Tampa: An Affordable Urban Escape on Florida’s Gulf Coast

by  Lisa Cheng | Jun 14, 2018

Tampa—the largest city on Florida’s Gulf Coast—is often overshadowed by its theme-park-studded neighbor Orlando, two and a half hours northeast. But being more under the radar has its advantages: There are plenty of opportunities where you can get more bang for your buck, and despite the fact that the city is a major hub, it has a distinctly laid-back feel. That’s not to say that Tampa doesn’t have energy. Travelers—whether on a weekend break or a pre- or post-cruise stay—can find a booming food scene, an abundance of cultural offerings, and family-friendly activities at every turn. 

What to Do

Without a doubt, the first stop on your trip should be Ybor City, Tampa’s old neighborhood founded in the 1880s and once the center of U.S. cigar manufacturing. The Spanish entrepreneur Vicente Martinez-Ybor brought in a wave of immigrants from Cuba and southern Europe, whose influences have contributed to the quarter’s colorful character. Stroll down Seventh Avenue for the blond and red brick houses, hand-painted murals, and roaming chickens. Then book a tour with Tabanero Cigars for more on cigar-making and the history of this once-thriving local industry. Don’t miss the legendary Columbia Restaurant, which has been serving Spanish-Cuban cuisine since 1905. The landmark’s elaborate Quixote-themed art, stained glass windows, and hand-painted tiles are a backdrop for Cuban sandwiches ($10); cups of café con leche ($4); and tapas, including devil crab croquettes and stuffed piquillo peppers (from $9). By sundown, Ybor City turns into a sizzling hot spot for music and dancing. Our favorite: Gaspar’s Grotto, named after a mythical pirate, where there’s a low-key crowd, upbeat music, and wings in a choice of sauces such as citrus chipotle barbecue and mango habanero ($12).

For outdoor pursuits, head to Tampa’s Riverwalk, where there’s always something happening—from concerts to festivals. Bike or walk along the scenic waterfront path, which is punctuated with outdoor sculptures and parks with splash fountains. The Coast Bike Sharing service costs $8 per hour and has numerous stations around downtown; you can also rent a water bike or “bi-yak” (a cross between a bike and a kayak) at Tampa Water Bikes starting from $30 per hour.

Tampa is also home to amusement parks that cost less than what you’d pay at Disney. The Africa-themed Busch Gardens may seem dated compared to the latest high-tech attractions, but it nevertheless provides plenty of good fun (animal feedings, roller coasters, shows). If you purchase tickets online in advance, you can save $15 on what would otherwise cost $105 at the gate. Other ways to look for value: Opt for combo passes that include admission to multiple parks, including Adventure Island water park and Orlando’s SeaWorld and Aquatica ($50 per visit). Another alternative would be to purchase the Tampa Bay CityPass ($101), which allows entry to not only Busch Gardens, but to numerous other Tampa Bay attractions such as the Florida Aquarium ($29 if purchased separately) and the impressive Chihuly Collection ($20 if purchased separately).

Where to Eat

Tampa has an emerging food scene, and recent years have seen new openings with chefs showcasing top-notch cuisine. Here, there’s no shortage of choice. For a quick bite, head to The Hall on Franklin. This collection of restaurants brings together a range of Tampa chefs and offerings—from an aged cheddar and prosciutto melt ($10) to a chicken bulgolgi bento box ($12)—to polish off at counters or tables with leather chairs.

In the Hyde Park neighborhood, the retro burger joint Goody Goody captures an era of nostalgia in its decor and its prices. The menu features hearty, if not decadent, breakfasts—the fried chicken omelet is doused with cheddar, green onions, and sausage gravy ($9)—as well as juicy burgers (from $5) and sandwich baskets (from $6).

Farther north, Seminole Heights is home to an enclave of up-and-coming restaurants. You’ll find Refinery, with an approach to farm-to-table food that’s both refined and accessible (entrées start from $18); and Ichicoro Ramen, which serves pork-broth noodle soups and rice bowls with ropa vieja (shredded beef) or marinated fried chicken (from $11).  

New breweries are popping up, too, and offering creative concoctions with a Florida-state spin. For example, Cigar City Brewing makes a Cuban espresso beer (drafts start from $4.50) and Coppertail Brewing Co. offers a briny stone crab stout (drafts from $4). Both breweries sell sample sizes that start from $2 if you don’t want to purchase an entire pint or if you want to order a flight.

Worth the Splurge: You’ll have to wait for a table at Ulele, but you’ll have no regrets once you taste the restaurant’s fresh Floridian fare. The place draws inspiration from the native people and land, featuring dishes such as alligator and wild boar chili ($6), succotash ($6), and Florida Pompano with tomato shallot cream ($27). Grab a seat outdoors: Scattered around the property are sculptures salvaged from a former children’s park. Don’t be surprised to see Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall.

Where to Stay

Tampa is home to many beautiful properties that won’t break the bank. The recently renovated Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas has a location on the Tampa Bay shores and features a water sports program (paddle boarding lessons, guided eco-kayak tours) that launches from a private pier. Rooms are sleek with a modern nautical theme and have open-air balconies with breezy views. Unwind in a poolside cabana or sip cocktails by a fire pit on the waterfront. Rooms start from $149.

Worth the Splurge: The Epicurean has taken Tampa hotels to another level, with its modern upscale accommodations and strong focus on food. If you can’t book a room for the night (typically $250-$350 per night, depending on the season; the in-room wine selection and artisanal pantry are impressive), book a class at the Epicurean Theatre, which hosts themed culinary events such as “Pump up Your Grilling!” ($65). You can also reserve a table at Elevage, where James Beard-nominated chef Chad Johnson serves lobster scrambled eggs ($21) and steak house benedict ($29) for brunch, and duck and dumplings ($29) as well as a blackened grouper with grits, rock shrimp, and an okra stew ($35) for dinner. Bonus: Summer is the hotel's value season with rates starting as low as $169. Savvy travelers who have firm itineraries can take advantage of 25 percent discounts by booking non-refundable advance purchase rates 14 days prior to arrival.

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