Helen Anne Travis
Ah, Thursday night — the only truly social night of the week. It’s the night when babysitters are booked, friends convene, and drinks are imbibed. There are no family obligations to fulfill, no amateurish weekend crowds to elbow through — and the possibilities are endless. The night starts after work and ends whenever you want. In any city. All over the world.
This week, we’re presenting the perfect Thursday night in Tampa:
Downtown Tampa has changed. Just a few years ago, the urban core was a ghost town on nights and weekends. But thanks to a few pioneering business owners and an ongoing series of city projects, downtown and the surrounding districts are now the place to be.
Great news because these are the most historic parts of the city. Within just a few miles of each other are the one-time cigar capital of the world, the former headquarters of the Spanish-American War, and the landing site of the world’s first commercial flight.
Today, these historic sites are getting new life. Brewers, restaurants, and hotels have set up shop in Tampa’s oldest and most significant buildings. Here’s to a history and hops-filled Thursday night in Tampa.
Start your exploration with a drink at the spot where some of the city’s most notorious mafia bosses took their last steps as free men. The Le Meridien hotel opened in 2014 in Tampa’s former federal courthouse. The century-old downtown building had sat vacant for about a decade until Le Meridien renovated the judges’ chambers into guest rooms, studios, and suites. Follow the imposing courthouse steps to the hotel’s Bizou Brasserie restaurant to take advantage of its “work release happy hour.”
A few years ago, this strip of riverfront was a parking lot. But tonight, the manicured grass is covered in picnic blankets, coolers, and lawn chairs for the city’s Rock the Park concert series, held the first Thursday of every month in downtown’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The park, which debuted in 2010, was the first of a series of city projects that opened the downtown riverfront to the people.
These days, it’s a popular spot for concerts and festivals, or just to kick off a Thursday evening with a view of the sun setting over the minarets of the former Tampa Bay Hotel across the Hillsborough River.
The hotel grounds now serve as the campus of the University of Tampa. But back in the day, this sprawling Victorian and Moorish-inspired building welcomed visitors like Babe Ruth (who hit his longest home run on the hotel’s grounds) and the Queen of England. It even served as the headquarters for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at the beginning of the Spanish American War.
Make room for dinner with a stroll along the Tampa Riverwalk. What started 39 years ago as a modest wooden boardwalk is now a 1.8-mile path that follows the Hillsborough River from Curtis Hixon Park to the Convention Center. The path slinks under several bridges that are illuminated at sunset, basking the path in alternating shades of blue, green, and red. It also passes the spot where the world’s first commercial flight, which flew passengers between Tampa and nearby St. Petersburg, landed on January 1, 1914. The most recent portion of the Riverwalk opened in April 2015. In the next year or so it will stretch all the way to Tampa Heights, the city’s oldest neighborhood.
If you didn’t make a reservation, you might be able to snag a seat at the bar of Ulele (pronounced you-lay-lee), a seafood restaurant and brewery that opened last year in one of the city’s first water pump stations. Tampa’s history is everywhere here. The restaurant was named after the Native American princess who convinced her father to spare the life of one of Tampa’s early Spanish explorers, a story some believe inspired the legend of Pocahontas. Arrowheads found nearby decorate the walls, while diners sit on benches salvaged from the old federal courthouse downtown. Even the menu pays homage to Tampa’s past. The oysters, fish, and crabs once harvested by local tribes are the stars of the show here, as are the pork products brought over by the European explorers who first sailed into Tampa Bay.
From the 1880s to the mid 1920s, the cigar industry was the foundation of Tampa’s economy. More than 400 million cigars were rolled each year in Ybor City, a neighborhood just northeast of downtown. Today, Ybor is Tampa’s most entertaining spot for nightlife. Grab a stogie and a sidewalk table at King Corona Cigars to watch the district come alive. Drag queens hurry to their gigs, motorcycles and antique cars roar up and down the main drag, and street musicians serenade club-goers and couples pushing strollers.
The granddaddy of Tampa’s craft beer scene is Cigar City Brewing, voted the fourth best brewery in the world by ratebeer.com. The brewery’s newest outpost is Ybor’s Cigar City Cider and Mead. Don’t worry if you’re not into honey wine or jalapeno-infused cider. You’ll also find Cigar City beers like Tocobaga Red Ale, which gets its name from the Native American tribe that lived in Tampa before the Spanish arrived, and Jai Alai IPA, named after a game that originated in Spain’s Basque region and became popular in Tampa in the 1960s and 70s.
Every Thursday you can catch live American and Irish music at Ybor’s James Joyce Irish Pub & Eatery. The bar serves traditional Irish drafts, as well as a pint of Tampa history. More than a hundred years ago, this building was one of the first Italian markets in Tampa. It opened in 1892 to serve the Italians who had migrated here to work in Ybor’s budding cigar industry. The Italians left their mark on Ybor — the nearby Italian Club has been in operation for more than 120 years — they also contributed to the recipe of a very famous sandwich invented in Tampa.
By now you’ve thrown back a few rounds of cider, beer, and Guinness. Soak it all up with a Cuban sandwich from the late night menu at Ybor’s Gaspar’s Grotto. The sandwich was created in Ybor during Tampa’s cigar heyday. Every wave of Tampa’s foreign settlers made their mark on the sandwich. The Cubans brought the roasted pork, the Italians the genoa salami. The Spanish added layers of ham, and the Germans topped it off with mustard and pickles. But it’s late and you’re pretty buzzed. Don’t worry about history. Just enjoy the sandwich.