City life: Explore the sights, stays and street food scene in Tampa, Florida

Tampa's tropical weather and easy-going atmosphere make it the perfect no-stress city break destination

Florida is better known for its coasts and ‘coasters than its cities, and clients who do travel to the Sunshine State looking for an urban stay more often than not make for Miami. But those in the know have another ace up their sleeves – Tampa.

This easy-going city manages to be simultaneously laid-back and lively, with fascinating Cuban heritage, arts and culture in spades and a delicious dining scene. Sunny in both temperament and temperature, its balmy, tropical climate means much of life happens outdoors, from sightseeing by stand-up paddleboard to eating at one of the elegant riverside street-food markets.

Warm, welcoming and unpretentious, Tampa isn’t a city of dress codes or seeing and being seen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have stylish stays and cool bars by the bucketload, but there’s a real sense of inclusivity that means all are caught up in the city’s friendly embrace. It feels as if everyone in Tampa is pleased to see you, and everyone is in a good mood. Maybe it’s down to the year-round sunshine.

Why sell it?

Tampa really does make life easy. Direct flights mean the city is just over nine hours away for UK visitors, and the airport is only six miles – that’s 10-15 minutes in a taxi – from Downtown.

And while its ‘burbs sprawl, it’s simple to explore the compact core under your own steam, with many sights sprinkled along the 2.6-mile-long Riverwalk. This pedestrian route runs along the banks of the Hillsborough River and is the beating heart of the city centre, from sunrise yoga classes to concerts under the stars.

The variety on offer within this conveniently small space is huge, so clients will find plenty that dovetails with their interests, from history and culture to sports and active pursuits, alongside the restaurants, cafes and street food that make Tampa’s culinary scene so exciting.

It’s even possible to explore Tampa without a car, with handy bike and electric scooter rental points on sidewalks, and a historic streetcar that runs between Downtown and Ybor City.

What's new?

The 519-room JW Marriott Tampa Water Street opened this year, bringing a combination of sleek urban accommodation paired with a resort-style pool to the very heart of Downtown. The hotel’s sixth-floor pool deck, complete with cabanas, has stellar river views. There’s a large spa, and dining options include Driftlight, which serves regional farm and ocean-to-table cuisine.

In September last year a stylish new boutique stay came to the historic neighbourhood of Ybor City. The 178-room Hotel Haya was named after a philanthropic 19th-century cigar entrepreneur, and combines period buildings with new-build areas to create a distinctive property committed to collaborating with local artists and producers. Restaurants include Flor Fina, an upscale spot serving Nuevo Latina cuisine, and Cafe Quiquiriqui, a traditional Cuban cafe.

Pair it with

Tampa is the gateway to Florida's Gulf Coast beaches, where the sand is white and soft and the sunsets spectacular. Recommend Anna Maria Island where the pace of life is superbly slow. Sleepy towns with cute-as-a-button beach houses are home to high-end boutiques, and restaurants are all about fresh seafood. 

Beaches are superlative - clean, wide and powdery with crystal-clear waters in which you may often spot a dolphin. 

Nature is even more evident among the mangroves, which you can explore by stand-up paddleboard or kayak, with the possibility of spotting the cutest of Florida fauna, manatees. 

Suggest a stay at The Waterline, where spacious two-bedroom apartments with separate living areas and kitchens overlook a marina. 

When to go

It’s never cold in Tampa. Even during the chilliest months – January and February – the average temperature stays comfortably above 20C, and between May and October the mercury rises over 30C. Humidity kicks in between June and September and rain is more likely, so for the optimum stay, suggest flexible clients travel between October and May.

Tampa’s biggest annual event is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a Mardi Gras-style street parade that has been running since 1904, celebrating the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar, a Florida legend. Gasparilla has expanded over the years, with the linchpin January parade surrounded by related events including a June film festival, an October music festival, a December classic car rally and a distance running challenge in February.

Where to stay

For something high-end and historic Le Meridien Tampa is tucked a few blocks back from the water in the heart of Downtown. It began life as a federal courthouse, and you’ll find evidence in the shape of a witness stand, juror’s bench and original door signs. The 130 rooms – once courtroom offices and holding cells – bear less resemblance to their previous life, with modern decor and amenities.

Outside the city centre in the stylish South Howard area, the 137-room Epicurean Hotel wholeheartedly embraces Tampa’s passion for food, from the handcrafted cocktails in the Edge rooftop bar down to the innovative menu at the Elevage restaurant. The hotel’s Epicurean Theatre demo kitchen hosts a programme of events from cooking classes to mixology and wine-tasting. There’s a handsome pool, free bike hire and a spa with treatments from premium beauty brands Elemis and Caudalie.

In the smart neighbourhood of Rocky Point, conveniently close to the airport, The Current is an Autograph Collection hotel with a cool, contemporary design rooted in Tampa culture. The lobby features large-scale works by local artists and the gift shop is curated by the city’s hippest interiors store. The 180 spacious rooms, the Rox rooftop bar and the buzzy sun deck with infinity pool have gorgeous views over the water. 

What to do

Active travellers can immerse themselves in Tampa’s outdoor lifestyle, with free yoga sessions in the Riverwalk’s Curtis Hixon Park and Urban Kai’s blissfully calm stand-up paddleboarding tours along the Hillsborough – surely the most Florida-style way to get your bearings. Bring your trainers for Tampa’s Go Running Tours, with a great range of guided itineraries around the four-mile mark, from general sightseeing to tailored routes with focuses including street art and cigar history.

Sports fans can catch the Buccaneers NFL team, which both hosted and won this year’s Super Bowl, at the Raymond James Stadium, plus hockey from Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning at the Amalie Arena.

Discover conquistadors, pirates and pioneers at the immersive Tampa Bay History Centre, a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, and see how well-heeled visitors of the 19th century holidayed at the Henry B Plant Museum. Housed within a sprawling, turreted building now part of the University of Tampa, this was once the city’s finest hotel, built by a railroad magnate. Don’t miss the cobbled streets and heritage architecture of Ybor City, a historic neighbourhood where Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrant communities settled. It became known as The Cigar Capital of the World, and today, alongside seeing cigar production – maybe at the JC Newman Cigar Company, which opened a museum this year – you’ll find vintage shopping and art studios.

Cultured visitors will also enjoy the Tampa Museum of Art, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, all lined up along the Riverwalk. For families, there’s the Glazer Children’s Museum, The Florida Aquarium and of course Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which this year sees the launch of Iron Gwazi, the tallest, steepest and fastest hybrid rollercoaster in North America.

Where to dine

Tampa’s year-round warmth has created a gourmet street-food scene. There are two need-to-know spots on the riverfront; Armature Works, a former warehouse-turned-market selling everything from gourmet burgers and sushi to upscale vegan eats and craft ice cream, and Sparkman Wharf, where a giant beer garden serving local brews rubs shoulders with shipping-container kitchens featuring food by a host of Tampa’s top chefs.

Bern’s Steak House, opposite the Epicurean Hotel, is the city’s top spot for committed carnivores, but it’ll be given a run for its money by new opening Meat Market, where butchers’ cuts are served in a high-ceilinged marble dining room. Brunch at Oxford Exchange is an absolute must. This bright, airy and incredibly stylish restaurant, bookshop and design store has a to-die-for menu.

Joanna Booth

More About This Destination

Napa Valley: Red delight

Chicago: A city of layers