Tampa Bay: A Cultural Hotspot

By: Mari Robyn Jones

Museums? Check. History? Check. Theater? Check. Tampa Bay has a plethora of artistic venues to satisfy your cultural palate.

Big-city sophistication, colorful history and eclectic entertainment converge in Tampa Bay, forming one vibrant, culture-rich playground. You'll find plenty of ways to play here, whether you're visiting for the weekend or longer.

Named a "Top Arts Destination" by the magazine American Style, this community on Florida's central west coast offers a wide spectrum of museums and galleries. You'll discover everything from musicals and opera to a Cuban-flavored enclave with eclectic boutiques and pulsating nightlife.

And you can't beat the location. Tucked between award-winning Gulf Coast beaches and Central Florida's famous attractions, Tampa is a short drive from some of Florida's biggest draws. Of course when it comes to culture, many of the Sunshine State's hottest spots are right here.

City Flair

Don't miss a visit to Ybor City (pronounced EE-bor), where Cuban, German and Italian immigrants settled in the 1800s to work in cigar factories. Spend the morning exploring Ybor City Museum State Park, where you can visit a historic 19th century cottage that once housed cigar workers.

Grab lunch and some Cuban coffee at one of the many authentic Cuban eateries in the neighborhood. Then stroll the brick-lined streets of Seventh Avenue, a popular strip filled with great shopping, dining and museums, and the Brad Cooper Gallery, a staple in Tampa Bay's art scene that showcases contemporary artwork from October to June.  If you like cigars, be sure to pick up some at one of many area shops – you can even watch them being hand-rolled.

Also along Seventh Avenue you'll find Florida's oldest restaurant, the Columbia. Savor the Paella "A la Valencia" while watching flamenco dancers entertain with a blaze of color and sound (two shows nightly, except Sundays).

After sundown, Ybor City transforms into a fun-filled retreat for adults, offering some of the area's best nightlife and venues for live jazz, blues, salsa and reggae. CENTRO Ybor, a modern entertainment complex, is a hub for dining and nightlife, but other options abound. After dancing the night away, settle in for the night at The Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn, a luxury inn named after the city's founding father.

Museum Fever

Ybor City may be the area's most well-known hotspot, but you'll still crave a dose of fine art. Tampa Bay feeds the need with great museums and live performance venues scattered throughout the area.

With seven galleries, the Tampa Museum of Art displays exhibitions from artists around the world. The museum, which moved in 2010 to a new 66,000-square-foot building in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, also has on permanent display one of the largest collections of classical antiquities in the Southeast. The Contemporary Art Museum showcases the University of South Florida's collection of more than 5,000 pieces of artwork. At the University of Tampa, the Henry B. Plant Museum protects the legacy of the former Tampa Bay Hotel, a Gilded Age structure that once hosted President Theodore Roosevelt and Babe Ruth.

For more modern adventures, check out the films shown at the IMAX Dome Theatre at the Museum of Science & Industry. An excellent place for families, the museum features a planetarium that's perfect for stargazing as well as an exhibit where you can feel the impact of hurricane-force winds. Another kid-favorite is The Florida Aquarium downtown, which makes an art form out of teaching children about fish, the ocean and the natural world.

Art in Motion

Enjoy lavish touring Broadway musicals, grand opera as well as popular concerts, comedy and much more inside one of five theaters at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. If films are more your thing, catch an independent movie or live concert at the historic 1926 Tampa Theatre. This Florida Mediterranean-style building includes flourishes of Greek Revival and Baroque architecture, making it rich in both style and substance.

Don't forget to take a break during your visit for some shopping and dining sure to satiate your every taste. At Hyde Park Village, you can find Brazilian threads at Coco Brazil and then dine on gourmet food at the Wine Exchange Bistro & Wine Bar. International Plaza is filled with 200 specialty stores and 16 restaurants – another testament to the diversity you'll find in Tampa Bay.

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