It’s not often you pass a parked-up pirate ship right in the middle of a city. After a stroll along Tampa’s elegant Bayshore Boulevard, where multi-million dollar houses face the glittering Hillsborough Bay that flows into the Gulf, I stop and do a double take.
A 165ft wooden, multi-sailed vessel is moored rather incongruously in front of Tampa’s General Hospital. Called the Jose Gasparilla, it’s named after a notorious pirate who, legend has it, terrorised his way up and down the Floridian coast in the 18th century.
The town is so proud of this association that every year at the end of January it holds the Gasparilla Pirate Fest (gasparillapiratefest.com), a celebration of all things piratical, including a massive flotilla and parade where everyone, of course, dresses up in their swashbuckling finest.
Devastatingly, I’ve arrived a few weeks too early for this, reaching Tampa by direct flight from London Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic’s newest route. In this part of central Florida, the big draws would normally be Orlando and Miami, but Tampa, which sits right on the western coast, has plenty to offer that rivals both cities.
Buccaneers aside – and locals are fiercely loyal to their football team of the same name and thrilled by the recent return of quarterback Tom Brady after arguably the shortest retirement in sporting history – I find great food, access to dreamy beaches and fascinating history.
I’m staying in Ybor City, downtown Tampa’s charming historic hub, a neighbourhood founded in the 1880s by wealthy Spanish cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez-Ybor. I take a walking tour with local Max Herman (£20 for two hours, tampabay-tours.com), who explains its background.
It’s 9am and the streets, lined with one- or two-storey buildings (cigar stores, vintage boutiques, cool bars and restaurants), are currently quiet as the grave – until the piercing cackle of a cockerel rends the air.
‘They’re the descendants of the chickens brought over for food and for cock-fighting by the immigrants who came here,’ says Max. ‘In the 1960s, there were more chickens than people.’
Today the feathered fowl are the neighbourhood’s masco, and officially protected – there’s even a $500 fine if you try to hurt or steal one.
We stroll down 7th Avenue, by night ‘Tampa’s equivalent to Broadway or New Orleans’ Bourbon Street,’ as Max puts it. The remnants of cigar factories and workers’ houses can still be seen, part of the influx of people from Spain, Italy, Germany and Cuba who flocked here to join the cigar trade. At one point, Ybor was the cigar capital of the world – our own Winston Churchill got his here.
We pass a colourful mural depicting the area, and some of the still-functioning social clubs that served as epicentres for each community who moved here, before stopping for lunch at Columbia, the oldest Spanish restaurant in Florida (columbiarestaurant.com).
Dating from 1905, its facade is covered in beautiful hand-painted tiles, and its food – a mix of Spanish and Cuban – is hearty and delicious. I wolf down its Cuban sandwich, an unwieldy pile of smoked meats, cheese, mustard and pickles (£11.30). Indeed, Tampa is gaining a growing reputation for its food.
Last June it was – alongside Miami and Orlando – included in The Michelin Guide for the first time. While it may not have picked up any stars yet, three of its restaurants – Ichicoro Ramen, Rocco, and Rooster & The Till – were awarded a Bib Gourmand, which recognises good food at moderate prizes.
I chat more about the city’s food scene with Jeff Houck, a former food writer and unofficial historian over lunch next day at authentic Sicilian Casa Santo Stefano (casasantostefano.com) .
‘We’re not a town that’s overly impressed by awards,’ he starts, ‘but we are very proud about featuring in Michelin. It’s brought Tampa to the wider conversation about good food in the US. There’s a big mix of cultures working alongside each other, which is still reflected here; food has a huge Cuban and Spanish influence.’
The city is on the up and people are increasingly moving here, with dozens of new developments reflecting this.
Later, I take a streetcar – Tampa’s revived heritage tram service – to Water Street, a new, multi-billion dollar neighbourhood by the Hillsborough River that’s spawned dozens of towering apartment blocks, a shiny new Edition hotel, and several slick new restaurants (waterstreettampa.com).
You’re more likely to hear the roar of a Porsche than a cockerel crowing here but in Tampa, you can pick and choose which part of the city speaks to you most. Just watch out for the pirates…
Five more Tampa faves
1. Go for a stroll
Stroll along the Hillsborough River, which cuts through the city. The Riverwalk takes you past public art, murals and galleries. Or explore the river from water level with a kayaking, above, or stand-up paddle board tour (from £28, at Urban Kai).
2. Take in an ice hockey game
Get ready to cheer like a local at an ice hockey game. One of the only sports where fighting is allowed, if not actively encouraged, it’s an exhilarating session where huge blokes try and get tiny pucks into very small goals (tickets from about £22, at NHL).
3. Shop till you drop
Shopportunities abound at Hyde Park Village, a collection of designer and high-street stores that also holds a farmers’ market on the first Sunday of every month. Here you can also do candlemaking and cooking classes.
4. Hit the beach
Hit the beach at St Pete and Clearwater. A short drive from central Tampa, this district in Pinellas County has 35 miles of sandy coastline. Visit the St Pete Pier or Pier 60, which both offer the perfect spot from which to watch the sunset.
5. Dally in some Dali
St Pete is home to the Salvador Dali Museum, which houses the largest collection of the artist’s works outside Spain. As well as a selection of more than 2,000 paintings, drawings, photos and sculptures, there’s a well-stocked gift shop (tickets £20).
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