Located near the middle of Florida’s Gulf Coast, the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg constitute one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States, with a combined population of close to 3 million. The area is drawing an ever-increasing number of visitors, too, with its rich cultural life, excellent restaurants and fine climate. However, the two cities have very different personalities due to their respective histories.
After the United States bought Florida from Spain in 1819, the Army built Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay, one of the country’s best natural harbors. Tampa grew up around it. The city really took off after the Civil War, with the discovery of phosphate deposits. And from 1884, businessman Henry B. Plant’s railroad connected Tampa to the rest of the country. In 1885, the Spanish tobacco merchant Vicente Martinez-Ybor moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa, and Ybor City, a purpose-built cigar-rolling factory town, attracted immigrants from Spain, Italy and Cuba. Today, Tampa has a diverse economy based on finance, health care, shipping and tourism.
Across the bay from Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico, St. Petersburg first boomed in the 1880s, when two entrepreneurs, John Williams and Peter Demens (Demens was born in St. Petersburg in Russia and named the new town after his birthplace), constructed a railroad that opened it to tourism. They built the historic Hotel Detroit, and the city’s gentle climate and beautiful beaches soon attracted throngs of vacationers. After World War II, St. Petersburg became a popular place to retire.
Today, the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area has emerged as a business, holiday and retirement destination that rivals better-known Orlando and Miami. And with a variety of urban-renewal projects that have enhanced its appeal, it has become a charming, low-key urban area that is very much worth a visit.
With Spanish-style façades and wrought-iron balconies, Seventh Avenue, the main street in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood, still has a sepia-toned charm 134 years after the National Historic District was founded. On side streets, many of the shotgun wooden homes built to house the cigar rollers have been renovated, and this time-capsule area, which is connected to downtown Tampa by a streetcar line, has become a popular restaurant and nightlife district.
An enduring emblem of Tampa, the former Tampa Bay Hotel is a sprawling red-brick edifice with distinctive Moorish-style minarets that was built by Plant to accommodate passengers arriving in Tampa on his new railroad. After the hotel failed to attract enough guests to become profitable, it was purchased by the city of Tampa in 1905, and it became part of the University of Tampa in 1933. Today, the museum preserves a portion of the opulent building as it was when it opened in 1891, with Venetian mirrors, French furniture and Wedgwood china. Closed Monday.
Henry B. Plant Museum
401 West Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa. Tel. (813) 254-1891
Located on lively Central Avenue, which has emerged as St. Petersburg’s arts district, this museum displays a collection of magnificent works by America’s most acclaimed glass blower, Dale Chihuly.
720 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 822-7872
A striking modern building on the St. Petersburg side of Tampa Bay houses the largest collection of works by the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to be found outside Europe. Notable paintings include “View of Cadaqués from Playa Poal,” “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” and “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope!” The collection was originally acquired by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse of Cleveland, who chose St. Petersburg because they thought it resembled Dalí’s hometown of Cadaqués, Spain. What St. Petersburg and Cadaqués most have in common, however, is the sun and the sea.
Salvador Dalí Museum
1 Dalí Boulevard, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 823-3767
This charming small museum housed by a Palladian-style villa a few blocks from the Salvador Dalí Museum has a diverse collection of pre-Columbian, African, European and American art. Paintings by Monet, Berthe Morisot and Georgia O’Keeffe are displayed, along with a work by Rodin in the museum’s sculpture garden.
Museum of Fine Arts
225 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 896-2667
This small museum contains more than 500 works in glass by the American Studio Glass Movement. American glass art was first recognized in 1961, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City added work by Washington state glass artist Dale Chihuly to its collection. Here, Henry Halem, Fritz Dreisbach, Mark Peiser, Joel Philip Myers, Howard Ben Tré and Richard Marquis are among the American studio glass artists whose work is displayed. Closed Monday.
1901 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 300-1700
Since it first opened, in 1956, this set of low-lit, red-carpeted dining rooms with red velvet-upholstered chairs has won a reputation as one of the best steakhouses in the United States. Leaving the vintage “Mad Men” décor to one side, the menu is an ode to traditional American dining, with a serious caviar selection and one of the best wine lists in the country. Start off with a Maine lobster cocktail, oysters on the half shell or tuna tartare, and then choose your steak. (Chicken, fish and other mains are also available.)
Bern’s Steak House
1208 South Howard Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 251-2421
Located on arty Central Avenue, chef Jason Ruhe’s casual dining restaurant, with an Italian-inspired menu of contemporary comfort-food dishes, has become a local favorite. The menu changes often, but a recent lunch began with beef carpaccio with leek-and-goat-cheese mousse and ravioli filled with egg yolks, and white beans with Gulf shrimp, grilled lemon and baguette wands. Main courses were excellent, too, including veal meatballs with Parmesan polenta and homemade pasta with goat cheese, fresh peas, mint, lemon and toasted pine nuts. The service is friendly, and there is a good selection of wines by the glass. Closed Sunday and Monday.
539 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 822-6540
Perfect for lunch, this modern take on a laid-back, old-fashioned Florida fish shack draws crowds with dishes like conch fritters, grouper cheeks with sweet Thai chile, shrimp po’boys, and the regulars’ favorite, a grouper sandwich, with the fish grilled, blackened or fried and served with lettuce, tomato, onion and tartar sauce. Big Ray’s also serves a fried-shrimp basket and a succulent grouper Reuben on rye bread with coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing. The Key lime pie is delicious. Closed Monday.
Big Ray’s Fish Camp
6116 Interbay Boulevard, Tampa. Tel. (813) 605-3615
Chef Jeannie Pierola’s casual-eats bistro, a short distance from downtown Tampa, has an easygoing roadhouse atmosphere, plus an alluring menu of inventive comfort-food dishes. Start with some sesame tempura cauliflower with Sriracha-yuzu mayonnaise and radish salad, a Florida lobster taco or a Meyer lemon-crab salad tartine, and then try the chicken and waffles or the hamburger, which won a best burger award from the Tampa Bay Times food critic. The dessert not to miss is the sugar-crusted butter cake with brown-butter ice cream, pineapple, macadamia nuts, passion fruit and toffee sauce.
Edison: Food + Drink Lab
912 West Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa. Tel. (813) 254-7111
Run by the owners of Bern’s Steak House, Haven is a fashionable modern American bistro, with an outstanding wine list and an innovative menu organized according to slightly confusing and pretentious subheads: “Roots & Leaves” means salads, pasta and vegetables, while “Curds and Whey” features cheese dishes. Ignore these categories and start with some Gouda fritters with fenugreek ranch dip, roasted cauliflower with yuzu-and-plum brown butter, and charred scallops with Singaporean chile-crab sauce, and then try the lobster-and-avocado causa, grilled salmon with chermoula vinaigrette, duck confit tacos, and piri-piri quail with coconut-peanut sauce. The atmosphere here is relaxed, and the service is charming.
2208 West Morrison Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 258-2233
Chef David Lazer Benstock serves some of the best Italian food in Florida at this stylish white-painted restaurant with a loftlike décor. Start with the charred octopus puttanesca, steamed mussels with lamb ’nduja, or smoked meatballs, and then choose one of the homemade pastas as a main course, maybe the black capellini with Cedar Key clams and calamari, or the pasta al tonno, which is garnished with sushi-grade tuna, olives, capers, toasted garlic and salsa verde. The pancetta-spiced tuna with cannellini beans and charred Broccolini is a good choice for those who’d rather a dish other than pasta, as is the apple-butter-glazed pork chop with faro risotto. There is a good selection of Italian wines, including a velvety 2013 Prunotto Barolo DOCG for $120.
449 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. Tel. (727) 897-5900
Located in Tampa’s trendy Seminole Heights neighborhood, restaurateurs Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez’s modern American table has repeatedly ranked as the best restaurant in the city by local critics and food bloggers. Chef Brian Lampe’s small-plates menu runs to dishes like sea bass belly with glass noodle-crab salad, fried quail with hot-pepper aioli, chicken-fried grouper cheeks with corn pone and braised-collard mayonnaise, and gnocchi with short ribs, smoked ricotta and stewed tomatoes. Don’t miss the ricotta-strawberry cake with roasted-strawberry juice and strawberry-shiso sorbet for dessert.
Rooster & the Till
6500 North Florida Avenue, Tampa. Tel. (813) 374-8940
The hotel inventory in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area is dominated by chains. On the seaside in St. Pete Beach, the 1920s pink-painted Don CeSar continues renovations intended to polish its credentials as a luxury hotel. The two hotels below are not luxury lodgings but pleasant, comfortable and well-run properties.
Aping the style of renovated loft buildings in other cities, this recently built 137-room red-brick hotel is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. It derives its personality from a gastronomic theme designed to appeal to food-and-wine travelers. A lobby bar, a wine shop run by Bern’s Steak House and an ambitious restaurant, Èlevage, underline the appeal of this address. Rooms come with an earth-tone color scheme that includes patterned stone-gray wall-to-wall carpeting, oak side tables, writing desks and comfortable beds made up in white cotton sheets. Many rooms come with an outdoor terrace. Amenities include a spa and an outdoor pool. It is imperative to insist on a room as far away from the busy highway that passes behind the hotel.
Friendly staff; convenient on-site parking.
Highway noise at the rear of the property.
It’s an easy walk to two of the best restaurants in Tampa: Bern’s Steak House and Haven.
St. Pete Beach
This quiet, recently renovated 14-room, two-cottage hotel is a good base from which to explore for anyone who wants a seaside setting; the white-sand beach here is beautiful and uncrowded. The best rooms are Magnolia and Gulfstream, both of which come with cathedral ceilings, sea views and private balconies. Rooms are painted white, with blue carpeting and coastal décors of white-painted and wicker furniture; travertine baths come with walk-in rainfall showers. The inn also offers a light breakfast, beach towels, coolers and ice, beach chairs and umbrellas to its guests.
Attractively decorated accommodations across from a lovely beach; friendly, helpful service.
The weekday breakfast offer could be more extensive.
Depending on traffic, it’s about a 20-minute drive from the hotel to downtown St. Petersburg.