Surprising Tampa Bay, Florida

By Peggy Sijswerda | March 5th, 2024

A unique destination offering something for everyone

Mural in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida. Image by Cia Pix. Used for article on Tampa Bay highlights

Cuban influences in Ybor City, cigars at a museum and store, sea life in an aquarium, art at The Dalí Museum, and more. Travel writer Peggy Sijswerda takes us along on her trip in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.

I’m looking at a surreal painting by Salvadore Dalí of his beloved wife, Gala, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea in The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Like all Dali’s artwork, it’s complex, and the more I stare at it, the more I see. This is a large painting—approx. 6 ft. wide by 8 ft. high, so I walk about 20 yards away and turn around to get a different perspective. Surprise! The painting has transformed into a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Peter and I are exploring Tampa Bay, a region known as the heart of Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s a destination packed with attractions and events, one that offers surprises around every corner. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, a sports fan, a lover of the outdoors, an arts and culture enthusiast, or a cigar aficionado, Tampa has something just for you. Nearby theme parks and nature preserves make it a popular family destination, but Tampa is also an ideal destination for couples seeking a relaxing getaway.

Tampa Bay Highlights

The Dalí Museum is Cool and Quirky

Don’t Miss Alive 360°: A Multisensory Digital Experience

A painting in The Dali Museum, with an amazing collection of Dali’s works.
Don’t miss The Dali Museum with its amazing collection of Dali’s works.

The Dali in St. Petersburg sets the stage for our three-day visit to Tampa Bay. Peter and I visited the museum in the 90s with our sons and remember a warehouse-style building without much curb appeal. Fast forward 30 years and today, The Dali is a gorgeous space with a huge dome covered in melting clocks, a free-form geodesic glass bubble known as The Enigma, spiral motifs throughout, and of course an amazing collection of Dali’s works.

Inside the dome, we view “Alive 360°: A Multisensory Digital Experience,” which tells about Dalí’s life and art. It’s a great introduction to this brilliant artist. We join a tour in the museum and learn about his art and wander through the special exhibit called “Dalí & the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas & More,” which showcases some of Dali’s early Impressionistic pieces. Before leaving, we take a selfie with a virtual Mr. Dali, and I can’t resist buying a striped shirt in the gift shop as a memento of this cool museum and its quirky namesake.

Museums always make me hungry. The onsite Café Gala features Spanish tapas, but I’m hungry for a grouper sandwich, one of Florida’s specialties. Nearby a dive bar called The Tavern gets good reviews for theirs, so we grab a seat on the patio and I order (get this) The Journalist, a grouper sandwich with mushrooms, onion, and Swiss. The fish arrives lightly blackened on a fresh bun, and I am in grouper heaven.

The Epicurean Hotel is THE Place to Stay in Tampa

Élevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar Serves Delicious, Fresh Cuisine

The Epicurean Hotel’s chic pool invites you to relax and enjoy the Florida sunshine in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay region.
The Epicurean Hotel’s chic pool invites you to relax and enjoy the Florida sunshine.

Next we head across Tampa Bay to The Epicurean, our swanky accommodations in Tampa. Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, this award-winning hotel has been attracting rave reviews since opening 10 years ago. The first phase of an expansion featuring 51 new guest rooms and suites was recently completed and is located across the street from the main hotel. This is the ideal hotel for your Tampa getaway.

Conceived as a stylish property with an emphasis on food and spirits, The Epicurean is home to the signature Élevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar restaurant, EDGE Rooftop Cocktail Lounge, and Chill Bros. Scoop Shop (more on that later). There’s also a wine and spirits store in the lobby as well as the Epicurean Theatre offering cooking classes, tastings, and private events. Peter and I sample Élevage’s brunch offerings one morning. My smoked salmon tartine served with a fresh green salad hits the spot, and Peter enjoys his huevos rancheros featuring sunny-side-up eggs, just the way he likes them.

Our two-room corner balcony suite is sweet! The inviting space features a large living room and master bedroom decorated in soothing earth tones. There’s even an expanded wet bar and full-size fridge. The balcony overlooks the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, which is adjacent to Hillsborough Bay.

Nearby South Howard Avenue is known for its abundance of night spots and restaurants, including the iconic Bern’s Steakhouse, renowned by epicureans worldwide for its caviar menu, dry-aged steaks, and 190+-page wine list. Reservations at Bern’s Steakhouse are impossible to get, but guests at The Epicurean can always get a table.

Book a Tour with Ybor City Walking Tour

Don’t Miss Dining at The Columbia, Florida’s Oldest Restaurant

While exploring Ybor City, Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia, is also a must-visit destination.
While exploring Ybor City, Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia, is also a must-visit destination.

Ybor City to the north of Downtown Tampa has a rich, colorful history. We get the scoop on this neighborhood during our Ybor City Walking Tour with Max Herman, a Tampa native who loves sharing history and telling stories about his hometown. As we explore the city’s streets, Max takes us on a journey back in time to when a Spanish gentleman founded Ybor City and paved the way for it to become “the cigar capital of the world.”

Mr. Ybor built cigar factories, housing for the immigrants who came to Ybor City to work in the cigar trade, even social clubs so the workers could have some fun. The Italian Club is still active in Ybor City today, and Max takes us into their elegant building for a peek at yesteryear.

Max tells us the neighborhood has had its ups and downs over the years, especially during the Depression and when the advent of cigarettes made the cigar less popular. However, since the 1990s when Cigar Aficionado magazine launched, cigars have become more popular than ever. If you’re a cigar fan, a pilgrimage to Ybor City is essential.

While exploring Ybor City, Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia, is also a must-visit destination. This iconic brand with seven Florida locations was founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., who opened his first restaurant here in 1905 soon after arriving in Tampa with his family in search of a better life. Today the same family still operates the restaurants, maintaining the quality and tradition and serving delicious heirloom recipes.

Peter and I join a few other journalists for lunch and can’t believe how huge The Columbia is. It takes up an entire city block, offers seating for 1,600 guests, and runs like a well-oiled machine. The Spanish décor is colorful with tiles everywhere and sprinkling fountains that make you feel like you’re back in the Old Country. Servers dress formally, yet the atmosphere is comfortable and lively, not stuffy at all.

Jeff Houck, VP of Marketing for the 1905 Family Of Restaurants, recommends several signature dishes, starting with the Original Cuban Sandwich, one of the first items served at The Columbia when it opened in 1905. Other popular dishes include devil crab croquettes, Cuban black bean soup, and Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad®.

I order the Gazpacho Andalucia, which is flavorful and fresh, and Cakes de Cangrejo, or Cuban crab cakes, which are grilled and topped with passionfruit aioli. Yum! Peter enjoys his “1905” salad and black bean soup. Jeff orders a few desserts for the table, and we can barely waddle out the door. First, I have to stop in the gift shop, where I admire a beautiful array of Spanish pottery. Cookbooks, coffee, sangria mix, and a bevy of other gifts are also available. Don’t miss the chance to visit Florida’s oldest restaurant!

Learn about Tampa’s Cigar History

J.C. Newman Cigar Co. Museum and Factory Store

Take a tour at J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and see cigar rollers at work.
Take a tour at J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and see cigar rollers at work.

At one time there were 228 cigar factories in Ybor City and West Tampa, a few of which are still standing today. But only one is still in operation, and it’s also America’s oldest family-owned premium cigar manufacturer. J.C. Newman Cigar Co. Museum and Factory Store offers insight into Tampa’s cigar-making history, as well as the process of producing quality cigars.

Housed in a beautiful building known as El Reloj distinguished by a clock tower, the factory welcomes visitors for tours and offers classes in cigar rolling and tobacco tasting. Visiting J.C. Newman’s cigar museum, theater, and factory store is free, but plan to arrive before 3:00 p.m. when cigar rolling stops.

We take a tour with Cody, and as we walk through the 114-year-old building, it feels like we have embarked on a journey to the past. J.C. Newman prides itself on the quality of its hand-rolled cigars and employs five rollers, who work in a beautiful wood-paneled room, using age-old techniques. Everywhere we go in the building we smell the pleasant woody aroma of tobacco.

Next Cody takes us to the aging room, where 90,000 hand-rolled cigars, worth $2+ million, rest in bundles on shelves. Cody tells us the longer a cigar ages, the more mellow its flavors become. In another room, we see machines that roll cigars much faster than humans can, although Cody is quick to point out that the difference in quality between machine made and hand-rolled is like night and day. On our way out, we meet one of the owners, Eric Newman, and his son, Drew. I love the family vibe here!

Explore the Florida Aquarium

Then View Tampa’s Waterfront in a Pirate Water Taxi

Bright blue fish swimming: The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is rated among the best aquariums in the U.S.
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is rated among the best aquariums in the U.S.

The next day Peter and I explore Downtown Tampa. First we stroll through the Florida Aquarium and then take a tour of the waterfront in a Pirate Water Taxi. The guide shares a bit of history about the waterfront and then reminds us about Tampa’s upcoming Gasparilla Festival held every January: “It’s our version of Mardi Gras.” We hop off and head for Chill Bros. Scoop Shop’s downtown location. The family-owned business has five locations in and around Tampa, and they make killer ice cream. My pick is brown-butter praline-pecan and Peter tries Tampa banana and strawberry. Homemade waffle cones make these extra delicious!

History buffs will enjoy the Tampa Bay History Center, where you can learn about Seminole Indians, pirates, and more. Another destination for history lovers is the Henry B. Plant Museum, formerly a hotel built by the visionary railroad magnate of the same name. Today it houses exhibits, one of which tells the story of how Plant helped turn central and southwestern Florida into a must-visit tourist destination in the late 1800s by building a railroad, steamship company, and hotels.

Peter and I have time for one more stop before heading to the airport for our flight home. The Pearl Restaurant is known for its oysters, so we pop by to sample a few. Turns out a hockey game is scheduled across the street at 7 p.m. so the restaurant is packed with sports fans. Nevertheless, we squeeze onto a couple seats at the bar and order the N’awlins-style baked oysters: Blue Points from Long Island Sound topped with cheese bathed in a decadent sauce. We also tuck into another tasty specialty: old-fashioned deviled eggs.

We wish we had more time to explore Tampa and environs, but we’ll be back for more fun and surprises soon!

For more information on Tampa Bay, Fla., visit:

More travel highlights from Peggy Sijswerda

Foodie Adventures in Charleston, South Carolina

Lore and Culture in St. Augustine, Florida

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

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