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SPECIAL TO ROLL ‘BAMA ROLL: The definitive insider’s guide to Tampa

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Going to Tampa for the rematch? Here’s how to eat, drink, sleep, relax, and take in the sights.

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Tampa skyline across Hillsborough Bay... Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

So you’re headed to Tampa for the 2017 College Football Playoff championship game? Well, who better to show you around than two University of Alabama grads who have been living there for a few years?

Sam Harden (@samuelharden) and Jonathan Morgan (@JonathanGMorgan) have put together A Gump’s Guide to Tampa for you ahead of your trip. They’re both from Birmingham originally and found their way to Tampa after graduating from the Capstone because their wives grew up here. They both attended UA during the worst era of Alabama football (hi DuBose, Fran, Price, Shula), so their fandom cannot be questioned. Slide in their mentions on Twitter if you have any questions or want to meet up — they look forward to drinking some beers with you while you’re in town.

Tampa is a fine enough city and the weather for the game should be fantastic. If you’re flying in, Tampa International Airport is seriously one of the best airports in the world. If you’re driving, watch out for the delirious families you’ll encounter on I-75 as they make their way to Disney. Once you get here, you’ll probably be looking for a place to sleep, eat, and drink, so without further ado, here are the recommendations:

Where to Stay

There are a number of good hotels around Tampa, but none of them are actually close to Raymond James Stadium. If you’re wanting to be near the stadium, then staying in the Westshore district is your best bet. If stadium proximity doesn’t matter there are a handful of hotels downtown, which means they are walking distance to several good bars and restaurants. If we were you, we’d look for hotel space in this order:

  1. Downtown
  2. Channelside
  3. Westshore/Airport
  4. South Tampa
  5. Dale Mabry either north or south of the stadium.

If you’re a real G, you’d VRBO yourself a condo on Clearwater Beach, kick back, watch the sunset, hit up a brewery or two, drive over to the game, hit the beach with the fam.

Food/Drink

Tampa is home to a million chain restaurants (did you know that Outback started here and not in Australia?), but we also have our share of unique spots that you won’t find anywhere else.

Restaurants:

  1. Bern’s - this is probably the most famous restaurant in Tampa. Bern’s is a steakhouse with an exclusive club feel (read: this isn’t a place you’d want to take young kids). This is high-end dining and it is worth it for the food and experience of touring their wine cellar which is one of the largest in the world. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on dinner, you can just hit up their Dessert Room, which is a fun and tasty experience that will leave you with some coin to try to find tickets to the game.
  2. The Columbia - if Bern’s is the most famous, then The Columbia is certainly next in line. This is a great option for families and big groups. The food is amazing and reasonably priced. You’ll want to go to the original location in Ybor City (pronounced E-boor) as they’ve got flamenco dancing.
  3. Ulele - this is one of the newest, hottest restaurants in Tampa. It has a menu that features native Floridian fare, plus some really great drinks and outdoor seating area along the Hillsborough River. They take reservations, and if you’re wanting to check this place out, you’ll want to have a reservation.
  4. Datz - gastropub with an always-changing menu. If you’ve had a bit too much to drink the night before, Datz has an amazing breakfast menu that will help soak up some of that excess booze. Or you could pick up where you left off because they’ve got a great bar. Datz is reasonably priced and family friendly, but the parking sucks so get your mind right for that.
  5. Ceviche - a tapas bar restaurant, so lots of smaller Spanish dishes meant to be shared. Ceviche is a good choice if you’ve got a larger group. Their sangria is real easy to drink.
  6. Oystercatchers - upscale seafood and steak joint on top of the Grand Hyatt hotel. Great food that is overshadowed by the views looking out over Tampa Bay. You’re by the water, so might as well have some fresh seafood if you’ve got your wallet ready.
  7. Mermaid Tavern - gastro-dive-hipster-pub in Seminole Heights. Good stop for lunch and beer.
  8. The Refinery - Hipsterish Americana cuisine in a laid-back setting.
  9. Fodder & Shine - Sister restaurant to The Refinery. Same-ish cuisine, but their mullet spread is quite good. Nice place to sit at a bar and eat appetizers.
  10. Ella’s - eclectic Americana cuisine in Seminole Heights. Not a bad bar selection, but can be very cramped and crowded.
  11. Mazzaro’s - Italian market in Clearwater. It’s like an indoor maze of imported wine and cheese with a deli counter.

Cuban Food: Tampa is famous for Cuban food, and hands-down the best Cuban food we’ve had here is from a little storefront place not far from the stadium called Arco Iris. Get the roast pork or ropa vieja with yellow rice and plantains.

Bar Be Kew: “I’m from Northport and I only eat barbeque for every meal - can I survive in Tampa? Where can I eat that is sensitive to my dietary requirements?”

I’m glad you asked. Believe it or not there are actually several decent barbecue restaurants in this town, and, god yes I know none of them compare to whatever-wall-hole-bbq-joint that you like and you’re going to leave nasty comments like “oh you South Florida yankees don’t know how to do bahr beee qew let alone spell it right,” but, whatever, you ungrateful swine, here you go:

  1. BJ’s Alabama Barbecue.
  2. Holy Hog - good pulled pork and brisket. Decent sides. There are three locations, and the one on Armenia Ave. is reasonably close to the stadium.
  3. 4Rivers - like Holy Hog but a large chain.
  4. Mission - pretty good, but located in odd places.
  5. Let’s face it, you’re going to Sonny’s.

Breweries

Breweries have popped up all over the place in Tampa Bay, but these are the ones that will be worth your time. The most famous and well-established is Cigar City. If you like IPAs, you have to get their Jai Alai IPA on draft - it is one of the most delicious beers you’ll ever have. They’ve got a huge tasting room, do tours, and they’re staffed by some awesome people. Coppertail is a smaller, more eccentric brewery, but they have some tasty offerings and a really cool tasting room (and their #branding is beautiful). Angry Chair Brewery just opened up in the trendy Seminole Heights area of Tampa, so you could always pop in there for dessert after eating at The Refinery or Ella’s. Three Daughters Brewing is a super kid-friendly spot, with a huge indoor-outdoor tap room with games, darts, and a stage for live music.

Bars

Don’t go to MacDinton’s. Avoid MacDinton’s at all costs. I don’t think we can emphasize this enough: if someone suggests that you go to MacDinton’s, they are not your friend. Jameis Winston goes to MacDinton’s. You have been warned. With that being said, here are some bars your friends Sam and Jonathan say you should visit:

  1. The Independent - Seminole Heights, local beer, and a good place to go during the day when it’s quiet. Also has a nice little coffee shop.
  2. Hotel Bar - Downtown bar serving cocktails. It is reportedly a hot spot with the young professional crowd.
  3. Four Green Fields - Close to downtown, the closest thing to an actual Irish pub anywhere in Florida.
  4. Malio’s - On this list because it’s downtown and has a somewhat-okay happy hour.
  5. Yeoman’s Cask & Lion - Downtown, see above.
  6. Gaspar’s Grotto - Ybor. Serves alcohol. Pirates. If you need more than that this isn’t your place.
  7. The Hub - Downtown dive bar.
  8. Mermaid Tavern - Seminole Heights, local beer, good vibes.
  9. 1949 - Seminole Heights, just opened, local beer).
  10. Let’s face it, you’re going to just end up at World of Beer.
  11. [Ed. Note: The Tampa/Bradenton/Clearwater/Sarasota region is also the spiritual and geographic home to the American Death Metal scene. If you’re so inclined, hit up some of the amazing little dives around there for some brutality. I particularly recommend the Orpheum and Brass Mug. In my wasted youth, in my semipopular heavy metal musician days, the Brass Mug was a particularly favored venue]

Golf

Tampa (and central Florida in general) is a golfer’s paradise. There are tons of great tracks here, with the majority being public or semi-private and very reasonable, especially if you are used to paying greens fees in Alabama. Jonathan’s the golfer here, and his favorite semi-private course in town is Temple Terrace Country Club. Search for them on GolfNow - when we last checked they had “Member for a Day” tee times through the whole week for $30 cart included. Jonathan played it last week and the greens and course are in fantastic shape! If you’re looking for a fourth, slide into the DMs...

Things to Do

Busch Gardens - part zoo, part theme park, Busch Gardens is a fun place to kill some time. They used to give out free beer, but stopped that practice when InBev bought Anheuser-Busch. This isn’t going to be your cheapest entertainment, though, especially if you’ve got a big family.

MOSI - The Museum of Science and Industry. If you’re from Birmingham, it is basically the McWayne Center. Great for the kiddos.

Glazer Children's Museum - Like MOSI, but better for kids under age 6. In downtown next to the Riverwalk and a nice open park.

Dali Museum - Looking for some culture? Check out the Dali Museum over in St. Petersburg. Salvador Dali was one weird dude with a fancy mustache.

Lightning hockey - The Lightning are one of the best things Tampa has going for it with an owner named Jeff Vinik who isn’t afraid to spend his money. If you end up staying in Channelside, just know that he owns most of that land. $$$$$$$$ The Bolts have a home game on Tuesday and Thursday, so if you’re in town before the weekend, tickets are usually easy to find and reasonable for a pro sporting event. Plus, when they score goals, they fire up these huge Tesla coils that shoot out real lightning bolts! [Ed. Note: Go Pens]

Beaches

If you’re staying in Tampa, the beaches of St. Petersburg and Clearwater are each about 45 minutes away. Pass-A-Grille in St. Petersburg is a great family beach: lowkey and wide enough so that it never seems crowded. There’s also a legit deli called Shaner’s that you can pop into for some sandwiches and drinks before hitting the sand.

Clearwater Beach attracts more of the younger crowd with its beach volleyball courts and famous powdered sugar sand. If you end up at Clearwater Beach, check out Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill for an incredible grouper sandwich, raw oysters, and beachfront sunsets.

Ybor City

To quote Jason Isbell, “Ybor City on a Friday night, couldn’t even stand upright.” If you want to get tore up from the floor up in a place that looks and smells worse than the French Quarter, my friend, you’re in luck. There are also several nice restaurants here, such as the aforementioned Columbia and Carmine’s.

Casino

Notice the lack of the plural? There’s only one - the Seminole Hard Rock, which is about 30 minutes outside of downtown Tampa. There are two dog tracks if you want to hang with dudes in stained tank tops.

Sam and Jon’s Ideal Game Weekends:

Sam’s ideal game weekend: If I had to plan a perfect game weekend, here’s what it’d look like:

Lodging: First choice would be any of the hotels downtown, but I’d probably end up VRBO-ing a house in Seminole Heights close to bars and restaurants. [Ed. Note: VRBO is vacation rental website. Think AirBNB, but far less sketchy.]

Transportation: You’re going to need to rent a car if you don’t drive your own car down here, since everything is 51.3 miles apart in Tampa and there’s no mass transit (there is some kind of trolley thing in downtown / Ybor, but no one’s really sure where exactly it goes). But do not drink and drive here. I’m a lawyer. That’s free legal advice.

Itinerary:

  • Friday - fly in to Tampa, deposit stuff at hotel / VRBO. I’d plan on a dinner at either The Refinery or Fodder and Shine, with after-dinner drinks at Mermaid Tavern.
  • Saturday - I’d head over to Clearwater / St. Pete for lunch at Mazzaro’s and to hit up some breweries, such as Three Daughters for the afternoon. For dinner I’d go to either Frenchy’s or the Columbia’s Clearwater location which overlooks the intercoastal.
  • Sunday - Hit up downtown Tampa and the Glazer kid’s museum if my kids are in tow. If I didn’t have my kids, I’d hit up Cigar City in the afternoon. For dinner I’d go to Ulele if I was feeling fancy, or Arco Iris if I wasn’t.
  • Monday - Game day. There’s nothing around the stadium, so if I wasn’t going to tailgate I’d hit up lunch at Mermaid Tavern then go over to Cigar City or Coppertail in the early afternoon before going to the game.

Other stuff: If you need a place to chill out, the Independent is a great quiet place during the day. If you’re into cycling there’s there’s several paved tracks that are good around town - DM me since I try to ride every weekend.

Jon’s ideal game weekend:

Like Sam said, you’ll need a car here because Tampa is pretty spread out. We have Uber and Lyft, but depending on how much you rely on that, it could get pricey.

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: If you’re here by Thursday, try to make it to a Lightning game. You can hit up Yeoman’s Cask & Lion for drinks and a late night snack afterwards since it is nearby.
  • Friday: I’d hit up the beach of your choice since the forecast is calling for cooler weather over the weekend. Frenchy’s has a special place in my heart since it played a small part in my proposing to my wife.
  • Saturday: Shopping and eating. I didn’t mention it above, but there is a brand new outlet mall that opened in the north part of town. International Mall has some very high-end shopping if that’s your bag. There’s some good restaurants nearby, too. I’d probably try to get a reservation for Ulele on Saturday night.
  • Sunday: Wake up with me and run in the Extra Yard 5K through downtown Tampa and the Channelside district! I’d probably check out the Fan Central festivities on Sunday, too. And there’s something called “Championship Yacht Village” which I’m sure is ridiculous as it sounds. Sunday night I would do Ybor City and the Columbia for dinner.
  • Monday: Gameday - get your mind right. Sam isn’t lying when he says there’s nothing around Raymond James Stadium, but I’m sure there will be lots of pop up vendors and the tailgating will probably be on point. Some of us have jobs, so I will plan to tailgate after punching the clock. Hope to meet up with y’all and watch the Tide roll - I might even have a new button by then :)

At some point during your time in Tampa, you have to make it by Cigar City Brewing. I’ve got a 10:30 a.m. tee time on Wednesday and have room for a fourth if you’re in town super early. We hope you enjoy your time here in Tampa, but if you don’t, just remember that you’re not stuck here forever like me and Sam.

Thanks to Sam Harden and Jonathan Morgan for lending a helping hand. If you have other questions, feel free to shoot them a message on Twitter. I’m sure they can lend some expertise for other Tampa-related information. They are on twitter at @SamuelHarden and @JonathanGMorgan (Jonathan, BTW, is long-time reader, Bumblee-something or another, and designed the “make America great again” Lane Kiffin buttons that were so coveted.)