Not a typical Florida city, Tampa Bay is rich in culture and history, and roosters rule - Scotland on Sunday Travel
As travel slowly resumes, North America is emerging as a number one long haul destination for British travellers – and Tampa Bay in Florida is quickly becoming a hit.
With theme parks, museums, the historical Ybor City and a bar on every corner, it has attractions to suit everyone. In fact, the choice of activities is almost overwhelming.
Here’s a summary of the best bits…
1. Busch Gardens
The sheer size and versatility of Busch Gardens makes it the number one thing to do in Tampa. Expect to find a safari experience, several roller-coasters, a waterpark, and a zoo all included in the $100/£74 ticket price. I spent around five hours walking through the park, with stops for food and drink. But I could easily have spent twice as long enjoying the entertainment on offer.
Without a doubt, a highlight is the guided safari tour, where guests can learn about endangered species, observe rhinos and even hand-feed giraffes. Led by a tour guide, who shares information about the animals and the park’s contributions to conservation, the Serengeti Safari costs an extra $40/£30 per person.
Find some of the best food and drink stalls in a Mardi Gras-themed section of the park, including an outlet selling homemade jambalaya. A live band and dancers complete the party atmosphere. Visit buschgardens.com/tampa.
2. J.C. Newman Cigar Factory tour
This historic building, named El Reloj, still functions as a working cigar factory, and guests can watch as each step of the cigar-making process is completed across three floors.
For only $15/£11 you can take a guided walking tour which details the history of the building and the family that still owns and runs it. Guests can also visit the cigar museum, theatre, rolling room, and factory store free.
The museum is full of interactive elements, including screens where you can listen to original audio recordings of the owners in the 1900s, while the cigar rollers are more than happy to have you take pictures of them as they work. Visit jcnewman.com/visit-us.
3. Walking Tour of Ybor City
Ybor City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, due to its huge contribution to the cigar industry, its history of immigration and connections to the Cuban revolution. The best way to see the city and to learn about its rich culture is with a guided tour for $25/£18.50, by Ybor City Walking Tours.
We were able to go inside some of the older buildings in the area, including several Italian and Spanish social clubs which were key for these communities. Reflecting the current day diversity of residents, a local newspaper is still printed in English, Italian and Spanish. Look out for a plot of land still legally owned by Cuba; when you step onto it, you officially leave the United States.
Perhaps even more bizarre, however, is the role roosters and chickens play in the city. Allowed to roam freely, each rooster is a direct descendent of the livestock brought to Florida during the immigration wave during the cigar boom, and this family line gives them federal protection. So even touching a bird could leave you with a $500/£370 fine. Visit yborwalkingtours.com.
4. Dinner at the Columbia, the oldest restaurant
The Columbia first opened as a cafe in 1919, and is still owned by the same family five generations later. This is a key part of why this restaurant is so special; it has survived through extremely tough times, including the fall of the cigar boom, when so many other businesses in Ybor City failed.
A maze of a building, the 52,000 square foot restaurant boasts 15 dining rooms, with seating for up to 1,700 people, and encompasses an entire city block. There is a huge array of Cuban and Spanish-inspired meals on offer, but special mention must be given to the famous Cuban Sandwich and paella. Main meals cost between $28/£21-$40/£30 on average, but are extremely large and filling, not to mention delicious. Visit columbiarestaurant.com.
5. Drinks and food at Sparkman Wharf
Sparkman Wharf in downtown Tampa is a riverside area that has recently undergone huge renovations. Choose to dine in a vast selection of restaurants and food huts, including a large beer garden/patio that overlooks the water, with socially distanced seating and a stage for live music.
6. The Riverwalk
Visitors to Tampa Bay can now buy an all inclusive Riverwalk Attraction Pass for $55/£41, covering entry to many of the waterfront attractions, including the aquarium and several museums. The pass also covers a 30-minute guided ride on a water taxi with fully-equipped bar, where a guide explains the history of the area. Visit visittampabay.com/riverwalk-pass.
7. Candle making and shopping at Hyde Park Village
Hyde Park Village is home to many high-end iconic brands and is a truly beautiful place to walk around. But make a beeline for The Candle Pour, a quaint shop that teaches its customers the art of candle making. Workshops can only usually be booked for groups, but it’s still a joy to sniff (and splurge) on the delicious scents. Find all the paraphernalia you need – including a snuffer and wick trimmer. Visit thecandlepour.com
How to plan your trip
British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Tampa from £510 return, including taxes/fees/carrier charges and checked baggage. To book, please visit ba.com/tampa or call 0344 493 0124.
Rooms at the Hotel Haya (hotelhaya.com) start from £153 per room per night.
Further information on Tampa Bay, go to visittampabay.com