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:
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.
You’ve fed the soul, now to feed the rest of you. You may find crowds here but these are worth the wait:Bern’s SideBern’s Mise en Place
Those restaurants are favored by A Listers and are bound to be busy during the convention. So let’s head down home:La Teresita Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café Skipper’s Smokehouse & Oyster Bar
Prefer your good times more sophisticated and indoors? Skipper’s Blue Martini Lounge is THE draw for pro athletes, visiting celebs and throngs of wannabe celebs. The lounge has live music nightly, banquettes that encourage schmoozing — maybe even snuggling — and for those who nibble tapas at the high-tops, the cocktail menu offers dozens of choices.
Time for bed. Tampa is awash in chain hotels catering to road warriors. But also consider these:Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn Gram’s Place Tahitian Inn
Robert N. Jenkins has lived almost next door to Tampa for 43 years.