• Newsletter
  • Write a Review
  • Boards
  • Deals
  • Find a Cruise
  • Reviews
  • News
  • Cruise Tips
You may also like

Tampa Bay: Dazzling Waterfront, World Class Arts and Award-Winning Beaches

Megan Padilla

Oct 10, 2019

Read time
10 min read

Sponsored by Hilton Hotels

If you haven't visited Tampa Bay, a burgeoning cruise port, you may be surprised to learn that it's one of Florida's most enchanting destinations. Tampa Bay is splendid with waterfront culture that has evolved around its rivers, bays (yes, two of them) and Gulf of Mexico shoreline. Together, they're known as the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater area and each offers surprisingly car-free access to energized centers of people, art, food, history, beaches and, of course, the sugar-white sand and turquoise water that make visitors vote Clearwater Beach the best in the nation.

On This Page

  • Waterfront Taste of Tampa
  • Traces of Cuba
  • Art Day Across the Bay
  • Your Bonus (Beach) Vacation

Cruise passengers are perfectly poised for a bonus vacation because the port and the airport are not only near each other but they also are at the center of Tampa's vibrant action -- much of it connected by streetcar, water taxi, bike share and free on-demand rides from the fleet of Downtowner vehicles. It couldn't be easier to disembark a plane or ship and set up a temporary home base for an unexpected adventure.

Waterfront Taste of Tampa

Tampa's downtown growth is in overdrive right now, and its riverbanks are the epicenter of energetic urban living: food, shopping, nightlife, family and indoor and outdoor aquatic fun.

Right outside the gates of Cruise Ship Terminal 2 is the new Sparkman Wharf, the newest addition to the waterfront redevelopment that includes Tampa Riverwalk, billed as 2.4 miles of "everything Tampa," and connects the Port Tampa Bay cruise terminals with a tasty array of "only in Tampa" restaurants and attractions.

"Sparkman Wharf is a blast," says David Warner, editor of Luxury Living Tampa Bay. "There are pop-up restaurants in container cars, all by Tampa Bay's best chefs." He points to chef BT Nguyen's French–Vietnamese concept BT in a Box, and four-time James Beard Award semifinalist chef Jeannie Pierola's dive-bar and fish kitchen, Edison's Swigamajig, among others. Add to the outdoor mix a biergarten featuring Florida craft brews, AstroTurf for kids to run amok and regular live music and you have a potent punch of a people-pleasing venue.

Anchoring the north end of the riverwalk is Armature Works, a brilliant adaptive-reuse of the former 1910 Tampa Electric Company (TECO) streetcar storage building in the hip Tampa Heights neighborhood. It's now a vibrant mixed-use building whose tenants are primarily of the culinary persuasion. Taste your way through top Tampa purveyors of good things to eat: ice cream, ramen, sandwiches, sushi, coffee, cocktails and more at the Heights Public Market. Two full-service restaurants, Steelbach and Oak & Ola, feature thoughtfully sourced and seasonal ingredients. Nearby is Ulele, featuring Florida fare. Hard-core foodies continue their frenzy at the Hall on Franklin, just a few blocks east.

Earn an appetite: Unless you're well practiced at eating for sport, you'll need some breaks between feedings. Tampa's riverfront is loaded with museums and attractions where you can feed your mind and soul while your stomach takes a break. Beside Sparkman Wharf is the Florida Aquarium, which runs twice-daily 75-minute cruises to spot wild dolphins on Tampa Bay. The Tampa Bay History Center is just a 10-minute walk to the downtown waterfront from the cruise terminal. Its Treasure Seekers exhibit features the bounty from pirates and shipwrecks recovered from Florida waters, dating to the 1600s. Further up the riverwalk is the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art and behind it, the Glazer Children's Museum.

"It's a whole other world that didn't exist in Tampa five years ago," Warner adds.

See a show: The Straz Center for Performing Arts showcases a year-round slate of theater, music and dance and is home to touring productions straight from the Broadway stage. "Hamilton" performed here in February 2019.

Getting around: It's easy to get your steps in on the riverwalk, but when you're ready for a lift, the TECO Line Streetcar connects many downtown points and the Pirate Water Taxi zips up and down the waterfront.

Where to stay: Centrally located on the riverwalk is the Tampa Hilton Downtown whose rooftop pool is a respite from the urban delights below.

Traces of Cuba

On the northside of the Port of Tampa Bay lies Ybor City Historic District, a National Historic Landmark and the one-time "Cigar Capital of the World." In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a diverse immigrant population, largely from Latin America, surged in this independent port town, producing the finest hand-rolled cigars made from Cuban tobacco.

The best way to go back in time is to start at the Ybor City Museum, located in a 1920s bakery building set within a pretty Mediterranean garden, where many a Tampa couple says "I do." The museum itself is a good intro to Ybor as a cigar-making center and place where Cuban dissidents gathered support for the revolution. Don't miss the restored and furnished casita behind the museum that provides a glimpse into the daily life of a cigar worker's family. The Museum Society recently opened the Ybor Baseball Museum in honor of Tampa's long tradition of baseball with Cuban ties.

The historic district comprises some 950 buildings that reflect Ybor City's Cuban, Spanish and Italian heritage. Stroll Seventh Avenue whose shops, restaurants, bars and dance clubs are largely geared toward tourists but retains much of its historic aura. Tabanero and other boutique shops let you watch master cigar-rollers at work, continuing a tradition that is more than 130 years old. By day, expect excellent coffee shops, but by night, the cocktail rules.

Where to eat: Seventh Avenue is home to the original Columbia Restaurant, a pillar of Tampa Bay's food scene, and it has been operated by the same family since it opened in 1905 (on that note, order the 1905 salad). Time your dinner reservation to one of two nightly flamenco shows (except Sundays). Nearby is Carne Chophouse located in the former El Centro Espanol building, one of five social clubs that once formed the center of life for Ybor City's major immigrant groups from Cuba -- as well as Spain, Italy and Germany.

Get an Instagram shot: Ybor City's most famous inhabitants today are the wild chickens, descendants of the backyard birds kept by those long-ago immigrants. Take pictures, but no tocar (please don't touch!) -- they are protected by city ordinance.

Where to stay: The Hilton Garden Inn Tampa Ybor Historic District gives you modern digs in the historic district and is easy to reach from the Channelside cruise port by TECO Line Streetcar.

Art Day Across the Bay

Not so long ago, St. Petersburg (which the locals just call St. Pete) was best-known as an idyllic winter's respite. Today it is booming with artists -- both the very-much-alive kind as well as the dead -- and those who support them. "Creativity" is even written in to the city's vision statement.

Modern art and architecture enthusiasts beeline to the Salvador Dali Museum, which celebrates the Surrealists with not only the largest collection of Salvador Dali works outside of Spain but also major exhibitions by his contemporaries (do check because exhibits revolve regularly). Even if you don't have time for a full-blown tour, pop in for a simple but elegant lunch at Cafe Gala, which, true to the theme of Dali, features Spanish-influenced cuisine. Its atmosphere is magical as the cafe is located beneath the sun-drenched triangular panes of the free-form geodesic dome and the "floating" spiral staircase that is an ode to Dali's obsession with spirals and the double-helical shape of the DNA molecule.

Beyond the Dali Museum, there are 11 major museums in downtown St. Pete and five unique art districts -- most of which you can cover by foot, bike and trolley. Private collectors are contributing to the city's wealth of museums by funneling tens of millions of their own dollars to build new art destinations to showcase and share their own collections. The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art opened in 2018 and adds another layer of architectural interest to the downtown, not to mention the more than 400 works on display inside. Coming up: The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement opens in fall 2019 and is a 137,000-square-foot building to house Rudy Ciccarello's extensive collection of furniture, pottery, tile, metalwork, lighting, photography and other decorative arts from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just over a mile away on funky, vibrant Central Avenue, sign up for a glass-art workshop at the Morean Arts Center Glass Studio & Hot Shop. The gallery and working studio are an outpost of the Chihuly Collection museum across the street, the first in the world designed to showcase the work of world-renowned Seattle-based glass artist Dale Chihuly.

Stemming from the city's annual SHINE Mural Festival each fall, there are now more than 500 colorful murals that adorn buildings throughout St. Pete. The majority are along Central Avenue and its side streets. Discover them on your own or with a local artist on a guided walking tour on weekend mornings (by Florida CraftArt and St. Pete Cultural Tours).

Where to eat: Grab a Cuban (hot pressed sandwich with roast pork, ham, swiss, pickles and mayo) at Bodega on Central Avenue or go whole hog with an eight-course chef's tasting menu at FarmTable Cucina, which pulls from the freshest ingredients available downstairs at Locale Market. Dinners are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m. in the private dining room.

Where to stay: Anchor your stay with a night or two at the centrally located and recently refreshed Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront.

Your Bonus (Beach) Vacation

Soft, sugar-white sand lapped by clear turquoise water are the main reasons Clearwater Beach keeps landing on top. It recently snagged the #1 spot -- for the second year in a row -- on TripAdvisor's "America's Best Beaches" list.

Though plenty alluring, nature's charms are paired with man-made comforts, including the city's Beach by Design redevelopment plan that includes the Beach Walk, a winding pedestrian path that begins at Pier 60 Park and continues south, making the sprawling public beach feel more connected to the shops, restaurants and conveniences of the town.

There's more than the beach to round out your vacation. The bayside marina is lined with charters for fishing, dolphin-watching and sunset excursions catering to every taste, from catamarans with wine tasting to pirate ships with water cannons.

And there's one last stop: Winter, the world's most famous tail-less dolphin, lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, along with Ricky the pelican who played Rufus in the hit film, "Dolphin Tale."

Where to eat: While there are several Frenchy's up and down the Gulf Coast, Frenchy's Rockaway Grill on the north end of Clearwater is the only one right on the beach. It's your typical Florida fish shack where you wash down a grouper sandwich with an ice-cold beer while your feet are in the sand. Come evening though, it's worth cleaning up for dinner at Bob Heilman's Beachcomber restaurant, a Clearwater staple since 1948 where you expect to get a perfect martini and listen to a crooner at the keys. After cocktail hour though, switch to wine. Heilman's list is more than 700 deep and includes its own pinot noir, FoxyRock, from Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Where to stay: The Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa gives you out-the-door access to Sunsets at Pier 60. The year-round family-friendly festival, beginning two hours before sunset and ending two hours after, features street performers, craft vendors and, on weekends, free outdoor movies under the stars.

Megan Padilla is curious about the world, its wonders and people. But Florida and the Southeast have taken hold as her beat, covering it for Travel Weekly, Orlando Magazine and duPont Registry's Luxury Living Tampa Bay. Currently based in Orlando, she and her family are honing their peripatetic lifestyle, having recently spent a "trial year in Pittsburgh" and always half-planning the next adventure.

Updated October 10, 2019
How was this article?
About UsCruise DestinationsFirst Time CruisersFind A Cruise

International Sites

© 1995—2023, The Independent Traveler, Inc.

  • Privacy and Cookies Statement

  • Terms of Use

  • Site Map