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.
You’ve fed the soul, now to feed the rest of you. You may find crowds here but these are worth the wait:• Arguably the best steakhouse in Florida goes by one name: Bern’s. For more than 30 years, founder Bern Laxer and his successors have served only the best beef, cooked to perfection. The wine list boasts 6,500 labels. Watching the budget? Enjoy all of this for maybe $20 by sitting at the bar and ordering the steak sandwich and a glass of the house wine.
• Seeking to turn over the tables quicker, the Laxer clan built SideBern’s, less than a quarter-mile away. But it departed from Dad’s steakhouse formula, with Mediterranean-influenced offerings. Starters typically include baked duck egg and cocoa seared tuna. Entrees include spiced sturgeon and chorizo-wrapped pork loin. Chef Chad Johnson was named a 2012 semifinalist, South category, in the James Beard awards. Original cocktails are a specialty.
• Co-owner/chef Marty Blitz has brought, literally, a world of dining experiences to the upscale Mise en Place. Native New Yorker Blitz began his career in a Jewish deli there but spent three years traveling the world to learn techniques and recipes. At Mise en Place, the menu is inventive: cornmeal-crusted oysters with green tomato chutney as a starter, Aleppo spice-rubbed duck for an entrée, and sides such as lobster Manchego mac ‘n’ cheese.
Those restaurants are favored by A Listers and are bound to be busy during the convention. So let’s head down home:• After settling in Ybor City, Cuban émigrés Maximino and Coralia Capdevila created La Teresita in 1973. So popular that it twice outgrew its space, this landmark is THE place to exchange political and community gossip while sipping café con leche and enjoying a flan or tres leches. The menu offers comfort foods such as ropa vieja, arroz con pollo and black bean soup.
• More eclectic is the menu at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café. On a typical day, you’ve got your blackened fish tacos with mango salsa and greens, a side of mango basmati, black bean plantain cake and avocado relish; your seared duck breast, your tempura-battered shrimp and yams. Okay, they also serve half-pound burgers. And Sundays are devoted to soul food: fried catfish, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and waffles, collard greens, okra succotash, fried green tomatos ...
• Night time, the metro area comes alive. And there is no more original spot than Skipper’s Smokehouse & Oyster Bar. A small seafood market more than 30 years ago, Skipper’s added a Sunday afternoon jam session — and that’s when it all began. Get sand in your shoes at the outdoor music venue, the Skipperdome, which has a sand floor. Wednesday nights are dedicated to reggae, Thursdays belong to a Grateful Dead tribute band, and at other times there’s soul, bluegrass, folk and blues. The menu is pure Floridiana: black bean alligator chili, catfish, oysters, conch, shrimp — and of course grouper sandwiches and key lime pie.
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:• The Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn was built by Cuban emigre Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1895. The boutique hotel’s 16 rooms contain flourishes such as four-poster beds and cast-iron balconies.
• Though Gram’s Place sounds like you should be wearing your PJs with the horseys, it’s a way-out hostel whose suites’ décor matches differing music themes (jazz, blues, rock). Guests can use an in-ground whirlpool, a BYOB bar in the courtyard and — of course — a 16-track recording studio. The lodging’s name is a tribute to the deceased rocker Gram Parsons.
• Well away from the downtown, the Tahitian Inn is a family-run motel that dates back decades but was renovated in 2003. There are 80 rooms and suites furnished with a tropical theme, and the attractive central pool is adorned with hammocks and thatched-roof huts.
Robert N. Jenkins has lived almost next door to Tampa for 43 years.