The city of Tampa faces St. Petersburg across the wide stretch of water, offering visitors two distinct cities plus the beaches that line St. Pete's western shores. Sophistication, theme park fun, beaches and a splash of Latino exotica combine in one destination for a complete getaway that is difficult to boil down into one day's timeframe.
Florida's largest west coast metropolitan area embraces the vast reaches of Tampa Bay. So with only 24 hours to spend in Tampa, you could find plenty of entertainment in the downtown area close to Port Tampa Bay. But if you want to venture out to some of the area's famed attractions – Busch Gardens, downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches -- you might want to consider renting a car. Taxi, Uber or Lyft car services are viable options to get to Busch Gardens or downtown St. Pete, but not really practical if you want to do some beach-hopping.
Nothing says, "wake up to Tampa" better than a steaming cup of Cuban cafe con leche and an egg with chorizo sandwich on Cuban bread. La Tropicana Cafe (1822 E. Seventh Ave.) in Tampa's historic Latin district, Ybor City, has been a local fixture for decades. If you are staying in downtown Tampa, take the electric streetcar -- a replica of early Tampa transit -- straight to Ybor City. It's an easy walk to La Tropicana, possibly the most affordable cafe in the neighborhood. Like any number of Ybor City restaurants, it claims the best Cuban sandwiches and bean soup come lunchtime.
Spend the morning on a walking tour of Ybor City, once an important cigar-making capital. You can do it on your own, or make an appointment for a guided tour. Highlights include the Ybor City Museum State Park (1818 E. Ninth Ave.), which occupies a historic bakery and includes a row of casitas, restored cigar workers' "shotgun homes." One of the casitas holds a museum of its own. Other historic buildings that still function as places of business include the original Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. Seventh Ave.), an ornately tiled facade with Spanish-influenced interior; Parque Amigos de Jose Marti (1303 E. Eighth Ave.), a park devoted to the eponymous Cuban revolutionary who spent time in Ybor City; and La Segunda Central Bakery (2512 N. 15th St.), which has been making Cuban bread the traditional way since 1915. Grab a mid-morning pick-me-up -- a guava pastry and a cup of coffee -- from La Segunda and head to pretty Centennial Park (1800 E. Eighth Ave.) for some bench rest among monuments and shade trees.
If you're hooked on the coffee, visit Naviera Coffee Mills (2012 E. Seventh Ave.) for a bag of roasted beans to take home. For other authentic souvenirs, visit Metropolitan Cigars (2014 E. Seventh Ave.). While touring, check out the history and striking architecture of the Circulo Cubano (2010 N. Avenida Republica de Cuba), L'Unione Italiana (1731 E. Seventh Ave.), Centro Espanol (1526-1536 E. Seventh Ave.) and Centro Asturiano (1913 N. Nebraska Ave.) -- memories of the early days when Ybor City's different cultures formed their own social clubs.
One of Tampa's most iconic eateries, Skipper's Smokehouse (910 Skipper Rd.), clings to Southern roots in a town known for its creative new age cuisine. It dwells in an unlikely neighborhood and a chic shack complex of dining room, bar, performance stage and outdoor party venue. Skipper's is all about seafood, smoked fish and such signature specialties as gator black bean chili and crawdaddy mac (blackened crawfish macaroni and cheese). It's worth the drive about 15 minutes from downtown. If you'd rather stay close, Ybor City offers a plethora of lunchtime choices, and not only in the Spanish genre. Stone Soup Company Diner (1517 E. Seventh Ave.), for instance, rates high in the requisite Cuban sandwich category, but also lists soups, salads, pasta, empanadas, flatbreads and lots of different sandwiches on its extensive menu.
If you have the kids along, there's no question what your next move will be, because they probably have been screaming to go to Busch Gardens (10165 McKinley Dr.), about 10 miles from Port Tampa Bay. Part amusement park, part zoo, it's Tampa's absolute family favorite.
Alternately, you can take the opportunity to explore all the port area in downtown Tampa has to offer, starting with the attractions along its 2.4-mile Riverwalk. The wide, paved walkway follows the Hillsborough River past restaurants, hotels, parks, museums and historic markers, with a view of historic Tampa Bay Hotel's spires on the opposite shore. Tampa Bay History Center (801 Old Water St.) anchors one end of the walkway near Port Tampa Bay. Within its impressive three-story facade, interactive exhibits tell Tampa's story of Seminole natives, citrus-growing, Cracker cow hunters (Florida Crackers -- who get their name from the cracking of their cattle-driving whips -- don't take kindly to being called "cowboys") and early pioneers. Near it, the Florida Aquarium (701 Channelside Dr.) explores Florida's marine fauna and habitat -- from mangroves to coral reefs -- in a massive dome structure.
To the north, bordering Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Glazer Children's Museum (110 W. Gasparilla Plaza) and Tampa Museum of Art (120 W. Gasparilla Plaza) continue the cultural exploit. You shouldn't miss exploring the Tampa Bay Hotel (401 W. Kennedy Blvd.), now home to the University of Tampa but also to the Henry B. Plant Museum. It preserves the Moorish Revival hotel's heyday and Spanish War military importance. The lavish, circa-1926 Tampa Theatre (711 N. Franklin St.) is also worth at least a look if not a guided tour or movie.
If you have time and a penchant for fine art, travel across the bay to St. Petersburg and visit the world-class Dali Museum (1 Dali Blvd.), the Chihuly Collection (400 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg), and the Museum of Fine Arts (255 Beach Dr. NE). Downtown St. Petersburg is about a half-hour drive from downtown Tampa.
If the urge for afternoon cocktails hits while you are exploring downtown, Fly Bar & Restaurant (1201 N. Franklin St.) makes a great stopping point. Billed as a "pioneer urban bar," its vibe is funky and its drinks crafty. Sit inside the rustic and downstairs area decorated with modern art, the patio or rooftop. Sip a signature cocktail such as the Hopped Gimlet or Fly Sangria. If your explorations find you thirsty in downtown St. Petersburg, hit a bar on Beach Drive with outdoor seating such as BellaBrava (204 Beach Dr. NE) or The Canopy, located rooftop at The Birchwood hotel (340 Beach Dr. NE).
In a neighborhood known as SoHo (short for South Howard Avenue), legendary Bern's Steak House (1208 S. Howard Ave.) began a culinary tradition in this part of town in the mid-1900s. It's all superlatives at Bern's: biggest working wine cellar in the world, finest aged steaks, sexiest dessert parlor and a baroque elegance unmatched. Ask for a tour of the kitchen (with its own live fish tank) and wine cellar. In case you are unable to score reservations at Bern's, nearby Ceviche (2500 W. Azeele St.) has a strong reputation for its tasty Spanish tapas and paellas. And dining on Spanish cuisine is patently appropriate in this town.
The Tampa Bay area knows how to party, so you won't be hard-pressed to keep your day going into the wee hours. If you're hankering for some sand, head out to St. Pete Beach -- about a 45-minute drive -- and the litany of islands to its north to find the best beach bars. Drive along Gulf Boulevard to ferret out such sandy, salty spots as Undertow Beach Bar (3850 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach), Jimmy B's Beach Bar at the Beachcomber Beach Resort (6200 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach) and Caddy's on the Beach (9000 W. Gulf Dr., Treasure Island). The latter two also jam with live music. Looking for something closer or more cultural? Check out what's happening at downtown Tampa's David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts (1010 N. Macinnes Pl.).
--By Chelle Koster Walton, Cruise Critic contributor