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A Perfect Weekend in Tampa Bay

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Tampa is buzzing! It is a modern city in many ways, with plenty of exciting new things happening all the time, but if you know where to look, you’ll uncover the most marvellous history. So how can you make the most of 48 hours in Tampa. This is our perfect weekend in Tampa, Florida.

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Day One

Explore the American Victory

Tucked behind the aquarium sits the night American Victory. This war ship saw action in both WWII and Vietnam. You are free to explore the ship, poking into the Captain’s cabin, listening in on the morse messages and finding out what the navy eats. You can even look down into the engines which still have the distinct whiff of oil. The tour is self guided and there is plenty of information to read around the ship.

Dive Into the Florida Aquarium

Of course you will find the big tanks with sharks, rays and other scary big fish but it’s there are some more unusual offerings too.

  • The jellyfish section has some seriously beautiful and seriously weird specimens. Have you ever seen upside jellyfish? They are beautiful!
  • There is a small penguin enclosure with African penguins that are utterly adorable.
  • You can interact with sealift in two different tanks, one with coral and starfish, the other with rays that are a little trickier to stroke.
  • The Wetlands of Florida section has both fish and birds in the same biosphere as well as a very playful otter. Then, head upstairs and you can see lemurs!
  • For the little ones, there is even a mini water park area which is the perfect place for them to blow off steam and satisfy the watery cravings we all get in an aquarium.

A Spot of Lunch at Sparkman Wharf

The recently renovated area of land just west of the aquarium is now know as Sparkman Wharf and it is the perfect place to stop for some food or drink. They have loads of popup food truck type street food joints and some more permanent places too. You could opt for the gourmet hotdogs at JoDog (the Asian inspired Hello Tokyo was a revelation) or grab some excellent fried chicken or tacos. Then, for dessert, you can’t beat Hampton Chocolate Factory which doesn’t just sell boxes of confection. You can get frozen s’mores, waffles, ice cream and milkshakes If it’s sunny, grab a seat and chill, or grab and go!

Check out other great things to do in The Sunshine State of Florida

Take a Stroll Along Tampa Riverwalk

Continuing east, you will come to the start of the Tampa Riverwalk. This two and a half mile pedestrianised stretch of river is incredibly pleasant to stroll along. It is L-shaped and entirely flat.

As you promenade along (and sometimes over) the Hillsborough River you can do a bit of bar hopping. There are a few bars along the way that will pour you a drink in a special cup and you can take it along with you. This is pretty rare in the USA so make the most of the lovely relaxed feeling.

High Culture at Tampa Museum of Art

Around two thirds of a mile after the walk turns north, on the right hand side is the Tampa Museum of Art. This is your chance to soak up some culture of the highbrow variety. The museum has its own collection of art and hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year. The museums permanent collections range from ancient wonders from Greece and the Roman Empire to cutting edge modern art that is bold and beautiful.

A Delicious Dinner at Ulele

Ulele is Tampa’s trendiest restaurant, and it is very cool but it has just as much substance as it has style. Their ethos encompasses local, fresh food with historical roots, all with a modern twist. Ulele was a Native American princess she is the symbol of the area.

Looking across the menu, you will find plenty of familiar southern classics but look a little closer and you will see that the chilli has five different local game meats and the corn bread muffins are spiked with beer and jalapeños. Don’t skip out on the gorgeously fresh seafood, especially if it is swimming in garlic, spices or butter. It is also worth perusing the cocktail menu for some wholly original drinks. If wine and beer are more your thing, the servers are incredibly j knowledgable and can recommend just what you need.

Day Two

Take a JC Newman Cigar Factory Tour

Tampa was once known as cigar city. In 1900 there were over 200 factories at one time, serving the world’s need for big, fancy smokes. JC Newman is one of the only spots to survive, and not just that, but to thrive. The factory is still up and running and daily tours allow you to visit.

The tour starts by the big German clock mechanism which is a beautiful piece of engineering, before grinding you through the history of the company and the factory itself. After this brief introduction you will be guided downstairs to the basement for a more in-depth look at some of JC Newman’s historical collection featuring both cigars, cigar boxes and family memorabilia. There is even a look in the aging room where luxury cigars are aging like fine wines before sale.

Upstairs you will see the factory at work. On one floor are some amazing vintage machines that are still wrapping, sealing and packaging cigars. Some are over 100 years old, they don’t make ‘em like they used to! Then, if you are really lucky, you’ll get to meet one of the incredibly talents handrollers. They have access each leaf and pick them individually for each cigar before wrapping and pressing them to perfection. Honestly, even if you don’t smoke (and we don’t), it is so impressive to see the craft.

A Lovely Lunch at Columbia Restaurant

It is just the worst when you want to try out the coolest restaurant in town isn’t it? Well, that doesn’t happen all that often at Columbia Restaurant as it has multiple dining room, spread across the length of a whole city block. This means, everyone can eat at the most amazing Soanish restaurant in the city (the oldest too, at over 100 years old).

There are couple of dishes that Columbia Restaurant is famous for, and happily you can try both! The classic Cuban sandwich is presented in wonderfully fresh Cuban bread from a bakery (La Sagunda Centrsl) a few doors down (this family are also a Tampa institution). The pork is smoked in house and it is as close to a perfect Cuban as you can get. Then there is the 1905 which has the unusual combo of lettuce, ham, olives, cheese, tomato and a zingy dressing featuring Lea and Perrins! you can order a half and half which allows you to try both. Win! Table service is a big part of the Columbia Restaurant offering and it is fun to watch them finish, dress and toss your salad within reach.

Dessert is iconic with the white chocolate bread and butter pudding a favourite of everyone who dines here. Or, if you prefer to drink your dessert the boozy coffees are pretty special. The Melanie (pictured here) contains four different kinds of tasty liqueur. It packs a real punch.

Discover Ybor City with a Walking Tour

Ybor City is a unique neighbourhood located within Tampa. You could just wander the streets and grab a drink in one the hipster bars or coffee joints but you’d be missing out on so much. Instead, book a spot with Ybor Walking Tours and the excellent Max Herman.

Max is a local who has a wealth of knowledge about the area as well as some lovely personal anecdotes. The tour takes visitors on a short walk through time as he envokes the boom time of the area when it was Cigar City and up until the present day.

Wondering why there are chickens everywhere? You’ll learn all about them. Why are there names ont he bricked streets? Well, I don’t want to give all the secrets away! This social, architectural and personal tour is one of a kind and you can’t miss it.

Time for a Tram

After the tour is the perfect time to hop on the local tram and grab a drink back down at the Riverwalk. There is a stop just opposite where the tour ends.

This team, trolley ir streetcar, (TECO Line Streetcar System) is completely free and another lovely slice of history. The original lines were built in 1892 and it quickly became extremely popular, packed with commuters everyday. It ground to halt after WWII in 1946 but the city reintroduced it in 2022. Hop on and enjoy the traditional wooden seating as well as the ease of travel without having to drive it yourself. That being said, remember it is not air-conditioned so bring a fan for those moments it’s stopped.

Have an Extra Day?

Next to the University District, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is really easy to get to by car or by bus. If you like animals you’ll like Busch Gardens. And if you like thrill rides you’ll love Busch Gardens. If you like both, you’re going to be obsessed!

Busch Gardens began life as a zoo or botanical garden with animals. It has evolved into a fantastic theme park with more awesome thrill rides than Disney and Universal put together. Huge rides of every kind (hanging, 90° drops, swings, death drops, speed coasters and loop the loops abound). There is even a rollercoaster that has a 91° hill, it’s bonkers. Oh, and they still have tons of animals to spot or even to meet if you splash out on one of the animal encounters

Check out our 20 Top Tips for Busch Gardens Tampa

Final Thoughts for Your Weekend in Tampa

Tampa is having a glow up. It expanded in the 1800s with the cigar industry and its booming all over again. It’s a really exciting time to visit with great old and new food to feast upon, history to explore and cool bars sititing amongst it all. We’ll be back soon to see what’s changed and we know you’ll have an amazing time when you visit too.

Rosie xx

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