As the sweltering Florida sunlight pours through the wood-beam roof on The Refinery porch, beads of condensation form on the cold pint of Angry Chair’s Space Grass in front of me.
I, too, am starting to sweat, but my thighs sticking to iron patio furniture is something I’ve become used to after more than 20 years in Tampa.
I’m curiously awaiting the latest creation from Chef Greg, who will undoubtedly throw together some of the season’s funkiest flavors into a dish that is as Instagram-worthy as it is taste worthy. (I’m secretly hoping for some variation of pan-roasted Florida flounder.)
The thick humidity, the mind-blowing beer, and the artsy brunch spots are all small pieces of the cooler-than-cool puzzle that is Tampa these days.
In America’s collective consciousness, Tampa’s claims to fame have typically been its football team (go Bucs!), its proximity to sandy white beaches, and its annual pirate-themed party parade, Gasparilla. And with the slew of odd news stories that spring out of Florida, it’s no surprise that the incredible growth of Tampa has mostly remained under the radar.
But Tampa, the peninsula’s third most populous city, has slowly been transforming into a hotspot for young professionals, families, artists, and every demographic in between.
With an explosive craft beer scene, plenty of eclectic, independently-owned restaurants and a flourishing art and music scene, Tampa is an ideal city for an enlightening weekend. Here’s your go-to guide for carpe diem in the 813.
Epicurean Autograph Collection
Stepping into the Epicurean hotel is like stepping into a food lover’s most delectable daydream. From on-site cooking classes to in-room pantries stocked with artisan treats, the Epicurean is an experience worth drooling over. If you can pull yourself from the heavenly bedsheets, a “Lost In Wine Country” spa treatment, featuring a crush cabernet scrub and Caudalie honey massage, is waiting at the full-service spa. (For true indulgence, follow it up with a creamy cake pop from “Chocolate Pi,” the hotel’s patisserie.)
From the butcher-block-style cabinetry designed by local craftsmen to the artful cocktails at the hotel bar, every detail of the hotel reflects the chic ambiance that both visitors and locals have come to love.
Located downtown in Tampa’s former federal courthouse, Le Méridien was designed with creative-minded travelers at heart. Rich color, varied texture, and clean lines weave their way into every corner of the interior, making art feel like less of something to go see and more of something to experience. An added artsy bonus? Through the hotel’s Unlock Art program, guests of Le Méridien receive complimentary admission to the Tampa Museum of Art.
trivago tip: September is one of the cheapest months to visit Tampa, with hotels averaging $120/night, while February and March are typically the most expensive months, averaging $184/night.
Most Florida-bound tourists dream of flakey grouper sandwiches and baskets overflowing with fried sea critters, but that’s only a fraction of what Tampa has to offer in the taste department.
Datz is a magical oasis where every possible combination of crispy bacon, ooey-gooey cheese, and homemade bread not only exists but is celebrated. When you add in the craft beer and bourbon selection, you have a bonafide Tampa favorite. Whether you opt for Barry C’s Stuffed Meatloaf, meatloaf stuffed with bacon-jalapeño mac ‘n’ cheese and served with garlic mascarpone mashed potatoes with baby rainbow carrots, or the Havana Hottie, a hot batard piled high with Datz pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickle and Honeycup mustard, be sure to schedule a nap right after your hearty sigh of contentment.
Venture over to Seminole Heights, an up-and-coming area of Tampa that exudes a mix of hip newness and old school charm, for a meal at The Refinery. The quaint two-story restaurant, which boasts tri-weekly menu changes, fuses a locally-sourced ingredient list with an experimental flavor palette. In less hipster terms, they do their best to buy everything from local farmers and mix unexpected tastes together with ease. The results are daring, delicious, and never boring. Smoked garlic-tarragon sausage, orange ginger sauerkraut, and lentil soup, anyone?
Bern’s Steak House
Though hardly considered a hidden local gem, it would be sacrilege to leave the famous Bern’s Steak House off the agenda. With a wine cellar housing over 500,000 bottles of vino, more cuts of tender dry-aged beef than you can count on both hands, and seven old world dining rooms, Bern’s has been taking care of Tampa’s taste buds since 1956. Unlike most steakhouses, the conscious consumer can relax, as Bern’s organically grows many of its vegetables at its own farm. (Be sure to make a reservation!)
If you’re anything like me and would happily dedicate an entire afternoon to sipping on cold craft beer, Tampa does not disappoint.
From Cigar City to Angry Chair, there are Florida-inspired brews in every corner of the city. With somewhere around 70 breweries in the bay area (and more coming soon), you can sample a handful of them by booking a tour on the Brew Bus, the holy grail of brewery hopping.
“Tampa Bay’s booming craft breweries have turned this area into Florida’s hub for artisan suds,” said Tampa Bay Brew Bus president Anthony Derby. “Whether beer lovers prefer their beer light and bright or dark as night, they’ll find something new to enjoy in Tampa Bay.”
If you only have time for one brewery, head to Coppertail Brewing Co. Their semi-religious, semi-nautical themed tap room is nestled in the Ybor City district of Tampa, so you can indulge in one of the neighborhood’s famous hand-rolled cigars after your beer.
If you prefer caffeinated over boozy, head to the ever-glamorous Oxford Exchange for a cup of locally roasted Buddy Brew coffee. One glance at the Piccadilly-inspired interior and you’ll immediately understand why so many Warby Parker-clad ladies are Instagramming their coffee dates.
The vibrant Tampa art scene is best explored on foot, as the city is rife with easily accessible public art.
Conveniently located in the picturesque Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Museum of Art is suited to pique the interest of even the most stubborn philistine. Within the elegant aluminum building is a collection that ranges from ancient Greece to post-Modern.
“At night the museum becomes a work of art itself when the façade displays the shimmering lights of Leo Villareal’s ‘Sky: Tampa,’” said Robin Nigh, the director of the City of Tampa Public Art program.
If you have the little ones in tow, pop next door to the Glazer Children’s Museum where the kids can create their own kaleidoscopes, experiment with solar and wind power, and play lilypad hopscotch.
If you’re craving some Latin flair, Tampa has you covered as well.
“In historic Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin heritage comes to life with murals and sculptures, including a memorial to Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí,” said Nigh.
Short of a full-scale beach trip, there’s no better way to soak up the beauty of the Florida sun than strolling downtown Tampa’s waterfront. Completed in 2016, Riverwalk is a scenic path that meanders along the Hillsborough River.
“The 2.5-mile pedestrian pathway connects the city’s most popular hotels, hotspots, and cultural treasures like gems on a string,” said Tampa Riverwalk executive director Jason Carroll. “Visitors can rent a bike, ride a water taxi or stroll to dinner hand-in-hand by the sparkling water.”
I suggest starting the adventure at Ulele, a cozy Floridian-inspired restaurant at one end of the route. (Do as the locals do and try the alligator hush puppies or crispy frog legs… if you dare.) Once you’ve fueled up, start walking!
Along the path, you’ll notice the majestic silver domes of the University of Tampa, various busts with tidbits of Tampa history, and cheery locals jogging and biking.
So skip the rowdy Bucs game and savor Tampa’s finest like a true bon vivant, if only for the weekend.