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

Everything you thought you knew about Tampa is wrong.

Tampa Florida
Downtown Tampa, Florida. | AevanStock/Shutterstock
Downtown Tampa, Florida. | AevanStock/Shutterstock

Think Miami invented the Cuban sandwich? Au contraire. That little slice of pork-filled heaven came from Tampa, created by cigar factory workers looking for an on-the-go lunch in the late 1800s. And the Cuban sandwich’s origins are but one of the surprisingly fascinating historical facts you’ll discover if you find yourself in Tampa.

While St. Augustine gets most of the attention when it comes to historical places in Florida, Tampa is teeming with old buildings and interesting stories that make a trip here a legitimate history lesson. The city dates back to 1822—nearly 75 years before Miami was founded—and its legacy as a hotbed of Cuban culture lives on today. Beyond that, the city has grown up considerably over the past couple of decades, and now boasts a fast-growing restaurant scene, a craft beer crawl, and a bevy of ways to enjoy the city's warm weather.

Ybor City
Ybor City | Photo by Keir Magoulas, courtesy of Visit Tampa Bay

Soak in the Cuban culture

Tampa was the first real American outpost for Cuban immigrants, who moved here en masse in the late 1800s to work in cigar factories, and you can still walk among the brick buildings the factories once occupied in Ybor City. Ybor has become better known for its nightlife over the past half-century, but you can take a walking tour during the day to step back in time. The oldest family-run cigar factory in America, J.C. Newman, is also in Tampa, and the 1895 operation offers tours and cigar-rolling classes. 

For a piece of the island in Tampa, head to Parque Amigos de Jose Marti, which, until the Cuban embassy opened in 2015, was the only piece of Cuban-owned land in America. During the late 1800s, Marti was a regular visitor to Tampa, riling up the immigrant community in support of the revolution with speeches at cigar factories, and even recovering from an assassination attempt here in 1892. The park pays tribute to him with a statue and features plots of land taken from the island with native vegetation.

The Cuban Club dates back to 1917 and served as a social center for Cuban immigrants in the early 20th century. The Cuban-American community in Tampa would gather to reminisce on the old country and talk about current events back home. The building also has a robust haunted lore, which you’ll learn on one of the club’s daily tours.

While nobody can place for certain where the first Cuban sandwich was made, Tampa still claims itself as the birthplace. Stroll into the oldest restaurant in Florida at Columbia and taste the original version, which adds salami to the Cubano we know in South Florida. After, stroll the cigar shops along Seventh Ave to get hand-rolled cigars. 

Photo courtesy of Lilac

The best restaurants in Tampa, from food halls to Michelin stars 

Though Tampa was snubbed during Florida’s initial round of Michelin stars in 2022, three restaurants received stars in 2023. Koya is an eight-seat omakase counter with modern twists on Japanese food. Rocca is a modern Italian spot in Tampa Heights from chef Bryce Bonsack that’s gained great acclaim. And inside the new Edition hotel you’ll find Lilac, a prix-fixe place that uses Florida ingredients in French-inspired dishes, set among walls of tropical foliage.

Though Michelin recognition is nice, you may have more fun popping into Tampa’s casual spots. Chief among them is Sparkman Wharf, a shipping container park near the downtown waterfront packed with bars, food stands, and a younger crowd. Grab some brisket from Murph’s BBQ then enjoy it inside the sunny LightHaus Beer Garden. You’ll also find tacos, BurgerFi, a bowling alley, and even an F45 gym onsite—if you feel like burning your lunch off instantly.

The city’s other signature food hall is Armature Works, which skews a little more upscale and boasts a stunning riverside location. Oak & Ola is its signature sit-down restaurant, with hearty New American fare that garnered a Michelin rec this year. The more-casual options are just as fantastic, whether you’re devouring birria tacos at Muchachas, sampling street food at Empamamas, or slurping spicy noodle bowls at Bento. End your visit with a craft cocktail at M. Bird, the breezy rooftop patio.

Other spots worth checking out in Tampa include The Battery, a whiskey-and-bourbon-focused restaurant with prime steaks and Italian-inspired pastas, and Wagamama, a London import serving fresh, savory Asian bowls. The Pearl is a subway-tiled oyster room with an epic raw bar and extensive seafood menu. And, of course, no trip to Tampa is complete without a dinner at Bern’s, Florida’s most famous steakhouse where your chops still come with a side salad and the dessert room is to die for.

Common Dialect Beerworks
Photo courtesy of Common Dialect Beerworks

Taste through the best breweries in Tampa 

There is a friendly (or not-so-friendly, depending who you ask) rivalry between Tampa and South Florida beer scenes. Deciding which one is better is purely a matter of taste—and if you want to judge for yourself, the city isn’t lacking in options. Tampa Bay even offers a Bay Crafted Pass, where you can win prizes by checking in at different breweries around the region.

Cigar City is the brewery that put Florida craft beer on the map with its Jai-Alai IPA and Florida Cracker wheat. The brewery is surprisingly small, with a tasting room that makes sampling its only-at-the-brewery creations easy.

Coppertail Brewing is another statewide staple. The nautical-themed space is adorned in colorful murals, and offers sea-inspired brews like Free Dive IPA and Night Swim porter. If you like to play giant Jenga and cornhole while you imbibe, 7venth Sun’s Tampa taproom sits inside an old roller rink and has plenty of games.

7venth Sun is also located in the Seminole Heights neighborhood, which has become the de facto brewery district in recent years. You’ll also find Southern Brewing, Angry Chair, Hidden Springs Ale Works, and the new Common Dialect not far away.

Tampa Riverwalk
Boating on Hillsborough River. | Photo by Keir Magoulas, courtesy of Visit Tampa Bay

Things to do outdoors in Tampa

Most of Tampa Bay’s beaches are located in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, but if you’re not in the mood to deal with the Howard Frankland Bridge, you can still find waterfront fun in Tampa. The easiest way is along Tampa’s Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile path along the Hillsborough River. It winds past some of the city’s best museums too, including the Tampa Museum of Art,Tampa Bay History Center, and the Florida Aquarium. Bars such as Sparkman Wharf and Armature Works also sit along the Riverwalk, so finding a place to post up with a drink is easy.

If you really want a beach, then a trek through a residential neighborhood near the airport will bring you to Cypress Point Park. It’s a small stretch of sand with sprawling views over the bay, bridges, and causeways. You’ll typically have the place to yourself (though some mild jet engine noise will be there too).

Another natural hidden gem is Hillsborough River State Park, which offers the closest thing to whitewater rafting in the state. If you’ve thought about dipping your toes into whitewater kayaking, the parks's Class II rapids are a good place to start. The park also offers an onsite glamping resort at Timberline, where you’ll find the most sought after amenity in Florida outdoor exploration: An air conditioned tent.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, former pageant judge in the Miss Florida America system, and past contributor to Cosmopolitan magazine. Matt graduated with a BBA from University of Miami and holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Florida. He currently lives in Miami with his Betta fish, Bob.