An Insider's Guide to Tampa Bay

From the best shops to the greatest places to stay, The Scout Guide (TSG) Tampa Bay editor Tracie Browning plans the perfect trip to her city.

Where to stay as a couple: The Birchwood in St. Petersburg is an 18-room boutique hotel that is both luxurious and comfortable. It offers breathtaking views of the Bay along with one of the best new restaurants in the area and a rooftop bar (pictured below: top) complete with lounge-worthy canopy beds.  In Tampa, you must stay at the newly opened Epicurean Hotel (pictured below: bottom, left). This stylish hotel is focused entirely on food and wine (can you imagine anything better?). As a couple, you can enjoy everything from intimate wine tastings, innovative culinary classes, rooftop cocktails, signature restaurant offerings, and delectable spa amenities.

Where to stay with the kids: With the kids along for the ride: head to the beach! The Sandpearl Resort (pictured below: bottom, right), located on Clearwater Beach, offers lavish accommodations, locally sourced dining and private poolside cabanas. For the kiddos, The Sandpearl offers fun-filled activities at Camp Ridley, a special club for children ages 5 to ten. Plus, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home to Winter the Dolphin from the movie Dolphin Tale, is just down the street!

Where to go for Brunch: Enjoy open-air dining on scenic Beach Drive at Birch & Vine in St. Petersburg. The people watching and the eggs benedict are not to be missed! In Tampa, going to Oxford Exchange is a must. Their menu is simple, but they use the best seasonal ingredients to create incredibly tasty options (pressed French toast!). While at Oxford Exchange make sure to check out their bookstore (pictured below: bottom, right), as well as other local favorites Buddy Brew Coffee (pictured below: center, right) and TeBella Tea Company. If you want more of a small-town diner vibe, you have to check out Pinky’s (pictured below: top, left). The line can be long, but everything on the menu is worth the wait! For an over-the-top brunch experience, try the champagne brunch at Oystercatchers. Taste the decadence while enoying waterfront views.

Where to go for Lunch: You cannot leave Tampa Bay without going to Columbia—Florida’s oldest restaurant. There are a few locations, but the historic Ybor City restaurant is where you can get the full Columbia experience. For lighter fare, try the Original 1905 Salad or the Cuban sandwich. If you have more time, sit back and enjoy some sangria and paella! If you are looking for salads, sandwiches, and pastries, Pane Rustica (pictured below: top, right) is amazing! Get their chicken salad of the day—you will not be disappointed! For comfort food with a flair, try Datz (pictured below: middle, left). How can you pass up bacon-jalapeno mac n’ cheese? And, if you are in St. Pete, check out Mazzaro’s Italian Market (below: bottom, left). Their sandwiches are truly tasty–the line is normally out the door!

Where to go for Dinner and Drinks: If you are looking for fun and innovative cuisine, look no further than Edison (pictured below: left). They are all about creative food that tastes really good—try the goat cheese truffles! For a true farm-to-table experience you have to go to Boca. The meatloaf will make your mouth water and the fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese is divine. If you are looking for James Beard nominated chefs, check out The Refinery and SideBern’s (pictured below: right). Every local loves The Refinery. Their food is always amazing and the menu changes every week depending on what is in season (plus the prices are really reasonable). SideBern’s has modern American cuisine that is truly inspired. If you are looking for a great tasting menu, this is the spot!

For drinks, go to Ciro’s Speakeasy and Restaurant. You have to make reservations because you will need a password to get in (like in the Prohibition era).  They use traditional and historic techniques to craft their cocktails—they take their booze very seriously! For the beer lovers, you need to check out Cigar City Brewing. Tour the brewery or sample some beers in their tasting room. There is no food served there, but there is always a food truck parked out front.

Where to go for a special occasion: Mise en Place is a Tampa staple! They offer imaginative dining that is fresh and flavorful. The meats are cured in-house and their cheese selection is amazing. Try the “Get Blitzed” tasting menu, the chef’s favorite picks for the week. And, no restaurant is more famous in Tampa than Bern’s Steakhouse. They have perfectly aged steaks and the largest private wine collection in the world (yes, I said “in the world”). After dinner, take the kitchen tour, where they also show you the cheese room and wine cellar. And, you cannot leave without going upstairs to the Harry Waugh dessert room. It is a leisurely end to the night where you can enjoy more than 50 desserts!

Where to shop: South Tampa has a ton of great shopping! Head over to Hyde Park and check out Magnolia, Marketplace Interiors and Clayton Gray Home for some of the best home décor and gift shopping around. Then, make your way into Historic Hyde Park Village for stylish clothing and home finds at Juxtapose, Southern lifestyle essentials at Salt Pines, and fashionable shoes at Navy. For women’s clothing, Deborah Kent’s and Penelope T are not to be missed! In downtown St. Pete, take a stroll along Beach Drive and Central Avenue for some great local finds. Check out the Saturday Morning Market, and then head over to Mis en Chic (pictured below, along with TSG: Tampa Bay editor Tracie!) to shop their posh collection of décor and accessories. If you have time, drive over to St. Pete Beach and see the eclectic artwork and jewelry of Evander Preston (he is a local legend)!

Things to Do in Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay has an amazing arts scene. In St. Pete, The Dali Museum (pictured below: right), rich in the works of artist Salvador Dali, and the Chihuly Collectiona permanent display of Dale Chihuly’s unique artwork–, are definitely worth a visit! And in Tampa, don’t miss out on the stunning exhibitions at The Tampa Museum of Art and the The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

No trip is complete without a visit to Ybor City! Tampa was once considered the Cigar Capital of the World. And, if you walk down the streets of Ybor City you can still see a number of cigar rollers honing their craft. It’s a great place to take a stroll, smoke a cigar, and drink cup of coffee. Try King Corona Cigars.

Best Fests and Other Reasons to Visit: Gasparilla (pictured above: left) is the biggest and most popular festival in Tampa. Every year in late January, the Bay is invaded by pirates, who then descend upon Bayshore Boulevard for a huge parade that is very similar in spirit to Mardi Gras. It is great fun with celebration that goes well into the night. If this is not your scene, do not come to South Tampa that weekend–you will be stuck in traffic for hours! Tampa Bay is becoming a major foodie destination, as seen at the St. Pete & the Bay Area Festival of Food, Wine, and the Artswhich takes place in mid-November. The festival brings all-star chefs together from around the country–as well as local favorites–and shows off their culinary skills.

Secret gem: Bayshore Boulevard. We are home to the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. And best of all, it is right along the water. This is the best place to walk, run, or bike to see views of the Bay and the city!