Visitors to Tampa don’t always make it to its outer neighborhoods, but one you should be sure to see is Ybor City. It’s here that you’ll learn about the city’s early history and how it came to be known as “Cigar City.” You’ll learn of the Cuban community that is the oldest in the United States (yes, predating Miami’s Little Havana!).
In the 1880s, workers from Spain and Italy also settled here. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark District. Give yourself the afternoon to wander past the historic buildings and dine on authentic Cuban fare.
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Thanks to the early railroad systems and a thriving port, Tampa became a center of the industry early on. Spanish-born Vicente Martinez Ybor, the neighborhood’s namesake, moved operations of his cigar company from Cuba to Key West to escape political turmoil before moving even further north to the then small town of Tampa.
To accommodate a new workforce from overseas, Ybor and his contemporaries built small shotgun-style homes for families to live in. You can see one down the street from the Ybor City State Museum, pictured above. They had one or two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen.
The immigrant groups mostly kept to themselves apart from at work, residing in Cuban, Spanish and Italian communities. Smaller groups of Germans, Romanian Jews, and Chinese also settled here. The pillars of these communities were the social clubs, where they could get free healthcare, receive education and attend social gatherings.
Many of these buildings are still visible today, including the Deutsch Amerikanischer Verein, located at Nebraska Avenue and 11th Street and the Circulo Cubano at Palm Avenue and 14th Street.
At the height of Ybor City’s cigar manufacturing glory, 500 million cigars were rolled in these factories in 1929. Men and women worked in the cigar factories, each with different roles including handling the tobacco, rolling the cigars and packaging for sale.
But soon came the Great Depression and World War II, leading to massive layoffs and a shift to mechanized methods of rolling cigars. Former cigar factories, like the ones pictured above, stood vacant or were taken over by other businesses. The neighborhood continued to deteriorate as jobs left Ybor City throughout the 1950s and 60s.
The urban renewal trend of the 1980s reached Ybor City, but not before many historic buildings were demolished to make way for a highway. But as with neighborhoods all over the world, artists moved in seeking cheap studios and provided the area with a much-needed influx of money.
Bars, restaurants, shops, and nightclubs made their way to Seventh Avenue and the surrounds steadily since the 1990s and the city of Tampa added amenities like parking garages to accommodate visitors.
Today, you’ll find much that has changed. The area’s oldest former cigar factories, Ybor Square, is now owned by the Church of Scientology. You’ll find a small museum inside with information on the building’s former life.
Centro Ybor is a shopping plaza with restaurants, bars, and a movie theater, but the iconic yellow TECO streetcar still runs in front of it. Where Columbia Restaurant was once one of the only dining options, Seventh Avenue is now crowded with restaurants, including Italian, Argentinian, and Japanese food.
The Perfect Day in Ybor City
9:00 am– Start your day with breakfast at the Ybor City Saturday Market, held seasonally on Saturdays from 9 am to 3 pm in Centennial Park. Grab a strong coffee and a pastry as you walk the stalls.
10:00 am– Stop by Ybor City State Museum to begin your tour of Ybor City. Set in an old bakery, the museum features displays on the important people in the local cigar industry and aspects of daily life. Schedule a tour with Wally of Ybor City Tours, who will give you a closer look at the cigar industry from the 1800s to the present.
12:00 pm– Jose Marti Park is named for a Cuban Independence revolutionary. An agreement between Cuba and the United States makes this plot of land owned by Cuba but managed by the state of Florida. It was the closest thing we had to a Cuban embassy for many years and Fidel Castro would visit here regularly.
12:30 pm– Drive the short distance outside Historic Ybor to La Segunda Central Bakery for lunch. The 100-year-old bakery doesn’t have standard dining room service, but you instead order a sandwich to take to go. Grab an authentic Cuban sandwich, named for the immigrant workers who ate them, and take an extra loaf of bread home as a souvenir. The Historic Ybor City Food Tour is another fun way to taste the neighborhood.
The baseball museum honors hometown hero and Tampa’s first major league player Al Lopez as well as the over 80 players to impact the city over the last 125 years. The cigar museum is a small affair at the visitor’s center where you can pick up maps, brochures and ask for restaurant recommendations.
5:00 pm– Rest your weary bones over a cigar and cocktail at one of Ybor City’s many nightlife options like The Lion’s Den or a craft beer at Coppertail Brewing Co.
7:00 pm– Dinner couldn’t be anywhere else but at Columbia Restaurant, a Ybor City standby since 1905. Now with locations all over Florida, this is the original and the oldest restaurant in the state. Popular menu items include the “1905” salad, the Cuban sandwich and the devil crab croquettes.
For more on the history of Ybor City, read this in-depth history on the National Park Service website.
Looking for a place to stay in Ybor City? The Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa Ybor City Downtown is convenient with all the amenities. The Epicurean Hotel in Hyde Park North is a favorite of ours (review here) and Gram’s Place Hostel in Riverside Heights is perfect for budget travelers. Airbnb is another great option.