Tampa is a terrific small-feel city that’s perfect for a long weekend getaway, whether with your significant other, your family, or your girlfriends. Fresh off of its 2021 Super Bowl win, the Tampa Bay area has risen to the challenge of becoming a destination that surprises you and makes you want to come back. Luxurious new hotels have opened up, including JW Marriott by the waterfront. The Riverwalk area was recently revitalized to include fantastic restaurants, interesting museums, incredible outdoor activity options, and terrific shopping.
Tampa is easily accessible by car and offers a vacation itinerary for every budget. It can be filled with what your crowd likes best: cultural offerings, a foodie’s hotspot, an outdoor oasis for activities, or a family vacation with theme parks thrown in for everyone’s enjoyment. While many have heard of Tampa, with the newly revitalized areas by the river, including Sparkman Wharf, combined with the already incredible things this city offers, it is definitely the hidden gem you need to see.
Tampa has a terrific international airport that makes it incredibly convenient to get here and get back home without spending a lot of time in transit. Once in the city, you really don’t need a vehicle unless you’re interested in venturing further outside the city limits for add-on day trips.
Be sure to take a water taxi while you’re here. They’re not only a great way to get places, they’re fun! Spots along the Riverwalk are perfect places to hit up via water taxi, and they allow you to see a bit of the city from a different vantage point.
Staying The Night
Selecting a place to stay depends on your budget and where you’d like to stay within the city. There are quite a few terrific options as far as just-opened lodging choices, although should you be celebrating something special, be looking to treat yourself, or simply feel like enjoying the good life for once, the new JW Marriott Water Street would top off a luxury trip here in grand fashion. This property boasts the highest rooftop bar in the city, with sweeping views of downtown and the bay. There are 519 rooms to choose from on 26 floors. It’s just five miles from the Tampa airport, and is close to everything you could want with just a quick walk. Stay on an upper floor for a lovely view of the area. Should you choose to stay somewhere else nearby, I’d still recommend coming here for the restaurant, Six, which offers chef-crafted specialties and delicious cocktails and wines, as well as indoor and outdoor seating. Across the street and connected by a skybridge is the Marriott. Visit their restaurant Anchor & Brine, which sits right on the water for lovely views, spectacular food and drinks, and an amazing ambiance.
Additional restaurants with some personality that I’d recommend include Ulele, on the banks of the Hillsborough River. It offers up a menu inspired by Tampa Bay’s early native and Spanish explorers. There’s also a craft brewery on site, which is a fun bonus. Come at sunset and enjoy the views, take some great pics, and dine and drink in style.
Eclectic and stylishly fun Oxford Exchange is a place you’ll also not want to miss. It’s been named the most Instagrammable restaurant in Florida, which could either excite or horrify you, but it’s really a cool venue. It’s in a historic building, and is a combination coffee shop, restaurant, bookstore, and home decor shop. Folks have even been married here. It’s totally worth a visit. I found it to be a great place to sit and grab a coffee and just relax. If I lived nearby, I’d be here on my laptop all the time.
Of course, you’ll totally want to check out Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. It’s legendary as well as just a great place to eat or hold an event. This eatery takes up an entire block and is Florida’s oldest restaurant. Imagine all the things this place has probably seen since it opened in 1905! I loved how much character it had, both inside and out. In addition to food and a huge bar, it also features Flamenco dancing six nights a week. When was the last time you experienced that?
Out & About
Once your palate is satisfied you’ll want to find a thing or two to do. Try out the spa at the JW Marriott for sure if you’re with your girlfriends. If you’re looking to do something more active, head to Urban Kai on the waterfront and try paddle boarding or kayaking. I found it to be a fun way to explore and enjoy a nice day on the water and soak up the sunshine.
If you’ve got a cultural buff in your group, you can’t go wrong with a walking tour of historic Ybor City. This incredible neighborhood is, quite literally, like visiting Cuba in Tampa Bay. From its founding in 1885, this area flourished as a global center for the manufacture of cigars. The process is still the same today as it was all those years ago. There’s a great Cuban vibe to the area and many of the buildings are being restored, yet you can still see and appreciate all that went on here throughout the years.
Be sure not to miss Jose Marti Park, where you can literally go to Cuba without a passport. For 60 years, the park was the only piece of Cuban-owned land in the U.S. until the addition of the Cuban Embassy in Washington DC in 2015. It’s fenced in and locked at night, but during the day you can find a statue of Jose Marti and plots surrounding it with landscaping from various parts of Cuba. It’s a must-see!
Sparkman Wharf is a terrific option to see all that has been done to the waterfront area while offering both locals and visitors a fun and vibrant place to gather. Dine, drink, take yoga and fitness classes, enjoy the expansive lawn, find seating and lounging areas by the water, or perhaps catch a movie or a live show. The shops and restaurants are all housed in brightly colored shipping containers. Just walking around is cheery and fun and makes for terrific photo opportunities. For a little treat, try an açaí bowl or smoothie at Fit Bowl Company.
Other terrific activities to try include a visit to nearby Busch Gardens to ride the rides, see the animals, and just have fun. You don’t need to be a kid to have fun at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. I loved seeing and feeding the giraffes there, as well as enjoying a drink at the nearby Giraffe Bar.
Taking time to plan a vacation to please everyone is hard. It helps, however, when the destination is easily accessible, there are a lot of activities to choose from, plenty of terrific lodging options, and incredible food and drink options to enjoy. Consider taking your next long weekend vacation in this wonderful hidden gem that just keeps getting better and better.
*I was able to visit Tampa and the surrounding area as part of a press trip. No other compensation was provided and the opinions stated herein are my own.