Tampa Bay is unique in many ways, made up of a rich history and colorful characters. But the area can also lay claim to a surprising number of distinctive collections and historical events that add to its legacy.
Of course, Tampa’s Gasparilla season springs to mind. And while we want to believe that the wildly popular Gasparilla Pirate Festival is the third-largest parade in the U.S., verifying that is complicated.
But there are a number of other notable events that call this area home. For starters, the birth of commercial aviation happened here in 1914, when Tony Jannus flew a Benoist Type XIV flying boat with a passenger — St. Petersburg Mayor Abe Pheil — from St. Pete to Tampa. That’s detailed at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
With a Eucharistic service, blessing of the waters, daylong festival and the iconic diving for the cross ritual, the city of Tarpon Springs hosts the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere every Jan. 6. This event is so big it draws top officials in the Greek Orthodox Church, including a regular appearance by the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And this year also brings the archbishop of Great Britain, Nikitas Lulias, who is also a Tampa native.
And the St. Pete Pride celebration is the biggest Pride festival in the state of Florida and ranks in the top 40 largest ones in the world, according to its website. It features a concert, a parade along Bayshore Drive on the downtown waterfront, performances and a block party over a June weekend annually.
This area is also home to a number of distinctive collections, some of which are the largest in the world. Here’s a list of some that give Tampa Bay bragging rights.
The St. Petersburg Museum of History also has an exhibit of 5,000 autographed baseballs called Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, which is certified by Guinness World Records as the largest collection of its kind.
The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the artwork of that period, according to its website. The movement, which happened between about 1890 and 1930, revived and elevated handcraft in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
Established in 1948, the Circus Museum at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum complex in Sarasota is the first of its kind in America, according to its website. It’s filled with artifacts, photographs, costumes and props mostly acquired from Sarasota circus performers. It includes the Wagon Room, a poster gallery featuring Ringling Bros. circuses and the Howard Bros. Circus Model, which is the world’s largest, with 42,000 pieces and spanning 3,800 feet.
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The Ringling is the official State Art Museum of Florida. The art collection includes Peter Paul Rubens’ “Triumph of the Eucharist” series, which are the only large-scale Rubens paintings outside of Europe, according to Florida State University Libraries.
The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg has the largest collection of works by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí outside of Spain. It also has the most masterworks of any Dalí collection in the world, with eight. These paintings as defined by the museum’s founders, A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, are 5 feet or more in diameter and took more than one year to complete. These facts were confirmed by museum staff.
For the next three years, the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa has the world’s largest triceratops on display with Big John. The 26-foot-long dinosaur made history when it was first discovered in South Dakota in 2014. And it made history again in 2021 when it fetched a record $7.7 million at an auction in Paris, the most ever paid for ancient bones that weren’t a T. rex. The winning bid came from Tampa entrepreneur Sidd Pagidipati, chairperson of Ayon Capital and Better Health Group. He is lending Big John to the museum for the next three years.
The Tampa Bay History Center in the Water Street Tampa district is home to the Touchton Map Library/Florida Center for Cartographic Education, which is the only cartographic research center of its kind in the state, according to the history center’s website. It houses “one of the most comprehensive collections of Florida cartography in the world, with holdings spanning five centuries.”
Sand sculpture capital of Florida
Treasure Island was proclaimed the Sand Sculpture Capital of Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001, according to the city’s website. This helped lead to the creation of Sanding Ovations, an annual sand sculpting exhibition and competition that brings master sand sculptors from around the world. This year’s festivities ended Sunday, although the sculptures remain intact for weeks.
Speaking of beaches, Tampa Bay’s are often given “best” accolades by multiple sources. But while Florida’s St. George Island took the esteemed Dr. Beach’s No. 1 pick in the nation for 2023, Clearwater/Dunedin’s Caladesi Island State Park made the list at No. 4. We’ll take it! Over the years, many Gulf Coast beaches have made the list, and some were even retired for winning too much, including Caladesi Island and Fort De Soto Park’s North Beach. Originally, any beach that won the top spot on Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman’s list was retired and ineligible for subsequent years, but in 2016 Leatherman cleared the slate to allow any beach to once again be eligible for the contest and for the top pick.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads, ferns and other tropical plants, according to its website. When the Morganroth Family Living Energy Access Facility opens in January — with a garden-to-plate restaurant, a new gift shop, vertical gardens and a nearly 50,000-square-foot solar array — Selby Gardens will be the first net-positive energy botanical garden complex in the world, according to a news release about the expansion.
Frank Lloyd Wright architecture
Florida Southern College in Lakeland is known for its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus. It says on its website that in 2012, the Florida Southern College Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior for being the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world.
Located in a historic train depot in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District, the Morean Center for Clay is the largest workshop where pottery is made in the Southeast and one of the largest in the U.S., according to its website. It houses more than 50 studios of ceramic artists.
Presented by the Morean Art Center, the Chihuly Collection’s St. Petersburg location was designed specifically to house the renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work, which is a first. According to its website, it was “designed so that the art and architecture work together to create a visitor experience unlike any other exhibition of Chihuly’s art.” At the entrance to the museum is a 20-foot sculpture created for the site.
Based in St. Petersburg, The Florida Orchestra is the largest professional symphony orchestra in Florida, according to its website. It performs throughout Tampa Bay at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, The Mahaffey in St. Petersburg and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Wine, beer, cigars
Bern’s Steak House’s wine collection is the largest in the United States and third-largest in the world, according to Wine Enthusiast. Bern’s website says the cellar “contains more than 6,800 different selections with more than half a million bottles.” The collection is so famous that the annual Bern’s Winefest is a very popular event that sells out in minutes.
Though not the oldest or biggest, Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing can rightfully claim to have put the area’s craft beer scene on the map. Cigar City has won numerous gold, silver and bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery opened in 2009, and just one year later and since then has consistently landed in the top 15 among RateBeer’s list of the world’s top 100 brewers. It’s the only Florida brewery to be ranked so high. RateBeer is the highly recognized, independent source for craft beer enthusiasts. (It should be noted that Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg landed at No. 19 in the 2019 list and No. 29 in the 2020 list; Angry Chair Brewing in Tampa ranked No. 79 in the 2019 list of the top 100 brewers of the world.)
The Yuengling brewery in Tampa is the only one in the country outside of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where the company is based. Yuengling recently opened a Draft Haus & Kitchen on the same property.
Not only is Ybor City’s J.C. Newman Cigar Co. the oldest family-owned premium cigar maker in the U.S. (according to its website), the factory also has the oldest cigars in the world: Cubans that were rolled in 1857 and recovered from a shipwreck nearly 150 years later.
Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this story.