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Known as the ‘Cigar Capital of the World’, Tampa Bay combines all the best bits of Floridian and Cuban culture. This bustling city was built up by Cuban cigar manufacturers and, whilst the records of its early history still exist, nowadays Tampa Bay is most famous for its endless tourist attractions. Whilst visiting Busch gardens or The Florida Aquarium is certainly the popular choice, the best parts are kept a little quieter. Wherever you are, it’s worth venturing off the beaten track, here are Tampa Bay’s true hidden gems:
Eat a Cuban Sandwich at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop
Food is always the best place to start when planning a city visit. During Tampa Bay’s ‘cigar days’ a sandwich that changed the world was born. Wanting to satisfy the appetites of factory workers, Swiss cheese, roast pork and ham were sandwiched between soft white bread – the Cuban Sandwich was born.
So, if you’re after Tampa Bay’s best sandwich, there’s hot competition. The West Tampa Sandwich Shop is a safe bet and has truly earned its stars over the years. The menu here is lengthy but this doesn’t compromise quality or quantity. The Cuban sandwich is truly great, with all the necessary fillings: fresh Cuban bread, ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, mustard and pickles. President Obama visited in 2012 and ordered the Puerto Rican favourite, the Tripleta – another brilliant choice for meat lovers.
Visit the Amalie Arena
Home to Tampa Bay Lightning, arguably one of the most promising NHL teams at the moment, the Amalie Arena is a great place to spend a rainy evening. Hockey fans can pick up tickets for very reasonable prices here and the atmosphere is electric. If you’re not so much of a sports fan then don’t panic. As well as sports, the arena is used to host huge live music and theatre events. In the coming months rock and roll legends KISS will be playing here as part of their final tour ever, named ‘End of the Road’. As well as KISS, the acclaimed band ELO are also playing a date here alongside talented multi-instrumentalist Dhani Harrison. Travelling with kids? You can also still snap up tickets for Disney on Ice, which is sure to keep them enchanted for the evening.
Visit Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens is a truly special haven in Tampa. This stunning garden was the brainchild of Edward Bok, who recruited a series of famous architects, artists and artisans to create the buildings and grounds in this expansive landmark. The centrepiece of the gardens is a 205ft marble carillon tower, painstakingly built and carved in 1929, which still holds daily concerts.
The gardens were designed to be an informal and contemplative space that made the most of the undulating views towards the tower. Native and exotic plants are cleverly mixed to create a natural feeling to the landscaping. All of the plants were chosen to provide food and cover for birds and wildlife, allowing visitors to catch sight of some rare migratory birds. If you look closely at the tower, you’ll see that instead of the traditional Gothic gargoyles, that eagles and herons are carved out of the marble.
If the indoors is more your thing, don’t forget to take part in a tour of the Pinewood Estate. This enormous 1930s mansion is comprised of 20 immaculately preserved rooms and offers stunning views across the nature reserve and gardens. For those who prefer an adventure, the Preserve Trail allows you to follow a relatively relaxed 1.5mile walk around the Lake Wales Ridge part of the nature reserve, taking in the extraordinary diversity of wildlife along your route.
Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe
This quintessentially American cafe is a real blessing to Tampa Bay. With walls covered in memorabilia from times gone by and a patio area dedicated to scrap metal statues, this little cafe is a slice of American History. You’ll usually find local musicians playing shows in the evening and Ella’s belief is that music should be free for everyone to enjoy.
Whilst the ambience here is unlike anywhere else, the food is the real drawer. Soul Food Sundays are without doubt the highlight of the week, serving up the best brunch you’re likely to find. For a real taste of Southern comfort food try the fried chicken and waffles. It is enough to keep a grown man going all day; butter soft waffles served with three juicy pieces of chicken, a devilled egg and your choice of side – the collard greens with bacon are to die for.
Visit Safari Wilderness
If you do nothing else on your visit to Tampa Bay then make time for this experience. Safari Wilderness is a vast 260 acre park situated just outside Tampa in Lakeland. Tours are limited to just 6 people at a time to allow you to get truly up close to the animals. Huge herds of free range animals coexist in a stunning natural environment. An experienced guide will take you on a tour of the park, even allowing you to feed the animals that approach the tour vehicle.
If you would prefer an even more unique experience then there is the possibility of choosing to tour by kayak, or on the back of a camel instead of the shaded safari vehicle. The park houses around five hundred animals, ranging from ostriches, to buffalo and warthogs to oryx. Little children will love seeing the smaller animals in enclosures, such as peacocks, guinea pigs and tortoises. For an experience to remember you can book to hand feed the ring tailed lemurs, guinea pigs or budgies.