Tampa may be best known for being the home of Busch Gardens, but we think it has a lot more to offer visitors. We checked out quite a few attractions during a long weekend recently. Ybor City is known as the Cuban capital for Tampa. The downtown neighborhood is home to some great restaurants, such as the Columbia, and some of the best factories in the United States. We had the chance to stop in and visit a store where cigars are rolled in front of visitors. We aren’t smokers, but I’ve always enjoyed the fresh smell of cigars.
The Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant, dating to the early 1900s. Babe Ruth and other celebrities would frequent the restaurant. Ruth – the greatest home run hitter in professional baseball next to Hank Aaron – even had a dinner named after him. “The Bambino” features a 14-oz. sirloin steak. I can confirm it was delicious.
The restaurant offers a nightly Flamenco dance show. It was impressive. The performers combine grace with some serious foot stomping to tell their stories through dance.
Ybor City has a unique attraction we’ve never seen elsewhere – roaming roosters and chickens. It dates to the early immigrant days. The rooters and chickens would roam the area. Now, they are protected animals – no killing or harassing them. We followed the first one we saw for a couple of blocks.
The Lowry Park Zoo is home to a 26-year-old penguin, among other beautiful creatures. We arrived at the zoo in time for the daily feeding of the African penguins. By the way, African penguins apparently prefer a warm climate.
The zoo is home to a young clouded leopard cub. Zoo keepers bring him out daily for play time in front of visitors (some days, apparently, he acts like a kid and refuses to come play). People (OK, Lisa) fawned over him.
We saw a Shoebill stork in the aviary. This was a first for us. The bird was a perfect example of why we visit other zoos. You never know what you’ll see and learn about.
The Florida Aquarium offers a look at Florida native creatures, as well as some international ones. I expected to see dolphins and manatee, among the water creatures. Nope.
We saw a Grouper (Lisa had one if relatives for dinner the night before). This one was huge – a few hundred pounds. Our friend Jamie, who lives in the area and went to the zoo and aquarium with us, said that it was on the small end of Groupers. Gulp!
The aquarium also was home to some more penguins. Penguins are a family favorite. I think if there was a zoo of just penguins, we’d have a season pass.
We found the aquarium to be geared toward families with younger children. It was enjoyable to visit, but I would side with it being more kid-friendly.
Next door to the aquarium, is a floating museum – the American Victory Maritime Memorial and Museum. The Victory ship – used by the Merchant Marine – was a major supply asset for the Allies during World War II. Visitors can tour the ship at their leisure. There are volunteers, some who actually served aboard the ship, who can explain key parts of the ship, such as the engine and communication rooms.
I enjoyed the fact that very little of the museum’s exhibits were closed off by protective Plexiglas. You can actually stand on the bridge and get clear photos of the pilot’s equipment, captain’s quarters and other key areas.
You can move freely on the deck, checking out the various sections. Two gun turrets remain on the ship.
My four-legged kids (Tucker and Gus) bought me a photo tour of downtown Tampa for my birthday in April. Lisa and I were the only ones on the tour with Bobby from INFOCUS tours.
We walked around downtown, along the Channelside (riverside) and the University of Tampa discussing photo opportunities and subjects, as well as the best angles and times for photography. It was a great way to spend two hours with a local guide and get some decent (I think so, anyway) photos of the downtown area.
Channelside at night is beautiful. The city recently completed an addition of the river walk along downtown. The addition includes over hangs that look like boat sails. The sails change light colors in the dark. It was a fun way to cap off the day in the area.
Lisa went gaga over our trip to the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary. About 100 big cats – bobcats, mountain lions, leopards, jaguars, tigers and lions (among others) – live there. The sanctuary rescues large cats from homes, zoos, circuses and other places that cannot keep them. Our guide explained why it isn’t a good choice to have these animals as pets. They are not suited for a domestic lifestyle.
The sanctuary is a hands-off facility (except for medical care). The animals are given some decent-sized areas to live in and play in. Tampa is one of several communities you can check out when visiting the area. We also spent time in St. Petersburg (St. Pete) and Clearwater. We stopped in St. Pete to check out the marina area and the Chihuly collection at the Morean Arts Center. The small, but beautiful collection, highlights pieces of Dale Chihuly’s glass artwork. The colorful pieces are spectacular. I found it worthwhile to check out.
The St. Pete marina was enjoyable to walk about. Boats anchored, awaiting their owners to board them and head out to the Gulf of Mexico.
We walked along the marina and checked out the Salvador Dali Museum. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to get a decent visit inside, so we enjoyed the building’s exterior. The building’s design includes domes on the side.
An attraction we had fun with was the giant wood-carved black moustache in the plaza. People pose with it. Of course, we did. The closest thing I’ll ever have to a real moustache, unless you count the one I “grew” after getting out of the Air Force. I basically have a perpetual three-day growth for facial hair when I don’t shave for an extended period (TMI, I know).
Our next visit in the area was Clearwater. We loved stopping here.
We enjoyed a walk along the white sandy beach to Pier 60. Pier 60 is home to some beautiful sunset views. It’s also home to some carefree birds. We had a brown pelican resting on the top rung of the pier for more about an hour. An egret walked among visitors, spying on the folks fishing. His goal was met when he popped a bait bucket lid off with his beak and stole a piece of bait. He flew off happy with his take.
Had he stayed a few minutes longer, he could have had crab for dinner. A woman caught a crab at the end of her hook. People (us, included) gawked at it like we’d never seen a crab before. We took pictures (of course) and then someone let it go back into the Gulf.
The sunset was indeed beautiful. I can see why people will stake out a spot an hour or so before sunset. People in boats were out in the Gulf, taking in the view.
As part of our Clearwater visit, we checked out the annual Sugar Sand Festival. It’s a sand castle competition featuring professional artists. The theme was fairy tales. We each had our favorite. Lisa liked “The Boy who cried Wolf.” My favorite was “The Three Little Pigs.”
Dining in the Tampa area was a delicious experience. Our choices ranged from tacos to fish to steak to duck. All told, we dined at some unique places and enjoyed some amazing tastes. Our first dining experience was at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Lisa had seafood paella. I had Babe Ruth’s “The Bambino.” The 14-oz. sirloin steak dinner included a side of fried potatoes and stuffed mushrooms (Lisa was offered those).
The Tampa Pizza Company is home to some good pizza. We tried a BBQ chicken pizza and meatball sliders. Both were excellent. People told us to try Frenchy’s in Clearwater, near the pier. Lisa had a Grouper sandwich. I had a delicious sirloin burger.
We enjoyed a delicious spread at Ulele’s, along Tampa’s Channelside walk. Lisa ordered the meatloaf dinner, with a side of special mashed potatoes. I had the duck dinner, with a side of the same potatoes. We shared. Both were super good. We were so stuffed.
Taco Bus is a must when in Tampa! We ate at the downtown location. There was one near the AirBNB where we stayed, but we never made it to that one. The tacos were great.
Speaking of the AirBNB, Lisa has booked us into a couple of the houses over the last year. AirBNB is basically people opening their homes and renting out a room for a short stay. The one we stayed at in Tampa was beautiful, and in an up-and-coming area of the city. The owners were friendly and super nice. Their four-legged children and the bird kids were loving and entertaining.
We had a great experience in the Tampa area. We look forward to sharing more detailed stores in upcoming posts. We recommend traveling to the area, and do plan on a return trip ourselves. We’d like to thank Marisa of the “Adventures of Tampa Mama” blog for her assistance as a Tampa “Urban Insider” for helping us choose the best attractions for our itinerary.
Disclaimer: Thank you to the following attractions for complimentary tickets: The Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium, Sugar Sands Festival, and Big Cat Rescue. Thank you to the Columbia and Ulele restaurants for the media rate for dinner. However, all opinions and views are ours.