Visitors to Tampa inevitably will hear that the city's best entertainment strip is in Ybor City, a historic district just northeast of downtown. Like the more well-known French Quarter, Ybor's brick streets and New Orleans style balconies ooze with charm and a sense of history. During a daytime visit, you'll notice its coffee shops, lunchtime patio cafes, small shops and offices. But like its Bourbon Street cousin, Seventh Avenue can turn raunchy, rambunctious and a tad risky the later into the night it gets.
So to help you make the most of your visit, we've compiled this guide that hits the highs of the party district.
Ybor by day
This isn't an early-morning spot unless you want to hit the Saturday market or a coffee shop, such as Tre Amici at the Bunker right across from the market. Better to save your ramblings for later in the day, when you can pop into some of the vintage clothing stores that make their home there. Grand dame of them all is La France, which was a pioneer in Ybor's renaissance back in the early '80s. Clothes representing all eras and styles are smartly displayed and organized, and the day we were there we spied an old Michigan basketball uni and a World War I uniform, complete with cavalry boots. Down the street are Revolve Clothing Exchange and Jezabelle & Her Wandering Gypsies. If you're looking for gifts or jewelry, the smallish Mermaid's Slipper has an artful collection that skews toward older tastes. Centro Ybor, the family-oriented shopping mall plopped between Seventh and Eighth avenues back in October 2000, features smaller restaurants like Hamburger Mary's, a gay-friendly spot that features drag queen bingo some nights. Most of the retail shops that were once its staple have disappeared, so don't expect to shop a lot here. But you can hit the movies or get your gaming fix at Game Time. If you're interested in seeing the district's history as a cigar capital, stop in at one of the cigar shops/bars along the way, such as El Sol, King Corona, La Herencia and Metropolitan Cigars.
Welcome to GaYbor
In the past couple of years, a gay-friendly district has cropped up along the western edge of Ybor, anchored by the always festive gift shop MC Film Festival on Eighth Avenue. If you're looking for life over the rainbow, this is a fantasyland of gifts, stickers, movies, books and clothes. And what would a gay district be without its thumping bars. There's G. Bar, Play, a women's bar with an outdoor courtyard bar, 1701 Leather Bar, Limelight and Steam Fridays and Tease Saturdays at the Honey Pot cabaret extravaganza.
Ybor Happy Hour
Here comes the hard part: picking a bar to hang out in late in the afternoon or early evening before you get your night going. On the west end, try the patio at New World Brewery and enjoy a wide selection of import beers on tap. Across the street is Fume Bella, which attracts locals to its intimate space. On the easternmost end, you'll find an excellent hangout called The Dirty Shame. With its massive exposed brick wall and wooden ceiling beams, it reminded us of Molly's on Toulouse in Nola, a spot where locals meet up but where visitors can fit right in. In the heart of Seventh, you can hopscotch among several party spots whose open doors draw you in: Double Decker, Elmer's Sports Café, Gaspar's Grotto (which has a patio), Coyote Ugly, Full Moon Saloon, the Rare Olive, Boneyard and Green Iguana (outside food service). Many of these serve some pretty good pub grub, and virtually all offer live music later in the evening, so don't forget to check out some great local bands.
Dinner in Ybor
Once upon a time, your only choice for dinner would have been the revered Columbia Restaurant, with its flamenco dancers, stately waiters and, uh, leisurely pace. Now, if you don't want to spend an entire evening dining (even if it is an amazing experience), you have far more options to enjoy a good meal. For quick, filling and delicious Cuban food, you can't go wrong with Carmine's. For delicious upscale Italian, book a reservation at Bernini and revel in its unique location in an old bank building (that also once served as home to a retro antique store). More Italian? La Terrazza Ristorante is an upscale retreat from the street. Acropolis offers Greek dining, while over at the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Centro Ybor, you can count on great bar food (their beer-dipped onion rings are awesome)and sample its locally brewed beer. Across the street is Samurai Blue, an upscale restaurant with 30-foot ceilings and killer sushi. Those too busy? Try Fresh Mouth or Centro Cantina in the complex, or find the Spaghetti Warehouse, an Ybor survivor of the early days that is housed in a small shopping complex called Ybor Square (whose distinct red neon sign is visible from the interstate). If you need late-night filler after a night of partying, don't miss Mema's Alaska Tacos, which serves its trademark dish early into the next morning. New York, New York, which serves piping hot pizza at late hours, is great to satiate that post-club hunger on the way back to your vehicle.
Showtime in Ybor
If it's getting toward 10, it's time to hit up some music clubs. Be sure to check into the lineup at the Orpheum. Or make plans to catch a good local act at New World Brewery, which also has popular live shows and has patio seating. Or head to the Crowbar on 17th Street. It's got a huge space inside, but it also offers its Crow's Nest biergarten if you need to take a break from the music. Back on Seventh, the landmark Ritz theater stages special events and shows most weekends. Or hit Market on 7th, which dishes out fresh pizza along with its live rock, indie and jam bands and other original local musicians. Feel like some wailin', growlin' and twang? You can't beat the Blue Shark.
You'd rather dance
You've come to the right place. Let's start with Czar, which inherited its space from a pedigreed line of pulsating gay clubs before it (El Goya, Tracks). You'll love the crowd here if you're into fashion and fabulousness with a healthy does of hipster thrown in. Nearby on Eighth Avenue is Club Skye, a down and dirty spot that attracts a raunchier crowd. Head back down Seventh and you'll have your pick of large venues: the Honey Pot, Empire, Prana and Temple. Each have their own distinct crowds, so be sure to size up the partiers waiting in line before you commit. For an experience that's really off the beaten path, you'll need to cut through Centro Ybor and find the Castle just off Ninth Avenue and 16th. This dark but vibrant club features a marble bar with a moat cut through it on the ground floor, and a massive dance floor upstairs. The dress here is definitely Goth, club kid and a big smack of fetish. Where else can you see a man called The Senator in a nightie, or an aging Peter Pan? Roll with it and you'll be glad you tried it at least once.
Of course you can go back to some of the spots we mentioned earlier, but do yourself a favor and try a couple that we've enjoyed late-night beverages in. On Seventh itself, the Reservoir Bar is a no-frills spot that just feels like a good spot to land if you haven't scored or if you aren't into other scenes at the moment. In other words, it's a good spot to clear your head before you head home. If you've got some stamina left, look for the entrance to the James Joyce Irish Pub right next to the Green Iguana. Head upstairs, keeping those steep steps in mind as you gauge your steadiness factor later. Inside, you'll find a pretty good version of a drinking parlor for those who are fond of black and tans. Best part? Its high windows let you look down on the Seventh Avenue revelry below.
Mandatory safety lecture
Ybor City is somewhat of an outpost, bounded by an interstate, warehouses and some pretty iffy neighborhoods. Get there either by driving, then parking in one of its garages (mostly near the west end), or by taking a cab. You can catch the trolley for service back and forth to Channelside, but it's slow. You shouldn't try to walk from Channelside or downtown Tampa. It's too far and ill-advised late at night.
During the early part of the evening, Ybor is a loud, but usually laid-back place. The crowd is older and often filled with tourists. As the hour moves closer to 1 a.m., you'll see more young people who can be pushy and threatening. Don't choose this time to go to the ATM. And keep to the main drag of Seventh unless you need to get to your parked car. It's more well-lit than the other streets.
Editor's note: This story was edited to reflect closings and changes to the Ybor scene. It is current as of July 2011.