A local writer shares what makes her city by the bay (no, not San Francisco) the place she calls home.

The choice to move to Tampa was a simple one—mostly because it wasn’t my choice at all.

I was 10 when my parents packed the station wagon with boxes, boarded my brothers, sister and me, and drove to the doorsteps of the Hyde Park home where my mother still lives.

Like most Midwesterners, they sought escape from seasonal snow, gray days and plants blooming for only a few months in exchange for year-round sunshine, balmy breezes and fragrant flowers.

We settled in one of the city’s oldest residential areas. It’s also among its most desirable addresses for young professionals, families and empty nesters who like streets lined with sidewalks, shops within walking distance and neighbors who know each other by name.

Eventually, my career and personal life moved me throughout the state and even across the country. Years later, I returned. It’s not difficult to understand why considering what I loved about Tampa while growing up is still part of its identity. And what I went looking for elsewhere is now available here—in abundance.

We’re Growing

In many ways, Tampa is a city on the move. It’s grown considerably since the 50s when a modest 125,000 people called it home. Today almost 380,000 folks reside within its city limits and nearly 3 million have homes within the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area. Its economy continues to generate jobs, expand into industries like technology, and groom startups (one recent report valued Tampa’s startup community at $2.3 billion). Health and life sciences as well as EdTech are two industries where Tampa’s start-up scene thrives—creating jobs in the area along with venture capital investments.

Originally a hardscrabble cargo port, Port Tampa Bay now moves more cargo than any port in Florida—a staggering 37 million tons annually. It’s also evolved into a departure point for leading cruise lines carrying passengers from around the world.

And we can’t forget about Busch Gardens. The well-known theme park actually started as a beer brewery and bird garden. Today it has become one of the nation’s most popular theme parks, boasting attendance figures of nearly 4 million in 2017. There’s still beer brewed there, but the focus is more on microbrews than mass production—Tampa’s brewing community is well known worldwide for its award-winning craft beers.

Tampa Fast Facts
Population: 361,477
County: Hillsborough
Number Neighborhoods: 73
Size of city: 175.2 sq mile (2,063 people per sq mile)
Schools: According to data from Great Schools, Tampa’s Culbreath neighborhood in southwest Tampa boasts a number of high ranking middle schools. Plant High School in Tampa’s Palma Ceia ranks 10/10 in college readiness.
Last Hurricane: Worried about hurricanes? The likelyhood one will hit your new south Florida home is less than you think. The last major hurricane to directly hit Tampa Bay was in 1921. The category 4 Tampa Bay Hurricane saw 140 mph winds hit the are. Still, the bay remains at risk every year for this harsh storm weather, given its climate and surrounding area.
Walkability/Bikeability: Tampa has a few neighborhoods that are considered great for walking, particularly Downtown and Palma Ceia. If you’d prefer to bike, you’re in luck: Tampa was ranked one of the Top 50 Best Biking Cities by Bicycling Magazine—and with good reason, the city has 137 miles of on-street bike lanes.
Get Your Craft Beer Here: Tampa is home to 61 breweries including Florida’s oldest brewery—The Florida Brewing Company.

We Value Heritage

For all the change and evolution Tampa has undergone in recent years, there are many reminders of the city’s colorful past that continue to reflect its history and culture.

Take the University of Tampa, with its distinctive Moorish minarets, a more than century-old structure that originally opened as the Tampa Bay Hotel. Where wealthy guests once waltzed and played golf, college students now prepare for their futures.

Tampa’s value of heritage may best be seen, and experienced, in Ybor (pronounced EE-bore) City, a community just east of downtown Tampa. Immigrants from around the world first settled here beginning in the late 1880s to work in factories producing millions of hand rolled cigars. Their labors made this area famous as “The Cigar Capital of the World.” And while cigars are still manufactured here, many of those brick buildings have been converted into work and living spaces.

Still, Ybor City continues to honor its multi-cultural heritage through various festivals like Fiesta Day in February which features foods, music and entertainment representing the Cuban, Italian, Spanish, Jewish and German immigrants who first lived here. And the Cuban Sandwich Festival in March celebrates the community’s signature sandwich that fed many a cigar worker.

We’ve Got a Variety of Neighborhoods…and Lots of Water

The difficult decision of where to live in the Tampa Bay area is a daunting one (there aren’t many bad choices, if you ask me). There are many well established communities featuring homes with large yards in areas like Westchase an Carrollwood. More modest single family homes are found in Brandon and Riverview. Like the idea of living on an island? Then Harbour Island and Davis Islands, both close to Tampa’s downtown, may be ideal.

What truly sets Tampa apart, though, and gives it real appeal, is a very basic element: water. Bayshore Boulevard homes enjoy open-water views of the bay, while other sections of the city boast scenic lookouts over rivers, channels and lakes. Water Street in downtown Tampa is a popular new development, bringing an urban, lifestyle-oriented facelift to Tampa’s prized waterfront, with a mix of offices, homes, and retail. Head north along the renowned Hillsborough River, and you will find many mature and sought-after neighborhoods that border the river on both sides.

Water taxis provide great options for getting around town. Paddle boards and kayaks are easily launched from city parks and docks for fun in the sun. Ornate dragon boats may be spotted as teams churn up the waterfront to train for competitive heats, while local rowing teams set out at sunrise to practice while the waters are calm. Riverwalk, on Hillsboro River, boasts many great shops and restaurants, as well.

Water is also where Tampa’s signature celebration is held yearly, the pirate-themed Gasparilla event, featuring an actual pirate ship bearing hundreds of costumed pirates, who invade the city, march victoriously through the streets and attract more than a half-million swashbuckling wannabes to enjoy the festivities.

Of course, the best use of the water may simply be for it to frame the colorful and brilliant sunsets this west coast community enjoys at the end of each day. Welcome to Tampa.

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Mary Lou Janson

Mary Lou Janson

Mary Lou Janson is a journalist, travel writer, blogger and book author. Her work has appeared in places like Tampa Bay Metro Magazine, Edible Tampa Bay Magazine and Florida Food & Farm. Jansen has been writing and reporting on the Tampa Bay area for over a decade.

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