1. Where to Stay
Experience a bygone era at the elegant Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn (from $139) in the Cuban-American enclave of Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark District just east of downtown. Formerly the offices of a cigar magnate, this restored 1895 building now houses sixteen rooms with Persian rugs and brass chandeliers, as well as an antique-filled lounge that provides a welcome respite from the area’s sometimes-raucous nightlife scene.
Sleep in the heart of Tampa’s resurgent downtown at the Floridan Palace (from $149), a nineteen-story architectural icon that ranked as the state’s tallest skyscraper when it was built in 1926. Reopened last July after nearly seven years of renovations, the hotel’s 195 rooms and eighteen suites are decorated in the Beaux-Arts style, with a palette of rich jewel tones and furniture accented with gold-painted overlays and carved rosettes.
Opt for one of the 45 casitas (from $189) at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, which underwent an extensive $16 million redesign last fall. Located on a 35-acre private nature preserve on Old Tampa Bay, these 300-square-foot Spanish-style villas feature modern interiors that subtly evoke this stretch of coast and its Latin history with sea-glass-like wall accents, Saltillo-tile floors, and Moorish-inspired throw pillows.
2. Where to Eat
Snag a reservation for dinner at the Refinery, which has earned three James Beard Award nominations since opening in 2010. Housed in a converted Craftsman-style bungalow on an industrial stretch in Seminole Heights, the restaurant features a homey aesthetic and a market-oriented weekly menu that mixes high and low: Think sweetbread-stuffed tomatoes ($10) offered alongside a vegetarian sloppy joe ($13).
Channel your inner food geek at edison: food+drink lab, where you’ll find liquid-nitrogen milkshakes ($4), a dessert menu designed around a map of the taste buds, and wine served by the 375 mL Erlenmeyer flask (from $15). Opened last August by chef Jeannie Pierola, formerly of famous Bern’s Steakhouse, the restaurant is appropriately illuminated by lots of Edison bulbs and has a menu that changes daily, as the chef reinterprets classics for her du jour egg dishes ($11), charcuterie boards ($12), and PB&J sandwiches ($9).
Relive Tampa’s past as a gangster haven at Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club, where the Prohibition-era theatrics include a dress code, a password required to bypass the unmarked entrance (given to you when you book a table), a written list of house rules, and a waitstaff decked out in pearls, suspenders, and fedoras. The cocktails are a throwback to the twenties, but the food is less self-consciously retro, anchored by a slate of small plates including black-truffle popcorn ($9), raw oysters with Bloody Mary sorbet ($18), and prime beef tartare with a foie gras emulsion and fried quail egg ($18).
3. What to Do
Shop for well-curated books and home décor pieces at Oxford Exchange, a 24,000-square-foot, multiuse space that opened last September in the former stables of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Hotel. Inspired by London’s shops and clubs, this reimagined arcade draws heavily on British design, with checkerboard marble floors, coffered ceilings, tufted leather sofas, and a glass conservatory roof. In addition to shops, there’s also a restaurant where you can have breakfast or lunch, as well as outposts from local favorites TeBella Tea Company and Buddy Brew Coffee.
Stroll the pedestrian-only Tampa Riverwalk, an ongoing urban renewal project that will eventually link 2.4 miles of cultural institutions along the Hillsborough River, including the Tampa Bay History Center, the Glazer Children’s Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, and the soon-to-be-renovated Waterworks Park in Tampa Heights. A series of bronze busts honoring famous historic Tampa citizens and a new stretch along Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park are recent additions to the waterfront, which also features Sunday afternoon yoga classes, two interactive fountains, and the southeastern U.S.’s first NEOS 360 Ring, a state-of-the-art playground attraction that combines video games and aerobic exercise.
Sample unique microbrews ($5 for sixteen ounces in the tasting room) inspired by local history at five-year-old Cigar City Brewery. Different varieties are named after the pre-Columbian Tocobaga tribe, the Cuban sport of bolita, and José Martí, the father of Cuban independence; the ingredients, too, reflect the city’s culture, with flavor additions including Cuban-style espresso beans, the Spanish cedar used to make cigar boxes, and, because Tampa is sometimes lovingly dubbed “the Big Guava,” pink guava purée.
4. Insider’s Tip
Join in-the-know foodies at the Sunday market at the Wat Mongkolratanaram, a Thai Buddhist temple hidden among Spanish-moss-draped trees on the Palm River. Get there early (around 10:30, to be safe) if you hope to secure a spot at one of the red picnic tables on the riverbank, then fill up on Thai iced teas ($1), curries ($5), and crispy deep-fried taro, sweet potato, and banana ($3) made and sold by local Thai-American families. Make sure you order the popular khanom krok, dumplings made from scallion-studded coconut custard, as soon as you arrive to avoid a potential hour-long wait.
5. Oddball Day
Spend a day exploring Tampa’s vibrant Cuban culture in and around Ybor City, the former cigar-manufacturing capital of the world. Start with a café con leché (from $1.25) at no-frills La Tropicana Café (1822 E. Seventh Ave.; 813-247-4040), and the scrambled egg, ham, and chorizo sandwich (from $3.25) comes served on toasted Cuban bread from nearby La Segunda Bakery. Next, stroll north on 19th Street to explore La Casita, a restored cigar worker’s bungalow at the Ybor City Museum State Park ($4), which also includes the historic 1923 Ferlita Bakery building and adjacent Mediterranean-style gardens. Return to Seventh Avenue (La Septima) and stop into the many smoke shops where cigars are still rolled on site to this day. Grab a copy of La Gaceta, America’s only trilingual newspaper — Italian, English, and Spanish — and head to Carmine’s (1802 E. Seventh Ave.; 813-248-3834) for a Cuban sandwich ($7.99), which many say was invented in Tampa as a quick lunch for cigar rollers. (Ybor City’s version often adds Genoa salami to the traditional lineup of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and dill pickles as a nod to the neighborhood’s Italian influences.) Hop aboard the yellow TECO Line Streetcar (one-day pass, $5) and head downtown. Step off at stop No. 9 to check out the world’s largest collection of cigar memorabilia at the Tampa Bay History Center ($12.95), then ride the trolley to the end of the line and follow Franklin Street north to the elaborate Tampa Theatre (new releases, $10), built in 1926 in the hodgepodge Florida Mediterranean style with Spanish, Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Byzantine, Greek Revival, and English Tudor influences. The theater is meant to evoke a Mediterranean courtyard under a ceiling of twinkling stars, and each movie begins with a performance on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. End the day with dinner back in Ybor City at Columbia Restaurant, which opened in 1905 and now ranks as Florida’s oldest restaurant. Order sangria, made tableside with Spanish red wine or cava (pitchers from $18.95), and then make a dinner of paella (from $24) or more local Cuban-American specialties, as you watch one of the two nightly flamenco shows ($6 cover, 7 and 9:30, no shows Sunday).
Explore the city’s burgeoning culinary scene with Tasting Tampa.
Dive In Tampa Bay is a hyperlocal guide to the nightlife and culture scene of South Tampa.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership is an up-to-the-minute guide on what’s new and buzzworthy downtown.
Culture Shock, the blog of the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, offers “news and musings” on the local and national theater world.