Tampa really, really wants to be part of the New South — mentioned along with Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami. It’s not there yet, though hosting Super Bowls and the Republican National Convention at the end of this month help its reputation.
You can get a feel for some of Tampa’s most-impressive locales by walking, biking or ’blading two pedestrian paths:
• Stretching for more than 4.5 miles through south Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard runs along Hillsborough Bay. Across the adjacent six-lane roadway are truly handsome, multimillion-dollar homes.
• Riverwalk borders the Hillsborough River for more than two miles, passing the best of the downtown: seven parks, the iconic 1891 Plant Museum (more on that later), Florida Aquarium, a WWII ship-museum, restaurants and the Sail Pavilion, an outdoor bar by the Tampa Convention Center. There’s usually live music on the weekends. You can rent a bike at City Bike Tampa, on the Riverwalk at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
Also on this downtown waterfront is the restaurant/entertainment complex Channelside. It has themed restaurants and bars, a movieplex, Splitsville bowling alley (with full bar and rock music), and the imaginative Florida Aquarium.
But avoid Channelside Saturday and Sunday mornings and early afternoons, when cruise ships swap thousands of disembarking and new passengers.
The city knows it has a prize in the Henry B. Plant Museum, an 1891 hotel whose silvered minarets are a landmark. Plant built railroads in the 1880s and ’90s toward the Gulf coast. When he finished this Moorish-style building, it had 511 guest rooms and an indoor heated pool. The museum’s rooms open for viewing are furnished with original furniture, statuary and periodicals.
A cab or car ride from downtown are two major draws: Busch Gardens — an acclaimed collection of roller coasters, plus exotic animals and a well-done kiddie area — and the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum offers more than 450 hands-on play stations, a bicycle ride on a steel cable 30 feet up, Florida’s only domed IMAX theater and a butterfly garden.
Close to these is the USF Graphicstudio, part of the University of South Florida. It occupies a research facility that helps artists improve the technological aspects of their creations. The gallery and hallways are filled with works by Graphicstudio veterans such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and William S. Burroughs (etchings on copper plates).
On the way back into town, you’ll want to stop at historic Ybor (pronounced EE-bor) City. A century ago, Tampa had earned the nickname Cigar City because it was the center of America’s cigar manufacturing. The stogies were hand-rolled then, mainly by immigrant Cubans and Spaniards and their descendants working in multistory brick factories near the downtown.
But machines in northern cities replaced those artisans. Now your best bet for a freshly hand-rolled cigar is at the landmark Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905. The artfully decorated Columbia features flamenco dancing at night.
For a wider selection of cigars, it’s Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Co., headquarters of the former Arturo Fuente cigar factory. Fuente cigars are now made in the Dominican Republic, but this location retails about 20 labels.
As for seeing cigars being rolled, there are storefront tables, usually along East Seventh Avenue, but they are not always occupied.