Tampa Florida riverwalk
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Best Things to Do in Florida’s Most Misunderstood City

Everything you thought you knew about Tampa is wrong.

Whether you refer to it as Tampa (correct), Tampa Bay (incorrect unless you add “Area”), or God’s Waiting Room (that’s actually how people used to refer to neighboring St. Pete, although hardly anymore), the city of Tampa has had its share of skeptics. But with the spotlight hitting the city of this year’s no-doubt weird Super Bowl, now’s the perfect time to take a harder look at Florida’s third-largest city, where something wholly unexpected to outsiders is happening: greatness. 

Tampa’s growing food and live music scene, killer lineup of breweries, backyard manatees, and almost eternally beach- and boat-friendly weather have made for a quality of life so appealing that the city is now considered one of the hottest towns (no pun intended) for millennials to move to… and not the millennials born in the year 1000. 

Here’s what’s brewing—literally and figuratively—in this misunderstood Florida treasure.

downtown view of Tampa
Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Tampa Water Street

Check out the evolution of downtown in real time

Enormous things are happening in downtown Tampa, where Bill Gates is among the investors in the burgeoning Water Street Tampa district, a multi-use project that recently saw the opening of Tampa’s first true five-star luxury hotel, JW Marriott Tampa Water Street. Before serving as the host hotel for the Super Bowl, the hotel is scheduled to open its luxe Spa by JW, with the city’s highest rooftop bar, Beacon, opening on the 27th floor in early 2022. 

No need to wait for a drink though: On most any day, you’ll find the city’s cool kids and families lounging in the beer garden and sipping cocktails proffered from shipping containers at Sparkman Wharf, the district’s hippest outdoor hangout, fronting the water and cruise-ship docks on Garrison Channel.  

Indulge in some travel-worthy steaks

Bern’s Steak House—home to a wild 100,000-deep wine list—has long been lauded as one of Tampa’s best steakhouses… by those who could book a table. For the rest of us, Donovan’s Modern American Meatery in nearby Riverview serves up steaks (and seafood) that are just as lovingly prepared over a custom-made open-fire grill fed with local woods. Chef Jasper brings serious Texas cred, and his passion for the craft shows in the immaculate flavors that permeate tomahawks, porterhouses, and delectably smoked prime rib alike. This is a place that takes its meat so seriously, it even features an edible tallow candle—a steal for $7 at happy hour, and the perfect takeaway for a very specific sort of Secret Santa gift. 

The Cubano at Café Quiquiriqui. | Courtesy of Hotel Haya

Eat one of the city’s best new Cubanos (at the coolest new hotel)

News flash: Tampa—not Miami—invented the Cubano, that iconic amalgam of roast pork, smoked ham, swiss cheese, and mustard pressed between bread. You’ll find these essential sandwiches in Latino neighborhoods along Columbia Boulevard in West Tampa, and even at the city’s tonier restaurants and delis. One of the new heavyweight contenders can be found at Café Quiquiriqui, which opened last year inside Ybor City’s new Hotel Haya, a stunning boutique property paying homage to mid-Century Havana. If the sandwich and requisite cafe con leche don’t have you bursting, venture over to Flor Fina, which dishes up the swankiest ceviche platter in town.

Discover the rowdy side of shuffleboard

Shuffle puts an au courant spin on the sport that made the Sunshine State famous (that’d be shuffleboard… gator wrestling is tough in a bar). Located in the budding Tampa Heights neighborhood, the 4,700-square warehouse is outfitted with a trio of indoor courts, has a full bar stocked with local taps and Tang mimosas, and even slings gourmet hot dogs and homemade pickles. There’s also an expansive “yard” complete with cornhole boards and worn lawn furniture that bears a striking resemblance to the kind that outfitted your grandparents’ condo. Apt. 

Urban Kai

Hit the sea from The Getaway

Sandwiched between Tampa and St. Pete near a long causeway bridge connecting the cities, The Getaway is a relaxed Florida tiki bar amid the mangroves that dishes up fish tacos, rum runners, and sunset views. It’s worth coming here just for the Florida Keys vibe. But onsite Urban Kai ups the appeal even more with rentals for self-guided excursions into the bay via kayaks, canoes, or paddle boards. Feeling ambitious? Jaunt to nearby Weedon Island Preserve, where you can roam the protected, 3,000-acre labyrinth of mangroves, sandbars, and “real Florida” wildlife. 

Tampa Riverwalk
Tampa Riverwalk | Photo by Keir Magoulas for Visit Tampa Bay

With more than two miles of winding waterside walkways (alliteration!), the AIA-nominated Tampa Riverwalk is the ideal place to walk, bike, or even hop the so-kitsch-it’s-cool Pirate Water Taxi to soak up the many sights and attractions of Downtown Tampa. Start at Columbia Cafe (a more casual riverfront version of  Ybor City icon) and fortify with some white sangria. Or grab a beer from the nearby Sail Plaza. Then rent a bike or stroll past Curtis Hixon Park—the majestic University of Tampa is right across the river—and the Tampa Museum of Art.

burger in Tampa
Photo by Alex Haney / Unsplash

Gorge your way through Tampa’s best food hall

Tampa may be late to the food-hall party, but Heights Public Market, located inside the fully restored 1900s streetcar warehouse called Armature Works, seems hellbent on making up for lost time. The 22,000-square-foot temple of indulgence on the Hillsborough River is home to 18 gourmet food stalls—don’t miss fantastic ramen at Ichicoro or an exemplary Cubano at [kū´bå] Modern Cuban Cuisine—and sit-down restaurants (Euro-centric Oak & Ola comes with James Beard pedigree). Seating is communal, and the waterfront courtyard is prime for people watching.

beer pint from brewery in Tampa, FL
Big Storm Brewing & Distilling Co.

Many people don’t know this, but Tampa has its own little “Napa Valley”... except instead of valleys and vineyards, it’s Gulf waters and breweries. The trail spans from Tarpon Springs through Dunedin all the way down to St. Pete, and is approximately an hour drive from beginning to end. Given there are more than 30  breweries—including gems like Clearwater-based Big Storm and St. Pete’s go-to 3 Daughters Brewing—you may want to start pursuing those Uber star ratings now.

Spend an afternoon tarpon fishing

California has surfers; Florida has fishers. If you don't have a friend with a boat or knowledge of the best hooking spots (the latter, pretty much all locals have), it’s worth the rental fee to charter a vessel and captain for the afternoon. Plus, let’s face it, your worst fishing day on a boat coasting under the famous Skyway Bridge and through the crystal clear waters of Anna Maria Island is still probably most people’s best actual day.

Manatees, two ways

Tampa is surrounded by natural springs and flowing fresh rivers. That’s a recipe for two very different things that come gloriously together here: tubing and sea cows. 

Aside from being one of the closest tubing locations to the city, Manatee River is also home to tons of seagrass-chomping gentle giants. In the summer months, the river reaches high enough levels for a two-hour tube run, during which you’re almost guaranteed to spot several manatees while drifting downstream. 

Meanwhile, on cold(ish) winter days manatees absolutely clog the docks at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, lured by the relatively warm water spewing into the bay from a discharge channel. It’s closed this season due to COVID concerns, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from checking out babies and mothers jostling for the warmest jets on webcam

Gasparilla Pirate Invasion
Gasparilla Pirate Invasion | Photo by Keir Magoulas for Visit Tampa Bay

Bike the world’s longest sidewalk

South Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard runs along Hillsborough Bay and is the main drag for the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival (Tampa’s arrrrgh-rated version of Mardi Gras). The stretch of concrete is allegedly the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, and outside of Gasparilla, the city’s prime spot to go for a run, walk, or bike. 

The best way to take in the entire 4.5 mile span is to nab a two-wheeler at one end and pedal all the way to the other. The path loops you through a bayfront park with a long fishing pier in the Ballast Point neighborhood, where the brick streets lined with massive Spanish oaks and stilt-style houses are particularly atmospheric. While you’re there, do yourself a favor and grab the best grouper sandwich in the state from Big Ray’s Fish Camp or treat yourself to top-notch Turkish food at Bayshore Mediterranean Grill.

Donning a jacket and going to an ice rink is perhaps not what you had in mind for a visit to Florida, but in a beautifully ironic twist of fate, NHL hockey is probably Tampa’s most popular sport (the home team won the Stanley Cup in 2020, and Tampa still hasn’t stopped celebrating). Whether you follow them or not, Tampa Bay Lightning games are a blast. Amalie Arena is also located in the thick of Downtown and the Water Street Tampa district, making it accessible to plenty of bars and restaurants to pre- and post-game. 

Ybor Pride Parade
Ybor Pride Parade | Photo by Keir Magoulas for Visit Tampa Bay

Take a walking tour of historic Ybor City

The original “Cigar City” of Tampa, the historic Ybor City neighborhood is Tampa’s cultural heart as well as one of the best nightlife districts. From cigar bars to the roosters roaming its brick roads (including world-famous 7th Avenue), the best way to soak in the area is on foot. 

Whatever you do, don’t miss a stop over at La Segunda Central Bakery, a century-old bread factory that bakes Cuban bread for outlets across the country, not to mention its iconic Ybor neighbor Columbia Restaurant. New to the dining scene in late-2020, Casa Santo Stefano nods to Ybor’s lesser-known Sicilian roots with family-style Italian suppers (even the furniture and art are imported from Sicily). Nearby, the J.C. Newman Cigar Factory is the last family-run cigar factory still operating in the country. And one of Tampa’s most legendary live music venues, Crowbar has been housing -—and launching the careers of—the best acts in the games for years right here in Ybor, too.

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Liz is the former Miami editor and contributing writer for Thrillist. She also writes for Bustle and Fatherly, and enjoys telling people she's the captain of the Pismo Beach Disaster Relief.
Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world.