When vacationers fly into the Tampa Bay airport, they’ve usually got a car ride ahead of them to get to Clearwater Beach, St. Petersburg’s beaches, or the money-sucking theme park wonderland of Orlando an hour and a half away. If you’re headed to downtown Tampa instead because you’ve got business in town or you found a great travel deal, here are three memorable things to do from your hotel base.
By Bike: Cruise Down Bayshore Drive
One of the best aspects of Tampa Bay is the combination of warm, sunny weather with a view of the water. If you rent a bike from the City Bike Tampa kiosk on the Riverwalk ($20 two hours, $26 for three) you can ride down Bayshore Drive and get good views of mansions and the city. It’s flat as a pancake, so just get a comfy cruiser and enjoy the ride. There’s an extra-wide sidewalk beside the water for cyclists, walkers, and joggers. When you get to the end, keep going a little bit further on that street and you’ll reach Ballast Point. There’s a small park here and a restaurant serving inexpensive fried seafood. This is the best view in the city of the downtown skyline.
By Tram: Ride the Rails to Ybor City
By night Ybor City is a wild party place full of rowdy 20-somethings dancing and getting wasted. By day it’s a more subdued affair. This gentrified restaurant and pub zone was once one of the biggest cigar production centers in the world, transplanted Cubans hand-rolling cigars to feed what was then an insatiable demand.
The factory buildings are still there, but now they are used for offices and night clubs. You can get a taste of history at the Ybor City Museum ($4) though, eat Cuban food at the elegant Columbia Restaurant, or pull up a stool at my favorite stop: Tampa Bay Brewing Company.
You can ride on one of the cool streetcars going back and forth between downtown and Ybor for $2.50 adults, half that for kids and seniors. Follow this link for TECO streetcar schedules and maps.
By Car or Taxi: Visit Thailand in Tampa
When it comes to ethnic food, Cuban is the first thing that comes to mind in this region. There’s one secret spot here though that brings a little Thailand to Tampa. Wat Mongkolratanaram is just 20 minutes tops from downtown, but as soon as you arrive you feel like you’ve been transported to the other side of the world. All the signs are in Thai, there’s the same gilded Buddha image you would see in Thailand, and the architecture is straight outta Bangkok.
The time to go is Sunday though, when the temple lays out a huge spread of Thai food for sale and invites the public to purchase it at very reasonable prices. You’ll get a mound of rice and two dishes of your choice for five bucks. Some are familiar things you’re used to seeing in restaurants: green curry, Pad Thai, basil chicken, and the like. But there are other items you might have to ask about to identify. You can add on spring rolls for a dollar each, or sticky rice dessert for $1.50. Other sections have big bowls of Thai soup, chicken satay, and Thai pork sausages. “Wat Tampa” as it’s known by people who can’t easily get their tongue around Mongkolratanaram, is in a serene setting by a river, with space to lie on the grass while your overstuffed belly recovers.
If you don’t have a car, get a number for a taxi company to head out and back. There’s no public transportation to here unless you make your own by befriending a local. (Since you dine at communal picnic tables, that’s not out of the question…)