeter than candy floss (or cotton candy as we Americans say). I always visit both if I can. And if you’re spending more than a few days in Tampa, I’d recommend you do the same.
2) Getting your cultural fix at Tampa’s historic Ybor City: I grew up going to Ybor City. But in the 90s, it was nothing more than that dodgy part of town where you’d go clubbing and, um, twerk your heart out after one too many cheap vodka shots. Today, Ybor’s truly embraced its rich cultural history and turned the old cigar factories - where Cuban and Spanish immigrants built a booming local industry in the 1800s - into fashion boutiques, cigar shops and more.
It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon in Tampa, strolling with a piping hot Cuban coffee, before stopping for a hearty Cuban sandwich at La Tropicana cafe, and finishing with a browse around the vintage shops along 7th Avenue. Don’t miss La France, which has been around for a while and is a bit of a local institution. Or one of the many cigar shops where you can sample cigars from all over Latin America. Ybor, like other Tampa neighbourhoods, has undergone major gentrification, but something about it still feels more raw and authentic than other parts of town. Which IMHO makes it one of the best things to do in downtown Tampa.
3) Visiting Tampa’s most bizarre attraction, the Ringling Museum: So technically this museum is based in Sarasota but you know - potato, po-ta-to. If you’ve got a car and really want to explore the ins and outs of Tampa, then this circus museum is not to be missed.
Built in 1926, this was once the summertime home of John Ringling and his wife Mabel, one of the five brothers who founded the Ringling Circus, or what you might know as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Inspired by Venice, Italy, it cost a hefty $1.5million to build. Today, it houses a Circus Museum and Art Museum and hosts plenty of local arts and creative events. Last time I visited, there was an outdoor exhibit of Ai Wei Wei’s Chinese Zodiac sculptures. The building itself is an absolute stunner and a wander around the grounds will make the $25 entrance fee feel worthwhile.
4) Taking an epic day trip to Tarpon Springs: This is hands down my favourite place to visit in Tampa. Your car hire will be an absolute necessity for this one, but it’s one of the best ways to spend a day in Tampa. Tarpon Springs is home to the largest Greek-American community in the United States. This is thanks to the sponges discovered in the Gulf of Mexico which drove a booming industry and the influx of Greek immigrants in the late 1800s to help support the trade.
And with just one stroll down Dodecanese Blvd - Tarpon Springs’ high street - you’ll see that this culture still thrives. You’ll find adorable blue and white Hellenic bakeries at every turn or catch a whiff of a fresh-out-the-oven moussaka from a local restaurant. Tarpon Springs is also renowned for its many independent shops. You can find anything from homemade soaps at hippy GetaGuru to beautiful handmade silver trinkets at One Life Jewelry. (In fact, I found one of my very favourite necklaces here.) Don’t forget to pop into Miss Merie’s Sweets and Treats to try saltwater taffy, a true American classic.
5) Strolling along Tampa’s Riverwalk: Starting from the heart of Tampa’s hippest neighbourhood, Tampa Heights (more on this in a minute), Tampa’s Riverwalk is a perfect 2.6-mile stretch for an afternoon wander and some people-watching in the sunshine.
Along the way, you’ll spot runners and cyclists, some great views of Tampa’s landmarks, the Hillsborough River and maybe even an alligator or two. Fingers crossed you’ll also get a breeze to help survive that Florida heat. If you’re so inclined, you can also jump on one of the Pirate Water Taxis just off the Riverwalk and go on a river tour or “hop-on / hop-off” to other Tampa attractions.
One of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, it’s classic old school Tampa, with beautiful derelict duplexes and wrap-around porches, made just for sipping on a refreshing cold iced tea.
Today, the neighbourhood’s old warehouses have been transformed into airy food halls and markets, where you can fill your belly with a fresh poké bowl or a trio of fish tacos, browse beautiful handmade pottery or drink a delicious horchata latte. Seriously, go to Union - By Commune and Co. and try this to-die-for drink for yourself.
Or head outside, lay on a chaise lounge and listen to a local band performing on the grassy lawn along the river. For more specialist cuisine, head over to the Hall on Franklin, to sample some strong AF tipples or some scrumptious Korean bao sliders.
7) Getting your lifestyle fix at Oxford Exchange: This bookstore cum restaurant cum creative space is the perfect place to get some creative inspiration and a flavour of the new Tampa community. Funnily enough, as soon as I entered I felt instantly transported back to London, thanks to its quintessentially British checkered flooring, columned architecture and wall portraits.
8) Chilling with in-the-know locals at Sparkman Wharf: This is the latest outpost to land in Tampa. Located in what was previously known as Channelside, an urban project born in the early 2000s that failed to launch, the area’s been modernised for millennials. I went just a few weeks after opening, and it was already buzzing.
At it’s very heart is a German Biergarten, where you can take your pick from a massive collection of craft beers before perching yourself on a wooden bench or on the grassy lawn for a dose of sunshine. But there are also plenty of food stalls to explore. Sparkman Wharf has the perfect blend of party and chill vibes. I can’t recommend it enough as the starting point for one of your evenings in Tampa.
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