Downtown Tampa: Past and Future Rolled into One

By: Kendra Gemma

Stroll through museums and learn about Tampa's rich heritage while visiting the modern downtown area.

As I marvel at the cigar roller's workstation on display at the Ybor City State Museum, it occurs to me that while Tampa's development was sparked by the cigar industry, the city today is like one of the roller's creations: Its inner core contains Cuban, Spanish and other rich cultures, and the outer shell and colorful band hold the past together in an artistic package.

Tampa's illuminating history and its bright future can be explored by museum hopping through downtown.

Accent on History

I begin my history lesson in Ybor City, a brick-paved community just north of downtown Tampa. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, moved his cigar business from Key West to a palmetto-covered area east of Tampa in 1885. The following year, the first cigar factory opened and more Spanish cigar manufacturers began moving their factories and workers to Tampa.

The streetscape is quiet as I enter the wood-planked Ybor City State Museum. It reminds me of an old general store and I stroll through the aisles, collecting juicy historical tidbits. 

All that learning, in a former bakery no less, has stirred up my appetite. Lucky for me, Columbia Restaurant, which opened in 1905,is just a few blocks away. I dig into chicken and yellow rice and make a mental note to return one night for dinner and the acclaimed flamenco show.


After sating my hunger, I head over to the Henry B. Plant Museum for a taste of how the other half vacationed at the turn of the 20th century.

Once containing 500 rooms on 150 acres, the former Tampa Bay Hotel played winter host to wealthy northerners, who came south to hunt, play golf, bet on horses and socialize — all on property.

Amazingly, it seems I've been transported to another era. Lamps lit with Edison filament bulbs, courting chairs and flocked wallpaper still decorate the resort. As I enter the two-story dining room, I can almost smell the seven-course meals and hear the orchestra performing in the gallery above.

I could linger all afternoon in Victorian repose at the Henry B. Plant Museum, but the Tampa Bay History Center has its own plans to take me back in time. There, budding archaeologists can unearth 10,000-year-old weapons, while pop culture buffs can get a kick out of kitschy 1950s souvenirs.

Lighting the Future

For truly brilliant — and very modern — art, Lights on Tampa turns downtown into a free, interactive art show. The innovative project repurposes several buildings into canvases for installations of light sculptures, video projections and kinetic LED displays. The permanent displays are at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) and City Hall.

Something Old, Something New

An illuminated building, Tampa Theatre lures me in for a new independent flick and a step into the golden days of movie palaces. Designed to resemble a Mediterranean courtyard at night, it opened in 1926.

It's hard to pry my eyes off the flamboyantly ornamented walls and the twinkling ceiling in order to watch the film, but the lights have dimmed and the organist is about to perform on the vintage Wurlitzer. It's showtime!

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