In 2018, Heather and I visited Atlantic Beach (Jacksonville area) and Northeast Florida. We gave it a resounding, and slightly unexpected, big thumbs up. In 2019, we took a highly anticipated extended vacation to South Florida. We came away mildly disappointed with Miami and the Keys. The only logical next step was to see what the other poker rich section of Florida – Tampa – had to offer. So in the last week of February, we combined a work and fun (and poker!) excursion to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area for a Tampa Bay vacation. While there were things we really liked and others, not so much, most of all we are glad we didn’t decide to vacation in March this year.
The Tampa Riverwalk deserves its own mention. A masterstroke of city planning, the Riverwalk is a beautifully kept walkway along the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. Wide enough in most parts to accommodate walkers, bikers, and skateboarders, it provides great views of the city, both during the day and in the evening. In fact, we’d suggest taking both a day walk and evening walk. Along the walk, you’ll see short biographies of key Tampa historical figures. Many of Tampa’s key attractions are short diversion from Riverwalk spine as well.
Make sure you leave time to cross the Laurel Street Bridge to Riverfront Park and walk the park back south along the river. The park itself is great, its hallmark is the Tampa River Center which houses the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club. Many of the boats visible through the windows are works of art themselves. The River Center is particularly lovely at night with all of the lights afire. Along the water immediately south of the River Center stands an interesting modern sculpture with great views across the river of Tampa.
Tampa Bay Vacation Dining
Tampa offered an amazing casual dining experience that we absolutely loved. So much so, we went twice. The Armature Works is a beautiful building that once housed maintenance work for Tampa’s streetcars. The interior space – with high ceilings and a lovely combination of brick, wood, and steel – is stunning. The food options are equally impressive, with offerings of sushi, barbecue, pizza, high-end sandwiches, vegan options, and more. Armature Works has most palates covered. We took in two lunches there, one from Pane Rustica Due and the other from Graze. Both offered an array of interesting sandwich options. My only regret in regards to the Armature is that we weren’t able to fit in more of the options. But we had to try other things in Tampa!There are endless great beaches in the Tampa-St. Pete area. You'll want to research the possibilities and choose one that matches your style, because many take a commitment to get to.Click To Tweet
So we went next door for dinner. Literally abutting the front courtyard of Armature Works, is Ulele, one of the more well-regarded restaurants (and breweries) in Tampa. Another architectural marvel inside, even the bathrooms are a must-see. Ulele is similarly airy, with a more classical feel than The Armature Works. It offers one of the more pleasant atmospheres for dining that we have experienced. The food was no less exceptional. We started with jalapeno corn beer muffins, which led to a debate about which was better, the muffins or the whipped butter that came with it. Heather had filet mignon, which was cooked to medium-rare perfection. Meanwhile, I had a shrimp ‘n’ grits dish which gave some of my New Orleans meals a run for their money.
The Ybor City region of Tampa is a must-see to get a feel for the city, its people, and the food. But be careful, the Western edge of the area, which you go through first in walking from downtown, is pretty tourist trappy. Lots of mediocre, over-priced restaurants abound. We made this mistake our first night when we were hungry and desperate. Our first restaurant was clearly trying to be Bourbon Street lite, and succeeded only in being generic. But get deeper into Ybor and you’ll find some good selections.
Our favorite Ybor City stop was Le Segunda Central Bakery, a Cuban bakery whose breakfast and dessert options are varied and delicious. Be prepared though, this place is deservedly popular and lines are not uncommon. Jimmy’s Tacos a couple of blocks over has excellent and inexpensive Mexican food. There is only a small outdoor dining space, so you may want to opt for their popular takeout option. Jimmy’s shrimp tacos were particularly good.
Tampa Area Beaches
There appear to be endless great beaches in the general Tampa-St. Pete area. You’ll want to research the possibilities and choose one that matches your style, because many take a commitment to get to. We chose to take in a couple of hours at Clearwater Beach and decided it was worth battling traffic and endless lights. Clearwater is a wide beach with impossibly fine sand. We found it deserves its reputation among the top beaches in Florida. Conveniently, Silks poker room is practically on the drive back to Tampa!
We also ventured an hour south to the Sarasota area to attempt to visit Siesta Key Beach, for which we had a personal recommendation and had read rave online reviews. Sadly, parking scarcity prevented us from actually visiting Siesta Key. Instead we had to settle for a visit to Turtle Beach to the south. No comparison. This area was rockier, less spacious, and lacked the fine white sand found at Clearwater and Siesta Key Beach. We also walked along Lido Beach after a lovely lunch at the nearby Drydock Grille. Lido was another glorious fine sand creation. If only we had a few more days in Tampa, I’m sure we would have spent another day at Lido.
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Tampa has some excellent options for museum lovers. With limited time, work and poker beckoning, we had to skip the Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa’s main traditional fine art museum, and the Imagine Museum, which specializes in glass art. From our research, both had promise, so may be worth your consideration. Instead, we stopped by the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts during a walk through the city. This small, contained museum offers rotating exhibits. When we were there, they featured the photos of Griff Davis with an exhibit focused around his relationship with writer Langston Hughes. A relative of Davis was coincidentally giving a tour of the exhibit as we visited. The museum also presented the evocative and unusual work of Roger Ballen, whose images of those living in society’s periphery were stark and striking.
We also made our way over to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. A striking modernist building provides the perfect setting for the presentation of Dali’s works. The museum also offers a rich collection of material about Dali’s life and some great use of film footage of both Dali’s key works and Dali himself. If you are a fan of modern art, you’ll want to stop here.
Tampa Bay Vacation Final Word
Our Tampa Bay Vacation may have been our last trip for a while. As we were sitting in the airport to return home, we discovered that Tampa was reporting its first two pandemic cases. Two weeks later, our home state was besieged by a couple thousand cases per day. Travel anywhere out of our region is on hold for now and for the foreseeable future. If Tampa proves to be our last excursion for a bit, it was a good one. After our disappointing Miami trip, Tampa exceeded expectations and left us slightly more pro-Florida overall.
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