Florida travel: 19 reasons to visit Tampa

Cheryl S. Grant USA TODAY Network - Florida

In the past when I thought of Tampa, all I pictured was a typical, business-centric, bustling metropolis. It certainly didn’t rank high on my list when scouring through my favorite vacation apps looking for deals. But as luck would have it two of my favorite bands were playing at the Amalie Arena and I was surprised to find that I might have misjudged this west coast Florida city.

From a quick glance I noticed the historic architecture, trendy restaurants and of course the construction. The city is scheduled to host the Super Bowl in 2021 and there are upgrades being made. And while I was dazzled by the sights and sounds, I also found that parking in the city to be a challenge, especially in the downtown area where much of the fun lies. I had originally called an Uber, but while waiting for it to show up, I noticed a Tram making its way toward the arena. Truth be told, I love riding on a streetcar. So, I canceled my car and hopped aboard.

Tampa’s electric streetcar, built in 1892, was essential to the workers who used it to travel to work in the cigar factories of West Tampa. Families also boarded it to attend picnics and ball games. Unfortunately, following World War II, Aug. 1946, it came to a halt as people became more reliant on buses and cars. Then in Oct. 2002, it was up and running again, not only transporting workers and concert-goers, but the now-named TECO Trolley Streetcar helps support the tourism industry of the city. The best part: It is totally free.

The Tram takes you through parts of Tampa and Ybor City, “The Cigar Capital of the World.” It is the perfect place to steal a peek into the past at Florida’s oldest restaurant, Columbia Restaurant. If you decide to dine there, I suggest you get the black bean soup. It is served with white rice and chopped onions, and though that may seem basic, the taste is anything but.

Hot tip: Park your car in Ybor City and take the Tram into Tampa. It is less expensive, you don’t have to deal with the wretched traffic, and you get a nice tour of both cities. You can also opt for a little exercise and rent a bicycle through the Coastal Bike Share program.

All Aboard

As much as I enjoyed the Tram, I decided to take a ride on the water taxi, which allowed me to embrace Tampa Bay’s sights and sounds. The Pirate Water Taxi will cruise you along the RiverWalk and glide you past the city’s downtown, including the Channel District and Davis and Harbour Islands.

The stops also offer you chances to try out varied cuisines, enjoy some history, and scope out other attractions. Here are places to hop off the taxi to visit. (Hot Tip: Your wristband may help you score a discount or two at some of the stops along the way.)

Tampa for the hungry: Take a foodie road trip and thank me later

Taste Sensation

Deciding on where to eat can be tricky because there are a lot of choices. There are rooftop bars and endless dining options at Armature Works and Sparkman’s Wharf, which offer about ten restaurants to choose from.

If you are among the faithful devotees of chicken sandwiches and also like to save a buck, then Flock and Stock is your stop. Its Dixie Chick sandwich is a combination of buttermilk fried chicken dripping with pimento cheese. But if you are like me, you’ll get it grilled and skip the waffle fries. No need to bog yourself down with the extra calories. You’ll thank me later.

If you’re in the mood for seafood and a view, the Watervue Grille is great but it was a little above my budget. If money isn’t an issue, start with the Burrata salad and pair it with the grilled salmon as your main course. Or get a taste of the past by hitting up Gen X Tavern where you’ll be surrounded by memories of the 80’s and 90’s. The prices are affordable, and you’ll love the Richard Simmons section of the menu.

This is just the beginning of Tampa’s foodie cred. In the mood to mix things up? Indulge the Native Chili at Ulele. It’s a combination of alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and chili spices. But do save room for dessert because you’ll want to end your meal with the candied maple bacon ice cream. Just picture a creamy treat with a corn flake crust, bacon, Knob Creek crème anglaise, caramel and a waffle crisp. Eating here is a splurge in more ways than one. Reservations are highly recommended.

Culture Trip

Voted as the #2 aquarium in the nation, plan on spending at least two hours exploring the Florida Aquarium. Exhibits such as the Wetland Trails will give you a peek at alligators, otters, birds and pythons. Journey into Madagascar for a chance to see lemurs, chameleons, geckos and maybe crawl inside a tree full of hissing cockroaches. And don’t forget to bring swimsuits for the kiddies because the Splash Pad should be part of your plan.

Then there’s the Tampa Bay History Center, which offers visitors the chance to explore 12,000 years of Florida’s history. Learn about Spanish conquistadors and pirates, historical figures, Cuban cigar rollers or the cattle drives of the state’s pioneers. The hands-on exhibits immerse guests in the rich history and heritage of the Tampa Bay area.

Plan to also stop into the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts if you want a better understanding of how photographs capture life and culture through the works of nationally and internationally known artists.

Rest your Weary Head

Though I liked that the following hotels are close to the Streetcar and watertaxi, they do cost a pretty penny. Tampa Marriott Water Street is centrally located next to the convention center, is close to the Tampa Riverwalk, Florida Aquarium, Amalie Arena and Sparkman Wharf. It boasts a rooftop pool and a state-of-the-art fitness center.

If you are bringing Fido along, then book your stay at the pet-friendly Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk. Ask for a room that faces the city’s beautifully lit skyline. And for those with kids in tow, the Embassy Suites two-room suites are best. Guests enjoy free, cooked-to-order breakfast and complimentary drinks and snacks at the nightly evening reception. Plus, the TECO Trolley stops right out front.

My best advice is that you book an Airbnb. Save your bucks for an Uber to the beach. Tampa has a lot but the city isn’t known for its beaches. But a 20 minute ride takes you to Ben T. Davis Beach and 30 minutes to Apollo Beach Nature Preserve, where your dog is welcome.