By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Tampa is Copa Airlines’ latest destination; flights will be offered beginning in December this year. To celebrate the good news, the Panorama of the Americas team headed to the city to check out the available tourist attractions. We also toured St. Petersburg and Clearwater, which along with Tampa, make up the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. The three cities are a natural fit and together they form a tempting destination that offers a little bit of everything…and more. It is ideal for those who want to enjoy the advantages of a big city, but would still like to trade their business suits for flip-flops and stretch out on a peaceful beach. We have sifted through our experiences and listed ten essentials you really shouldn’t miss. Have fun!
This is the oldest restaurant in Florida and an icon in Ybor City, which is considered Tampa’s old quarter. Famous for its Spanish and Cuban dishes, the restaurant opened in 1905 and has been owned and managed by the same family for five generations. It is also the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. The food is exquisite, and has earned awards for being some of the best cuisine in Florida and the United States. The restaurant’s multiple salons feature sophisticated decor with a sense of history. We enjoyed a reserved table in the central patio. Flamenco shows are performed at the restaurant every night from Monday to Saturday.
Tampa boasts one of the most famous parks in the world: Busch Gardens. Opened in 1959, the park showcases Africa and cleverly designed outdoor adventures, allowing visitors to interact with animals and nature, along with the shows and rides typical of an amusement park. It is one of the largest zoos in the United States, with 2,700 animals living on its 335 acres. Our visit began with a morning safari, giving us a close-up view of zebras and giraffes and teaching us a little about other exotic African species. Roller coasters were the order of the day, although not for a nervous yours truly. Cheetah Hunt and SheiKra are two of the most popular rides for fans of vertigo, velocity, and vehement yells.
The Florida Aquarium
This is one of the city’s major draws and is considered one of the ten best aquariums in the country and one of the five most kid-friendly. This fascinating experience is like stepping into a two-story fish tank that measures nearly 250,000 square feet. It houses 20,000 plants and animals, including otters, rays, crocodiles, and pythons, organized in ten permanent exhibits. There are also shows, events, and activities for children and adults. The coral reef gallery provides an incredible view of a beautiful and diverse ecosystem, exposing visitors to a habitat that is normally available only to expert scuba divers. It simulates a dive of around sixty-five feet and every window presents a micro-habitat that changes along with the depth. Don’t miss it.
Electric Boat Rides
You can rent a modern electric boat at the Tampa Convention Center pier and tool along the Hillsborough River. This novel and pleasant way of seeing the city gives you a chance to take lovely photos of the river, downtown Tampa, the historic campus of the University of Tampa, and Waterfront Park, home to the Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum. This new service is a hit with both tourists and residents, who bring food and drink and catch the last rays of the sun during charming and romantic water excursions as couples or with friends. You can rent a boat yourself or ask the captain to sign you up for one of the available tours.
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
According to Parents Magazine, this is the best zoo in the United States. In 2004, Child Magazine selected it as the country’s best family zoo. Its large collection of native species make it a recognized center for conservation of Florida fauna and biodiversity. Although it is relatively small (fifty-six acres), it is hugely entertaining. A big attraction is the chance to feed white rhinoceroses; this is one of the few places where visitors can get so close to this animal. Don’t forget the koalas at the marsupial station! Equally unforgettable is the manatee aquatic center, which not only exhibits these animals that live along the coasts of Florida, but includes a large hospital for treating injured manatees. Primate World is also worth a stop.
Downtown St. Petersburg
A walk along Central Avenue and Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg brings lovers of art to two gems: the Museum of Fine Arts and the Chihuly Collection, a gallery housing a permanent exhibit of unique glass pieces created by internationally recognized artist Dale Chihuly. This city on the shore of Tampa Bay abounds in lovely parks and green spaces, appreciated by residents and visitors alike, and there is no lack of cafés, restaurants, or outdoor dining. Built in 1925, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club (better known as The Vinoy) is a historic and architectural icon that has a place in the United States National Register of Historic Places. The same neighborhood is home to a new kid on the block: the Dalí Museum.
Even though the museum opened just two years ago, it is already one of the area’s greatest attractions. Its vast collection includes a large number of works that span the entire artistic career of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí. The permanent exhibit features ninety-six oil paintings, many original drawings, prints, sculpture, photographs, manuscripts, and an extensive archive of documents. Lobster Telephone (1938), Santiago El Grande (1957), and Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1976) are some of the outstanding pieces representing different periods of Dalí’s work. The museum building, designed by renowned architect Yann Weymouth, is an example of amazing architecture worthy of a painting by Dalí himself. Set aside plenty of time for your visit, since there is much to see.
Local residents and tourists are equally at home in this small coastal town with a warm, easygoing atmosphere. Blessed with a long beach of white sand on the Gulf of México, the town offers luxury hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, discos, and many outdoor activities, all in perfect harmony with the calm ocean and tranquil landscape bathed by incredible sunsets. Pier 60 serves as the town center; it is where beachgoers meet to buy fish, shop for hand-made souvenirs at the handicrafts fair, and enjoy the entertainment provided by street musicians and artists every afternoon. This is an ideal spot for a delightfully placid vacation. It is obvious why the town was named Florida’s best beach destination in a survey carried out this year by the USA Today newspaper. This not-to-be-missed town is less than twenty miles from Tampa International Airport.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
One of the residents here is a huge celebrity: the famous bottlenose dolphin that starred in the movie Dolphin Tale (2011), an uplifting film that tells the true story of Winter, a three-month-old dolphin that got entangled in a crab trap off the east coast of Florida. The dolphin was rescued and taken to the aquarium, where she faced a difficult recovery. She lost her tail and two vertebrae and had to be fitted with an artificial tail so she could swim, but Winter survived against all odds. Her story was brought to the big screen as an inspiring example of overcoming difficulties, and now thousands of people visit Winter each year, turning the aquarium-—a non-profit hospital focused on the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine animals—into one of the biggest attractions in Clearwater and the Tampa Bay area.
This small city located about twelve miles from Clearwater is very special. This picturesque spot is home to the largest Greek community in the United States, making a visit here reminiscent of a jaunt to a seaside town in Greece. The town is known for harvesting sea sponges, an activity that dates back to when the first Greek immigrant arrived here more than 130 years ago. Many tourists come to take boat tours (departing from the Dodecanese Avenue pier) and learn about the history and process of sponge gathering. Shops along the avenue sell reasonably-priced sponges of all types, sizes, and quality, usually alongside hand-made soap. A particularly good place to shop is Lori’s Soap & Sponge Market. Of course, once you’re there, you must try some Greek cuisine. We had the good fortune to lunch at the Mykonos restaurant and it was absolutely delicious. Without exaggerating, I think it was one of the best lunches I have ever had.
This article was written with the support of Visit Tampa Bay, a tourism development agency in Hillsborough County: www.visittampabay.com
We also received help from the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.visitstpeteclearwater.com
In Tampa we enjoyed courtesy lodging at the Westin Tampa Bay hotel: www.westintampabay.com
The Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club provided courtesy lodging in St. Petersburg.
In Clearwater we stayed at the Sandpearl Resort: www.sandpearl.com
Starting in December, Copa Airlines offer Boeing 737-700 flights to Tampa four times a week. The flight departs from Panama City on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 6:34 p.m. and arrives in Tampa at 9:53 p.m. (Tampa time). The return flight leaves Tampa Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:02 a.m. and arrives back in Panama City at 10:12 a.m.