September 22, 2015
Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin Quarter, was born of a once-proud industry. This vibrant district on the fringes of Downtown Tampa sprang up in the late 1800s when Cuban cigar magnate, Vicente Martinez Ybor, established his business empire here. Ybor’s factories prospered, attracting Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German and Jewish immigrants to live and work in “Mr Ybor’s City”. At the industry’s peak, over 200 factories employing 12,000 tabaqueros (cigar makers) produced 700 million cigars annually, making this the undisputed Cigar Capital of the World.
The Great Depression ushered in the decline of cigars and, with them, Ybor City. But fast-forward to the present day and Ybor is buzzing again. Much of its distinctive character remains intact (especially along Seventh Avenue) and it’s been designated a National Historic Landmark District.
For a glimpse into life in Ybor’s early years, start your visit with a mooch around the Ybor City State Museum. Housed within a restored bakery, it tells the story of Mr Ybor and his workers, with a tabaquero hand-rolling cigars for added authenticity. The museum also incorporates two casitas (“little houses”) next door. These single-storey, shotgun homes are filled with artefacts of the era to illustrate the daily life of the cigar workers and their families.
Another throwback to yesteryear is not as old as it seems. The bright yellow trams of the TECO Line Streetcar System may have an air of nostalgia, but they only date from 2002 and were built to take the place of the originals, which were grubbed out decades before.
It’s not just the Museum that preserves Ybor City’s built heritage. Most of the remaining cigar factories are now occupied by offices, with many of Ybor’s most striking buildings reborn as classy restaurants. The Centro Espaol – once a social club for the Spanish community and the grandest building of its kind – now houses Carne Chop House. Equally impressive is Bernini’s, an Italian restaurant set within the former Bank of Ybor. Tables fill the banking hall where cigar rollers deposited their wages, and there’s even a private dining room in what was once the vault.
Given the varied provenance of the area’s immigrants, Ybor City has always been a melting pot of cultures – a fact still evident in today’s wide range of restaurants. Turkish, Greek and Asian cuisines are all represented, but for a real taste of Tampa, the food to try is Cuban. Start the day with Cuban toast and cafe con leche at La Tropicana, a step-back-in-time joint that’s widely considered the best Cuban café in town. Both this and nearby Gaspar’s Grotto are good bets for Cuban sandwiches – Cuban bread stuffed generously with ham, cheese, pickles and mustard.
Other historic buildings have been transformed into nightclubs and bars. In fact, the diverse profusion of venues makes Tampa’s Latin Quarter “the Nightlife Capital of Florida’s Gulf Coast”. An after-dark stroll along Ybor’s main drag presents all kinds of options for a memorable night out. Choose from live music at The Ritz and The Cuban Club; all-night dancing at Amphitheatre; or The Castle’s indie scene. Also, don’t miss The Blind Tiger – a trendy, Prohibition-style speakeasy that’s not-so-secretly hidden behind a coffee shop.
Cigar manufacturing may be now all but dead, but recent years have seen Ybor develop a new industry: craft brewing. Florida’s oldest brewpub, Tampa Bay Brewing Company, produces more than 40 different beers, including their famous Elephant Foot IPA. Cigar City Brewing, one of Tampa’s best microbreweries, recently began making cider and mead at its Ybor City location (its main brewery across town creates quirky beers with flavours like cucumber or Cuban espresso). Another recent Ybor arrival is Coppertail Brewing Co, whose on-site tasting room provides samples of its wares.
Beyond beers, bars, clubs and dining, Ybor City’s other distractions abound. The complex at Centro Ybor includes a comedy club and 20-screen, cocktail-serving cinema, as well as Hamburger Mary’s restaurant – home to hilariously daring drag shows and drag-queen bingo. The area also hosts a calendar of festivals, such as Guavaween (a Latin-style, Halloween street party) in October and a week-long BeerFest every March. For something at a gentler pace, the Saturday Market provides ample browsing for locally made artworks, gifts and gourmet foods.
As for other shopping opportunities, there’s not a chain store in sight, so the focus here falls on one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Perhaps Ybor’s most exciting store is La France, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave filled with vintage and reproduction clothes and accessories, from 1920s flapper dresses to zoot suits and much more besides. Caffeine-lovers can get their kick at Naviera Coffee Mills, a family-run operation that’s been here since 1921. But Ybor City’s best buy, of course, is a hand-rolled cigar or two. Get yours from the Columbia Restaurant’s gift shop, or try Tampa Sweethearts, a cigar shop occupying a revamped, brightly painted casita.
Written by James Liston