Florida Small Town Charm & Downtown Delights

This is a post I wrote for VISIT FLORIDA.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that encapsulated Florida’s unique personality. And nothing showcases this personality quite like its small towns and downtowns. From Old Florida Southern charm to 21th -century sophistication and a generous nod to the arts, if you want to get to know Florida, you need to get off the highway and investigate these hallmarks of our state’s distinctive character.

So I’ve chosen a few in my regional neighborhood. Let’s start with…



Tampa’s come a long way from its Calusa Indian-to-swashbuckling past. Now a thriving city, Tampa’s energy vibrates through its people, its industry and its cultural options. Take a stroll down Franklin Street on a weekday and watch the parade of movers and shakers dressed in an array of styles from suits to Florida business casual (open necked shirts, sleeveless dresses and open-toed sandals). The collective drive and its resultant success is evident in the skyscrapers that create its distinctive skyline, the ongoing construction that heralds its growth and the purposeful beat of shoes on the pavement at noon.

But Tampa’s much more than its industry. Its downtown features the world-renowned Straz Center and Patel Conservatory, the Tampa Museum of Art, the majestic Amalie Arena and The Florida Aquarium. The historic Tampa Theatre is definitely worth checking out. Rumor has it it’s haunted, and having performed there myself, I’d have to say I’ve experienced more than eerie vibes among its underground dressing rooms and ornate corridors. But the architecture is worth a visit—and so is the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that accompanied the silent films of the early 20th century, still enjoyed by movie-goers during pre-show recitals presented by members of the Central Florida Theater Organ Society.

But its port district is, in my opinion, its crown. Channelside Drive snakes around the curves of Tampa’s Port Authority basin, lined with cruise ships and oil tankers. Now, I know that sounds like anything but scenic, but it’s truly charming. An electric cable car runs the length of the drive, adding a bit of nostalgia to the scene, and the west end of Channelside ends up in historic Ybor City—which stands in a class all its own.

But before we get to Ybor, we encounter Channelside Bay Plaza. In addition to well-known amenities like Banana Joe’s and an IMAX Theater, there are some charming stores that merit a quick walkabout. Surf Down Under sports the hottest surf wear straight from Australia. Find a campy gift to take home at White House Gear and American Classics. Check out the Zagora boutique or Qachbal’s Chocolatier. Sample a stogie at the Lit Premium cigar Lounge or a taste of fermented grapes from around the globe at Wine Design .

Okay—on to Ybor. It seems Spain is once again responsible for founding a part of Florida. Spanish-born cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor is responsible for getting Ybor City’s evolution started. He purchased a substantial parcel of land northeast of downtown Tampa to build manufacturing plants for his thriving cigar business in 1885. Wanting to attract highly trained workers from former plants, Ybor built neighborhoods around the factories, which brought in a flood of Cuban and Spanish immigrants to settle on the 40-some acres. This, in turn, attracted Italian and Jewish shopkeepers who saw the opportunity to market wares to the cigar-making workforce.

Today’s Ybor retains the cultural flavor of its ancestry. The cigar factories, social clubs and original architecture create a historically funky eclectic vibe. By day, visitors can roam the shops that range from old-fashioned newsstands to trendy vintage boutiques. The original Columbia Restaurant on 7th Avenue is a must if you love Spanish food. (I love-love-love their 1905 salad.) But there are numerous other eateries, each with its own mood and menu. There are dozens of art galleries and a handful of walking tours and museums—most notably the Ybor City Museum located in the historic district—to wander through as well.

By night Ybor turns into party city. If you’re young and single and love to club, stay on 7th Avenue. That’s where the action is—Goth to camp; hip hop to Techno. If you’re into it, chances are 7th has it. If you’re of the mom & pop set, definitely check out Centro Ybor, which is as much about its refurbished architecture as its opportunity for fun. Centro Ybor features a GameWorks, an Improv and the truly innovative L’Olivier Restaurant and Cabaret, among other offerings. Enjoy a brewski at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s Beer Garden, a cigar at Stogie Castillo’s or peruse the tourist offerings at Ybor Ybor. Certain Saturdays promise more adventure: the Ybor City ARTWalk is held every first Saturday, and a Biker Party every third.

Other downtown picks I simply could not fit into this post include:



Lakeland is the shining star for small town charm in my little nook of the state.  I shot a movie there once and have fond memories of lakeside barbeques after long days on location in and around the town.  The premiere was held at the lavish Polk Theater, which is a must-see if you’re in town.

Charming boutiques and mom-and-pop restaurants line the main thoroughfare, Florida Avenue, and other quaint streets wind around the several lakes that dot the landscape. Be sure and check out the variety of local offerings here, as Lakeland encourages both citizens and guests to patronize local businesses as part of its Backyard Campaign initiative.

Art dominates the the lake-filled landscape as well. Florida Southern College is a showcase of architecture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Enjoy outdoor sculpture as you stroll downtown. Then explore the corridors of the Polk Museum of Art or the children’s activities housed at Explorations V. In addition to these major offerings, Lakeland has several other galleries in which to view and buy pieces, such as Brooke Pottery, J Rowan Galleries and Arts on the Park.

If antiques are your thing, Lakeland’s your place. There are two malls—Lloyds of Lakeland and Second Hand Rose, as well as several independent dealers such as Thom Downs, Peacock, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe and Tea Room.

Since there is nothing like a small town on the Fourth of July, be sure to book a reservation, bring a blanket and enjoy the city’s Red, White and Kaboom celebration.

Hope to see ya there!

Other Central Florida small town picks include:

Banner image by Paul Brennan.

*Please note: Some businesses and attractions mentioned in the post may no longer exist.


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