Upscale and Gay in Tampa Bay

Tampa has grown into a sophisticated, prosperous, and modern metropolis

When it comes to tourism, especially with the gay and lesbian crowd, Florida’s Gulf Coast receives less attention than Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Miami, and even Orlando. Hey, there’s a lot of competition in a state with year-round sunshine and warmth, oodles of glitzy resorts, and miles of coastline. But Tampa has plenty to offer lesbian and gay travelers: acclaimed fine- and performing-arts venues, a slick upscale-shopping scene, excellent value, and that same fabulous weather enjoyed elsewhere in the state.

A boomtown throughout the 1990s, Tampa has grown into a sophisticated, prosperous, and modern metropolis. Disney-esque amusements, such as Busch Gardens and a popular zoo and aquarium, help account for the city’s visitor appeal, but Tampa feels a bit more corporate than many Florida cities. It’s a popular base for Fortune 500 companies, and it claims the busiest port in the Southeast, as well as a high-tech, intelligently designed airport that’s amazingly user-friendly and very convenient to downtown.

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This city of about 315,000 has a large gay community. According to Census 2000, downtown Tampa’s 33602 zip code is Florida’s 10th-gayest district, and it’s the gayest of any zip code on the state’s Gulf Coast. The gay scene is younger than in some of the state’s retirement-oriented towns, meaning that the 25-to-40 age group is well represented. The city has a lively gay nightlife, some first-rate restaurants, and a restored arts-and-entertainment district fashioned out of what used to be the nation’s leading cigar-manufacturing center, Ybor City. And St. Petersburg and the beach communities, about an hour west of Tampa, make a nice day trip.

Downtown Tampa, especially around the waterfront, has seen a dramatic renaissance recently. Much of the action is centered around Channelside at Garrison Seaport Center, which contains cinemas, restaurants, upscale shops, and nightclubs. Another fairly new development has been the introduction of an electric-streetcar system, which runs among downtown attractions and out to Ybor City. Locals are justifiably proud of downtown’s Florida Aquarium, the highlight of which is a 60-foot-deep coral reef teeming with marine life. The Tampa Museum of Art, with the top collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities in the Southeast, also deserves a look.

A growing number of yuppies – along with plenty of guppies – populate South Tampa. The most exclusive section of this attractive neighborhood, Hyde Park, gleams with palm-lined avenues, neatly manicured estates, and a potpourri of Gothic-, Tudor-, Spanish Colonial-, and Moorish-influenced mansions – most of them dating from the city’s original heyday, which lasted from about the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. And spend a few hours wandering through the redbrick complex of shops and cafes known as Olde Hyde Park Village if you’re looking for an excuse to spend money.

As recently as the late ’80s, Ybor City (pronounced ee-bor), one of only a few historic districts in Florida, was dilapidated and crime-infested. This chunk of hulking redbrick warehouses, balustrade balconies, and cobblestone streets – a short drive northeast of downtown – formed the hub of America’s cigar-manufacturing industry from about the late 19th century through the 1940s. Production slowed following World War II, and beginning with the U.S. embargo on Cuban products in 1959, the neighborhood plummeted.

Entrepreneurs, many of them artists and gallery owners, began snapping up the dramatic buildings in the ’80s. Now it’s a thriving entertainment district; a couple of clubs hold gay nights once or twice weekly, though the discos have become increasingly straight and rowdy in years. Much of the retail and dining action is centered around one former factory, Ybor Square. You can examine the neighborhood’s rich history at the Ybor City Museum State Park.

The busy, Africa-themed Busch Gardens is Tampa’s direct competitor to Disney World. More rides await you at nearby Adventure Island, a 30-acre water park, which is also run by the Anheuser-Busch group (combo tickets are available). Also above downtown, the Lowry Park Zoo is one of the best zoos in the Southeast; of particular note is the manatee and aquatic center.

Many of Tampa’s hottest, and in many cases queerest, restaurants are set along South Howard Avenue in South Tampa, the most famous being Bern’s, which is known not merely for its organically grown and raised vegetables, beef, and seafood, but for a wine list almost as long as War and Peace. It’s not an especially gay venue, but just about any food lover is likely to enjoy a highly memorable meal here. Tropics offers some of the best food of any of the city’s predominantly gay restaurants. Wild game, such as rabbit, elk, and ostrich, are specialties.

What began as a no-frills commissary for Ybor City’s cigar workers, The Columbia has grown into an 11-dining-room compound that can seat about 1,700 patrons. A bona fide tourist attraction, The Columbia is not exactly intimate, but elaborate mosaic murals do impart plenty of character. Also in Ybor City, trendy Dish uses an innovative concept: you select a sauce and meat, veggie, or seafood ingredients, pile them into a bowl, and then take your concoction over to the grill, where it’s sauteed before your eyes. A 10-minute drive south of downtown leads to trendy Cellini, an Italian restaurant with superb pasta and pizzas.

Snazzy Mise en Place is known for cutting-edge contemporary American fare, such as lavender-rubbed grilled salmon with American sturgeon caviar, wild basmati rice, green-lentil pilaf, and fennel-orange salad. A lively little queer-popular spot for a quick bite, Off the Eaten Path specializes in subs, barbecue sandwiches, salads, soups, and other lunch fare (it’s not open for dinner). Get your dose of coffeehouse culture at Sacred Grounds, a groovy and ultra-gay java place that’s open till at least 1 a.m. most nights.

This is one part of the state where you’re never too far from a gay-friendly nightspot – in fact, it’s not easy to pare down the long list of clubs and bars to just a handful of particularly noteworthy hangouts. Metropolis, which presents go-go dancers nightly and cultivates a cruisy, somewhat stand-and-model following, is one of the hottest full-time gay bars in the region. In Ybor City, stunning Flirt Nightclub, a sexy and hip space, is Tampa’s top venue for lesbians. There’s a spacious dance floor and a show bar featuring buxom performers with flirty names like Apple Love and Felicity Lane. Nearby, the pulsing Castle nightclub is gayest on Mondays and Thursdays.

Tunnel is a Friday-night fete at a huge disco (The Underground) on the southern fringes of Downtown with a high-tech industrial ambience. At the 2606 leather club, there’s no formal dress code, but preppy or dressy attire is frowned upon. A trip to the john can be a true adventure at this super-cruisy place. Ki Ki Ki Lounge, with strings of blinking lights and retro furnishings, is a long-running queer cocktail lounge. Older professional guys, many of them in suits, favor Baxter’s, a gentlemen’s bar with diverting dancers.

Offering a year-round outdoor pool and sun terrace, the Flamingo Resort is an all-gay resort situated in St. Petersburg – just a 30 minute drive from Tampa. Guests can enjoy 6 themed bars, a dance club, and restaurant.

The GayStPete House, built in 1929, is another option in nearby St. Petersburg and offers a tropical stay for the LGBT community. Pools and hot tubs are accompanied by beer/wine/soda served by the waterside. Clothing is optional.

Ybor Resort and Spa is Tampa Bay’s largest all-gay owned-and-operated Private Mens Club, Resort and Bathhouse.

Among mainstream properties, consider the Embassy Suites Hotel-Tampa Airport/Westshore. Friends traveling together appreciate this all-suites property near the airport and Tampa Bay. All rooms have kitchenettes, and the health club is top-notch.

La Quinta Inn is a fine budget option. This cheerfully decorated and efficiently run motel is east of Ybor City, not more than a 15-minute drive from South Tampa nightlife and dining.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay is a first-rate luxury option. The location on the western edge of the city is quiet and secluded. Rooms are sumptuous with pastel hues and balconies, many of them looking directly over Tampa Bay and a neighboring 35-acre nature preserve.

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