Situated near the center of the Sunshine State's attractive Gulf Coast, Tampa boasts everything you'd normally find in a big city, from offices perched in high-rises to educational museums and historic landmarks to top-notch dining and dazzling nightlife. But thanks to its location near the Gulf of Mexico and its proximity to miles of sparkling beaches, life in this big city is a bit more laid-back and the Cuban roots of the city provide a unique ethnic feel that sets Tampa apart from other cities on Florida's west coast.
Indeed, Florida's "city by the bay" is a bustling commercial center, a vibrant seaport, and a rich historic destination all rolled into one. But that wasn't always the case. Dubbed "Tanpa" (sticks of fire) by the area's early Calusa Indian settlers, the Tampa Bay area remained virtually untouched by European settlers until the 1700s and it wasn't until more than 30 years after the U.S. purchased Florida from Spain in 1821 that Tampa became an incorporated city.
The first turning point in Tampa's history came in 1884 with the arrival of Henry B. Plant and the railroad. Plant's establishment of a steamship line from Tampa to Key West to Havana, and the building of his Tampa Bay Hotel, also gave the city that extra shot in the arm it needed to make a name for itself. But the most important boost to the city occurred when Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer originally from Cuba, moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa in 1885. Before long, the city had established itself as the "Cigar Capital of the World."
Today, Tampa remains vibrant and multi-cultural and has been described as "one of the five most diverse, integrated urban areas in the country" by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Location: The county seat of Hillsborough County, Tampa is bordered by two bodies of water – Old Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Bay, both of which empty into Tampa Bay, which, in turn, connects to the Gulf of Mexico. The city is located about 440 miles from the state capital of Tallahassee, 135 miles from Orlando, and 455 miles from Miami.
Size and population: The total area of the city of Tampa is approximately 171 square miles. More than 34% of the total area is water. As of the 2000 census, the population of the city of Tampa was 303,447, making it the third most-populated city in Florida. The Tampa Bay regional metro area, which also includes the surrounding towns of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is home to about 2,400,000 residents. About 20% of the population is of Hispanic origin, including a large number of residents who are of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent.
Climate: Like much of Florida, Tampa's climate is subtropical. That means the summer days are hot and the winter temperatures rarely reach below freezing. Average low/high (night/day) temperatures range from 50/70F in the winter to 75/90F in the summer, or 10/21C in the winter to 24/32C in the summer. The warmest months are June through September. Thunderstorms and late afternoon showers are commonplace during the warm months as well, especially from July through September.
Transportation: Tampa has its own busy international airport. Additionally, travelers may also choose the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport across the bay or the smaller Sarasota Airport, about 40 miles south. A bus system, operated by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), runs throughout the city and some of the surrounding suburbs. A small streetcar line with 10 stops is also a fun way to traverse parts of the city and is reminiscent of early public transportation in Tampa.
Keeping busy in Tampa is never difficult. Both business and leisure travelers can find plenty to do in and around the city, regardless of the time of year.
Beaches: Tampa boasts four beaches located within city limits – Ben T. Davis Beach, Davis Islands Beach, Cypress Point Park, and Picnic Islands Beach. They offer a variety of amenities including sunbathing and swimming areas, boat ramps, picnic groves, playgrounds, dog parks, and more. However, within the Tampa Bay metro area, visitors will find literally dozens of beaches that line the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Beaches in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, and Redington Beach are all within close driving distance to downtown Tampa.
Amusements/Attractions: By far, Tampa's most visited attraction is Busch Garden's Africa, located in the northeast portion of the city. With 2,000 live animals, thrill rides, live shows, some of the best roller coasters in the country, and more, Busch Garden's Tampa Bay attracts guests of all ages and is open year round.
In downtown Tampa, guests can visit the Florida Aquarium. Opened in 1995, this 200,000-square-foot facility is home to more than 10,000 aquatic plants and animals from Florida and the world over.
The mid-sized Lowry Park Zoo, also inside the city limits, beckons visitors to come meet the small but lively group of animals that live there.
Museums: Visitors to Tampa should make a point of visiting its quality museums. Though many are smaller than those in other large cities, they're all worth the time it takes to visit. Check out such gems as the Henry B. Plant Museum, Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Tampa Bay History Center.
Cultural Opportunities: The vibrant Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the largest such complex south of Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, hosts plays and Broadway-style musicals as well as opera and dance performances, and is home to Tampa Bay's professional symphony, The Florida Orchestra. Small, regional theaters are also located throughout the Tampa Bay area and provide plays, musicals, and concerts in a more intimate setting.
Sports: Tampa is the proud home of three major league sports teams – the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers; major league baseball's Tampa Bay Rays; and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a member of the National Hockey League. Many baseball aficionados make their way to the Tampa Bay area for spring training, watching their favorite teams gear up for the season, including the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays. The nearby University of South Florida also provides sports viewing opportunities for those who enjoy college athletics.
The Tampa Bay metro area provides visitors with a number of options for beaches, food, shopping, lodging, and more. St. Petersburg and Clearwater are just across the bay from downtown and provide miles of spectacular white-sand beaches, upscale restaurants and hotels, and extensive shopping areas including designer boutiques and other high-end retail establishments. Travel further south and you'll reach Sarasota and the beautiful islands of Longboat Key, where you can shop at ritzy St. Armand's Circle; and Siesta Key, where the sand is as white as powder.
From high-end resorts and hotels, to mid-priced chains, to cozy Mom-and-Pop motels, there are a plethora of lodging options from which to choose while visiting Tampa and its surrounding environs. Whether you're searching for downtown accommodations or a room with a bay view, you'll no doubt be pleasantly surprised at the variety of choices available to visitors.