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Why there’s more to Florida than white knuckle rides and splash pools

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Scott Nelson
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Stylist’s senior video director Scott Nelson explores the side of Florida hidden behind the Epcot dome…   

Back when I was a child, I spent a lot of time dreaming about Florida. It always seemed as if, at the merest sniff of a half-term, all of my schoolmates would disappear off to Disney World and have the time of their lives. I, on the other hand, whiled away my time drawing in the sand at Bournemouth Beach.

Now a fully-fledged adult, things have changed. In fact, I have been lucky enough to explore a lot of America, particularly the hustle and bustle of New York City. This year, though, saw me touch down in The Sunshine State for the very first time – and, as someone who suffers from acrophobia (read: a massive fear of heights), it quickly became apparent that I would not be indulging my inner child with Disney’s white-knuckle rides of Disney World.

But is there more to Florida than its theme-parks? Absolutely. It’s time to embrace the heady atmosphere of Tampa, in all its glory…

Tampa Bay’s skyline

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Cultural attractions in Tampa

Full of Latin flavour, Tampa and the surrounding areas are absolutely fascinating, particularly for those looking to soak up some honest west-coast Floridian culture. These are some of the must-see cultural attractions if you’re visiting….

Ybor City Walking Tour

The brick streets and iron balconies of Ybor City are largely unchanged from a century ago, and my tour guide, Max, was the perfect host. He took me for a walk down La Septima Avenida (Seventh Avenue) – not just a street, but the heart of a special community. In fact, La Septima has been designated one of the American Planning Association’s (APA) Great Streets in America for its history and character. And, with Max as my guide, the visit gave me a golden opportunity to learn about the history of the area, with a few gruesome crime stories thrown in for good measure. 

See more information here

The streets of Tampa 

Watch a game of ice hockey

Time to take in some assuredly American sports. While the result didn’t go Tampa’s way, we did get to hear the goal-buzzer and accompanying goal-song several times. It’s provocative. It gets the people going. I left carrying a souvenier hockey puck which has since sunk to the depths of my office drawers.

The NHL season runs from October to May. Find tickets here.

Visit Anna Maria Island

According to the National Weather Service, the sun shines an average of 361 days a year in Tampa Bay – which makes for uninterrupted bliss on Anna-Maria Island. Laid-back and natural, this seven-mile strip of beautiful white-sand beaches line the barrier island of Anna Maria Island between the turquoise Gulf of Mexico and peninsular Florida. And, while I can safely say that it definitely wasn’t warm when I waded out into the surf, it definitely could have been a lot colder… 

Anna Maria Island

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Best places to eat in Tampa

For someone who constantly feels short-changed by some of the UK’s meal options, my trip to the States allowed me the chance to fill my metaphorical boots. Here are some of the city’s unmissable eateries…

Columbia - Ybor City

Columbia Restaurant is a bustling venue in the heart of Ybor City. The same family have operated the restaurant since 1905, making this the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Florida, the oldest Spanish restaurant in the United States and one of the largest Spanish restaurants in the world with 1,700 seats in 15 dining rooms. The portion sizes are pretty epic, too: they served up a literal bucket-load of paella. I’m honestly still full from that meal today.

Book your table here

Bizou Brasserie – Tampa

Bizou Brasserie offers an eclectic menu of New American favorites with a French-Creole twist, but this isn’t just a prime spot for foodies. In fact, the restaurant was once Tampa’s Beaux Arts-style federal courthouse, which means a lot of the original (and dramatic) architecture is still in place. And I later learned that Bizou is Tampa’s most haunted building… something I wish I had known before stepping inside!

Book your table here

Gulf Drive Café – Anna Maria Isand

Want to make the most of that glorious Floridian sunset? Take a walk along the beach to Gulf Drive Café and have dinner on the sand. You may even, if you’re very lucky, make friends with the local wildlife: when I visited Gulf, I was joined by a pod of dolphins, who swam alongside me as I made my way along the beach. The moment was so perfect that I spent much of the meal wondering if it was, in fact, a very clever and OTT marketing ploy to direct custom to the café.

Book your table here

Places to stay in Tampa bay and on the beach

It’s easy to get carried away by all the exciteming new sights and sounds, but never forget the importance of your minimum eight hours of sleep each night (although in my eyes, 10 is more appropriate, and 11 advisable).

The Aloft Downtown - Tampa

This hotel offers easy-breezy access to the Riverwalk, the Tampa Convention Center, and the Amalie Arena, whilst providing enjoyable views of the river from its luxe swimming pool. And I was, of course, made to feel most welcome throughout my stay by the very friendly staff. I’d have no hesitation recommending it.

Book a room here.

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The Aloft Downtown

Zota Beach Resort - Bradenton

Tucked away on a stretch of land known as Longboat Key, you’ll find Zota Beach Resort, Longboat’s newest luxury beach resort. I was instantly charmed by its stylishly modern architecture and excellent presentation. The hotel is modern, sleek and tranquil – and, if you enjoy waking up to expansive sea views and a range of fine dining options, it’s worth keeping Zota in mind. A very special choice.

Book a room here

Zota Beach Resort

Best times to visit Tampa

September to December is regarded the best time to visit, avoiding the busiest times for local attractions and the uncomfortably humid weather.

Travel Planners offers nine nights in Tampa and Longboat Key from £915 per person, which includes a saving of £225 per person. The price is based on two sharing, on a room only basis, including return flights from London and a hire car for the duration.

Direct flights are available from London Gatwick and take approximately 10 hours. These will set you back around £500 for a round trip. 

Ybor City

Images: Courtesy of venues / Keir Magoulas /  Jack Elka / Getty / Chris Murray