By Susan & Simon Veness
For every big-city location in Florida there is a ‘hidden gem,’ an area that is an attraction in its own right, worth seeking out for an essential part of that city’s experience. This series introduces these delightful – and often historic – sections of the Sunshine State.
When anyone tries to tell you Florida has no history worth discussing, just point them to Ybor City. Not only is this fascinating part of Tampa Bay packed with intrigue and interest from the past 135 years, it is a rollicking good attraction in its own right today.
And, much like the historic city of St Augustine in the north-east, Ybor City owes its creation – and decades of prosperity as The Cigar Capital of the World – to the Spanish.
Officially designated a National Historic Landmark District, it was founded in 1885 by prominent Spanish cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor, who was looking to expand his business from Key West and needed a large area of land with a nearby port. The fledgling city of Tampa was delighted to hear about his plans and a business marriage was immediately arranged that suited all parties and led to a boom period for the area.
Don Vicente brought in a ready-made labour force from Cuba, Spain, Sicily and Germany – all attracted by the mushrooming growth of a genuine multi-cultural and equal opportunity community – and Ybor flourished for more than 40 years.
Like much of the US, its nemesis proved to be The Great Depression, followed by a long period of stagnation following World War II. By the 1970s, Ybor was in a parlous state. A community of some 40,000 had dwindled to little more than 1,000 and it was officially an urban slum.
Happily, a major economic regeneration project in the 1980s breathed new and exciting life back into this near-forgotten district, and the area is now a flourishing suburb that offers a fabulous variety of attractions for locals and visitors alike, including restaurants, craft breweries, museums and public parks, while Seventh Street has been recognised as one of the “10 Great Streets of America” by the American Planning Association.
Start with a visit to the Chamber of Commerce Museum and Visitor Center on East 8th Avenue and learn the background of Don Vicente’s brainchild, with a viewing of ‘The Ybor City Story’ on video, then head for Ybor City Museum State Park, with its HQ in the historic 1926 Ferlita Bakery building, for more about the city’s rich heritage.
Be sure to stop for lunch at the iconic Spanish-Cuban Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905 by the Gonzmart family, whose descendants still run it today, and grab afternoon coffee at the Speakeasy-style Blind Tiger Coffee Shop.
Continue with a good wander along Seventh Street, with its New Orleans-style wrought-iron balconies lining an avenue that is full of shops, cafes, bars and cigar factories, and maintains the heart of the district, with its historic buildings including several of the original Social Clubs of the cigar workers, as well as the 1917 Ritz Theater.
As you’d expect, the city’s Latin heritage is maintained in many of the businesses and ambiance throughout Ybor, and is also evidenced at Centennial Park, with its busy Saturday farmers’ market. And then there is unique Jose Marti Park, which is officially still a part of Cuba after being dedicated to the 19th century Cuban independence hero in 1956.
Other oddities and novelties abound, including several breweries (our favourite is the Coppertail Brewing Co on East 2nd Avenue, with a terrific array of beers and tours several times a day from Wed-Sun) plus the Florida Cane Distillery, with its free tours and tastings. You should definitely also take home some guava pastries from the La Segunda Bakery on N. 15th Street.
Look out for the chickens that roam the streets, too. Seriously. These backyard inhabitants from yesteryear have survived to be part of today’s neighbourhood scenery, and they have free licence to wander where they will to this day.
Perhaps best of all, Ybor is easy to get around, just off Exit 1 of I-4, and with most of the historic district fully walkable. The free TECO Trolley tram system links it to downtown Tampa, opening up even more possibilities for local exploration.
And yes, you can still see traditional cigar-makers at work, maintaining traditions that date back to the 19th century and which helped to create a unique multi-cultural community that is alive and well today.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.