If you’re planning an event or getaway to Florida’s Tampa Bay Area, prepare to cannonball into one of America’s most colorful beach destinations.
Somehow the heady mix of Midwestern transplants, winter refugees, polyglot college students, Indian Bollywood fans, Spring Break rappers, spirited senior citizens and descendants of Caribbean cigar makers all roll Tampa Bay into one exotic stogie worth savoring.
Here are 10 things you must see after deplaning at TIA:
A tale of two cities: Tampa and St. Petersburg (“St. Pete”), Florida’s third and fourth largest cities respectively, stare across Tampa Bay at each other. Each features miles of “bayfront” beach living; St. Pete’s facing sunrise, Tampa’s facing sunset. When locals head to “the beach,” they’re referring to the 35-mile-long barrier island, with Clearwater Beach to the north and Pass-A-Grille to the south as its parentheses.
Winter lives and Hope floats: Visit Winter, the dolphin star of “Dolphin Tale,” and her new sidekick Hope, star of the sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2,” at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Clearwater Beach. Or keep an eye on the pair online via CMA’s Winter Cam.
Riverwalk: Tampa’s meandering pedestrian masterpiece in progress features the Tampa Museum of Art, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, historic 1926 Floridan Hotel and the picture-perfect, modernist Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
Don’t fear the grouper: Every restaurant you visit will likely feature grouper, the ubiquitous local white fish, in some form: fried, blackened, jerked, nuggetized or “cheeks” in the fancy places. Locals insist it’s required by law.
Ybor City: Café Cubanos and smoldering panatelas permeate the air in Ybor City (pronounced EE-bohr), one of Tampa’s oldest and funkiest historic neighborhoods. Founded in the 1880s, it’s now the Bay Area’s hottest club spot where University of South Florida students get their party on.
Oh, the huge manatee! Chill with the chillest mammals on the planet at the Manatee Viewing Center, located south of Tampa on the bay. The onsite manatee cam is currently offline, but here’s a YouTube video of the MVC experience.
Dali and Chihuly: No, it’s not a local law firm, but instead, two popular St. Pete art museums. The Dali Museum features 96 oils by the surrealist master Salvador Dali, housed in a building inspired by his works. The Dale Chihuly installation at the Morean Arts Center features large-scale glassworks by the world-renown wizard of wow, as well as a glass studio and hot shop.
Cuban sandwich crisis: Does your city have an official city sandwich? Tampa does: the Historic Tampa Cuban, made with shredded pork, glazed ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and dill pickles, served cold or hot-pressed on Cuban bread. Tampa adds Genoa salami, Miami not, thus fueling their ongoing Cuban feudin’.
Sponge Capital of the World: The Greek village of Tarpon Springs is a living tribute to the sea sponge industry that spawned it. Sponges, sponge boats, sponge museums, sponge diving charters and tantalizing Greek diners and bakeries line the busy waterfront tourist district.
The St. Pete shuffle: Despite what you may have been led to believe by watching the locally-filmed “Cocoon,” you no longer need an AARP card and a sun visor to enjoy the unofficial official sport of St. Petersburg. Nighttime shuffleboard is all the rage today, with several clubs offering family-friendly outdoor fun, Friday night dates nights with live music, and an unforgettable wedding setting.
Photo credits: Shutterstock; Dali Museum photo by Jorg Hackemann / shutterstock