Tampa: Great Getaways by the Bay

Tampa, Florida, may be home to the Lightning, the Rays and this year's Republican National Convention, but there are scores of other reasons to visit this Gulf Coast city. From the colorful nightlife of Ybor City to dinner and dancing at Florida’s oldest restaurant, Tampa offers a boxful of getaways by the Bay.

Take a Stroll Through Ybor City

Centro Ybor City
Tampa Bay and Co.
Ybor City -- once home to immigrants who worked in the cigar factories rolling millions of stogies annually -- is Tampa's one-time Latin Quarter. The aroma of coffee and cigars still wafts through the streets, which are pedestrian-friendly and packed with shops, pubs and restaurants. Arrive during the day and explore the art galleries and boutiques along 7th Avenue.

Arrive after dark and the streets are lit up -- and ready for some of Tampa's more colorful nightlife. Red brick and wrought iron paint this neighborhood and its narrow streets with an almost tangible connection to the varied cultures of its founders. Cuban, German, Spanish, Jewish and Italian influences are still felt in the art, music and food of this animated Tampa neighborhood.

Dinner and Dancing at the Columbia Restaurant

Flamenco Dancing
Tampa Bay and Co.
This historic Tampa restaurant -- currently run by fourth-generation family member/owner Richard Gonzmart -- is the oldest restaurant in Florida, the oldest Hispanic restaurant in the US and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world, seating 1,700 diners in 15 dining rooms. The 2117 East 7th Avenue location is an almost unassuming spot, until you step inside.

A maze of dining rooms, each with a different look and feel, are abuzz with scores of diners here for the famous food and the renowned floor show. Castanets bark out a staccato rhythm as Spanish flamenco dancers stomp, whirl raucously and strike dramatic poses during nightly shows in two of the dining rooms, Monday through Saturday.

Swim With Sharks at the Florida Aquarium

Sand Tiger Shark at Florida Aquarium
Tampa Bay and Co.
The Florida Aquarium is an interactive, intimate facility located right next door to the Port of Tampa near the Channelside Bay Plaza. Emphasizing a hands-on experience for families, brave souls can stroke huge rays in a shallow tank just inside the entrance, or even caress some of the more squishy aquatic life that calls Tampa Bay home. A winding path lined with lush greenery leads guests up through exhibits -- following a drop of water from its underground source to the open sea.

Exhibits begin with a walk through “Wetlands,” continue into “Bays and Beaches” and eventually into the newest gallery, “Ocean Commotion.” Those with scuba certification and steely nerves can dive into the aquarium's 500,000-gallon Coral Reef exhibit and spend some up-close and personal time with sand tiger sharks. Certification must be provided at the aquarium. No need to pack your fins: The Florida Aquarium provides all the equipment (and your toothy tank-mates.)

Visit the Henry B. Plant Museum

Henry Plant Museum
Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons
Minarets jut upward into the sky over this opulent one-time hotel, built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. Designed to tempt rich merrymakers from the Northeast, the Tampa Bay Hotel offered lush gardens, grand artwork and spectacular rooms. A walk through its hallways -- located on the campus of the University of Tampa -- reveals rooms stuffed with treasures and evidence of former lodgers like Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth.

The building was also used as a base of operations during the Spanish-American War by Roosevelt and his Rough Riders before heading to Cuba. An admirer of Moorish architecture, Plant built his hotel with soaring minarets and inviting arches for a then-princely sum of $3 million. Much of the building preserves the Gilded Age of the 1890s, when sipping drinks on the verandah was the height of indulgence.

Try a Cuban at Gaspar's Grotto

Gaspars Grotto
Lindsey Turner, Flickr
Release your inner pirate at this spirited eatery known for its liquored-up Sunday brunch and its peerless Cuban sandwich experience: jamon dulce, mojo pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, salami and a mustard-mayo mixture piled high on locally-baked La Segunda Central Bakery bread. Toss in a side of crispy plantain mariquitas and owner Eric Schiller may offer up one of Gaspar's Grotto specialties: a shot-and-a-beer served from the centrally located, dog-friendly bar.

Fire up one of Tampa's famed hand-rolled cigars on the outdoor patio and settle in for some live music surrounded by a motley assortment of pirate gear and buccaneer paraphernalia -- after all, Jose Gaspar, the mythical pirate credited with sacking Tampa, still sits in quiet residence on the wall.

Go on a Cheetah Hunt

Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens
If 3-and-a-half minutes of twists, turns and being flipped upside-down at speeds reaching 60 miles per hour sounds like fun to you, point yourself at Busch Gardens and have at it. The Cheetah Hunt coaster, which pins riders with as much as 4 Gs of force, whips by rock fixtures and simulates the blinding speed of a sprinting cheetah. Busch Gardens is just 8 miles from downtown Tampa, and 30 minutes east of Tampa International Airport.

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