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Tampa is a destination cherished for remnants of the “Old Florida” lifestyle—a time before sprawling theme parks and glitzy beach clubs hit the state’s more famous cities. With historic Spanish and Cuban influences in the Ybor City neighborhood, trendy shopping and dining in the SoHo district and a dozen Gulf Coast beaches just minutes away, Tampa is the new go-to Florida destination for savvy travelers. And if family amusement is on the agenda, head to Busch Gardens®, a smaller park than its Orlando counterparts but chock full of thrills and water-centric fun.
REASONS TO GO:
Busch Gardens®: The African-themed, 335-acre Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay amusement park wows visitors with exotic animals, jungle safaris and expansive savannah landscapes. Roller coasters and water rides are the big draws here, followed by live entertainment and children’s activities. Adventure Island water park is right next door and features 30 acres of water slides, dining and more.
Tampa Riverwalk: Stretch your legs and get a feel for the city by joining locals and visitors on the two-and-a-half-mile riverwalk trail downtown. Stretching alongside the Hillsborough River and dotted with cafes and public art exhibitions, the riverwalk takes you by Tampa’s most prominent attractions, including the Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa Museum of Art and Curtis Hixon Park.
History Comes Alive: Tampa’s vibrant historic district lies in the Ybor City neighborhood, home to former cigar factories and worker cottages. The Ybor City Museum State Park features a recreated cigar worker’s cottage and the streets are still dotted with family-owned, hand-rolled cigar shops. The 60,000-square-foot Tampa Bay History Center displays hundreds of cigar-related items, as well as artifacts from the Native American Seminole tribes.
Eat and Drink: Ybor City is chock full of lively, authentic Spanish and Cuban eateries and bars, including the ever-popular Columbia Restaurant on East 7th Avenue, and Carmine’s, revered for its Cuban delicacies. The SoHo district of Tampa is home to about 40 of Tampa’s best restaurants stretched along South Howard Street, known as Restaurant Row. Trendy supper clubs and chophouses are big here, including Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club, and Timpano Italian Chophouse.
Florida Aquarium: With a million-gallon coral reef exhibit and more than 25,000 sea plants and creatures, The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is a hit. The energy level goes up with daily shark feedings and the interactive Ocean Commotion gallery, followed by romps along the Florida Wetlands Trail, populated with alligators, otters and Burmese pythons.
BEACHES NEAR TAMPA: Though Tampa itself doesn’t border the Gulf of Mexico, drive about 30 minutes from downtown to land on more than a dozen sandy beaches along the Gulf Coast. The renowned Clearwater Beach is a magnet for Spring Breakers and families who come for jet skiing, parasailing, dolphin tours and deep-sea fishing expeditions. A nightly sunset celebration draws all ages to Pier 60 for live music, street performers and free outdoor movies under the stars.
WHEN TO GO: Warm Tampa summers are the perfect time to cool off at the beach or at indoor attractions like the Florida Aquarium. Many consider autumn an ideal time to visit, as the city experiences cooler temps, a laid-back feel and lower prices preceding the return of the so-called “snowbird” population of retirees who come for winter temps in the mid-70s.
Visit in April for the world-famous Tampa Bay Blues Festival, or join the football crowd in October for Tampa Bay’s Tailgate Taste Fest.
TRAVEL TIP: The dress code in Tampa is unmistakably casual, so leave the dressy gear at home. Think comfortable cotton shirts, sandals and sunglasses.