TAMPA, Fla. — Thousands of Iowa football fans will be descending on The Big Guava this week for the Outback Bowl.
Oh yes, that’s what some of the locals call Tampa — The Big Guava. Others call it Cigar City. Certainly, it’s not The Big Apple, but it’s also not Miami (better known as the Banana Republic), it’s not Orlando (a suburb of Disney World) and it’s not Jacksonville (which really belongs to Georgia).
How do I know? I lived in the city known for fine and funky food, cigar factories (most of them shuttered a long time ago) and a pro football team that once lost 26 in a row and also won a Super Bowl over 30-plus years.
In the interest of pointing all the Iowa tourists in the right direction, I have assembled a Top 10 list of my favorite things to do in Tampa.
Before we go much further, let’s clarify one thing. It’s Tampa, not Tampa Bay.
And, this list will include places to see in the “Tampa Bay” area.
You won’t find Busch Gardens, Bern’s Steak House and the Columbia restaurant (and its incredible flamenco show), although you could and should visit all those places.
Assuming most of those attending the game are adults, I also refrained from listing places geared for the youngsters. Nonetheless, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home of Winter, star of “Dolphin Tale”) and Dinosaur World.
Rather, this is a list of my favorite places, including some unusual gems and hole-in-the-wall eateries, which will satisfy your interest, appetite and wallet. Since I’ve been away for a few years, and some of my favorite haunts are out of business, I’ve enlisted the aid of Jeff Houck, the Tampa Tribune’s food writer and bon vivant.
As Jackie Gleason used to say, “And away we go:”
No. 10. Hot wings, cold beer. You can find the original Hooters at 2800 Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater. It’s on this list because in addition to the food and beverages, you can get a Hawkeye fix at a place established by guys from Iowa.
No. 9. Smoke a good cigar. One of my favorite spots is Edward’s Pipe and Tobacco (3235 Henderson Blvd.). Jeff feels the same way, and adds “tell Manny what you need and he’ll help you select the finest stogie.”
No. 8. Bet on a couple of races at Derby Lane (10490 Gandy Blvd. N, St. Petersburg). Sure, there are dog tracks in the Midwest, but this is one of those venerable places filled with characters and color. In fact, the dog track scene in the remake of Oceans 11 (Brad Pitt is eating a messy sandwich and trying to hook Carl Reiner into the scam) was filmed there.
No. 7. Experience a movie at the Tampa Theater. Located in downtown Tampa (711 N. Franklin St.), this place features more than just films. Listen to a preshow Wurlitzer concert, enjoy the atmosphere, gaze up at the ceiling and, well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
No. 6. Get religious. While you are in downtown Tampa, take a peek inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church (509 N. Florida Ave.). This magnificent church, built in 1905, features 70 beautiful stained-glass windows and a 135-foot dome. Light a candle for the Hawkeyes’ success and leave a donation.
No. 5. Get sand in your shoes. You really should take your shoes off if you go to the beach. Instead of hitting one of the touristy ones, go to St. Pete Beach or Pass-A-Grille, where it’s usually not as crowded and more locals hang out. Eat a blackened grouper sandwich at the Hurricane (807 Gulf Way) and watch the sunset from its upper deck.
No. 4. Walk Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk (4.5 miles) in the world. Park wherever you can and walk as far as you can. If you get to the southern end, you’ll have a great view of downtown.
No. 3. Eat a Cuban. True story: many years ago, then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy was invited to go fishing in Boca Grande. When he was picked up, the person who organized the outing said they had to “stop to get some Cubans” before they could go fishing. Tony thought they were picking up Cuban people before realizing they were getting Cuban sandwiches. No matter. The best Cuban sandwiches in the world are found in Tampa. Jeff confirmed that one of my favorite spots remains open: West Tampa Sandwich Shop (3904 N. Armenia Ave). Iowa caucus fans should appreciate that this is the place where politicians seeking the Latin Community’s votes must stop and have a Cuban, a cup of Spanish bean soup and Tampa’s own, a devil crab croquette.
No. 2. Listen to the music. Skipper’s Smokehouse (910 Skipper Rd.) remains a top spot for good food and music. Order gator bites and the catfish platter, wash it down with a cold Red Stripe beer and then head to the Skipperdome to listen to some reggae, blues or rock. Don’t let the name scare you; it’s an outside venue out back with a sand dance floor, rustic picnic tables and a live band.
No. 1. Head to Ybor City. Tampa’s version of New Orleans’ French Quarter is smaller but better in many aspects. Simply stroll down Seventh Avenue, visit the shops and grab drinks and grub along the way.
If you have been to Tampa, you no doubt have been to Ybor (pronounced Yee-Bor) City. However, you might have missed the best baked ziti in town (Carmine’s at 1802 E. Seventh Ave). Make sure you ask for extra garlic bread. If you want a taste of history, go to the Ybor City State Museum (1818 E. Ninth Ave.).
On New Year’s Eve, it’s a heck of a party. Then again, my memories of nights spent in Ybor City are a little fuzzy, so you’ll have to trust me.