The Republican National Convention kicks off tomorrow in Tampa Bay, Florida, despite a delay in opening today due to Tropical Storm Issac. The city will be hosting nearly 2,300 delegates from all 50 states as well as 15,000 credentialed media.
This is the prom of political rallies. And Tampa is prom queen.
Often overshadowed by her popular counterparts Orlando and Miami, Tampa (Florida’s third most populated city) beat out finalists Salt Lake and Phoenix for the RNC crown. And for good reason.
With scenic beaches and low cost living,” Tampa also boasts a record 350 days of sunshine during the year and was recently recognized one of the ten great cities to start a business. Say no more.
Here’s 11 reasons Tampa will rock the big dance:
1. Tampa International Airport (TIA): TIA was voted Third Best U.S. Airport and also ranked the highest in overall satisfaction for airports servicing over 15 million passengers. (I was pleasantly surprised with the ease of the check-in security procedures, the helpful employees, and the convenience of the layout.)
The financial investment is also responsible for the Volunteer Ambassador Program that trains volunteers on commonly asked questions by arriving passengers. The 100 trained volunteers are staffed at one of the airport’s four new visitor centers just in time for this week’s RNC.
Time to kill?: Visit First Flight, a European styled wine bar by Mise en Place located in the main terminal and accessible with or without a plane ticket. Their selection of wine from around the world pairs well with the hors d’oeuvres.
2. Tampa Bay University Club: Nestled in the heart of downtown, The University Club undoubtedly has the best view of Tampa Bay. The 360 degree view overlooks major attractions such as The Tampa Riverwalk, The Tampa Bay Times Building (host building to the RNC and hockey team Tampa Bay Lighting) and Raymond James Stadium, home to the 2002 Super Bowl Champs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After a day of sightseeing: Grab a few drinks and enjoy the beautiful sunset. It’s fun to point out the various attractions and venues on your itinerary as well as to get a good sense of Tampa’s layout in relation to the surrounding water.
3. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay – Being both an animal lover and an adrenaline junkie, Busch Gardens- in my definition – comes pretty close to the perfect amusement park. The African-themed park is one of the largest zoos in North America featuring rides, animal exhibits, and interactive shows.
Though Busch Gardens is sprinkled with fun rides (Tanganyika Tidal Wave and the Cheetah Hunt Coaster) the main appeal is its world-reknowned animal habitats. Each and every one of the park’s 2,000 animals receives a natural diet and preventative medical care.
The park’s conservation efforts are driven by education and that is exemplified in two of my favorite exhibits. Check out the Animal Care Center, where visitors can watch the animal treatment process from x-rays to surgeries and in-depth nutrition lessons. (Check the treatment roster when you first arrive as surgeries are scheduled for the early morning.)
Busch Garden’s Cheetah Run exhibit is also home to the famous Kasi, a male cheetah and Mtani, a female labrador whose special friendship went viral last April. The duo now live at the park full-time and travel the country as a part of Busch Garden’s public outreach education team. (Find out in advance if they’re in town and plan accordingly.)
4. Daily Eats : Tampa knows how to brunch. There are several delicious options but I recommend one South Tampa staple in particular. Daily Eats was named one of best spots for brunch in the city and that’s saying a lot considering the quality of restaurants.
It’s a laid back and intimate with a reasonably priced menu, so I expected a pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary diner experience. That is, until they brought out the food. Order The Dan. Two scrambled eggs with bacon and fried jalapeños, tomatoes and swiss cheese served on ciabatta bread.
5. Bayshore Boulevard: The Boulevard is the longest, continuous sidewalk in the world (4.5 miles) located in a hip, historic district called Hyde Park, just south of downtown Tampa. The waterfront road offers a gorgeous panoramic view of Tampa Bay’s skyline. One side of the road is lined with majestic homes and newly developed contemporary condominiums; the other, with joggers and walkers.
Coast the boulevard in your car: It makes for a relaxing, scenic drive. If you have time, visit the nearby Hyde Park Village, a small, upscale shopping plaza with high-end boutiques, restaurants and a theatre. Very cute and chic.
6. The Henry Plant Museum: Dedicated to Florida’s first transportation tycoon, The Henry Plant Museum is located on The University of Tampa’s campus. Plant’s empire of railroads, steamships and hotels was single handedly credited for jumpstarting the state’s tourism industry and commercial development.
One of his investments, the luxurious, 150 acre Tampa Bay Hotel, was preserved and converted into the The Henry Plant Museum in 1974. At the time, it was known as Florida’s “first Magic Kingdom” and housed guests such as Babe Ruth, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.
History buffs: Opt for a self-guided tour and explore at your own pace. Visitors can view suites as they were in 1891 (with original furnishings and artifacts).
7. The Tampa Riverwalk/ The Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park: The Riverwalk is a continuous pedestrian walkway (2.2 miles) extending along the east side of the Hillsborough River. It’s lined with city staples from David A. Straz. Jr Center For The Performing Arts to the The Tampa Convention Center. The project is an effort to take advantage of Tampa’s waterside location by building easily accessible businesses right against the seawall.
The Curtis Hixon Waterfront is an urban park in the central point of the Tampa Riverwalk. Its modern layout was designed by New York based architect, Thomas Balsley, known for cultivating urban landscapes specifically for civic purposes.
In the middle of Curtis Hixon, which also includes The Tampa Museum of Art and The Glazer Children’s Museum, there’s a huge green space for festivals and music concerts. At any given time during the day, you can children on the playground, couples sprawled out on the sloping lawn, and professionals eating lunch by the fountains. (There’s also a dog park, boat dock, and cafe.)
Music junkies: Check Rock The Park for the park’s concert schedule.
8. Tampa Water Taxi Tour: By the time you consider the taxi tour, you’ve probably been in the city for a few days. Taxi it anyway. Tampa’s water tour down the Hillsborough River gives you a different, behind-the-scenes perspective. They offer all sorts of tours, including history, eco, and sunset, and tours for children, weddings, and parties. It may even give you new places to add to your itinerary (like the Channelside Bay Plaza or Tampa Bay History Center).
Wine not?: Buy a couple bottles of cabernet and enjoy the ride.
9. Ybor City: This historic Latin district is the original cigar manufacturing capital of the world. Founded in the 1880s, Ybor City was known as Florida’s “first industrial town.” It was home to Tampa’s first influx of immigrants, mainly from Spain, Cuba, and Italy, who all rolled cigars at the factories.
Today the narrow streets are still lined with gorgeous red brick buildings, iron balconies, and five-globe street lamps. Ybor’s beloved 7th Avenue, was recently recognized as one of the “10 Great Streets in America and the area is alive with a variety of entertainment that makes it one of Florida’s top-ranked nightspots. There are countless things to do; browse vintage clothing stores, see “hand-rolled” cigars made, try various ethnic restaurants, all of which are still in business. People listen to live blues and jazz and bar hop from a selection of themed pubs and nightclubs.
People watch: Ybor’s old-world charm is preserved not only in its architecture and history, but in the people who come back and have a good time. So grab beers with the locals and ask questions. The people are very friendly and its the best way to learn about a place like Ybor.
History 101: Don’t forget to stop in Gaspar’s Grotto for a bite of Tampa’s pride ‘n joy, the Real Cuban, Cuban Sandwich (jamon dulce, mojo pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, Salami, and mustard-mayo on Cuban bread and served with crispy plantains). The funky restaurant has a bar and two large outdoor patios for events and live music performances. Bang for your buck: Start your night off right and order a pitcher of their stiff yet tasty Homemade Sangria. ($16.95).
10. Columbia Restaurant: The Columbia is the oldest and largest Spanish restaurant in the United States. Founded in 1905 by Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the family-owned staple has wined and dined guests such as Marilyn Monroe, Derek Jeter, and Bruce Springsteen.
The food (exotic Spanish cuisine) and drinks (sangria made table-side) are good, but it’s the “experience” that makes the restaurant a household name. From the intricate, ornate architecture to sexy flamenco dancers, every aspect (and addition) of the The Columbia’s ambiance is deep-rooted in a cultured history.
Today The Columbia represents a journey, not only one from its humble beginnings from a local cafe to a state landmark, but also of the unwavering and longstanding relationship with the city of Ybor.
Dinner and a show: If you can help it, reserve a table in the flamenco show room. Pay an extra $6 to watch one of the two nightly performances. (It’s a big part of the appeal.)
11. Bern’s Steakhouse: A steakhouse in the SoHo district of Tampa, Bern’s knows beef. Most of its food is homemade, organically grown and the kitchen boasts freshly stocked fish tanks. Impressive as that is, Bern’s is known more so for their wine. It’s the largest selection in North America (6,800) and second largest in the world with 5,500 reds, 1,000 whites, and over 200 sparkling wines.
Sweet tooth: If you eat at Bern’s, you must try their Dessert Room. It’s an intimate space tucked away upstairs with private booths made of old wine casks. Perfect for an after-meal treat, the dimly lit ambiance is perfect for both a date and a group. Order the Vintage Chocolate Fudge Sundae. You’ll be happy you did.