Florida Travel

Tampa’s Riverwalk is a trail of culture, fun and beauty

Artfully designed canvas sail structures provide shade for those walking, jogging or biking along the Riverwalk.
Artfully designed canvas sail structures provide shade for those walking, jogging or biking along the Riverwalk. Robin Soslow

Do you ever pledge to exercise while on vacation, then put it off until, well, getting back home?

Sleeping in, coffee and cocktail hour tend to trump good intentions.

Here’s a place where you can easily keep your pledge — and reward yourself along the way: the Tampa Riverwalk.

After hours sitting en route to Tampa, I stretched my legs on the new 2.4-mile paved trail. Winding along the east side of the Hillsborough River before curving into Garrison Channel, the project was four decades in the making.

In 1976, wooden planks were installed near what’s now Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The lovely 1.8-mile Kennedy Plaza segment opened last spring. And finishing touches will be completed in April on the north end between the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and Water Works Park.

The paved path is so handsome, well laid out and breezy that my intended short stroll becomes an exhilarating jog punctuated by frequent stops to take in views. Waterside parks are so inviting that I do yoga in two — Cotanchobee Fort Brooke and Curtis Hixon. Fully recharged, I burn off energy doing headstands at the art museum. (Yes, there’s photographic evidence.)

2.4 milesLength of the Tampa Riverwalk

Tampa’s long-dowdy riverfront, now transformed, overflows with irresistible selfie settings: romantic docks and canopies, cute trolley and animal sculptures, surreal bronze tree-huggers.

“It’s now my favorite place to jog,” says a local, Jeff, rehydrating at Curtis Hixon Park. He calls the Riverwalk a fresh vantage point for Tampa’s distinctive skyscrapers on the east bank and to the west, the University of Tampa, where sunbeams dance on the Moorish minarets, domes and cupolas atop Plant Hall. Cyclists, skaters and dog-walkers are also welcome. The refreshed waterscape has attracted more paddlers, boaters and outfitters, too.

The playground’s colorful equipment makes grown-ups feel like playing. It’s hard not to smile at dozens of refreshing sights that pop up along the way.

Robin Soslow

Everything’s so much brighter, and it’s not just the sun. Sail-motif canopies offer not only shade but spritely style. The playground’s colorful equipment makes grown-ups feel like playing. It’s hard not to smile at dozens of refreshing sights that pop up along the way, like the welded steel dog and child embracing by the bike rack at Ulele, the wildly popular restaurant that opened in 2014 in a historic, impressively repurposed pump house.

After dark, the softly colored illuminated canopies compete with the twinkling stars above. I’m spellbound by the Tampa Museum of Art’s free nightly light show. Sky (Tampa), now my favorite Leo Villareal work, hypnotizes passersby with a wall, 45 feet high and 300 feet long, of LED lights embedded in perforated aluminum panels. The artist coded random templates of flash, fade and color to full effect.

A TRAIL OF CULTURE

The Riverwalk links choice downtown destinations like charms on a bracelet. Visiting them is so much more relaxing without parking or taxi hassles.

A spectacle of an exhibit occupies the lawn, patio and several galleries at the Tampa Museum of Art. Human Landscape features bronze figures hugging palm trees, tinkly curtains of solid metal alphabet letters and a globe of stainless-steel symbols. Mounted curiously on walls, big crouched figures of steel, resin and light embody “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” The artist is Barcelona-born Jaume Plensa.

“Touch them! They’re made to be touched,” says a security guard about the giant mesh heads. He knows a lot about the mother and daughter depicted. “Look at the facial details; can you tell which one’s older?” Yes, he’s right about the fine but clear differences.

Touch them! They’re made to be touched.

Security guard, talking about artwork — mesh heads — on Tampa Riverwalk

Another guard offers to help me take my picture — including a headstand between the heads. This I add to a list of Riverwalk acts of bonhomie that include three adults dancing around an outdoor sculpture, one doing cartwheels and a guy dressed in full pirate regalia posing on a bench.

Art lines the Riverwalk: Bronze busts depict famous Tampanians such as train and steamer magnate Henry B. Plant; trolley-car sculptures salute local organizations.

Other cultural centers beckon Riverwalkers with lively attractions. Next to the art museum, Glazer Children’s Museum fills three floors with hands-on brainy, artsy, fun activities. Tampa Bay History Center offers interactive exhibits about Native Americans, settlers, cowboys, cigars and military history — and an entertaining temporary display of souvenirs from decades past, from vintage postcards to spoons. Anchoring Riverwalk’s southeast end at Channelside by the Port of Tampa, the Florida Aquarium features a water park, dolphin-watch cruises, a coral-reef tank and thousands of sea animals and plants.

GOURMET REFUELING

Ulele became an instant hit after opening mid-2014. Based in a beautifully renovated riverside pump house, Ulele serves addictive okra fries with robust house-made ketchup, avocado soup with charred corn and dozens of other dishes, inspired by native foods, created by chef Eric Lackey. Check out the tables made from century-old barn wood. Out back at Ulele Spring Brewery, brewmaster Tim Shackton crafts lagers, including his Wedding Beer that pairs well with, well, anything.

Sono Cafe, in the Tampa Museum of Art’s lobby, has a balmy covered terrace overlooking the river. Lunch and brunch dishes are artful and tasty — no surprise because Sono is overseen by Maryann Ferenc, known for Modern American outpost Mise en Place and for launching Tampa’s farm-to-table scene three decades ago.

You can walk the over to Yacht StarShip for a dining cruise, or get a drink and watch the sunset from the Sail Pavilion’s 360-degree, open-air bar.

You can walk the plank over to Yacht StarShip for a dining cruise, or get a drink and watch the sunset from the Sail Pavilion’s 360-degree, open-air bar next to the convention center.

Several outfitters operate by the Sail Pavilion in case you tire of walking: Tampa Bay Water Bikes (very cool, tip-proof watercraft), Urban Kai stand-up paddleboards and e-Boats Tampa. The new Coast Bike Share hubs by the Riverwalk give you another way to get around. And on Saturday, Yacht StarShip was to launch Pirate Water Taxi (PirateWaterTaxi.com). The fleet of three new 50-foot vessels, offering concessions and upbeat narration, will make 14 stops along the Riverwalk and at the University of Tampa, Davis Island and Harbor Island.

Free Riverwalk fun includes playgrounds, splash fountains and a fully fenced dog park with climbing structures and dig-proof turf. Nearby Kiley Gardens has a design based on the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical pattern found in natural forms like nautilus shells. At Channelside, you can bowl in style at Splitsville.

So what’s the next Riverwalk extension? Hold on to your Fitbit: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn plans to build a trail along the river’s west bank.

Going to Tampa’s Riverwalk

Visitor info: VisitTampaBay.com

Tampa Riverwalk: thetampariverwalk.com

Aloft Tampa Downtown: New, central waterfront lodging. alofttampadowntown.com

The Barrymore Hotel: Class in downtown’s Arts District. barrymorehotel.com

Ulele and Ulele Spring Brewery: ulele.com

Sono Cafe: miseonline.com/sono-cafe

Tampa Museum of Art: ‘Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape’ through May 15. tampamuseum.org

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts: March 5-6, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. gasparillaarts.com

Gasparilla Music Festival: March 12-13, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park gasparillamusic.com

Transportation option: Amtrak runs daily between Tampa and Miami. amtrak.com

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