When you think of fun things to do in the Tampa Bay area, there’s no shortage of suggestions.
First-class restaurants? Check.
Amusement parks? Zoos? Check and check.
But one spot you might not think of when it comes to fun in the sun is…downtown Tampa. Wait, what? Yep, you heard it right. Now that the Tampa Riverwalk is nearly complete, it’s a great place to while away a day in our fair city. And lucky you, today I’ll take you on a walking tour of this gem meandering along Tampa’s waterfront.
Begin at the Beginning
First, a little history. In its early years, Tampa was an industrial city, with fishing, manufacturing and other businesses crowding the waterfront on the Hillsborough River. As the skyline rose, hotels and office buildings further blocked the river from public use. The Riverwalk project started 40 years ago with then-Mayor Bill Poe as a way of “opening the river up to the people.”
Now, you can stroll on a 2.4-mile path that takes you alongside – and sometimes on – the river, passing some iconic Tampa landmarks along the way.
Let’s get walking!
Channelside to the Business District
I’m starting at Channelside Bay Plaza, the entertainment, retail and restaurant center that anchors the south end of the Riverwalk. You can nosh at eateries like Hablo Taco, Hooters and Thai Tani, or bowl a few games at Splitsville. While you’re there, float over to the Florida Aquarium and “sea” some Florida marine life. You can also catch the TECO Line Streetcar here for a ride into downtown or over to Tampa’s Latin quarter in Ybor City.
After passing the photo wall that marks the official entrance of the Riverwalk, the Tampa Bay History Center rises in front of you. Stop in to learn about Tampa’s past, then grab a Cuban sandwich at the Columbia Cafe, a smaller sibling to the venerable Ybor City classic. Take a seat on the patio for open-air dining and gorgeous views.
From there, we come to Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. There’s a grassy area and playground for the kids, plus displays honoring Tampa’s Native American past and a memorial to our military heroes. It’s also a great place to catch the all the action of the annual Tampa dragon boat races!
Just across the street from the park, you’ll see Amalie Arena, home of the area’s warm-weather hockey heroes, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As we pass another quaint outdoor cafe at the Tampa Marriott Waterside, the Tampa Convention Center and Sail Pavilion are just ahead. We’re stopping at Sail to sample some sangria from a special “Sip’n’Stroll” cup. And if we decide to take our drink to go, no problem! You can enjoy adult beverages in these special cups all along the Riverwalk.
The convention center is also the place to launch an aquatic adventure. You can rent a small boat, attempt stand-up paddleboarding, hop aboard a dolphin tour charter, or try the newest way to get around downtown, the Pirate Water Taxi. Look for bright yellow signs marking the water taxi’s stops along the Riverwalk.
Skyscrapers to the Straz
Winding past the convention center, you’ll see the skyscrapers of downtown come into view. We’re passing by a couple of plazas on this stretch of our journey, USF Park and MacDill Park. These are nice spots to stop for a rest, if you need one, and to learn more about these important institutions in our community.
But we’re on a mission, so let’s keep on walkin’ the Riverwalk.
As we pass the aptly named Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk and the trendy, bank-building-turned-boutique-hotel Aloft, look across the river to see WFLA-TV, News Channel 8, Tampa’s oldest television station. Back on this side of the river is Rivergate Tower, or – as Tampa folks affectionately call it – the “beer can building.” Don’t worry, you can’t miss it!
At the foot of the cylindrical tower is another Tampa icon: Malio’s Prime Steakhouse. The original Malio’s on Dale Mabry hosted celebrities, local powerbrokers, and, according to legend, even a mob boss or two (shhhh). While the restaurant left its rumored past behind on Dale Mabry, those in-the-know still dine in style at Malio’s.
Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park beckons now, with its wide expanse of lawn, water spraygrounds for the kids, and views of the University of Tampa minarets across the river. The sheer size of this park makes it the perfect host for events throughout the year, from an Oktoberfest beer festival to Tampa Bay Lightning viewing parties to the “Greening of the River” on St. Patrick’s Day. The park is also the gateway to three museums: the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children’s Museum and Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
The Home Stretch – Waterworks and Ulele
Once past the museums, we’ll come to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa’s cultural hub and home to Broadway shows, orchestra performances, concerts and more. As we traverse under two more of the many bridges over the river, you’ll notice some artistic flourishes that are hidden from the traffic above.
The final stretch of the walk is just ahead, with Waterworks Park and Ulele, a wildly popular new restaurant from the same family that owns the Columbia. On the grounds you’ll see the spring that goes by the same name, inspired by a Native American princess whose statue also graces this site.
With that, our 2.4-mile Riverwalk tour is over. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! Now let’s hop on the water taxi and ride back to Channelside. That is, unless you feel like doing it again…
For more information on the Tampa Riverwalk, including directions, parking, event listings and more, visit www.thetampariverwalk.com