When the Republican faithful head to Tampa next week for their national convention, they'll find a bustling region that still knows how to relax. "They're going to love the look of it because you're always near the water," says Jack Harris, a popular local television and radio host. Visitors may be surprised that Tampa Bay includes a diverse collection of municipalities, each with their own identity. He shares some favorite spots with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Tampa Bay residents get a workout on this waterfront street, which boasts the world's longest uninterrupted sidewalk. The six-mile stretch is the haunt of joggers, strollers, dog walkers and cyclists. "It has a gorgeous view of the skyline on one side and on the other side you've got some of the highest-priced real estate in the Tampa area," Harris says. 800-448-2672; visittampabay.com
It may sound like exotic designer clothing, but this little-known spot in St. Petersburg is actually a key site in early American history. Historians believe that the area near Park Street and 17th Avenue is where Spanish explorers Narvaez and Cabeza De Vaca began their trek to Mexico in 1528. "That's where the first European exploration of America began," Harris says. 877-352-3224; visitstpeteclearwater.com
This Greek community 30 miles northwest of downtown is the place to come for traditional restaurants with dishes that taste straight out of Athens. You can still wander the sponge-diving docks, take a boat tour and then buy the natural product in stores. ctsfl.us/
Soho and Beach Drive
These two nightlife spots will see plenty of action in the coming week. Tampa's three-block Soho district attracts a youthful crowd to its many bars. "I go down there even though I'm well past the 'young-people age' just because I enjoy the people-watching," Harris says. Beach Drive in St. Pete offers a similar scene.
Tampa got its nickname Cigar City because of the factories churning out smokeables in this historic area of town. "Ybor was where the Italians and the Spanish and Cubans and the Germans came together and developed a local culture," says Harris, who was the alcalde, or honorary mayor of the area, for four years. Visitors come for hand-rolled cigars and the area's restaurants and cafes. 813-241-8838; Yborcityonline.com
In business since 1905, the Columbia Restaurant claims fame as Florida's oldest eatery, and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Its signature dish, the Cuban sandwich, is made with meat marinated on site. Paella and sangria are also big sellers. The original location is in Ybor City, though others are around the region, including the airport. 813-248-4961; columbiarestaurant.com
Bern's Steak House
If you don't have reservations already, it may be hard getting a seat next week at this spot that Harris calls the best steak house in the country. Along with aged steaks, diners love the upstairs dessert room and what the restaurant calls the largest wine collection in the world. "You can get anything from a $10,000 bottle to wine by the glass," he says. 813-251-2421; bernssteakhouse.com
Tampa Bay History Center