Florida's very own "city by the bay", Tampa is indeed a jewel in the crown of the Sunshine State. Situated near the center of the Gulf Coast, the area now occupied by the city was first explored by Spaniard Ponce de Leon in 1513 but remained virtually ignored for three centuries in favor of setting up towns on Florida's eastern seaboard.
Its beauty was finally discovered and honed in the late 19th century, when the railroad came to town and entrepreneur Henry B. Plant built lavish hotels along the rail line to attract well-to-do guests who arrived in hopes of enjoying the Florida sun and warm waters of the Gulf. In addition, Tampa's location on the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay made it an important and bustling port city and, today, it remains the seventh largest port in the nation.
Many historians, however, mark the 1886 arrival of Cuban cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor as the turning point for the city. His business brought notoriety to the town and established it as an important manufacturing location. Today's tourists can visit lively Ybor City, named for the cigar maker, where Cuban/Hispanic culture is alive and well.
But while evidence of those early days can still be found throughout the city, Tampa is now the Gulf Coast's vibrant center for banking and technology. Its thriving economy is evident in the sparkling glass-and-steel high-rises that stretch up into the nearly-always-blue sky and in the hordes of well-dressed business people that stroll along the streets during their lunch hour.
Yet, Tampa isn't a stuffy city. That relaxed Florida atmosphere is ever present here. You'll find character in its diverse neighborhoods and the people are friendly and laid back. You can just as easily find a five-star restaurant as a fast food joint. And the nightlife rocks, despite the fact that many view Florida's Gulf Coast as a retirement mecca.
Tampa offers locals and visitors a host of educational and enjoyable arts experiences. Located within the downtown area is The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, situated along the picturesque Hillsborough River and offering five theaters that host everything from Broadway productions to symphony orchestra performances to concerts by some of the world's top musicians.
Tampa Museum of Art has an impressive collection of 20th century works as well as a number of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities; and the enchanting Henry B. Plant Museum, housed in the Moorish-style former Tampa Bay Hotel, provides visitors with a look at opulent life during the Gilded Age.
Aside from Busch Gardens, families with children can find myriad things to do in downtown Tampa without ever venturing to the outlying areas of metropolitan Tampa Bay. The city center is home to the magnificent Florida Aquarium, with its 10,000 aquatic plants and animals; the hands-on Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI); Kid City, the children's museum of Tampa; the 56-acre Lowry Park Zoo; and the fascinating Tampa Bay History Center.
Part of the charm of Tampa is its ethnic diversity and its unique neighborhoods. Some are quite old, some fairly new. Hyde Park, for example, was always one of the most affluent parts of the city and today is home to newly refurbished homes, upscale boutiques, and several fine restaurants.
On the other hand, Ybor City is brimming with Latin ambience. Probably the city's most popular nightlife spot, the neighborhood is often jumping until the wee hours of the morning. It's also a great place to buy cigars! Carrollwood, one of the first planned communities in Florida, is brimming with yuppie coffee shops and has its own little man-made beach on the shores of Lake Carroll. Most of its residents are academic types from the nearby university.
Seminole Heights is Tampa's artsy community and continues to attract young professionals seeking affordable housing within the city.
Tampa residents know how to party! Throughout the year, the city hosts a number of special events. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is by far the most popular. Held annually in late January, it celebrates the legend of Jose Gaspar, a Spanish pirate captain who operated in southwest Florida. The festival includes parades and an "invasion" of downtown Tampa.
Tampa is also home to the state fairgrounds. Each year, the Florida State Fair attracts thousands who arrive in Tampa to enjoy the February event that includes livestock displays, music, food, and rides.