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April 20, 2020
The downtown Tampa skyline is growing by the day, transforming before our eyes.
Yet the easiest way to navigate this modern city’s urban center is a mode of transportation that’s been around for 128 years —a remnant of a bygone era proudly preserved by the City of Tampa. Amidst the construction cranes dotting the landscape, you will see the electric wires that power the TECO Line Streetcar. Historic replicas of the streetcars that transported Tampanians between 1892 and 1946 today run along a 2.7-mile line connecting downtown Tampa, The Channel District and Ybor City. Rides are FREE, fast and oh-so-charming.
Our ride begins at the Downtown Tampa Station (Franklin & Whiting Streets), the route’s southern terminus. This is a good starting point because parking is plentiful. On weekends, street parking is free North of Kennedy Blvd. We’re happy to leave our car behind and not have to worry about navigating traffic in this bustling part of town.
We are welcomed aboard by James Michael, who’s been driving the TECO Streetcar for 18 years. He says passengers all have the same reaction— amazement— when they step on for first time. They are quickly enchanted by the quaint interior lined with rustic, wooden seats that can be reversed to face the direction of the streetcar’s movement. For kids especially, the experience has a magical quality akin to a ride on the monorail or railroad at Disney World. At least that’s the verdict from the family of four from Philadelphia who rides with us. They exit at our second stop, the HSBC Station, bound for the Tampa Riverwalk and Tampa Bay History Center.
We pull the overhead cord to request a stop at the nearby Amalie Arena Station. It lets out at the entrance to the hip and happening Sparkman Wharf, where lunch options abound. Crowds line up for raw oysters, carne asada tacos and Vietnamese spring rolls at the shipping containers-turned-restaurants. A majestic cruise ship almost close enough to touch serves as the backdrop as parents lounge on the lawn while their kids run around. Construction that will bring more restaurants and retail here is well underway. The wharf’s transformation would surely astound Stephen Sparkman, for whom it is named. As the region’s first congressman, he was instrumental in the creation of Port Tampa Bay. The only thing he would recognize today is the streetcar.
The next stop on the line is Cumberland Station, the access point to the Florida Aquarium, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Through August, the aquarium is hosting Washed Ashore-Art to Save the Sea, a poignant exhibit showcasing the impacts of plastic pollution on our waterways. The message is hammered home with 18 enormous sculptures of marine life made entirely of plastic debris found on West Coast beaches.
Ybor City is our afternoon destination, and it takes less than 10 minutes to get there. The streetcar perfectly complements the historic red-brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies. Though architecture and artifacts remain from Ybor’s days as the epicenter of Tampa’s cigar production industry, the factories and social clubs have today been replaced by shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. The streetcar drops us right in the heart of the action at Centro Ybor. The outdoor mall is home to a movie theatre and GameTime, where mega arcade games and simulators keep kids busy for hours. Historic Seventh Avenue—aka La Séptima— provides plenty of window shopping, people watching and dining options. We discover Chill Bros. Scoop Shop, a relatively new addition to Ybor, featuring hand-crafted, all-natural ice cream. We arrive as owner Max Chillura is pouring batter for the made-to-order cones into a waffle iron. It smells like heaven. “We make everything absolutely from scratch,” he says. “We even pasteurize our own bases.” Having achieved his goal of setting up shop in Historic Ybor, the Tampa native is now getting ready to fulfill another by opening a second location in South Tampa in the next few months.
The northernmost stop on the TECO line is the Centennial Park Station. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Ybor City Saturday Market comes to life here, with vendors offering gourmet food and items unique to the Tampa Bay Area. If you board the streetcar that departs from this station at 5 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month, you will be treated to Streetcar Live, featuring live music onboard until 7 p.m.
The trip back to where we began our day takes just 25 minutes from end to end. Bypassing traffic, we take note that modern conveniences are not always the most convenient. In this part of town, it’s better to go old school on the TECO Streetcar.
*Photos provided by Maggie Rodriguez