Beer, Bites and the Occasional Pirate: These Are Tampa’s Must-See Spring FestivalsBy Terry Ward
Is it any surprise that Tampa is at its most festive during those perfect winter-into-spring months?
When the most comfortable season for being outside descends on this cosmopolitan city, locals and visitors step out to enjoy downtown’s lively waterfront parks, Ybor City and other areas while experiencing a run of fun and quirky festivals that make springtime ideal for a visit.
Stretching four miles long, the third-largest parade in the United States turns waterfront Bayshore Boulevard and nearby downtown Tampa into a swashbuckling scene during the annual pirate festival known as Gasparilla.
The event celebrates the legendary pirate, José Gaspar, who terrorized Florida’s Gulf Coast in the late 18th century and early 19th century. And while Gasparilla Pirate Fest, in late January, is the main event, it’s also the kickoff (along with the children’s parade, which takes place the weekend before) for “Gasparilla Season” in these parts.
Mark your calendar for Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, when hundreds of artists display their wares at downtown’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. And local and national acts headline the Gasparilla Music Festival, performing for the crowds on four alfresco stages by the water.
Tampa’s most venerable restaurant, Bern’s Steak House, hosts this annual homage to wine at various locations in the city’s trendy SoHo neighborhood. Visitors and locals mingle for winemaker dinners, wine blending seminars and all manner of gourmet food and wine worship.
Bay Area Renaissance Festival
Visitors are transported to the 16th century when they stroll through the gates into the castlelike backdrop of the area’s largest and liveliest Renaissance festival. Playing out over several weekends in February and March, the festival spotlights rotating themes, so you can plan your visit according to your interests.
The Highland Fling weekend, for example, features Highlands Games and a Men in Kilts contest. A pet costume contest and wiener dog races are planned during Pirates & Pets weekend. Whenever you visit, you can enjoy the environment meant to conjure up a European village and the chance to see live armored jousting throughout the day.
Florida Strawberry Festival
Just east of Tampa, Plant City is a hot spot for the country’s strawberry harvest. And roughly half a million visitors arrive during this old-school festival that fetes the berries at the height of their seasonal deliciousness.
The setting is fairlike, with live music, a carnival midway with more than 80 rides and games, and even a youth livestock show where the kids in your gang will love the chance to see cows, sheep, rabbits and chickens up close. It’s Americana at its tastiest, to be sure.
Downtown Tampa’s Pride parade is one of the earliest events of the year to kick off the pride parade season across the nation. The parade winds its way through the bricked streets of historic Ybor City with lots of fanfare, a general sense of inclusivity and much flying of the rainbow flag.
Things kick off at 9:30 a.m. with a performance by the Tampa Bay Pride Band and culminate with the parade, which takes to the streets at 1 p.m. An arts and crafts show and community health fair round out the events. And you can count on the party atmosphere continuing long into the night, too, at Ybor’s lively bar scene.
Cuban Sandwich Festival
Miami may beg to differ, but Tampa claims to be the birthplace of the delicious Cuban sandwich. The ingredients — ham, roasted pork, cheese and a smorgasbord of other possible additions that usually includes pickles and mustard, too — are a worldly nod to the immigrants who settled in Cigar City in the late 18th century and early 19 century.
The city’s annual homage to this tasty pressed sandwich takes place at Centennial Park in Ybor City, where contestants from as far away as South Korea and London put forth their best versions of a Cuban sandwich to try to win over judges.
The event also features the assembling of what’s hoped will break records as the world’s biggest Cuban sandwich (stretching to a goal of 170 feet long), which is later donated to feed the homeless. Domino tournaments, dancing and live Latin music round out one of Tampa’s most fun spring fiestas.