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A Visitors Guide to Tampa, Home of the Outback Bowl and America’s 3rd Best Airport

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One man’s opinion on how to make another Outback Bowl trip memorable, regardless of the outcome of the game.

Iowa v Florida Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

In 1528 a one-eyed Spanish conquistador named Panfilo de Narvaez landed in what we now know as Tampa, Florida, in search of gold. He was the first European to land there. Narvaez was, by all historical accounts, unlucky as hell but neither was he an especially clever explorer. Most of his men hated him as he was known to be an inhumanly cruel man, and those that didn’t despise him thought him to be a joke and imparted practically no faith in him.

All his explorations ended poorly, including this one, his final one, which ended in him never finding any gold and, faced with relentless hostility by natives, hightailing it out of the area in order to survive. Practically running for their lives, Narvaez and his men constructed rafts to escape the interior of the Tampa area to seek refuge just off shore out of reach of the arrows and hatchets, however during a typical Tampa Bay storm the rafts broke apart and the one with Narvaez was pulled out to sea, never to be seen again.

In some ways, the Tampa Bay area has been striving to break free of the bad luck that its first non-native brought to the area ever since. In the early to mid-1800s, if it wasn’t bloody battles between whites and Seminoles, it was disease or hurricanes that brought death and anguish repeatedly to those who sought to settle the area. Tampa, which is a native term referencing the never-ending lighting storms of the area and literally means “sticks of fire,” finally got its first economic foothold in the 1880s when rich phosphate deposits were discovered for use in, among other things, fertilizers.

The Florida phosphate boom would bring thousands of speculators to the area. The boom also brought wealth and infrastructure as land prices went nuts and a railroad emerged to support mining plants. This led to even more population, which included Spaniards and Cubans who made the area at one point “The Cigar Capital Of The World,” but ultimately the industry that the area would come to rely most upon was tourism. While few who live in Tampa realize the place owes a huge debt of gratitude to fertilizer, everyone understands that tourism and retirement (snowbirds as they’re called) are the cash cow of the area now. As such, Tampa Bay has a doddering but inherently hospitable nature that is deep-rooted. Oh, and that bad luck that Panfilo de Narvaez brought upon the area? Well, it’s now almost entirely situated in the efforts of all the local sports teams.

The first thing to know about Tampa, for those who plan to make their way to the Outback Bowl to see the Hawkeyes play the Gators, is this: Tampa as a tourist destination is not an encapsulated town that can easily be dominated by foot or taxi. It is sprawling area and the term "Tampa Bay" is used as shorthand to refer to all or parts of the Tampa Bay area, which comprises many towns and cities — most notably Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg — surrounding the large body of water. The bay itself gets its water from the Gulf of Mexico and because of the geographical enormity of the area, it’s more layered, culturally-speaking, than you might imagine. I have been going to the place as a visitor since the mid-1990s and to my continual surprise I’ve discovered something new on every trip.

What follows is a very personal and very pointed, but fairly well-researched suggestion of “things to do” for those who plan to go to Tampa for more than just the Outback Bowl game and the few planned festivities that support that event. If your plans are to get in, see the game, do the pep rally, eat some fried grouper, drink some local beer (more than 30 breweries call the area home) and get out, then this post will not be especially helpful.

My advice to this group is to dutifully follow the lead of the athletic department and you will tap bottle necks with lots of fellow fans, get your money’s worth on everything from breakfast to Tylenol, hopefully witness a win, and in the end you’ll have had a fairly typical, if not a very enjoyable Outback Bowl experience. But, if you are a more ambitious pilgrim looking to leverage this event into a full blown holiday, and are wondering if Tampa is worthy of a few more of your precious vacation days and more than a few extra Benjamins, my answer is an unequivocal YES. But, you have to think of this trip as much more than getting some sun, drinking some beer, and eating some fish, with an ersatz activity tossed in for selfie potential. Because, frankly, you don’t need Tampa for that, and to reduce the few extra days spent down there to just that would be akin to flying to Amsterdam just to quaff some Heinekens and see some titty.


THE GUIDE

Okay, let me lay some ground rules first:

  • This visitors guide is going to have a bit of a snobby undercurrent. Why? Partially because that’s just who I am, but mostly because when most people think of Western Florida snobbery is not the first thing that comes to mind. Crowd shots of Bucs or Rays games are proof enough of that. The Western half draws its population much more from the Midwest and Deep South than does the (South)Eastern half of Florida, which can be dominated by former Mid-Atlantic and New England residents, and big city Canadians. Some communities in Eastern Florida, and a few near Orlando, can be downright imperious. So, for that reason alone we bring snobbery into the mix, just to violate expectation but also to prove that Tampa is not just a city with an overarching wet t-shirt culture (in other words, it’s not Tallahassee or Panama City). Don’t get turned off just yet though. Snobbery in any part of Florida is still better than snobbery in just about any other part of America because it comes with flip flops. And flip flops are the great equalizer of prosperity.
  • This visitors guide is not going to care much about pinching pennies. This is not as pinned to the first ground rule as it sounds. There will be no “cheap eats” or “bargain activities” included. Why? Because I take the POV that quality of life is about accumulating unique and enjoyable experiences and if you turn your nose up to a unique experience that is right there waiting for you to take it on, in order to save $100, then you’re probably struggling with the key ingredients that make for a joyous life to begin with, and that’s clear cut evidence you DEFINITELY should not be caring about saving $100 here or there. To each his own, but if you’re gonna spin this bowl game into a holiday, do it in a way that you’ll find yourself reflecting on it well after your return flight touches down.
  • Mode of transportation is something you need to wrestle to the ground. You may want to rent a car, for maximum freedom and efficiency, but you can certainly get away with Uber/Lyft. Tampa Bay is a massive area as I said, and like lingonberries at an Ikea Swedish Food Market it’s all very much begging to be explored. The area, I am happy to report, now has a fairly well developed rideshare culture — but during busy periods, and this will be one, surge pricing and wait times can punk anyone’s groove. So, again, if you can swing it, rent a car to be more commanding over your holiday. But, be prepared to pay for parking here or there too. Moreover, if you decide to go the rental route make sure someone in your group is willing and able to be a designated driver, otherwise, ignore my car suggestion because you will be boozing. Instead, spend the car rental money on rideshare and leave your watch at home. When I do my Spring Training week trip to the area, I Uber everywhere because I am drinking before, during and after every game in 89 degree Florida sunshine. Even the most hardened alcoholic would wilt under those conditions, and the last thing I need is a mug shot. But, when I go any other time of the year, I rent a small car and beat the hell out of it. Whichever way you go, costs will be within $50 of each other.
  • I’m gonna organize the guide around activities and interests, not area. Why? Because if I had my druthers, I’d want you to check out the entire area. One major way to save money is to pick an area and drill deep, staying almost entirely inside that area and avoiding all the ticky tack costs that come with being on the move. But, and this is my opinion, that is a mistake. I much prefer to use Tampa Bay as my color wheel and paint with as many colors as time allows. The extra cost, to me, to be on the move, is well worth it.

Okay, here we go.

FOOD: Every trip for me is built around food. Food is not sustenance. If you need sustenance, take a bottle of One-A-Day Plus Iron and liquid diet this trip. No, food is culture and culture is life. I have one place that hits all the notes, and while it might not max out each note, it’s so wide-ranging you have to go there.

ISLAND WAY GRILL, Clearwater.

PROS: They serve steak. They serve sushi. They serve same-day caught seafood. They even serve fucking meatloaf. There is no one in your group that cannot be satisfied at this place. They have a wine selection that I would put against any and every restaurant in Iowa City, but not Coralville. They serve a Stone Fruit Margarita that is so decadent that it comes with a disclaimer printed in Bahama Slim Font on 8.5 x. 11 parchment paper (okay, I’m lying about the disclaimer). Oh, and they have gluten free and other snazzy beers. Best of all, they have valet parking and the valets are usually guys who have a story to tell — so hope your friend take a long time in the toilet on the way out. Make reservations in advance if you can.

CONS: Kidding? There are no cons.

http://www.islandwaygrill.com/

BERN'S STEAK HOUSE, Tampa.

We gotta talk about Bern’s. First off, this place is the restaurant icon of Tampa. The wine list is nothing short of epic, with 6,800 selections and over half a million bottles stored in the cellar, making it THE largest wine list in the world. Yep, the world. They give tours of the damn cellar (order dinner and then go check it out). The restaurant itself is large and revolves, as you might imagine, aggressively around steak but they also have a bottomless menu of caviar and the dessert is so incredible at this place they take reservations just for that. Not kidding. People make RSVPs just to eat dessert at this place. Bern’s does a quasi-family style service, and that is a tipoff. This place is GREAT for large groups. If you like or love wine, it is well worth the effort to go. It qualifies unreservedly as a dining “experience.” For those who are less enchanted by large group dining or steak or wine, then skip right to The Harry Waugh Dessert Room (again, they take reservations) and order port and/or coffee and the Baked Alaska, then thank me in the morning.

http://www.bernssteakhouse.com/

Bern’s Steakhouse and Its Unique No-Window Decor

BEER: I love beer as much as the next guy, as long as the next guy is not most Iowans (no one loves beer more than most Iowans, other than perhaps most Wisconsinites...and 99% of Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic and the Netherlands). But I do love beer. My first alcoholic beverage was a beer, and if memory serves me, my last one (Sunday) was as well. I have done two brewery tours in Tampa. One was a lemon, the other was laid back, educational, fun, and tasty. I’ll tell you briefly about both.

The first brew tour I ever did anywhere, was in Tampa at Yuengling Brewery. Yuengling claims to be America’s oldest brewery and the last family owned one left. I have no idea if either is true, and don’t really care. I never really liked their beer, but on a rainy afternoon one winter visit I loaded up the family and headed over for a tour that many had described online as a fun hour and half. It is not fun, per se. It’s a pretty antiseptic experience and the brewery is massive and turns out a crapload of beers daily, so you never get close to much of anything. That was more or less the focus of tour too, that the place is a big producer of beer. In fact, the subtext of the entire tour was “We are a big boy brewer,” which I found interesting because the whole market is moving aggressively to microbrews. Anyway, skip.

https://www.yuengling.com/

Cigar City is the other brew tour I have done. It’s in downtown Tampa and could be done the morning before a late flight out, or vice versa. Don’t let the name fool you, this brewery is nearer a Walmart Superstore than Ybor City, the actual city of cigars. But, that is the only objection anyone could have of this tour. They do charge you to sample the beer, or they did me at least. But, Cigar City makes some nice beers and it was less than $10. The tour is a much more passionate and informative walkabout learning the process of making different beers. You can ask questions and you will get answers. I highly recommend this tour over the Yuengling tour, and it was clear in the tasting room this was where the serious beer dude goes.

https://cigarcitybrewing.com/

P.S.: Beer is taken seriously in Tampa. There are other breweries in the area and, thus, other tours. I have not done them though. One smart guy told me you can do a tour of the tours, if you will. Similar to how you do winery tours in Napa or Sonoma, you rent a limo and go from brew tour to brew tour. It sounds like a blast, and here is the website for that decadence:

http://www.tampabrewtours.com/

BEACHES: Read any serious — I mean really effing serious — travel magazine and you will learn something that is mildly, if not completely surprising. The second best beach in the United State of America is in the Tampa Bay area.

Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin

Caladesi is a protected state park island that is surrounded by sandy and rock beach. Now, I’ve got some serious beach experience under my belt. I lived in Panama during high school (the place with the canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, not the shitkicker town in Florida). I’ve backpacked in Thailand, and been to Ko Tapu, Phang Nga Bay on the island of Phuket, a beach featured in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. I’ve been to Gouverneur Beach on St. Barth in the Caribbean, a beach that billionaires walk to with a beer cooler and spread their own towel (it’s isolated). While Caladesi Island beaches are not better than any of those (just being honest) it’s still a really, really sweet hang. If the weather is 75 degrees or above, and you are beach freak, you HAVE to go. Take a cooler or buy some sandwiches and a bag of iced down beer, and eat and drink on the beach. It is the Florida way. You will only see locals here.

https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Caladesi-Island

Caladesi Island State Park

Clearwater Beach, Clearwater

No, the photo above is not Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is a party beach. There are numerous restaurants and bars practically right on the beach. You can rent bikes, scooters, segways, jet skis, paddleboards, skateboards, motorized this and that. There are showers. There are volleyball nets. You get the picture. I like to go here when I want to get my overstimulated beach fix. One of my favorite things to do is eat a fried grouper sandwich at Frenchy’s, order a bucket of beers, then go ride one of these (below) up and down the causeway. It is surprisingly affordable and very unsafe.

Dumbasses

http://www.clearwaterbeach.com/

GOLF: After I graduated from Iowa, and the fall winds on Finkbine, I struggled to settle in on a career. It was not because of a lack of opportunity, it was because I was lazy and immature. So, naturally, overwhelmed by depression and anxiety about my future, I turned to golf. For about 5-years I played a shit-ton of golf, maybe an average of 27 holes a day, 9 months out of the year. I played for money, I played for trophies, I played to keep from growing up. Naturally I got pretty good. But the cost was an addiction that lasted about 25 years. Tampa was (I say was, because I dropped the sport 4-years ago) always one of my favorite fixes. I have never subscribed to the opinion that all of Florida is great golf. I have played plenty of bad courses in Florida. And, make no mistake, Tampa has their fair share. Maybe more than most. But, the good courses are wonderful. I am going to offer up three, all accessible to the public, because each has its own draw, and each can be played by any level of golfer.

1. Dunedin Golf Club. I freaking love this place. Jackie Gleason played here all the time. Frank Sinatra played here. The headquarters of the PGA, at one time, was here. And, while it is not swanky, expensive to play, or in country club shape, it is history. I mean, serious American golf history. I swear to god I can see Sammy Davis, Jr. backslapping some dude on a green far away when I am playing this beauty. It is shockingly true to its original design too. Meaning, not long, and not tarted up. And if my blurb hasn’t sucked you in, then knowing that it was designed by Donald Ross in 1926 should be the knockout blow. Calling all golfers.

https://www.dunedingolfclub.com/

2. Innisbrook - Copperhead Course. I am not going to go on and on about this course. It is famous. It hosts a PGA event. It is in the middle of a golf community to die for. It’s expensive. It’s worth it. It is a challenge too. I list this course for the more serious among you. You will remember it for a long time (Some PGA players say it is the hardest course on tour that does not host a major).

http://www.innisbrookgolfresort.com/golf/innisbrook-courses/

3. World Woods Golf Club, Brooksville. It’s a one-hour drive north of Tampa. There are two majestic courses in the middle of freaking nowhere. One course thinks it is Augusta National. The other thinks it is Pine Valley, the #1 course in the world for like 50 years running. I’ve been to Augusta National as a patron and to Pine Valley as a player, and I can tell you that the 36-holes at World Woods serve as about as fine an homage to these two incredible courses as it gets. But, only the most maniacal golfer should make the trek, and if you do, play both in the same day. It’s how it’s done.

http://www.worldwoods.com/

No, not Pine Valley. WORLD WOODS!

CULTURE (architecture, museum): The first time I went to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg I did so because it was cold and rainy and we were desperate to get away from my mom (god love her) for a few hours. My wife was insistent that we expose my 8-year old to some culture. I thought it was a hilarious idea...my hyperactive 3rd grader in a museum dedicated to an artist whose work smacked of a guy who enjoyed acid. I actually love to go to art museums, but how good could one in St. Petersburg, Florida be? Easy answer....OFF THE CHAIN.

So some dude from Cleveland, Ohio fell in love with Dali’s work in the 1940s. He bought a painting here, a painting there, and within 30 years he had the largest collection of Dali’s work in the world. He wanted to donate his collection to a museum, and the town of St. Pete (as it is affectionately known) made a strong bid for it...and got it! At first the museum was little more than a converted warehouse, but now it is in an incredible piece of architecture that in and of itself is worthy of your time. Of course, there is more than just Dali paintings and photos on display, much of the work is by surrealists and no art is more interesting to me. Surrealism is synonymous with post-modernism and no period of art can better relate to the current times than surrealism. I cannot recommend this museum highly enough. It will be crowded, so deal with it.

La persistència de la memòria by Dali

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: If you are a degenerate, like me, you like to gamble. Lucky for you there is a Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. Nothing special. Not a total dive either. It is a full scale casino with plenty of low dollar tables and a lot of one arm bandits, because those babies make casinos lots of mullah. Free parking just outside the entrance.

https://www.seminolehardrocktampa.com/

ON THE BEATEN PATH. If you like cigars or Cuban sandwiches or Cuban coffee, and I love all that shit, then Ybor City is your destination. Ybor City is that place I mentioned above as once serving as the Cigar Capital of The World. It is an immigrant area that has a fair amount of music and nightlife. Having said that, I have never had a “great” time in Ybor City. It is a bit too touristy of a destination for my taste, and I have tried to make it work on numerous occasions and always left feeling...meh. People will disagree with me on this. I respect those voices. But, my advice is to skip it unless it is very near your hotel. (I would not be surprised if there is a bowl game event scheduled there, so you may yet end up visiting).

http://yborcityonline.com/

FISHING: My brother-in-law is for all intents and purposes a professional at three things. He’s an architect. He’s a bluegrass fiddler, and has won awards at festivals. And he fishes. Holy crap does he fish. I am not a fisherman. I am an interloper to this world. But, I love the guy so much I have accompanied him on every conceivable fishing trip known to man. We’ve fished walleye in central Canada, salmon in the Strait of Juan De Fuca between Vancouver and Seattle, fly fished in scorching hot sun of Belize and this is only the tip of that iceberg. Of all the kinds of fishing we’ve done, none is more purely enjoyable as a day trip than fishing in the grass flats near the mouth of Tampa Bay for Speckled Sea Trout or, if you’re lucky, Gator Trout. Along the way you’ll see manatee, the cow of the sea, dolphin, you name it. It is a wildlife excursion as much as a fishing trip. Bring your camera.

http://funflatsfishing.com/

SPORTS ON TOP OF SPORTS: There isn’t much hockey in Iowa, but in Tampa, thanks to the Canadian retirement community, there is professional hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning are in town January 3rd, and getting tickets will not be difficult. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the big kahuna in this sports town though, and if you wanted to see them play that will cost you a bit more. The Bucs host Carolina on Sunday, January 1, and they might be playing for their playoff lives in that game. I find Bucs games to be a blast. In most seasons they’re not very good, and the vibe is still very intense. I could imagine this game being insane.

SIDE TRIP: The Magic Kingdom is just up the road. As an Iowan you know that a 2-hour drive is nothing. And that is how long the drive is from Tampa to Disney World in Orlando. The place will be open in early January and it will not be insanely busy. If you have children seriously consider looping it in. I have done the “there and back” trip on more than one occasion, and while it is not ideal (you wake-up at 6am, hit the road and open the park at 9am and stay till 6pm or 7pm, and head back) it is totally doable. We’ve been to Disney our fair share, and a 8-hour day is MORE than enough for even the most adrenalized Disney fan.

ALSO, a final word about St. Petersburg. I love this town. It is a Gen X hipster’s paradise. It is a food town, it is a bar town, it is an arts town, and to top it off, it is a town with incredible residential architecture. Best of all it is a legit downtown, meaning you can walk all over the place. If you decide to do the Salvadore Dali Museum, make a day of it in St. Petersburg. Whereas Clearwater is flip flops and tank top, St. Pete is sandals and a white oxford. But, back to St. Pete...go to a rooftop lounge or a beachside bar and spend the whole afternoon there, then transition your evening to one of the many great restaurants. I like Z-Grille, it’s casual, reliable, and their Dr. Pepper Ribs (when they are serving them) are incredible. I also like The Oyster Bar for it’s bar style seating, ample seafood options to include, duh, tons of oyster options, and great cocktails, but the whole downtown St. Pete area is overflowing with good restaurants and bars. There is a rich nightlife scene too.

http://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/things-to-do/nightlife

FINALLY...TPA, or Tampa Airport for the uninitiated is one of the finest airports in America. Ranked 3rd best by Conde Naste Traveler Magazine. Easy in, easy out. In most years that is. BUT NOT THIS YEAR.

TPA is undergoing a massive expansion and renovation at this time. Getting in and out is now a minor disaster. The usually beautiful airport has areas closed for construction and what is usually a terrific air travel experience is now muddled. If you are using Lyft or Uber know that pick-up areas have changed in the Blue Arrivals/Departures area. Thankfully, there are signs to direct you and people scattered throughout the airport ready to help. But, things are a bit chaotic and now you have been forewarned. Sorry.

http://www.tampaairport.com/

So, there you have it. For those who have been to the Tampa Bay area, please include your suggestions below in comments. I cannot go to the game this year because of a pre-planned ski trip. But, this has all the makings of a great Outback Bowl. Florida as a football team is totally beatable, and Florida as a tourist destination is hard to beat if you do your homework and have reasonable expectations. Enjoy!