It begins with the simple fact that the weather is probably a good deal warmer than where you are right now: Tampa enjoys an average daily high of 72 degrees in February. Then there’s the fact that unlike other U.S. destinations with this sort of winter weather, Tampa can be surprisingly affordable. Here, nine great reasons to fly down right now.
1Hang with the Yankees
Through the end of March, you’ll find the New York Yankees in residence at Tampa’s Steinbrenner Field, which brings a fun energy to the city as the team conducts annual warm-up exercises. Tickets to the show are reasonably priced, but popular match-ups can sell out fairly quickly.
2Because it wasn’t born yesterday
Tampa’s rich history isn’t as widely-known as that of some other American cities. But when you get here, you’ll see some mighty impressive historic architecture, from the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel with its extravagant minarets – it now belongs to a local university – to the handsome Craftsman homes in the appealing Hyde Park district. Yep – Tampa’s kind of old. No section of the city recalls its past quite as effectively as Ybor City, where the architecture reflects the area’s old school Spanish-Cuban roots, featuring buildings whose often-frivolous design calls to mind New Orleans’ French Quarter. The first Saturday of each month (next one’s March 2) is when to be here – hit up the weekly farmers market in the morning; noon marks the kickoff of the monthly Ybor ArtWalk, showcasing area galleries and artist studios in a fun, street party-style atmosphere.
3Sandwiches. And coffee
Its days as the cigar-rolling capital may be in the past – Ybor City, at one time, outproduced Havana, can you imagine – but Tampa’s still all about two other famous Cuban things: Strong coffee and satisfying pressed sandwiches. (The Cuban, it should be mentioned, is the official sandwich of Tampa.) Where do you find the best of both? Sandwich-wise, that depends on who you ask, but the family-run Brocato’s is a great start. They’re known for their delectable roast pork (5021 E. Columbus Dr.). There’s also the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, a homey diner-style joint closer to the center of town (3904 N. Armenia Ave.). For coffee, kick it old school at El Molino, a simple café attached to Ybor City’s Naviera Coffee Mills, in business for nearly a century (2012 E. 7th Ave.).
Resting on the banks of the Hillsborough River downtown, the ultra-modern Tampa Museum of Art is perhaps most notable as a piece of architecture – an award-winning jewel box designed by Stanley Saitowitz and completed in 2010. Then again, there is a very good collection housed within, an interesting mix that includes a notable number of Greek and Roman antiquities. Nearby, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts has a fittingly photogenic home of its own in the architecturally-curious Cube building, which lights up at night like a Christmas tree.
5You can drink some amazing beer
Seriously. Cigar City Brewing honors its hometown by brewing up some very Tampa beers – for instance, a bright, fruity Guava saison (the city’s nickname is the Big Guava). Try everything, but their rich Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout is what makes Cigar City super-famous: The 4th annual release event on March 9 will attract beer lovers from all over to the brewery, housed in a nondescript industrial park near the airport that’s absolutely worth seeking out (3924 W. Spruce St.). For more of the local good stuff, head across the bay and down to Peg’s Cantina, known far and wide for its own very rare stout, as well as many other unusual and interesting beers you won’t find in every brewpub on earth (3038 Beach Blvd. S., Gulfport).
6They have manatees, the cutest animals on the planet
A giant power plant may not seem like the first place you’d want to go on your vacation, but don’t tell the adorable critters who winter in the warm waters adjacent to the gargantuan Tampa Electric facility in Apollo Beach. The utility company has constructed the very popular Manatee Viewing Center, which includes exhibits that teach visitors more about the friendly beasts, plus some other bells and whistles, including butterfly gardens. Hurry – the manatees tend to shove off around mid-April, once the weather gets warmer (6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach).
7There’s a there, there
Tampa may seem largely same-same suburban to visitors, but some interesting neighborhoods can be found hiding out right at the center of things. Just north of downtown, historic Seminole Heights is definitely a work in progress, but it’s got some great shops and hangouts, not to mention plenty of solid residential architecture. (Come by on April 7 for the neighborhood’s popular Historic Home Tour, to see some of its best addresses up close.) On any other day, make tracks for the neighborhood’s Taco Bus, a hipster-junkyard set-up with a very good food truck and and outdoor seating; it’s open 24/7 (913 E. Hillsborough Ave.). For something more sit-down-ish, dine at the The Refinery with the local cool crowd (5137 N. Florida Ave.). Make sure to hit up Ella’s Folk Art Cafe on Sundays (in here, they’re known as “Soul Food Sunday”) for chicken, waffles, live music and fun cocktails like the Po-mosa, combining Narragansett beer and Tang. It’s only $2 – have one (5119 N. Nebraska Ave.).
8It has the world’s longest continuous sidewalk
No, really. Bayshore Boulevard, which runs along the water through the city’s pleasant Hyde Park neighborhood and on to points south, isn’t just the city’s most scenic street, it’s also a 4.5 mile linear bay-front park favored by local joggers and walkers. Not that you have to do the whole thing, but what better way to work up an appetite for lunch? If it’s Sunday, make like in-the-know local foodies and beeline to lunch at the Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida (a.k.a. the local Thai Buddhist temple). Here, food vendors set up mid-morning every Sunday, dishing out authentic Thai eats (cash only) to a hungry audience. Stick around to enjoy the riverfront grounds (5306 Palm River Rd.).
9The kids will totally dig it
With exhibits that combine the educational with the awesome, the Glazer Children’s Museum – which opened its doors in 2010 – has been a hit with the younger set from day one, featuring climbing structures that teach about water, a firehouse with a working pole (and a “fire truck” you can “drive”), plus lots more stops that make learning fun packed in a 53,000 square-foot spa. Nearby, The Florida Aquarium offers exhibits that range to the dramatic (anyone want to swim with the sharks?) to the educational. Still got energy? There’s always Busch Gardens, Tampa’s most famous family attraction. You may have forgotten, but your kids probably didn’t.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.