Local legend has it that pirates were so enamored with Tampa’s charm that they invaded by water and stole a key to the city from its mayor. Fortunately, you won’t have to go to such lengths to take advantage of all that this laid-back Gulf Coast town has to offer.
Tampa, located on Tampa Bay, is about 25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. In town, you can take a streetcar ride through historic Ybor City, sample Cuban fare, or pick up baseline seats for a Yankees spring training game, which takes place every March. Whether you’re flying or driving to Tampa, we also suggest you block out at least one night to spend in Clearwater, a swath of diamond-white sand that consistently ranks as one of America’s best beaches.
Splurge: Sandpearl – You’ll get a panoramic view of the action from your balcony at Clearwater’s newest and most stylish resort. Whether you’re sunning at the pool deck or ordering a cocktail on the beach, you may forget that you haven’t yet left the continental U.S. Doubles from $239.
Steal: The Floridan – Built in the Roaring ’20s, this 19-story downtown property — one of few Tampa hotels on the National Register of Historic Places — recently underwent seven years of renovations. When it reopened in July 2012, the grand dame had been restored to her former beaux arts glory, with modern touches such as high-speed wireless Internet and flat-screen TVs. Doubles from $119.
Tip: Can’t spare the time to overnight in Clearwater? Drive in for the day, and have lunch or cocktails poolside at a waterfront hotel.
Breakfast: Pinky’s Diner – Locals usually go to this thrift store-chic South Tampa diner for one of the signature frittatas served with a side of jalapeno-cheddar grits or Pinky’s not-so-short stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Have to wait for a table? Fill up a mug with coffee at the self-service station near the front door.
Lunch: The Columbia Ybor City – Nearly 20 percent of Tampa is Hispanic or Latino, and that influence is reflected in the city’s cuisine. At the Columbia — the state’s oldest restaurant, which serves Cuban and Spanishfare — you can taste recipes that haven’t changed since Great-Grandfather Casmiro Hernandez Sr. opened the place in 1905. Order empanadas, garlicky shrimp, or classics such as roast pork. After lunch, stroll around Ybor City — a historic district founded in 1885 by cigar manufacturers — to watch artisans roll tobacco by hand.
Dinner: Bern’s Steak House – It takes advance planning to get a reservation at Bern’s, one of the most lauded steakhouses in the country, but once you’re inside these hallowed halls, you’re in for the meal of your life. Choose both the cut and thickness of your steak — or select fresh fish, lobster, or shellfish, which is cooked to order and topped with one of six exquisite sauces.
Dessert: Harry Waugh Dessert Room – Even if you can barely budge after dinner at Bern’s, you should still head next door to try one of the specialties at Tampa’s favorite sweet spot. We recommend the sampler — bite-sized portions of the establishment’s signature dishes, including macadamia cake, carrot cake, banana cheese pie, chocolate cheese pie, and vanilla cheesecake.
Tip: Dine like a true local at a classic Cuban lunch counter such as La Teresita’s, and you’ll get a hearty, authentic meal — a main dish, two sides, and all the buttery Cuban bread you can eat — for less than $10.
For Everyone: Steinbrenner Field – When the days are at their shortest and harshest in New York City, the Yankees head south to spring training at the stadium named for their late owner. Starting in late February, you can grab seats to watch the Bronx Bombers in one of their practice or exhibition games as they warm up for the regular season.
Not cruising in February or March? There’s sporting action year-round: In the fall, cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they drive down the field at Raymond James Stadium (across the street from Steinbrenner Field), or catch the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team during a winter game at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
For Families: Busch Gardens – Sure, you won’t want to leave without riding the roller coasters, but Busch Gardens Tampa is also home to more than 12,000 animals from all over the world, living within their own ecosystems. Families can get face to face with lion cubs (behind thick glass, of course), feed the animals, or ride on a jeep safari through the park.
For Couples: SoHo – Named for South Howard Avenue, this trendy nabe has emerged as the go-to hotspot on nights and weekends. Go early to check out trendy boutiques like Penelope T, high-end designer consignment stores such as Mosh Posh, and fashion-forward clothing stores.
Then, choose the bar that suits your mood, from Irish pubs (The Dubliner) to sleek lounges (The Drynk) and posh nightclubs (Mangroves). Bonus: This area is within a five-minute cab ride of the cruise ship terminal.
For the Adventurous: McCormick’s Waterski & Wakeboard Cable Park – The calm waters in and around Tampa Bay may not make for great surfing, but they’re ideal for water skiing. Even if you’ve never gotten up on two skis — and stayed up —you will by the end of your first lesson at McCormick’s, where you’ll work directly with a coach on a manmade lake purpose-built for water skiers.
Tip: Want to stretch your legs before you set sail? Bayshore Boulevard, in South Tampa not far from the cruise ship terminal, is a 4.5-mile sidewalk that winds past some of the area’s most spectacular Victorian-era homes.
Forgot your bikini, iPod® charger, or another key item from your packing list? Tampa is home to some of the country’s best malls, including the upscale International Plaza. There, you’ll find everything from top name designers (Tory Burch, Michael Kors) to the Apple store.
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