Facing a wild rooster and its companions wasn’t what I planned for my trip to Tampa Bay, but this destination is full of surprises.
The busy, modern downtown sits happily next to historic Ybor City – the cigar capital of the world – and it gives Floridian destinations more known for their money.
Tampa is booming, with hundreds of people moving to the city every week.
Located next to a bay on Florida’s Gulf Coast, it has year-round sunshine, great restaurants and attractions to keep the whole family entertained – so it’s easy to see why it’s become so popular .
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Tampa has a rich heritage dating back to the 1780s and mythical pirate Jose Gaspar, who is rumored to have visited Tampa many times.
Gaspar is celebrated every January with the ‘Gasparilla’ parade, which sees beads and coins thrown to crowds along Bayshore Avenue.
This pirate heritage is seen throughout the city with a pirate ship permanently moored in the harbor and many bars and restaurants that agree with the theme.
Cigars are perhaps Tampa’s most famous export, however, with Vicente Martinez Ybor’s founding of Ybor City in 1885, turning a town of 700 people into 16,000 in 1900.
At its peak in the early 1900s, there were 150 cigar factories in Ybor making 500 million cigars by hand each year.
Now, there’s only one operating cigar factory left in the city – JC Newman ‘El Reloj’, which offers $15 guided tours on weekdays.
During our trip to the factory, we witnessed the ingenuity of the intricate craftsmanship in creating a cigar, with highly trained staff going through a number of processes. to make each smoke perfect. Meanwhile, Ybor’s history is truly re-imagined on the Official Ybor City walking tour ($25), where our enthusiastic guide Max showed us how the craftsmen cigars came from all over the world to settle in the vicinity, attracted by the promise of work and housing in the New World.
These immigrants created large social clubs throughout town, which can still be seen today, providing free health care, education, and entertainment to members. .
Immigrants also brought their chickens, and their descendants are still protected in Ybor today, with those attempting to capture or harm the roosters subject to a $500 fine.
Ybor, the birthplace of Cuban bread, is not surprisingly closely linked to the Caribbean island, with a small city square – José Martí Park – designated as Cuban territory, which means is that people can get from the US to Cuba in one easy move.
Amusement park and aquarium
Florida is home to many amusement parks, but one of the best calls Tampa home.
Busch Gardens is a perfect day out for families and thrill-seekers, with some of the world’s largest roller coasters flanked by many rare and endangered animals. For the past few years, Busch Gardens has been on a mission to create the world’s best and wackiest roller coasters.
This month’s opening of the latest ride, Iron Gwazi, has been much-anticipated.
This roller coaster will be North America’s tallest coaster – and the fastest and steepest mixed coaster in the world, taking riders from a peak of 206ft down to 91 degrees and reaching a top speed of 76km/ H.
A similar impression is Tigris, where I’ve never been on a roller coaster. We were launched along the track at 60mph, before going backwards, then circling a seemingly never-ending number of laps before landing breathlessly back into the station.
After all the excitement, a trip out into the park’s 65-acre plains was just what I needed. On the Serengeti Safari tour, which costs $39.99, several rare species can be seen alongside favorites like rhinos, zebras, and giraffes.
We had the incredible experience of feeding giraffes from a 4×4 and getting up close and personal with Cupid the giraffe was possibly my favorite part of the trip. buschgardens.com/tampa from $89.99.
Out of Busch Gardens, animal lovers will also be impressed by the Florida Aquarium, which features Florida-native species like alligators, along with sharks, turtles and other marine life.
We got the chance to pet a stingray and also explore the mysterious world of moon jellyfish. flaquarium.org $29.95.
The aquarium is set on the Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.6-kilometer waterfront walking path that links some of downtown’s best attractions, all of which can be visited with the new Riverwalk Pass.
Food and drink
Absorbing all that Tampa has to offer leaves you feeling hungry, but luckily, there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy your every whim.
Florida’s oldest restaurant, Columbia in Ybor City, offers diners a multitude of dishes, but the 1904 salad is a must-see – as is the delicious Cuban sandwich.
The new Casa Santo Stefano, inspired by the Sicilian influence of Ybor, has a great rooftop bar where we watched the sunset with a glass of ice-cold mist.
Arguably the best brunch in Tampa can be found at the Oxford Exchange, a stunning building that serves the best smoked salmon bagel I’ve ever tasted.
Sparkman Wharf at the end of the Riverwalk features a variety of cuisines sold from shipping containers, along with more at posh sit-down restaurants like The Battery.
Perfect for date night or a special occasion with friends, The Battery offers perfectly cooked steaks, grilled meats and over 110 bottles of whiskey to taste, truly a dream.
Tampa has plenty of hotels for you to stay at, with more openings planned for this year and beyond. We spent a couple of brilliant nights at one of the most recent places to launch – the Haya hotel in Ybor.
The boutique hotel pays homage to the region’s cultures with a modern twist. A swimming pool to enjoy the Floridian sunshine is in the center, with delicious Latin-inspired restaurant Flor Fina next door.
Tampa is a real reveal and I’ll be back there in a heartbeat – but I’ll keep an eye out for those raucous roosters next time.
Book a vacation
Over there: Rooms at the Haya Hotel in Tampa, Florida, start at £153 a night. Learn more at hotelhaya.com.
Arrive there: British Airways flies from Gatwick to Tampa from £510 return in May. Learn more at ba.com/tampa.
More information: The Riverwalk Attraction Pass costs from £41 a day adult / £26 child, at visittampabay.com/riverwalk-pass
You can also find more information at visittampabay.com
https://www.mirror.co.uk/travel/news/sunshine-cigars-sensational-sandwiches-raucous-26469431 Florida's best Tampa Bay from top theme parks, restaurants, and attractions