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Located on Florida's Central West region, Tampa Bay is a large body of water emerging from the Gulf of Mexico and is also the name of this region of Florida encompassing many cities including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Tampa is Florida's third largest city and its cities surrounding the bay account for one of the state's largest metropolitan areas. While not as showy as Miami or as full of tourists as Orlando, the Tampa Bay area is in fact a great place for visitors with its many waterways, great beaches, family-friendly attractions and the outstanding African-themed Busch Gardens featuring exotic animals, amusement rides, wildlife habitats and nature exhibits.
Today, Tampa is known as a prosperous business center with many corporate headquarters located in the area. Tampa is home to the MacDill Air Force Base on the southern tip of the peninsula, downtown Tampa to the north and the Hillsborough River which runs through the city, Busch Gardens, University of South Florida and the University of Tampa. Across the sparkling bay to the west is the peninsula with St. Petersburg to the south on the bay-side of the peninsula and Clearwater on the north end of the peninsula on the gulf side. Made up of mostly residential neighborhoods known for its largely elderly population, this area is home to sandy beaches, serene neighborhoods with manicured lawns, plenty of parks to enjoy the nearly daily sun and of course plenty of retail shopping and dining. Those looking for a bit more life will want to head to St. Petersburg Beach with its late-night hot spots, restaurants and hotels.
Summers last from May through October and are hot and stormy with temperatures ranging from 75-90° F, and temperatures throughout the rest of the year range from 55-75° F
Tampa Bay, Florida, has much to recommend it: Busch Gardens (which predates Disney World), impressive museums, winning sports teams (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning), fishing charters, state and local parks, one of the country's largest ports, rocking nightlife and a wealth of tourist attractions.
Tampa has sharks and rays at the Florida Aquarium and the more lovable manatees at the zoo. At Busch Gardens, you can ride across re-created African plains in a safari truck, stopping to hand-feed roaming giraffes. Or you can go to sea on a fishing charter and try to catch your own wildlife.
In Ybor City, the historic Cuban neighborhood, you can amble down brick streets, following your nose to bakeries to buy fragrant loaves of Cuban bread or to shops where tabaqueros hand-roll fine cigars. Lively Spanish conversation might lead you to an old-fashioned domino parlor where grandfathers with gnarled hands gather to play in friendly neighborhood matches. Antiques shops, boutiques and art galleries beckon. After dark, the nightclubs throw open their doors, and Ybor City metamorphoses into a hip nightlife spot.
St. Pete (the local name for St. Petersburg, Florida) is only a 30-minute drive away, and the gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches are about a 45-minute drive. The theme parks of Orlando, Florida, are about 90 minutes to the east.
Sights—Check out the architecture, shopping and nightlife in Ybor City; spend a day (at least) at Busch Gardens; enjoy a movie at the historic Tampa Theatre; take in a Broadway musical at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Museums—The Tampa Museum of Art; the Museum of Science and Industry; the Alhambra-inspired Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa; the Salvador Dali and Dale Chihuly museums in nearby St. Petersburg.
Memorable Meals—Authentic Spanish and Cuban cuisine (complete with flamenco dancers) at the Columbia Restaurant; a slab of beef at Bern's Steak House; authentic Italian fare at Bella's Italian Cafe.
Late Night—A comedy act at The Improv; drinks at The Hub, a Tampa institution; a warm evening of conversation and top microbrews at Ybor City's New World Brewery or club hopping among Ybor's outrageous nightclubs.
Walks—The Tampa Riverwalk through the heart of downtown; Bayshore Boulevard; nearby Clearwater Beach at sunset; walking along the piers at Channelside; an early-morning stroll through Flatwoods Wilderness Park to watch for wild boar, deer, egrets and sandhill cranes.
Especially for Kids—The Florida Aquarium; Adventure Island's Wahoo Run, a spiral waterslide; the Lowry Park Zoo, with its more than 1,000 animals and safari rides; Glazer Children's Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry for more inquisitive kids.
Greater Tampa, a major port city, sprawls around the northern end of Tampa Bay. The beaches of the Gulf of Mexico are west across Old Tampa Bay, and the city of St. Petersburg is southwest across the bay. Bridges and a long causeway stretch across Old Tampa Bay (with signs warning you to check your gas gauge) to link the city to St. Petersburg and the popular beachfront communities of Clearwater, St. Pete Beach and other smaller resort towns set along the narrow, interconnected barrier islands just offshore.
North of downtown are Busch Gardens, Adventure Island, the Museum of Science and Industry, a cluster of parks and the University of South Florida.
The Hillsborough River, the main source of Tampa's drinking water, weaves through the city from the northeast. The river passes right through downtown, providing beautiful riverside vistas, parks and walkways.
Tampa's streets are basically laid out in a grid. The east-west divider is Florida Avenue. Kennedy Boulevard divides north from south. Interstate 75, just east of downtown, and Interstate 275, running directly through town, are major north-south routes. Interstate 4 runs from Tampa to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast and is the preferred route to Walt Disney World and the other Orlando-area attractions. I-275 continues west across Tampa Bay via Howard Franklin Bridge to connect with St. Petersburg.
The Calusan and Timucuan people were the original inhabitants of the area. Centuries later, around 1500, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived. Staking claim to the Native Americans' real estate, the Spanish also attempted to convert them to Christianity. The ensuing bloodshed lasted for more than 300 years. By then Tampa and the rest of Florida were becoming settled, and in 1824, Fort Brooke was built nearby to subdue the remaining resistant Seminoles, another of the fierce Floridian groups.
For several decades, Tampa remained a quiet little village surrounded by orange groves. Then, in 1884, transportation baron Henry B. Plant linked the city to Jacksonville by rail. Plant also established a steamship line that connected Tampa to Havana, Florida near Tallahassee, and he opened the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891, establishing the city's profile as a winter resort for the rich and famous.
The city got another boost in 1886, when Vicente Martinez Ybor, attracted by lower taxes, moved his cigar factory to Tampa from Key West. He brought thousands of cigar makers with him, swelling Tampa's Latin population and intensifying its Latin flavor. Ybor City supplied money and men for the 1898 Cuban Revolution, and it was a staging ground for U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War.
Tampa became a shipbuilding center during World War I, and the city boomed again in the 1920s, when millionaire developer David P. Davis created Davis Islands by dredging the mud flats in Hillsborough Bay. World War II saw the opening of MacDill Air Force Base.
Today, Tampa is Florida's third-largest city after Jacksonville and Miami. The greater Tampa Bay area, sometimes referred to as the Tampa-St.-Petersburg-Clearwater area, has approximately 3.25 million people, making it the business center of west-central Florida and Florida's second most populous metropolitan area after Miami. In fact, the greater Tampa Bay Area holds nearly 20% of Florida's approximate 21 million residents. It's also an air and sea gateway to the western Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.
Ybor City, Tampa's historic district, is often referred to as the Cigar Capital of the World because of the millions of cigars produced there. You can still watch a master tabaquero hand-roll a cigar there, but Ybor City is also known as a mecca for nightlife and dining.
As a young journalist, Winston Churchill reported from Tampa on the Spanish-American War in Cuba.
Tampa retains its strong ethnic heritage: Spanish, Cuban and Italian. Not surprisingly, Tampa is home to La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper (Italian, Spanish and English).
Tampa is the source of about 90% of the tropical fish swimming in U.S. aquariums. Some 12,000 to 15,000 boxes of fish are shipped each week via Tampa International Airport.
El Parque Amigos de Marti in Ybor City contains soil from all of the provinces of Cuba and honors Cuban hero Jose Marti, who created the Cuban Revolutionary Party.
Native Americans from the Calusa tribe called the area Tanpa, which means "sticks of fire." Some believe this name stems from the high concentration of lightning strikes that Tampa Bay receives every year during the hot and humid summer. In fact, Tampa is known in the weather community as the "lightning capital of North America," as measured by the average number of days per year with thunderstorm activity.
The manatees that frequent the Gulf Coast are an endangered species: An estimated 3,500 are believed to live in Florida. The main reason they're endangered is the large number of pleasure boats that ply the waters. The manatees find it difficult to avoid the propellers of the boats—even those that have managed to survive often have visible scars from the blades.
European sailors were known to mistake manatees for mermaids. That they could imagine the homely creatures as alluring maidens of the deep suggests that they had been at sea for a very long time.
Tampa's nickname is the "Big Guava" after its failed attempt to grow guavas and in response to New York's popular "Big Apple" moniker. Every October, the city celebrates with a night parade and festival called Guavaween.
Tampa's biggest annual festival celebrates legendary pirate Jose Gaspar, "last of the Buccaneers," who terrorized the coastal waters of west Florida during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Gasparilla gets under way each January when 1,000 ersatz pirates sail into downtown on a fully rigged pirate ship, a replica of an 18th-century craft that is 165 ft/50 m long by 35 ft/10 m across the beam, with three masts standing 100 ft/30 m tall. The ship is met by a flotilla of hundreds of pleasure crafts intent on "defending the city."
Cruise ships dock in Port Tampa Bay Cruise Terminal, set on Ybor Channel. Tampa is a busy cruise port offering a large variety of resplendent cruise vessels going to such places as the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.
Port Tampa Bay's three cruise-ship terminals have state-of-the-art boarding bridges and a waving deck from which family members can wish passengers bon voyage. Secured parking lots are adjacent to each terminal, and driving directions are available on the Tampa Port Authority website. You can also take a shuttle or taxi from the Tampa airport, which is about 5 mi/8 km from the terminals.
Staff from the convention and visitors bureau meet all the ships and provide tourists with brochures. The Florida Aquarium, American Victory Ship and Museum, Sparkman Wharf, Amelie Sports Arena and a whole slew of shops and restaurants at the Channelside entertainment complex are located within walking distance of the cruise terminal. And you can access complimentary Wi-Fi in the Plaza or at one of the restaurants within the center. The electric trolley connects the cruise terminals with downtown and Ybor City. For more information, visit https://www.porttb.com.
In a separate area of the city is Port Tampa Bay Container Terminal, a busy shipping center for citrus products, cattle and phosphates, petroleum and other products. Tampa is also Florida's largest cargo port by land and tonnage, handling nearly one-third of cargo moving in and out of the state. The port has greatly increased the efficiency and speed for shipping and created a large number of jobs for the Bay area.
Most cruise lines offer guided tours for passengers who arrive in advance of the cruise or elect to spend time after they disembark. Though not the least expensive way to see the sights, these excursions free you from having to make arrangements yourself, and the tour operator will be certain to get you to the ship—or to your flight home—on time.
Excursions and their prices vary from cruise line to cruise line. Typical offerings are a sightseeing tour of the historic areas of Ybor City, downtown Tampa, the University of Tampa, and a dolphin ecotour that departs from the aquarium. Other excursions may include an afternoon at the beach or nearby Busch Gardens theme park. Check with your ship's shore-excursion staff or your travel agent for additional information.
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