Tampa Heights was Tampa’s first suburb, directly north of downtown. It started as a small six-block area bordered by Florida, Central, Oak, and Henderson Avenues but the name now refers to a much wider area that was once known as the town of North Tampa.
Today, Tampa Heights is considered anything north of downtown between I-275 and the Hillsborough River, all the way up to Martin Luther King Boulevard. The main drag is up N Tampa Street and most of the fun things we found were along N Tampa Street between downtown and its intersection at W Columbus, or near the waterfront around Armature Works.
A Black woman named Fortune Taylor owned the property via government land grants until she sold it in the 1870s to some white folks that began developing it for new homes. She kept one acre for her own home, a site located near the Barrymore Hotel where we spent a few nights.
Tampa Heights was once a safe haven from yellow fever and where the wealthy elite relocated for relief from the crowded city, but younger generations opted to leave for more exciting, newer neighbourhoods like Ybor City and Hyde Park.
When families moved or died out, many donated their homes in charity to the city for social services, welfare offices, and later use as low-income and veteran housing. This led to a change in social status from a prominent wealthy neighbourhood to a dilapidating one, made worse by regulations against renovating in a historic district.
Residents complained that they were stuck in housing they could not improve to control costs, and that the neighbourhood was not able to be revived.
Eventually city funds were issued for development in the early 2000s. Businesses received incentives to move in and stimulate economy, provide jobs, and create new infrastructure. The art and makers community is thriving, but resident complaints of gentrification are endless.
Tampa Heights’ investors and developers seem to constantly be at odds with residents to find a way to make everyone happy.
Tampa never really crossed my radar until a friend moved there a few years ago, so I wanted to visit. I did not know exactly what to expect but I was ecstatic about visiting Ybor City and getting my fill of Cuba as much as I could outside its national soil.
Right away, I was impressed by Tampa’s excellent and efficient use of old buildings and open public spaces, even in late hours. I enjoyed the Riverwalk culture, murals, work spaces, food halls, and abundant outdoor activities.
Tampa Heights is an area we had not planned, but rather happened upon in the natural process of wandering. You can drive there, take public transport, or just start walking north along Tampa’s Riverwalk until you reach the top.
Birria, quesotacos, empanadas, and Cuban sandwiches were calling our name so we headed straight for Armature Works.
The Heights Public Market in the old Armature Works building (usually referred to as Heights Market or Armature Works) is a foodie paradise with multiple restaurants inside a 22,000 square feet space with shared both indoors and outside in its 50+ acres.
We had so many restaurants to choose from, and there is also a unique gift shop called A. W. Mercantile.
Muchachas Casa de los Quesatacos
We could smell it as soon as we got near the door… birria and quesotacos! Just look at them!
Birria is a traditional stew from Jalisco, Mexico. Quesotacos are when you fry the meat until crispy and put it inside a tortilla with cheese then grill it like a quesadilla, except you fold it in half so it is more like a taco.
It is served with salsas and a particularly fancy sauce you dunk it into. Cool right?
Birria sauce is what makes it so special. In Mexico, or authentic Mexican cuisine, Birria is often made with lamb and/or beef, but I have only found it with beef in the USA. We are still about squeamish about eating cute little lambs, for the most part.
Adobo meat, cumin, bay leaves, oregano, chili powder, salt, onion, and dried chilies are just a few variations to make this deep, dark, red sauce.
It has a thick texture like a consumme or gravy, and a lot of places make it by mixing all the juices from various stewed meats and vegetables into one dish, so there are layers and layers of tastes.
Empamama serves up fusion empanadas with fillings like buffalo chicken, cheeseburger, and bang bang chicken, as well as tacos, small street food plates, and banging Mamaritas.
Our favourite was the “Tampa Girl” which has all the fixings of a Cuban sammie.
At Hemingway’s Cuban Kitchen we tried the El Ultimo instead of a Cuban sammie, just to mix it up a bit. This photo does not do it justice but it has palomilla steak, caramelized onions, crispy potato strings, melty chees, and a cilantro garlic aioli on toasted Cuban bread. It came with fried yucca strips, and they were better than any french frie we had ever eaten.
They have a margarita buffet here as well. A MARGARITA BUFFET!
Other restaurants at Armature Works include Bento Asian Kitchen, Steelbach, Oak & Ola, Dharma Southern Kitchen, Zukku Sushi, Kipos, Ava, BnB, Graze 1910, Buddy Brew Coffee, Bar Aw, Cru Cellars, Astro Craft Ice Cream, and Bake’n Babes.
Armature Works is adjacent to the Water Works Park, right on the water, in addition to its own vast outdoor spaces.
It felt like a little town of its own, instead of just a park.
At night, people are still stretched out the lawns relaxing with the new shift of pub crawlers and couples on dates in the background. We did a yoga session while other groups were playing cards and board games after dark.
Return on certain evenings each month for the Heights Night Market.
Next door, Ulele can be difficult to get a reservation for, but walk the grounds even if you do not eat there. We loved the columns of fire, exotic greenery, fountains, hidden pathways through gardens, and huge sculptures in homage to Ulele and other figures in her story.
The Armature is not the only street market in the area. Heading north into the Tampa Heights neighbourhood along N. Tampa Street, we found a rad outdoor market and street party.
Dozens of tents and booths were set up with locally made goods and there were a few live DJs.
Merge Culture Gallery turned out to be the source, and we went inside to chat with the owner for a bit. Illsol is a husband/wife design and muralist team that started the Merge Culture Gallery to showcase local talent.
The duo is also behind Heights Walls, a grassroots initiative that facilitates neighbourhood connections and enhances them with public art installations and murals.
Speaking of murals, there are SO MANY in Tampa Heights!
Varying from historic tales, hyper-realistic, surrealistic, and graffiti style, we found so many great ones.
Take this virtual mural tour of nearly 60 of the area’s best murals and learn more about the artists who created them.
Craft breweries are a big deal in Tampa Heights too. Our favourites were Woven Water Brewing, Garagiste Meadery, and Hidden Springs Ale.
Woven Water Brewing was my personal favourite, mostly due to their dark gold/black/green motif, and tarot motifs. I felt like I was in my own house.
We picked up a flight of some blood red sours and smoky, unique brews.
Hidden Springs Ale Works was a bit more basic with wooden tables and uncomfortable metal chairs and a mixed crowd of college guys and families, but we really enjoyed all the beers. I could drink quite a few of these on a regular occasion versus some of the wilder ones we had at other places just for the experience.
Garagiste Meadery had so many delicious small batch meade varieties, which can be rather hard to find. The bartender had us cracking up and we really enjoyed ourselves.
We also visited Magnanimous Brewing. I love the building and the interior, the creative signage and usage of light and shadow. It was really beautiful.
I don’t really care that much if bar staff are friendly with me, and it is not usually a metric I use to determine if I like a place or not, but this was one place where the bartender got under my skin with the mansplaining, condescension, and I-have-better-things-to-do BS.
Luckily the beers were delicious and we had a great time anyways.
While most of the fun places we found were near Armature Works, the Riverwalk, or over along N. Tampa Street, take the time to venture further north in to the Tampa Heights. At least go up to Columbus Avenue, where it becomes a mostly residential area.
Check out restaurants like Thee Burger Spot, Lee’s Grocery, King State, Shuffle: The Heights Shuffleboard Society, and Union Coffee, Tea, & Sweets, grab a drink at Florida Avenue Brewing Company, or pick up rare goodies at Heights Meat Market.
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