Tampa Florida: Rolling with the Riverwalk

Tampa River Walk
Tampa’s Riverwalk: it’s set to grow to almost five miles long in the years ahead. Max Hartshorne photos.

Tampa is a Vibrant, Growing City with Lots to See and Enjoy

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

A hungry giraffe at Busch Gardens in Tampa.
A hungry giraffe at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

During a visit to Tampa Florida in the heady last days of the pandemic, I sat with Patrick Harrison, Visit Tampa Bay’s Chief Marketing Officer, at an elegant table right next to the city’s signature project, the Tampa Riverwalk.

The night was soft, the sun was setting and the J.W. Marriott’s chef kept bringing out interesting dishes for us to enjoy.

Patrick Harrison told us that things really changed when two things happened.

The Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team was sold to a young man from Boston named Jeffrey Vinik, and the 2.6-mile Riverwalk transformed the city’s relationship to the Hillsborough River, much for the better.

The team owner has spearheaded a huge project that is transforming the city center.

Bill Gates Bucks

In 2021, the $3 billion Water Street project is steaming along, funded by Bill Gates’ Cypress Investment’s funding and all signals point to another giant waterfront mega-success.

Last year, the four-star JW Marriott Tampa Water Street opened right across from the newly renovated Tampa Marriott Hotel, and the two properties are connected by an airbridge.

With 619 rooms, it’s a big and swanky enough hotel to serve as the official residence for both NBA and MLB players who come to Tampa.

Water taxis ply the Tampa Bay taking tourists where they want to go.
Water taxis ply the Tampa Bay taking tourists where they want to go.

“Tampa isn’t like Miami,” said Harrison, as we sipped cocktails on the rooftop restaurant called Six at the JW Marriott. “We were the last city without waterfront development. This is part of what’s making Tampa a tourist destination.”

Harrison continued. “There is no beach, and there is no mouse. But, we have things no one else does. We have history, culture, great dining, cigars, and the game-changer–the Riverwalk. People are finding out about what a great getaway Tampa can be.”

For their highest-end clients, JW Marriott offers charter yacht rentals and for the rest of us, kayaks are easy to find at the end of the Riverwalk at the Public Market.

With a glistening new waterfront food hall at Sparkman Wharf, and a container park full of interesting eateries and shops, the city is full of life in 2021 and will continue to prosper.

Tampa's Riverwalk is popular at night, too.
Tampa’s Riverwalk is popular at night, too.

The Heights Public Market stands at one end of the existing Riverwalk, a large airy market with plenty of places to sit while enjoying a remarkable array of foods, with the selection growing all the time.

One of the most famous names in Tampa Bay is Ybor, as in Ybor City, the famous Latin Quarter neighborhood in the city that was once the home of dozens of cigar factories, using tobacco and labor imported from Cuba.

We learned a lot about the terrible Mr. Ybor on a tour of the neighborhood by a passionate Ybor-lover named Steve Stamberger.

The Riverwalk is as popular at night as during the day.
Tampa’s Riverwalk is as popular at night as during the day.

 

Steve Stamberger in Ybor City.
Guide Steve Stamberger in Ybor City.

Our guide admitted he would be sharing the good, the bad, and the downright ugly about Ybor City, and he wasn’t wrong.

More than once, our tourism hosts cringed when Steve laid out another fact about the neighborhood’s crime rate or past misdeeds, making the tour quite hilarious.  In all likelihood, the guide was exaggerating just a bit.

The epicenter of this historic neighborhood is the huge Columbia Restaurant, which since 1905 has served giant plates of Cuban-inspired food.

At the Columbia Restaurant, tuxedoed waiters serve thousands of diners in their dozens of dining rooms every day, since 1905.
At the Columbia Restaurant, tuxedoed waiters serve thousands of diners in their dozens of dining rooms every day, since 1905.

With 1700 seats, and still owned by the Gonzmart Family, the Columbia not only fills its flagship restaurant but six additional locations around Florida.

Other restaurant concepts include Casa Santo Stefano, Cha Cha Coconuts, Ulele, Goody Goody, and Café Con Leche Ybor City.

Our tour of the neighborhood also included a stop at the new hotel on 7th Avenue, the Hotel Haya.

Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida.
Hotel Haya in Tampa, Florida.

This 54-room boutique hotel is an example of Ybor’s rebirth, and the property is airy and inviting right in the thick of things.

We enjoyed dining at the flagship as well as at Ulele and Goody Goody, which are both top-notch and always busy.

The location of Ulele right at the end of the Riverwalk brings an endless parade of bladers, bikers and dog-walkers in the soft evening light.

Ulele Oysters on the halfshell.
Ulele Oysters on the half shell.

Ulele was opened in 2014 at the city’s original public water pump house and they have a large patio for outdoor dining.

The freshly shucked oysters and the Alligator hushpuppies were highlights of their seafood-heavy dinner menu.

Paddling on the Hillsborough River

A lot of the buzz about the city has to do with how the city has embraced its waterfront, both the river and Tampa Bay.

Paddling the Hillsborough River in Tampa.
Paddling the Hillsborough River in Tampa.

 

We got a chance to experience paddling on the Hillsborough River and some of us took to stand-up paddleboards at the same time.

Personal vessels are available and easy to find outside the Convention Center, and at the North end of the Tampa Riverwalk, and kayaks and paddleboards are available to rent at Urban Kai next to the Heights Public Market.

After our invigorating paddle, we got a chance to hang out a bit at Armature Works, and the Heights Public Market right next door.

Like so many urban food halls, the combination of communal tables, small stalls that offer a huge variety, make the Heights a very popular place for Tampa residents and visitors.

Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

A food court made of shipping containers at Sparkman Wharf in downtown Tampa.
A food court made of shipping containers at Sparkman Wharf in downtown Tampa.

Tampa is not only famous as a city break, there is also a world-class amusement and animal park just 20 minutes from the city–Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

Something that roller coaster fanatics are excited about is the opening of the new Iron Gwazi, billed as ‘the tallest, steepest, and fastest hybrid rollercoaster in North America.

You can enjoy visiting this popular amusement park without its famous crowds. For a while anyway.

The way the park has handled Covid is admirable, and the path toward full reopening is just around the corner.

“Hosting the Superbowl in 2020 really changed the way people felt about Tampa Bay,” said Harrison.

The big event was originally set to take place in Los Angeles, and it was awarded to Tampa at the last minute.

Iron Gwazi will be the fastest and steepest ride when it opens later this year at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
Iron Gwazi will be the fastest and steepest ride when it opens later this year at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

The way the city handled the massive task of hosting the Biggest Event in the U.S. was admirable, just the way that Wrestlemania has found a home here for so many years.

In April 2021, after a yearlong drought,  more than 25,000 wrestling fans packed Raymond James Stadium for the 37th annual Wrestlemania event, with local favorite, Hulk Hogan, (he lives in Clearwater), as their guest host.

Life couldn’t be better in 2021 in Tampa Bay.

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