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Welcome To Tampa! A Guide For Visitors To The College Football Playoff

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Roll Tide! C-L-E-M-S-O...N! You’re coming to America’s Next Great City for the biggest game. Here’s how to really enjoy it.

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The 813 welcomes you.
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Hey Alabama & Clemson: welcome to Tampa! America’s Next Great City (they need to trademark this eventually) has rolled out the red carpet for you, and it is 83 degrees as I sit on the patio of this soul food restaurant with live entertainment that does an amazing brunch.

Tampa and the Bay Area in general has never had more to see and do, and we think you’ll have a great time here. So without further ado... we’ll try and hit the highlights and keep this under 5000 words. Feel free to ask questions below.

Things to do:

Our friends at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the CFP Host Committee have a bunch of official stuff that’s taking over the city. The Taste of The Championship is pricey, but will be amazing as well as a chance to check out the award-winning Florida Aquarium. And the Playoff Playlist concert series at our beloved downtown Curtis Hixon Park on the Hillsborough River also has something for everyone: Gavin DeGraw! Usher! Eric Paslay! Flo Rida!

If you’re looking for non-sanctioned fun, oh there’s plenty. The Tampa Riverwalk was just completed last year, and it envelopes downtown from the Hillsborough River to the Port of Tampa Bay, and most everything you’ll need and want to see will be within steps of it.

The Lowry Park Zoo is one of the best outside of San Diego, and for sure worth a day especially if you’re with children in tow. Also check out the Florida Aquarium, which is a stroll down The Riverwalk from all the sanctioned fun downtown.

If you like the animals, I’d take both of these places over Busch Gardens. If you want a bit of animals and a lot of very scary roller coasters, of course Busch Gardens is the way to go.

Downtown St. Pete has become the hot new place with tons of great restaurants and boutiques. At some point, get over the bridge and go explore. We love it over there, but aren’t nearly as expert on that side of the DMA. There’s better resources than us over there. We can vouch for the Dali Museum however.

Beaches:

We’ve got some of the best in the world, and a sunset is basically required for visitors. St. Pete Beach is full of great bars like The Undertow and PostCard Inn that might be a bit more accessible for boozing, but anywhere on Redington, Indian Rocks Beach (I went here for dinner yesterday and it was delicious), Belleair, or Clearwater is great too. Some areas are more touristy than others, so YMMV. If you go to Clearwater, turn right (instead of left as all the tourists do) at the traffic circle and keep going for a mile or two for one of the area’s best kept beach secrets.

Honeymoon Island is a great spot if you want something totally natural without resorts and restaurants behind you, and Siesta Key (though a bit of a drive) is also simply gorgeous and has been rated as the #1 beach in America.

Beer:

Lots of cities have local brew pubs now, but no one has a beer culture quite like Tampa in terms of quality and quantity. It started with Cigar City Brewing, and their contribution to the culture was two-fold: creating beers so delicious they are treasured everywhere (this one goes for $125 a bottle on the black market), and also encouraging as many other local breweries to join them.

There are dozens and dozens of places in the area, but we’ll pick a few on both the Tampa and beach sides we love: Angry Chair in Seminole Heights is fantastic. So is Hidden Springs on the edge of downtown. Southern Brewing is also cool because you can buy everything you’ll ever need to make your own beer at home too. But basically all of them are wonderful because if they aren’t they don’t stay in business around here too long and you should go to them. Many don’t have food in-house, but UberEats & Postmates are both here and they’ll deliver anything you’d like to anywhere you are, and that’s how a lot of the local breweries do food.

On the Pinellas side, make sure to check out 3 Daughters (not just for the beer, but the sort of Bar Olympics you can play in their warehouse) and Green Bench as well.

Here’s a list of all the places around. You can’t go wrong in any of them

Steak:

We have many great places for this, but if you’ve never done Bern’s, it’s worth the experience. One of the great steakhouses on the planet, it has the world’s largest working wine cellar, and does so at a price point that isn’t nearly as high as the legend says. If you stay away from the crazy parts of the wine list, it’s actually much cheaper than a Ruth’s Chris or a Capital Grille.

Regarding that wine list... yes, they have it. It doesn’t matter what chateau or vintage you just conjured up in your head, they have it. And some Burgundy’s from the late 70’s and early 80’s can be had for as little as $35ish a bottle. The wine list reads like Tolstoy, but your server can help you narrow it down.

Make sure you take the tour of the kitchen and the wine cellar, and leave time and room for the Harry Waugh dessert room after dinner. Dress code is enforced, so no flip-flops and conference championship t-shirts please. I also live about a block away, so holler at me and I’ll walk over and let you buy me free food.

Charley’s is also very good and char-broils their steaks if that’s your thing. You can smell the grill when you pull in.

Haute cuisine:

The Refinery is farm-to-table flawless, and is all about the food with absolutely zero pretense. Not a lot of James Beard Award nominees have plates that don’t always match. But what they’ve done has given rise to so many fantastic and forward-thinking restaurants in Seminole Heights, including their offshoot Fodder & Shine down the street that focuses on what they call “Cracker Cuisine.”

Rooster & The Till is also really good, as is the aformentioned Ella’s Cafe in the same neighborhood.

Edison Food Lab near downtown is run by Tampa’s likely-most-famous chef Jeannie Pierola, and does some traditional fare but also isn’t afraid of some molecular gastronomic adventuring. It was rated #1 in the area by the Tampa Bay Times last year. Ulele is the new kid in town, but local restauranteur/legend Richard Gonzmart has made it a landmark already. Get a tour of their brewery if you can, but it’s a revelation. Do it.

I was remiss in the original publication here of forgetting Datz as well as Dough, a gastropub and a sweet shop right next to each other on MacDill Ave. They’re both really good, and Datz has a massive menu that isn’t afraid to challenge. Dough has doughnut ice cream cones... here’s the one I got the first day they offered them. The calories will come off sometime around 2019.

BBQ:

4 Rivers is up to nine locations around Florida, but their brisket is just phenomenal (ask for moist). Everything they do is really good, but... the brisket. Trust me.

Also Smoke Shack down on Gandy Blvd. promotes itself as gourmet barbeque, and I’d agree. They’ve gone from a food truck to a permanent location, and their sides are excellent too.

Cigars:

We are the cigar capital of the world and have a million places to get them, including some of the not-quite-totally-legal-yet-even-after-Barack-went-to-Havana ones if you ask around. Tabanero on 7th Ave. in Ybor City will sell you a Cafe con Leche while they roll your smoke for you. Take a few minutes and watch the artisans make them by hand using the same tools and techniques their ancestors did 100 years ago in the same area of town. King Corona a block over has a large selection as well, and you can buy a Guayabera, a mojito, a Cafe con Leche, a Cuban sandwich, and a haircut all under their roof.

Long Ash is another nice stop as well. That’s how we know the tourists: they get the ashes off the tip of their cigars as quickly as possible. Long ashes are a good thing, it helps even the burn. Don’t be that tourist.

For a fancy smoking experience, Davidoff of Geneva in the Westshore District is basically one football-field sized humidor and has a full bar. It’s a bit corporate, but the selection and atmosphere can’t be matched. Worth a stop if you’re in the area or want a smoke while you watch an NFL playoff game.

Traditions:

Tampa is unquestionably the home of the Cuban sandwich. Brocato’s (deviled crabs here too are legendary), West Tampa Sandwich Shop (probably the most authentic Tampa place in town), and La Teresita (amazing Cuban food, especially late night) are all terrific.

Gonzmart got his start with his family’s Columbia Restaurant, which takes up an entire city block of Ybor City. Their Cuban is as authentic as can be, but their paella and Flamenco dancing show is why they’re famous. Run the same way it was when it opened in 1905 (get the salad named after that year), it’s a landmark in town.

You won’t be here for Gasparilla, but feel free to come back in three weeks. It’s one helluva party, and the surrounding events last until May.

Still got questions? Ask below and I’ll do what I can to answer them. Also I’m sure I’ve forgotten awesome things here, so when something else gets added to the above later, you’ll know why.