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Tampa Bay/USA

Introducing Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay, particularly compared to Miami, seems to exemplify the dictionary definition of 'generic big city, American.' Sprawling and businesslike, Tampa lacks the iconic downtown skyline or cultural buzz that stamps other US cities with an indelible, distinct persona. For instance, the Tampa Bay area's most prominent landmark is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Though the bridge connects to St Petersburg, not Tampa, its two majestic harp-like towers are the city in a nutshell: soaring yet plain, form stripped to functional essence.

Therefore, it's surprising to learn that locals take a perverse pride in their city's unofficial designation as the 'lap-dance capital of the world.' Really? Tampa? The city has no red-light district, yet scattered among the strip malls are somehow enough strip joints to warrant the claim. Indeed, Tampa surprises: it's much more fun and intriguing than first meets the eye.

In fact, so many new museums, parks and gourmet South Tampa restaurants have popped up recently that the city is dangerously close to becoming stylish. In the heart of downtown, the revitalized Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River glitters with contemporary architecture and scenic green spaces. Plus, between the zoo and aquarium, the children's museums and theme parks, families have enough top-shelf entertainment to last a week.

Best of all, Tampa's influential, immigrant-rich history has never been better showcased. Historic Ybor City, the center of Tampa's turn-of-the-century Cuban community and cigar industry, is a compact neighborhood of handsome brick buildings where everyday life still moves to a Spanish beat. Then by evening Ybor's streets transform into Southwest Florida's hottest bar and nightclub scene.

As it turns out, Tampa's not so buttoned-down after all.