It had been more than a decade since I last visited Tampa and the surrounding communities. But even when I did visit on a somewhat regular basis, it was always for work and I had little opportunity to explore what is a fun and lively city. That’s one reason why I wanted to include a stop in Tampa on my Florida road trip with Marriott. Throughout 2019 I’ve been exploring more of the U.S. in cooperation with Marriott to highlight places that I think make for ideal getaways. In Tampa I discovered that there were any number of reasons to spend some time there as a tourist, including these fun experiences I enjoyed during my brief time in the city.
One of my favorite experiences in any new city I visit is a food tour, and in Tampa I discovered a fun and slightly unusual version of what has become a travel industry staple. Owner Kimberly McAvoy has a true passion for the Tampa Bay food scene, namely the incredible restaurants found throughout the city, but especially along Tampa’s Riverfront. On her tour, guests visit 4-5 amazing restaurants that showcase their best bites along with wine pairings. The tours are a different spin on the traditional food tour with more of an emphasis on specific restaurants and their own very unique stories. It’s a fun way to learn more about the city, how it has changed in recent years and for a quick immersion into what is in all honesty an incredible restaurant scene.
Sometimes all it takes is for one or two creative and passionate people to bring life back to neighborhoods and even entire cities, and that is best seen in Tampa at the popular Oxford Exchange. Located across the street from what was once the legendary Tampa Bay Hotel, what is today the Oxford Exchange was originally built in 1891 most likely as a stable complex for horses and associated gear. In the 1920s, an arcade of local shops and businesses occupied the space and it’s this more lively decade that the owners tried to echo when they brought the long vacant building back to life. Today it’s all about community, a place to spend some time, chat with friends, enjoy some great food and just disconnect for a while. At the heart of the experience is an expansive independent bookstore, but that’s just the start of the experience at the OE. There is also an incredibly eclectic shop with items so unique I doubt you’ll find them anywhere else, but for many visitors the restaurant is the star attraction. A daytime affair, The Restaurant serves weekday breakfast and lunch, weekend brunch, and afternoon tea, where guests may be seated in an art filled dining room with an open kitchen or the sunlit Conservatory, complete with creeping vines and a retractable glass roof. Showcasing continued attention to detail, the menu consists of fresh, seasonal, signature dishes, complemented by an array of premium coffees, teas, and cocktails for a new translation of the classic bistro. No matter how you enjoy your time at the Oxford Exchange, just make sure it’s firmly entrenched on your Tampa to-do list.
Hotel with Character
I always love staying in luxury and premium hotels, but when they have their own unique histories and provenance then I know I’m in for a treat. That was the case as I walked through the doors of the impressive Le Méridien Tampa. The hotel is in a meticulously restored century-old Federal courthouse that occupies an entire block in downtown Tampa. The grand spaces, from the high ceilings to the long corridors are the type of gorgeous construction that today is hard to find, and with equally well-thought out interiors that are a nod to the mid-century design motif, it’s a relaxing hotel experience that can’t be beat.
Streetcar to Ybor City
The first streetcar began rolling in Tampa way back in 1885 but, like most other cities around the country, were gradually phased out until this unique transportation system was relegated to the history books. Thankfully though, Tampa has resurrected this peaceful way of exploring the city – especially when you plan a visit to the quirky neighborhood of Ybor City. The streetcar was actually the ideal way for me to be reintroduced to this important part of Tampa’s history, and to see the remnants of the old Ybor along the way.
Founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and other cigar magnates, this neighborhood northeast of downtown was initially home to thousands of immigrants all there to work in the many cigar factories that supplied most of the country with these handmade smokes. Ybor has always been a melting pot of cultures, foods and languages, just as it is today. Although, like so many other neighborhoods in cities around the country, Ybor saw several decades of hard times, it is once again a lively place to enjoy a drink, something to eat or just a casual wander to admire the architecture and some of the best people watching in the city.
Honorable Mention – Salvador Dalí Museum
No, the Dalí is not located in Tampa, but it is in nearby St. Petersburg making it easy and I think even important to visit. I’d long heard of this impression institution and it was honestly with a lot of excitement that I made the short drive to St. Pete to see if the hype was well warranted. Originally part of a private collection, the works assembled in Florida were first put on exhibition back in 1982, but its current and very impressive home was just built in 2011, marking the end of decades of wandering for these important pieces. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse were lifelong patrons and friends of Dalí and it was later in their lives that they realized they had quietly assembled an impressive retrospective. Impressive is an understatement really, because the surrealism-inspired museum in St. Petersburg today is home to the largest collection of Dalí works outside of Europe. Before walking into the museum I paused to admire the structure itself. This $30 million building is a beautiful work of glass, but reinforced with 18-inch thick concrete to protect against hurricanes. Not unlike Dalí, it’s a slightly confusing and undulating wonder and set the perfect tone for my afternoon exploring these early works of Dalí. The collection includes 96 oil paintings, 100 watercolors, 1300 graphics and an extensive archival library. Even if you have just a passing interest in Dalí, this is the place to visit to enhance and deepen that appreciation.