Heat is an inescapable part of Tampa’s essence, and while visitors this summer will sweat profusely, they’ll also be out experiencing the rich, understated history, natural beauty, and one-of-a-kind food and drink of this fast-rising Southeastern metropolis. These suggestions will help you wring every last drop out of the season, guaranteeing you’ll fall into autumn bursting with more knowledge about a place that is much more than the cigars and outrageous pirate parties that the rest of the world seems to know it by.
Tampa is a cultural melting pot built on the backs of immigrants, residents of historic black neighborhoods, plus every snowbird and soccer mom that calls it home. Still, the original Tampanians were Native Americans who fished in the shallows of Tampa Bay. Everyone knows what happens after Spanish explorers find a new honey hole, but a stop at the Tampa Bay History Center is mandatory to get the full story and then some. The TBHC anchors the southeastern tip of Tampa’s Riverwalk and traces every facet of the region’s history from the beginning all the way to today, providing a vivid, often interactive, picture of Tampa’s origins—and where it hopes to be years down the road.
Speaking of the road, pedal-powered history gets doled out on the first Saturday of every month by History Bike Tampa, a guided tour with fresh, unpretentious, and ridiculously informative looks at historic buildings and neighborhoods, plus the stories behind them. The August tour covers Ybor City.
Get On (and In) the Water
Day and night, the downtown skyline is gorgeous to gaze at from ground level. Floating by, however, gives it a special kind of shimmer. E-boats Tampa rents electric river cruisers, providing a silent, convenient way to quit landlubbing. Packing food and drink is allowed, and while the boats are stupidly easy to navigate, Gilligan-types can select chartered cruise options. Higher weekend fees are worth the expense for the channelside fireworks each and every Saturday night.
Thrill seekers should be at Davis Island Yacht Club’s bar on Thursday evenings and tell the staff you are “crew looking for a boat.” You’ll probably find yourself aboard a vessel, and helping sail it, during the club’s storied Thursday sunset races. The general public is welcome and the DIYC is the antithesis of stuffy, assuring you’ll feel welcome from the get-go.
If all you desire is to look fabulous chilling poolside, then Splash Sundays at the SoHo district’s new Epicurean hotel is your move. A $20 bill gets you into this swanky soirée, and if you can go a little Gatsby and drop $250, you and nine pals can enjoy your own shaded VIP area complete with a bottle of Moët (Ice).
Ending the Great Cuban Sandwich Debate and locating the best of this fabled delicacy entails going on a belly-busting journey akin to finding Frodo’s ring. You should really do your own homework here, but Brocato’s, The Florida Bakery, and Café Hey do make some of our favorites.
Ethnic food fans can fill up in Ybor by stopping into El Puerto (Latin American cuisine heaven) and Cepha’s Hot Shop (a mecca for Jamaican fare and revitalizing aloe shakes). Sunday mornings do require a trip to Wat Mongkolratanaram Temple, where monks chant and visitors devour the tastiest, least expensive Thai food this side of the Mekong River. Early arrival is essential unless you enjoy waiting 20 minutes for noodle soup.
Rather have the best in forward-thinking American eats? The tiny Tampa neighborhood of Seminole Heights is home to a James Beard-nominated chef (The Refinery’s Greg Baker) as well as Rooster & The Till, which hypnotizes with an array of rotating selections such as chicken liver paté, all kinds of crudo, and $2 oysters on Tuesdays.
Ulele and Water Works Park won’t open until July, but a visit will be impossible to pass up since the Florida-inspired restaurant is run by the Gonzmarts (of Columbia Restaurant fame) while the surrounding green space is frequented by manatees and home to daily appearances by the best sunsets in Tampa.
Get Buzzed, Hear Music
Whether you’re at Cigar City Brewing’s world-renowned tasting room or enjoying thoughtfully randalled pints at Southern Wine & Brewing, there’s no shortage of great Tampa beer. Brewery Bay is the definitive guide to area breweries, but the best stiff drink lives at The Hub, an all-are-welcome, 1946 watering hole that still reigns supreme as one of the U.S.’s most authentic classic cocktail lounges. The jukebox is legendary, and while you’ll feel plenty comfortable perched on a Hub barstool there’s no guarantee that you won’t wobble a bit when you hop off.
If you like your drinking tunes live and regionally flavored, then save August 30 for the meticulously curated Summer Jam music festival. It closes out a 10-year run by welcoming the Southeast’s best bands, which converge on two of Ybor City’s best biergartens/music venues—New World Brewery and Crowbar.
Prefer caffeine to the haze of alcohol? Coffee lovers shouldn’t leave town without securing at least three growlers of Commune + Co.’s pressure-brewed, nitrous-tapped cold joe. Founder Joel Davis and crew don’t have a brick-and-mortar store yet, but their pop-up shops are the perfect opportunity to talk face-to-face with Tampa’s craftiest coffee guys.
OK, it’s hot. Thankfully Tampa’s air-conditioned shopping and entertainment adventures are enjoyable, too. Vinyl and local music enthusiasts feed addictions at two award-winning shops (Microgroove, Mojo Books & Records) and book lovers can indulge at Oxford Exchange, while fans of art and hand-crafted furniture can get it all under one roof by visiting Workspace and Built in Seminole Heights. The ultimate in freon-fueled to-do’s, however, is still a visit to the inimitable Tampa Theatre—one of CNN’s Top 15 Spectacular Theaters in the World, where cinephiles might have trouble focusing on classic and independent films thanks to the room’s ornate Mediterranean-style interior complete with nearly 100 twinkling stars.