Best of Florida’s Tampa Bay from the top theme parks, restaurants and attractions

Coming face to face with a wild rooster and his friends was not what I’d envisaged for my trip to Tampa Bay, but this destination is full of surprises.

The busy, modern downtown sits happily alongside the historic Ybor City – the cigar capital of the world – and it gives better-known Floridian destinations a run for their money.

Tampa is booming, with hundreds of people moving to the city every week.

Sat by a bay on Florida’s Gulf coast, it has year-round sunshine, incredible restaurants and attractions to keep the whole family entertained – so it’s easy to see why it is becoming so popular.

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History







tampa bay sunset
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Tampa has a rich heritage dating back to the 1780s and the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar who is rumored to have visited Tampa many times.

Gaspar is celebrated every January with a ‘Gasparilla’ parade, which sees beads and coins thrown to the crowd along the Bayshore Boulevard.

This pirate legacy is seen throughout the city with a pirate ship permanently moored in the harbor and many bars and restaurants giving a nod to the theme.

Cigars are probably Tampa’s most famous export, however, with the creation of Ybor City by Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1885 transforming a town of 700 people into 16,000 by 1900.

At its peak in the early 1900s there were 150 cigar factories in Ybor making 500 million cigars by hand each year.

Now there is only one working cigar factory left in the city – the JC Newman ‘El Reloj’, which offers $15 guided tours on weekdays.







Cigar rolling in Tampa’s Ybor City
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On our trip to the factory we saw the intricate craftsmanship that goes into making a cigar, with highly trained staff going through several processes to make each smoke perfect. Meanwhile, the history of Ybor is really brought to life on the Official Ybor City walking tour ($25) where our enthusiastic guide Max told us how the cigar workers came from all over the world to settle in the neighbourhood, attracted by the promise of work and housing in the New World.

These immigrants created great social clubs all around the town, which can still be seen today, that offered free healthcare, education and entertainment for members.







Wild rooster in the streets of Ybor City, Tampa
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The immigrants also brought their chickens and their descendants are still protected in Ybor today, with people who try to catch or harm the roosters liable to be slapped with a $500 fine.

Ybor, where the Cuban sandwich originated, unsurprisingly has strong links to the Caribbean island, with a small square of the city – José Martí Park – designated as Cuban territory, meaning that people can hop from America to Cuba in one easy move.

Theme parks and aquarium

Florida is home to many theme parks, but one of the best calls Tampa home.

Busch Gardens is a perfect day out for families and thrill seekers, with some of the world’s greatest roller coasters situated next to many rare and endangered animals. Over the past few years Busch Gardens has been on a mission to create the world’s best and quirkiest roller coasters.

The opening this month of the latest ride, Iron Gwazi, has been much anticipated.

The roller coaster will be North America’s tallest – and the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world, plunging riders from a 206ft peak into a 91-degree drop and reaching top speeds of 76mph.







Sophie feeds the giraffes at Busch Gardens
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Similarly impressive is Tigris, which was like no roller coaster I’d ever been on. We were catapulted along the track at 60mph, before traveling backwards, then round several seemingly never-ending loops before landing back in the station breathless.

After all the excitement, a trip out into the park’s 65-acre plain was just what I needed. On the Serengeti Safari tour, costing $39.99, a number of rare species can be seen alongside favorites such as rhinos, zebras and giraffes.

We had the incredible experience of feeding the giraffes from the 4×4 and getting up close and personal with Cupid the giraffe was possibly my favorite part of the trip. buschgardens.com/tampa from $89.99.

Away from Busch Gardens, animal lovers will also be impressed by the Florida Aquarium which features species native to the state of Florida such as alligators, alongside sharks, turtles and other marine life.







Tampa’s Aquarium
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We got the opportunity to stroke a stingray and also peered into the mysterious world of the moon jellyfish. flaquarium.org $29.95.

The aquarium is featured on the Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile waterfront walkway which links some of downtown’s best attractions, which can all be visited with the new Riverwalk Pass.

food and drinks

Taking in all that Tampa has to offer leaves you hungry, but thankfully there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy your every whim.

Florida’s oldest restaurant, the Columbia in Ybor City, offers diners a wealth of dishes, but the 1904 salad is a must-taste – as was the delicious Cuban sandwich.

The new Casa Santo Stefano, inspired by the Sicilian influence in Ybor, has an incredible rooftop bar, where we watched the sunset with an ice cold glass of fizz.







Burrata salad in Tampa
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Arguably the best brunch in Tampa can be found at Oxford Exchange, a beautiful building which potentially serves the tastiest smoked salmon bagel that I have ever tasted.

Sparkman Wharf at the end of the Riverwalk sees a wide variety of cuisines sold from shipping containers, alongside more at the formal sit-down restaurants such as The Battery.

Perfect for date night or a special occasion with friends, The Battery offers perfectly cooked steaks, charcuterie and more than 110 bottles of whiskey to sample, which was frankly a dream.

where to stay






Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida

Tampa has many hotels to rest your weary head, with many more openings planned for this year and beyond. We spent a brilliant few nights at one of the most recent to debut – the Hotel Haya in Ybor.

The boutique property pays homage to the cultures of the area with a modern twist. A pool to enjoy the Floridian sunshine lies at the centre, with the delicious Latin-inspired restaurant Flor Fina situated next to it.

Tampa was a real revelation and I’d go back there in a heartbeat – but I’ll keep one eye peeled for those raucous roosters next time.

Book the holiday

stay there: Rooms at the Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida, start from £153 a night. Find out more at hotelhaya.com.

Getthere: British Airways flies from Gatwick to Tampa from £510 return in May. Find out more at ba.com/tampa.

more info: The Riverwalk Attraction Pass costs from £41 a day adult/£26 child, at visittampabay.com/riverwalk-pass

You can also find more info at visittampabay.com

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