Put your stamp on Tampa

By Katia Hetter, CNNPublished 24th August 2012
If you're landing in the middle of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, or the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, you'll probably spend much of your time inside the convention hall cheering and voting for your candidate and collecting all those colorful hats and buttons delegates like to wear.
Yet there is much fun to be had beyond the convention walls in Tampa and Charlotte, even if you only have a little bit of free time in either city.
With the Republican National Convention opening Monday, August 27, Tampa is up first. CNN.com decided to ask Tampa Tribune food writer Jeff Houck, author of the popular food blog, "The Stew," for his nonpartisan recommendations for a good time in his city.
Whether you just have an hour, an afternoon, a day or the luxury of an overnight trip, here are his recommendations for a great time.
If you only have an hour: "Tour the Tampa Theatre. Built in 1926, its interior, designed by architect John Eberson, makes it one of the most spectacular movie palaces in the country. Designed in the atmospheric style that mimics an outdoor Mediterranean setting, the ceiling blinks with 99 twinkling stars and puffy clouds that appear to float by.
"Taken over by the city of Tampa in the 1970s and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Tampa Theatre remains home to independent films, first-run movies, classic flicks and local events. It is magical and wonderful and makes even the worst film at least 33% better just by showing it there. Plus, the theater is next door to the Hub, one of Tampa's best dive bars. You could spend an hour there hugging a PBR and picking songs on a nicotine-stained jukebox."
If you have an afternoon: "Tour the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. The home to works which span the surrealist master's entire career, the collection features 96 oil paintings, sculpture, photos, drawings and an archive of documents. Plus, the museum just moved into a spectacular new building worthy of his absurd body of work.
"It isn't every day you get to see "The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus" and "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" and the lobster phone. The gift shop is a must-visit. A set of Dali-designed tarot cards makes a lovely souvenir."
Take the whole day: "You can't visit Florida and not go to a theme park. Spend the day in Tampa at the African-themed Busch Gardens Tampa Bay screaming your lungs bloody aboard the roller coaster SheiKra. With its delayed 90-degree drop after hanging 200 feet above Mother Earth, SheiKra is less of a thrill ride than a gravity propelled, 3,188-foot-long physics-induced exorcism. If that's not enough for you, there are other spine-rattling rides on which you can test your stomach's capacity for high-velocity jostling. And exotic animals. And beer."
The luxury of an overnight: "In 1924, Thomas Rowe had a dream to build a pink castle on the sugar-fine sand of St. Petersburg Beach. His resort for the ultra-rich became what is now known as the Loews DonCeSar Resort. Posh doesn't begin to describe this 277-room playground. Anything that was good enough for F. Scott Fitzgerald should be good enough for you.
"Just know that the 'Pink Lady' is just feet from the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, the sunsets are spectacular, the food at the Maritana Grille is extraordinary and the rooms and day spa are beyond luxurious. During certain times of year, sea turtles lay eggs on the beaches. Even they know posh when they swim up to it."
For more travel advice on Tampa and Charlotte, check out our convention smackdown.