Freelance Writer & Editor
By Susan Ladika | 2 Days, 1 Night In Tampa, Florida | February 2010 | The AAA World
If spending time outside means dashing from your house to your car to your office, and you’ve had enough of the cold and gray, a weekend in Tampa can be a perfect antidote for cabin fever. It’s a city with a rich history (yes, there is history in the Sunshine State), bountiful outdoor activities and an up-and-coming arts scene.
Settlers slowly started trickling into the city in the mid-1800s, and the seeds of Tampa’s multiculturalism were planted later that century as the cigar-making industry took root, drawing immigrants from Spain, Italy, Germany and Cuba.
The city’s reputation as a tourist destination was also born in the late 1800s, when Henry B. Plant developed a railroad line, bringing wealthy Northerners to winter at his opulent Tampa Bay Hotel with its Moorish minarets along the banks of the Hillsborough River. Today you don’t need great wealth to relax far from Northern climes.
On day one, you’ll probably want to soak up a bit of sunshine and enjoy the outdoors, while the second day is ideal to learn about the city’s history and culture.
DAY 1: SATURDAY
To catch a few rays, start your day with a brisk walk along Bayshore Boulevard, where a four-and-one-half-mile-long sidewalk runs along Hillsborough Bay. You’ll find plenty of other bikers, ’bladers and joggers to keep you company. To the west are the mansions of Tampa’s elite, some of which date back decades, with grand white columns and surrounding oaks dangling Spanish moss. On the east side is the bay, sparkling in the sun. You might see a dolphin splashing, fish jumping or a great blue heron fishing at water’s edge.
Take to the Seas
To get even more up close and personal with Florida’s wildlife, check out the Wild Dolphin Ecotours sponsored by the Florida Aquarium. The tours are a chance to see some of the 500 bottle-nosed dolphin that call Tampa Bay home, along with other aquatic life, during the 90-minute trip on the Bay Spirit II.
If you’re interested in more Florida fauna, head about a half-hour south to the free Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electric Co.’s power plant in Apollo Beach. When Tampa Bay water temperatures dip below 68 degrees, these giant sea cows gather in the warm waters discharged outside the power plant, giving you a glimpse of flippers, backs, noses or tails of these slow-moving creatures as they breach the surface. Exhibits provide information about the various manatees that gather in the canal.
Still can’t get enough of being outside? Try dinner at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating dotting South Howard Avenue—or SoHo as the locals call it. The area also cashes in on the city’s diverse culture, from tapas with a Florida touch at Ceviche, to a funky spin on Americana at The Lodge, serving up “TV dinners,” featuring main courses such as blossom honey Memphis fried chicken or broccoli mac-n-cheese. Or head north to Skipper’s Smokehouse, which has been serving up seafood and a side of blues, rock, Cajun and other musical acts for decades. Seating is at outdoor picnic tables under the stars, and the dance floor is dirt.
DAY 2: SUNDAY
New Home for Art
Today it’s time to visit the newly rebuilt Tampa Museum of Art, which opens its doors on February 6 with an impressive special exhibit of works by French artist Henri Matisse. Although Matisse is best known for his paintings, this exhibit spotlights his print-making prowess with many prints that have never been on public display. The new 66,000-square-foot building will serve as the canvas for the museum’s growing collection of contemporary and classical art. For a bite to eat, stop at Sono Café, an outpost of Mise en Place, one of Tampa’s perennially favorite restaurants, featuring modern American cuisine.
And a Touch of the Old
From the museum, you can’t miss the former Tampa Bay Hotel—now the centerpiece of the University of Tampa—with its minarets glinting across the Hillsborough River. Poke your head in the former hotel lobby, which was the headquarters for Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders as they headed out to fight the Spanish-American War.
Turning Back Time
Before you head out of town, stop at Tampa Theatre if there’s a matinee playing. The richly restored 1920s movie palace, which nearly fell victim to the wrecking ball in the 1970s, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The backdrop to the big screen looks like an Italian villa, with “stars” twinkling in a midnight blue “sky.” Before each performance of independent, classic and foreign films, the Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ rises up through the floorboards, played by volunteers from the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society.
It’s the perfect way to end a trip where history and culture become one.