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Tampa/St. Petersburg Neighborhoods

The City of Tampa is the anchor of the region. A map will bear out why locals aren’t exactly original in thinking of the area in roughly four quadrants, though there are really five distinct regions in the area: Downtown serves as ground zero, with beaches west, commercial industry south, suburbia north and Ybor City sort of east. Imperfect, to be sure, but then what city isn’t? Not that many years ago, Tampa was largely staid and bland. Change has been good—the downtown district now sports a revitalized skyline that attracts tourism and conventions. Some of the views are startling; such as standing behind the stately Tampa Museum of Art and gazing west across the Hillsborough River—blink twice or thrice and behold the  onion domes of the University of Tampa campus. East of downtown is the vibrant waterfront district of Channelside where cruise ships with Caribbean itineraries load and unload passengers each weekend. Southwest from the city center is Hyde Park, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the area that’s made the transition from trite to trendy with a decidedly gay population. Sassy Ybor City is a short drive northeast of downtown. Further north is mainly mile after mile of monotonous suburbs, with the exception of Busch Gardens. Getting to the beaches is a simple matter of following the setting sun, a 30-minute cruise via one of the five bay bridges. Once mainly a haven for retirees, the beaches from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs offer everything from martini bars to manatee sightings (and we’re not just talking about generously proportioned tourists in too-tight tee shirts).

Ybor City

The mix of clubs on Seventh Avenue attracts late-night crowds eager for a hookup. Although the establishments are modernized, Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore) retains a sultry Latin flavor befitting an area named for Vincente Martinez  Ybor, with chic restaurants, funky nightclubs and fun-seekers sporting tattoos and piercings. Founded by cigar manufacturers and settled by immigrants from Spain, Cuba and Italy, the area has transformed several times and the present accent on nightlife mainly attracts the younger set. Ybor City has been designated a National Historic Landmark District with a number of buildings among the National Register of Historic Places. The Columbia Restaurant on Seventh Avenue opened in 1905, and still fetches national awards for its outstanding Latin cuisine and colorful stage shows.

Downtown St. Petersburg

It takes about 30 minutes (traffic dependent) to cross one of the bridges west from Tampa and reach St. Petersburg in Pinellas county. St. Pete used to be the last roost for retirees before their time among the breathing came to an end. That may be a bit morose, but the city’s image as a haven for “old people” was accurate. Sweep that impression away, because St. Pete, and in particular its downtown district, has long since become fashionable and in some areas youthful in its appeal. In daytime, BayWalk is a better-than-average shopping complex with an IMAX theater, but it really blossoms when the sun goes down with nightlife geared for post-Reagan era adults. Nearby Central Avenue is even more avant-garde, with street-side cafes and ethnic restaurants. The urban portion of the city includes towering bank buildings interspersed with new and old hotels.

Downtown Tampa

After experiencing an urban slump, the city streets are now the provinces of young execs hustling here and there between appointments. After-work lounges become popular meet up spots on practically every block. The energy is infectious amid the vibrant mixture of bistros, bakeries and delis. You’ll still encounter derelicts here and there, but you won’t feel unsafe unless you’re way off the beaten paths. We used to never go downtown unless it involved business or visiting some sort of licensing bureau, but now it’s actually worth the traffic and bus fumes to catch a bite to eat or an NHL Lightning game.

Bridges

This really isn’t a neighborhood since they transit the bay, but the bridges deserve mention as they serve as the all-important arteries without which Pinellas County would be too isolated to be considered part of the Tampa Bay region. Most famous and elegant is the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, named after Florida’s ex-governor and U.S. senator. It’s a cable-stayed main span over four miles in length, tall enough to allow cruise ships to pass below. Others of less aesthetic quality but nonetheless serving their purpose are the Gandy, Howard Frankland, Courtney Campbell bridges and the Clearwater Bayside Bridge.

Clearwater

When it’s time to put the brakes on life’s maddening pace, Gulf beaches and subtropical breezes put a stop to stress. Visitors mingle with locals at the endless line of hotels, beach bars and restaurants from St. Petersburg north to Tarpon Springs. Nestled between those two points on Gulf Boulevard is Clearwater Beach, which we say from experience is top choice for its sugary shorelines. Unfortunately that sparkling rep has been around for years and this beach gets packed on weekends. That translates into gruesome traffic backups for those attempting access from points inland. Visit on a weekday and you can stretch out on a blanket without being trampled. Sunsets at Pier 60 has loads of kitschy souvenirs, but also drop- dead gorgeous sunsets and the occasional glimpse of whatever the pier fishermen are catching that day. The downtown portion of Clearwater—the world headquarters for the Church of Scientology—and the main drag of Cleveland Avenue seems to be sagging and in need of an injection of energy to merit spending much time there.

Hyde Park

Near downtown and adjacent to the University of Tampa, this old section of Tampa Bay really distinguishes itself. Hyde Park’s first residence was built in 1882 and since then it’s blossomed into beautiful neighborhoods. Many law firms now occupy former upscale homes. Most delightful is Hyde Park Village with clothing and curio shops. SoHo—taking its name from adjoining South Howard Avenue rather than ripping off the famed New York  district—bursts with way cool bars, eateries and boutiques of all sorts. Bayshore Boulevard serves as the eastern boundary of Hyde Park and has what city boosters claim is the world’s longest sidewalk. If you jog or blade the full length you’ll be entranced by the grand homes on one side and the views over the bay on the other and it may convince you the boosters are right about that record. 

Channel District

Channelside Bay Plaza has cut into Ybor’s popularity for club-hopping and some feel it has a more sophisticated atmosphere. If that translates into fewer decibels and less need for burly bouncers, we’d agree. Bordered by waterways, the Channel District serves as home of the Tampa Port Authority, the cruise port and the Florida Aquarium. The Plaza features an IMAX theater and an open courtyard that hosts small  concerts. Originally conceived as a restaurant-and-retail stop for arriving and departing cruise passengers, it’s worth a stop even if you prefer the higher adrenaline rush of Ybor.

Davis Islands

Davis Islands comprises two man-made islands at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. Think Chicago lakefront, Beverly Hills, Palm Beach—if there’s anywhere in casual Tampa Bay that you’ll feel underdressed in Armani, this is it. A number of ritzy residential communities and private properties are located on Davis Island to take advantage of the exclusivity and location near the heart of Tampa Bay. Derek Jeter is building a mega-mansion on the waterfront and other celebrities hail from here as well. There’s a seaplane basin and private aircraft can land at Peter O. Knight Airport. Other properties of note include the Davis Island Yacht Club and Tampa General Hospital. Although tranquil cafes, bars and shops can be found, few outsiders venture onto Davis Island—and that’s just the way the residents like it.

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