You’ve made it to the pinnacle of women’s collegiate volleyball, the NCAA Final Four at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay on December 14 & 17!
And all those exterior shots for the first network-televised championship match in the history of college volleyball (ABC, 3 p.m., Sunday) might make you wonder ... what do people do in Tampa in December besides make fun of everyone frozen up north?
While the toes-y poolside pic taken only to torture relatives up I-95 is an 813 area code specialty, there’s plenty more happening every day in one of the 10 best places to live in America, per Money.com. Some of us are fortunate enough to live mere blocks from Amalie. In the last decade, I have gone to two Stanley Cup Finals, two Women’s Final Fours, and two Men’s Frozen Fours on my bicycle (there’s even a valet for bikes at the stadium). That’s pretty cool.
But the things to do go far beyond what happens around the arena, which sits where the Hillsborough River merges with Hillsborough Bay. Here’s a quick list of where to go and what to do in and around downtown Tampa during the 2023 NCAA Volleyball Championships.
What to eat cheap and fast
Amalie is one block from Sparkman Wharf, which has plenty of converted shipping containers full of delicious street food and views for days. Tampa has a craft beer scene as lively as any in the country, so check out the LightHaus Beer Garden to try from brewers all over the city. And don’t miss Everglazed with fried chicken tenders, delicious glazed donuts, awesome sauces, and really, really good fries.
The other big (and we mean big) food hall is at Armature Works about two miles up the river, where the sunsets are sublime. There’s also a rooftop cocktail bar, a fancy steakhouse, and did we mention the views? You’ll be able to pet plenty of pups while playing oversized Jenga, chess or cornhole.
If you need caffeine, we’ll vouch for Shortwave Coffee as a place with some terrific brews and light bites in a super-comfortable space on Channelside Drive. Also don’t overlook the Greenwise coffee and wine bar inside the supermarket next door to Amalie. If you need snacks or to stash anything in your hotel room during your stay, Greenwise has everything you’ll need, and it serves as the mini-Whole Foods for the neighborhood.
Where to eat fancy
To call Bern’s Steakhouse a Tampa institution isn’t fair, because it’s much more important to the fabric of our culture than things like city government or a pro sports team. The world’s largest working wine cellar has over half a million bottles across 6,800 labels. The chateaubriand and French onion soup have been made the same way since the Eisenhower Administration. The dessert room upstairs will have you listening to a piano player while sitting in a repurposed wine cask of a booth. If you can get a reservation, it’s a can’t-miss.
Boulon is right across the street from Amalie Arena and goes a bit French with some Southern touches as well. The blue crab beignets are outstanding, and their Colombe Rose drink with tequila and Pamplemousse is another can’t-miss.
If you love Italian, no one in town does it better than Caso Santo Stefano. Take the street car to Ybor City for an early dinner, and their chicken parm is just about perfection. But you can’t make a wrong decision as long as you can point at the menu.
Ulele in Armature Works has what is called “Native-inspired cuisine,” which in Florida means charbroiled oysters, barbacoa shrimp, and a tomahawk pork chop with a guava-based glaze. If the weather is right, sit outside and soak up a perfect Tampa evening.
What to do
The Tampa Riverwalk is the tie that binds the entire area, snaking from the east to south of the arena, and it serves as the western boundary of downtown as well. You can walk it, bike it, rollerblade it, whatever. But it offers gorgeous views of both the water and the city all the way around.
You came to the right place at the right time because Tampa’s Winter Village is here through the end of the year. There’s an ice skating rink, boozy hot chocolates, plenty of local shopping, and you likely can wear shorts and flip-flops to all of it while enjoying the imported snow in a gorgeous park on the river. There’s a light show on the hour every night, free curling, a silent disco on Fridays, and tons more.
The Florida Aquarium is a fun day full of penguins, birds, and everything fish you might find in the tropical water. They have also pioneered techniques that have saved miles of coral reefs from climate change destruction. It’s a great spot for the family, and expect lots of fake snow and Santa Claus this time of year.
While I love living downtown, I do get a bit misty-eyed for my old Hyde Park neighborhood too. Hyde Park Village has fantastic restaurants (Forbici remains our favorite), adorable shopping, a courtyard with a fountain to crush that dessert, and is covered in holiday vibes. A reservation at The Candle Pour to make your own scents you can bring back home is a great idea, and don’t miss the bagels at Sesame.
How to get around
There are three fun ways to get you where you need to be downtown, so try all of them while you’re here:
The Pirate Water Taxi will give you spectacular views up the river that runs right through DTPA. Relax and enjoy a spot where the core of the city is on your right while the gorgeous University of Tampa campus and Lane Park are on your left as you head north. It’s a great way to get to either the Winter Village or Armature Works in style.
DASH Tampa yellow Teslas that will take you anywhere in the area for a whopping $2 per person. DASH works just like Uber, but it’s faster and cheaper and the drivers double as tour guides of the area. You can download the app here.
The Tampa Streetcar will get you across most of downtown and goes all the way to Ybor City, plus it’s free and comes every 12 minutes. You can even see how little you’ll need to wait on this live update page here.