It’s Friday evening in Hyde Park, one of Tampa Bay’s stylish residential neighborhoods that lies within striking distance of downtown Tampa, and every direction I turn there are people strolling on the sidewalks, clinking glasses while dining on restaurant patios, walking their dogs, jogging with friends or partaking in a little people watching. I’m walking over to the Epicurean Hotel, a chic gathering place on Howard Avenue, for a fun night out with friends. We meet on the hotel’s rooftop bar, Edge Social Drinkery, to mingle with locals and guests while sipping craft cocktails set against a striking geometric mural. For some, this may seem like the weekend pace is just beginning, but here it’s the everyday lifestyle.
I realize each day how lucky I am to be living in Tampa Bay. The city’s outside-all-the-time lifestyle, constantly expanding nightlife and exciting restaurant scene are drawing everyone in to its refreshing urban vibe. But there’s something else about this place, too. Tampa Bay has its own way of doing things, from exploring downtown along the Tampa Riverwalk to viewing murals that start conversations to discovering the mix of cultural enclaves that thrive among historic districts and modern edifices. Every time I entertain guests, I love to show them this experience I have everyday that I can only describe as being distinctly Tampa Bay.
Late morning, my go-to breakfast spot for visiting friends is the outdoor terrace at Goody Goody. Celebrated local restaurateur Richard Gonzmart of Columbia Restaurant fame opened the retro-style diner in Hyde Park Village, reviving the spirit of the original Goody Goody burger shack that operated from 1925 to 2005 in downtown Tampa. People usually line up for the famous burgers called “POX” for the pickles, onions and heaping dose of tomato-based secret sauce. Being breakfast time, I usually recommend the Ybor City tradition: Cuban toast with café con leche. Outside, my steaming coffee is served within eyeshot of an Instagram-worthy mural painted on a garage door. The mural repeats the words “Tampa Bay” in red and white, followed by street artist Bask’s directive to “Have a nice day.” It helps set the mood for a winning weekend.
Finish coffee then it’s off to seek new experiences among treasured favorites. One of my favorite ways to see Tampa Bay is through the Coast Bike Share program, which has stalls with cruiser-style blue bikes all over town (pay as you go or get a subscription). Hop on the bikes and peddle towards the city’s heart.
The mural repeats the words ‘Tampa Bay’ in red and white, followed by street artist Bask’s directive to ‘Have a nice day.’ It helps set the mood for a winning weekend.
The city’s epicenter of action is the Tampa Riverwalk, which skirts the Hillsborough River and runs straight through downtown. On shore, the pedestrian- and bike-friendly walkway is lined with restaurants, bars, parks and concert venues. Rolling Segways glide past bicyclists and walkers, taking in the Riverwalk highlights. Exercise classes and special events fill Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with activity. On the river, paddleboards pass by single and tandem “BiYaks” that are just what they sound like (bike-meets-kayak). Bright yellow Pirate Water Taxis make regular stops up and down the Riverwalk alongside Kraken CycleBoats—a pedal-powered floating pub that fits 15. Just bring drinks and snacks and head out for two-hour tours.
For lunch, I take out-of-towners to a restaurant that blends historic charm with urban sensibilities. Oxford Exchange is a restaurant, cafe, lifestyle shop and co-working space, all housed inside a stunning turn-of-the-century building originally built as a stable. Green, tufted benches contrast against steel tables and a special afternoon menu has quick but filling meals like fried avocado wedges. The tea and coffee shops inside serve meticulously crafted drinks that echo Tampa Bay’s native flavors and global influences.
As the sun sinks, downtown and Ybor City become even more vibrant. From downtown, a yellow streetcar heads to Ybor City, Tampa Bay’s storied Cuban neighborhood where lively nightlife and historic restaurants line the brick streets. The scent of cigar smoke and the distant crows of the neighborhood’s roaming roosters transport you into a different city and culture. I usually tell friends to follow the scent of cigars through Centro Ybor, an indoor/outdoor shopping mall and cinema complex, and browse the area’s various cigar shops for a hand-rolled souvenir.
Among Ybor’s narrow streets, there’s a thriving craft beer and distillery scene. In fact, artisan brewers and distillers can be found throughout the city. In Ybor, Coppertail Brewing Co. has a stylish tasting room where guests can sidle up to a 20-tap bar pouring beer brewed and bottled in Tampa Bay. Cigar City Cider & Mead expands your palette with apple and honey drinks made with Florida grown ingredients. I also dig the atmosphere in the historic Encanto building, where Florida Cane Distillery serves up Florida-made, flavored vodkas, moonshine, gins and whiskeys.
Dinner is reserved for Ulele—just in time to watch the sunset over the Hillsborough River. The restaurant greets with colorful gear wheels at the entrance and invites us to linger with river views and dishes that celebrate native foods. The food is made with local ingredients from Florida’s waters and land, and the in-house brewery offers another level of Tampa Bay flavor.
Once it’s dark, I take my guests to see the Riverwalk at night. The walkway transforms into a light show with downtown’s skyline, the neon signs of nearby restaurants and the shifting shades of brilliant blue, violet, pink and red on the Tampa Museum of Art’s LED-illuminated exterior.
The walkway transforms into a light show with downtown’s skyline, the neon signs of nearby restaurants and the shifting shades of brilliant blue, violet, pink and red on the Tampa Museum of Art’s LED-illuminated exterior.
For the days that follow, the sky is the limit. My hit list: Paddleboard next to the Riverwalk, dive into a tank at The Florida Aquarium, watch Flamenco dancers at the Columbia Restaurant and say the password at Ciro’s Speakeasy & Supper Club. There are so many more only-in-Tampa Bay things to do that it’s always a new experience, whether you’re a local or just visiting.Vacation the Tampa Bay Way by discovering other local treasures that break the mold.