Tampa beyond the airport

We love amenity-filled Tampa International Airport (TPA) and its day-pass program that allows non-ticketed visitors to go out to the gate with friends and family or to be there for a big hug when loved ones get off the plane.

But there’s more to Tampa than the airport.

Here’s a guide we put together for CNBC with some ideas on what to do if you’ve got just a short time to spend in Cigar City.

Miami and Orlando may be the tourist destinations that come to mind when travelers think of Florida, but Tampa is becoming a rival. It’s also a popular convention destination, so you may find yourself there on business.

If that’s the case, and you don’t have the time or the inclination to make it to the beaches that the area is known for, you aren’t out of options: The city has its own appeal beyond water activities, with Cuban cuisine, craft beer, sports and a laid-back culture that celebrates pirates and cigars.

“Business travelers are the bread and butter of Tampa Bay’s visitation,” said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, adding that “they’ll find the city designed to please and easy to explore.”

Anchored by a riverfront convention center and the 2.6-mile-long Riverwalk, Tampa’s downtown district and surrounding neighborhoods offer people plenty of ways to spend free time outside a business meeting. 

Here are some ideas to help you make the most of a few extra hours in Cigar City.

Where to go

Start the day with a walk or run on the Riverwalk, a 2.6-mile-long pedestrian trail along the Hillsborough River. The bronze and marble busts you’ll pass are part of the Historical Monument Trail, which honors 30 people who played an important role in the city’s history.

Say yes to a breakfast meeting at Oxford Exchange, housed in a restored 1891 building near the downtown University of Tampa campus. This hip, club-inspired space houses a bookstore, a champagne bar, coffee and tea bars, a coworking space and a restaurant that has an art-filled main dining room, a conservatory with a retractable roof and a menu that includes everything from healthy kale scrambles to sinful Nutella babkas.

The University of Tampa, across the street, has two attractions worth a visit:

A plaque honors Babe Ruth’s longest home run (587 feet), hit on April 4, 1919 at what was then Plant Field, during a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants.

The Henry B. Plant Museum is here, too, housed in the former south wing of the opulent 511-room Tampa Bay Hotel,built in the early 1880s. Now a National Historic Landmark, the museum offers a glimpse at the hotel’s original furnishings that wealthy guests were able to enjoy before the hotel closed in the early 1930s.

For more art and history, stop at the Tampa Bay History Center or the Tampa Museum of Art. Both are easily accessible from the Riverwalk. The history museum closes daily at 5 p.m., but the onsite Columbia Café, an informal outpost of the iconic Ybor City restaurant, stays open much later. The art museum stays open until 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings when admission is “pay-as-you-will.”

Cuban sandwiches, cigars and chickens

If you have a few hours in the afternoon, explore the compact and historic Ybor City neighborhood, northeast of downtown Tampa.

Get there by Uber or the free TECO Line Streetcar. Stop at the Visitor Information Center to get a map, make way for the community’s free- ranging chickens and “be sure to see the iconic Cuban Club, one of the social clubs that provided aid, comfort, recreation and health care to the Cuban population,” says Lonnie Herman, owner of Ybor City History Walking Tours. Jose Marti Park, on the only Cuban-owned land in the United States, is a must-see stop as well, says Herman, as is Tabanero Cigars, “where you can get a Cuban coffee and see cigars being hand-rolled.”

Better yet, join one of Herman’s scheduled tours. He’s got the keys and the behind-the-scenes stories for many of Ybor City’s historic buildings.

Before leaving Ybor City, stop for lunch at Columbia, the iconic Spanish and Cuban restaurant that first opened in 1905 and is well-known for its traditional take on the Cuban sandwich it calls “The Mixto.” What started as a 60-seat café is now a block-long destination with 15 dining rooms, seating for 1,700 and a flamenco dancing show every night except Sunday.

Other places to eat and drink

Tampa is well known for craft beers made by Cigar City BrewingCoppertail Brewing and others. Stop by their respective taprooms or try one of the 34 rotating beer selections on tap at the outdoor Fermented Reality Biergarten at Sparkman Wharf. In addition to dining and retail outlets in colorfully painted shipping containers, this area is home to Splitsville, an upscale restaurant and gaming center with ping pong, billiards, foosball, darts and shuffleboard.

And for a unique, luxe, old-world dining experience, be sure to make a reservation way in advance at Bern’s Steak House, across the street from the Epicurean hotel.

The eight-dining-room, 350-seat food palace has a world-famous wine cellar and an entire floor just for desserts and after-dinner drinks. 

Where to Stay

Convention and business travelers may land in a big downtown hotel, such as the 260-room Embassy Suites Tampa Downtown; the 520-room Hilton Tampa Downtown, or the 727-room Tampa Marriott Water Street, home to the Anchor and Brine bar and restaurant which has both lobby seating and terrace dining on the Riverwalk. New hotels, such as the 519-room J.W. Marriott, are being readied in advance of Super Bowl LV, which Tampa will host in 2021.

Tampa’s list of boutique hotels is growing, too. A century-old former federal courthouse now houses Le Méridien Tampa. And there are two Autograph Collection hotels: the Current, with panoramic Tampa Bay views and a rooftop bar; and the food-and-wine-themed Epicurean, in the Hyde Park district. This hotel boasts a rooftop bar, a culinary classroom and the elegant Élevage restaurant.

Be sure to visit the Epicurean’s lobby bar where guests may order a Dram n Shine, consisting of Glenfiddich 12-year Scotch, a craft ice cube and a complimentary shoeshine.