With a snazzy downtown, vibrant nightlife, a bustling port, the stunning Sunshine Skyway bridge, and a beautiful riverfront, Tampa was definitely a great place to start my United States sojourn. Museums like the Henry B. Plant museum and the Tampa Bay History center, coupled with attractions like the Big Cat Rescue center and the popular Busch Gardens theme park, quickly made Tampa an ideal city for a holiday. During my initial days in the city, I visited all these attractions — and they were great — but I wondered if there was more to unravel besides the city’s chic and contemporary façade. Then, I discovered Ybor City.
Amidst Tampa’s trendy skyscrapers, one rather old-fashioned building with a brick-red facade stood out. On researching further, I realized it was an old cigar factory, one of many in the vicinity. Tampa was actually known as the “cigar city” — stemming from a unique, eclectic hub called Ybor City. As a fan of history and culture, a visit to this historic quarter of Tampa was calling.
Known as a “city within a city”, Ybor City has been designated a National Historic District and houses several structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Located just under three miles from Tampa’s downtown, it was named after Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur responsible for pioneering the cigar industry in this region in the 1880s. Since then, thousands of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Spain, and Cuba moved here and created a community that flourished into a centre of major economic development.
The excellent port facilities of the city, along with the newly constructed Plant Railroad, ensured that this industry — which produced the exclusive hand-rolled “Havana” type cigars — reached almost dizzying heights of success. But soon, the age of mechanization and a drop in demand for these cigars led to the industry’s gradual decline. Coupled with the Great depression and World War II, the cigar industry almost ceased to exist by the 1970s.
A Unique Community and Culture
With its classic buildings, cobbled streets, and old school architecture, Ybor City exudes old-world charm. Its distinct mix of cultures, languages, cuisine and customs make this erstwhile boom town a truly engaging place to visit. The area’s history is well-preserved; one of the best ways to travel back in time is to explore the museums, parks, streets, and restaurants of this Latin quarter.
First Stop: Centennial Park
The pleasantly old-fashioned neighbourhood is best explored on foot. The narrow and meticulously planned streets host interesting buildings complete with brick facades, ornate balconies, and street lamps that are reminiscent of a bygone era. The 2.5-acre Centennial Park honours the founder of Ybor City, Vicente Martinez-Ybor, commemorating him with the “Immigrant Statue.” Wandering through Centennial Park is a good way to start exploring Ybor City, especially if your visit aligns with the vibrant farmer’s market open every Saturday. There are stalls selling unique hand-crafted jewellery, crafts, and other knick knacks for you to take back home.
7th Avenue: the soul of Ybor City
The historic 7th Avenue, which the American Planning Association recognized as one of the “10 Great Streets in America” in 2008, is still the soul of Ybor City. The clubs, restaurants, and bars that were symbols of Ybor immigrant’s strong social networks were founded here. The ethnic multiplicity that is evident in the architecture of the buildings here enamored me: decorated storefronts, detailed tile designs, and vintage balconies are just some of the influences that the Spanish, Cuban, Italian, German, and Jewish immigrants brought. Make sure to take a ride downtown on the traditional bright yellow tram car that was once a lifeline for the locals here.
Step back in time in a “Casita”
Take a house tour of La Casita, Spanish for “small house,” which represents a traditional cigar worker’s home. The white colonial-looking houses have been restored and impeccably maintained with original furniture, photographs, cigar labels, and even a cigar-making station. Most of the furniture and kitchen appliances, including an original washing machine, iron box, and oven, have been donated by families of the immigrants who have helped keep their legacy alive.
In the “casita,” our guide pointed us to a nail drilled beside the main door, which was used to hang a loaf of freshly baked Cuban bread, delivered fresh each day. A similar arrangement took place for the daily supply of ice. As a fan of kitchen gardens, I loved the little patch of Italian herbs that was grown behind each house.
Ybor City Museum State Park
A highlight of the neighborhood, the Ybor City Museum is located in the building that was formerly the renowned Ferlita Bakery — a spot that once dished out the most delectable Cuban breads. A highly insightful place, the Ybor City Museum has several artefacts, photographs and displays that trace the history and evolution of the cigar industry in Ybor City. A documentary film screened in the beginning of the tour helps add perspective.
The museum focuses on stories of the immigrants: their hardships and struggles to achieve the “American dream,” to their endeavours to promote and preserve their native culture, which lead to the emergence of social clubs, known as mutual aid societies. An ideal place for cigar aficionados, the museum covers all the nuances of cigar manufacturing, including displays of merchandise and samples of boxes and packaging material preserved over the last century. I loved displays showcasing the Cuban influence, which includes a traditional brick oven and knife sharpener’s wheel.
Columbia: a celebration of cuisine and culture
Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., Columbia restaurant in Ybor City is an iconic place. The restaurant first began as a small café for cigar factory workers. Now, the place is run by the 4th and 5th generation of the original founders. The restaurant is decorated with brightly painted walls, stained glass windows, magnificent chandeliers, and tiles from Cuba, Spain, and Mexico. This is the oldest restaurant in Florida, as well as the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.
Try authentic specialties like Spanish bean soup, gazpacho, tortilla Espanola and paella. Then, sample ‘The Columbia Original 1905 Salad’ and the signature ‘Original Cuban Sandwich,’ which is still made with Casimiro Hernandez, Sr’s 1915 recipe. My epicurean experience was made even more memorable by the hand-painted sangria pitcher I took home as a souvenir.
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