Cultured Pearl, Tampa Bay

Move over London, New York City and Miami: There’s a new art town on the scene. Enter stage left: our own Tampa, Florida.

Dali, Chihuly, Degas, Verdi, and um, Shrek? Tampa Bay sets the stage for a rainbow of culture from high-brow art to history-come-alive and family-friendly exploration. Newly rejuvenated museums and galleries on both sides of the bay – plus a new and comprehensive dedicated arts website, - have elevated the Tampa arts scene on par with the world’s greatest.

A Riverwalk Runs Through It

Years in the making, the 2.2-mile downtown Riverwalk will connect all the cultural dots on the downtown Tampa map when completed. The wide scenic walkway threads along the Hillsborough River past hotels, restaurants, parks, historic markers and the view of the historic Tampa Bay Hotel’s spires on the opposite shore. 

At one end, the Tampa Bay History Center recently moved into an impressive three-story architectural waterfront location. Interactive exhibits tell the story of Tampa heritage, urging visitors to weave their own Seminole Indian fabric pattern, create a citrus label, ride a Cracker horse saddle, play pioneer games and more.

At the other end of the continuum, clustered around the green lawn and cool playground of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, lies a cultural hub anchored by the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Its five theaters host Opera Tampa, Broadway spectaculars, ballet and children’s performances. Early May highlights include Verdi’s La Traviata and Shrek the Musical.

Bordering Hixon park shoulder-to-shoulder, Glazer Children’s Museum and Tampa Museum of Art moved into shiny new buildings in 2010. Glazer engages children from birth to age 10 with original hands-on, gentle learning tools. Your kids can make like a drop of water traveling on its journey, produce a stage play complete with lights and sounds, race against a bunny, compete in a texting contest and slide down a fireman’s pole. There are no boundaries to where this museum can take the imagination.

After the squeals and giggles of Glazer, Tampa Museum of Art feels like a sanctuary for the psyche. From Greek antiquities to American modernism, the spacious galleries treat each piece like the treasure it is. Through June 19, 2011, the museum hosts a collection of highly treasured sculptures and paintings by French master Edward Degas.

A Bay Runs Through It

Across Tampa Bay, sister city St. Petersburg makes its own contributions to the hot new local art scene, most notably with the opening of the new Dalí Museum, which takes architectural cues from the famed surrealist’s work and more than doubles the space of the original museum.

Within walking distance, the Morean Arts Center recently debuted its exclusive Chihuly Collection of art glass created expressly for the new museum. Not to be left in the construction dust, the long-revered Museum of Fine Arts recently expanded with a new wing and restaurant.

Museum Food

The Museum of Fine Arts’ expansion follows a new trend in Tampa Bay’s art evolution – restaurants that entice you.

No longer an afterthought, new museum restaurants reflect their exhibits, such as the Spanish fare at Café Gala in the Dalí’s lobby (named for the artist’s wife). Dining options at the museums often spin off from a local popular restaurant, which is the case with Columbia Café at the history center, a handsome branch of the Ybor City original, and Sono at the art museum, operated by esteemed Mise en Place restaurateurs.

The Straz Center boasts three quality restaurants, while Tiny Bites at the children’s museum features healthy snacks and lunches mostly made on site.

It’s a tasty trend for sure – and one that stirs culinary art into the already simmering pot of Tampa Bay Culture.

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