From Cigars to Gasparilla: History Comes to Life in Tampa Bay

Tampa, Florida, is a vibrant city with a rich history that attracts visitors from around the world. Known for its historical sites, museums, exciting festivals, and cultural events, Tampa Bay is the perfect destination for history enthusiasts. Founded by Ponce de Leon in 1513, Tampa is one of the oldest cities in Florida. It’s also home to Ybor City – the cigar-making capital of the world. Tampa’s multicultural heritage can be experienced everywhere, from its diverse neighborhoods to family owned businesses, educational exhibits, and public art.

Are you ready to be transported to the past as you explore Tampa Bay?

Ybor City and Beyond

A TECO streetcar makes a turn at Ybor Square in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district. Photo Courtesy of Attila Adam

Tampa Bay was built thanks to the cigar industry, so no trip would be complete without visiting Ybor City. During the day, visitors can learn about the Spanish, Cuban, Italian, and Eastern Europeans who built Tampa Bay into Cigar City. Start at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company and tour the USA’s oldest family owned premium cigar maker. Explore the museum on a guided tour, attend a hand-rolling class and browse a selection of cigars in the factory store.

After your tour, stop for a beer at Centro Ybor before checking out the Ybor City Museum State Park. Located in Tampa’s National Historic Landmark District, the park is home to a museum in what used to be the Ferlita Bakery (the original ovens are still on display) as well as a Mediterranean-style garden and a reproduction of a cigar worker’s home known as a casita.

The museum is close to many other historical sites. Across the street, you’ll find Centennial Park which is home to the original city hall and courthouse. Jose Marti Park is owned by the government of Cuba and is the spot where Cuban freedom fighter, Jose Marti, stayed in an old boarding house.

Don’t forget to visit Tampa Union Station, which opened in 1912 and served as a major transportation hub for many years. For a taste of the city’s military history, check out the Historical Monument Trail, which features over 30 monuments and markers along Tampa’s Riverwalk.

After you’ve had your fill of the area’s history, return to Ybor City at night for its boisterous bar scene. You’ll enjoy many nightclubs and restaurants in this historic district come nightfall. For something a little calmer, there are plenty of craft beer markets like Centro Ybor, Coppertail Brewing, and Cigar City Cider and Mead.

Museums & Attractions

The Tampa History Center. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson

There are museums for every interest in Tampa Bay that reflect the city’s diverse cultural and historical identity. The Tampa Bay History Center is a must-see for any history lover. Here you can learn about the city’s past, from its early days before it was a Spanish colony to its present-day status as a major tourist destination. Learn about the pirate Jack Rackham, the Cuban cigar rollers, the pioneering cattle ranchers, and much more.

The American Victory Ship Mariners Memorial Museum is one of four still-operational WWII ships. You can explore all three levels of the ship, including the radio and gyro rooms, hospital, weaponry, and more. At the Henry B. Plant Museum, Tampa Bay’s history comes to life. Located in the former Tampa Bay Hotel, the museum and hotel display the luxury the upper class enjoyed in the early 1900s when staying at the historic railroad resort. Sports enthusiasts should be sure to stop at the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House, the old home of Tampa’s first Major League player and Hall of Fame inductee. Discover Tampa’s rich baseball history, from the early days of spring training to The Tampa Smokers.

Gasparilla and More

Gasparilla Parade in Tampa, Florida. Photo Courtesy of Duane Schoon

No trip to Tampa Bay would be complete without attending one of its many festivals and events, and Gasparilla is one of the most historically significant seasons of the year. From January to March, the city celebrates pirate history with lively parades, parties, music festivals, pirate re-enactments, and the Gasparilla Arts Fest.

The Gasparilla Season officially kicks off with the third largest parade in the nation and for the next eight weeks, you’ll find a variety of events and festivals every weekend. Gasparilla Pirate Fest is a street festival that takes place in February. It’s been going on since 1904 and includes hundreds of people dressed as pirates. If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to check out the Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza, which features a parade, carnival rides, and much more.

If you’re visiting Tampa outside of Gasparilla Season or want to go to an event that celebrates something other than pirates, you have options too. ViVa Tampa Bay Hispanic Heritage Festival takes place in October, and the Ybor City Cigar Festival is held in December, which celebrates the city’s cigar-making heritage.

A Blast from the Past

One of the beautiful things about Tampa’s history is that it is complex and filled with historical figures and events that have shaped the city into the multicultural haven it is today. The ultimate melting pot, Tampa continues to evolve yet preserve what came before. While the area is known for its exciting theme parks and outdoor adventures, travelers will find even more to enjoy as they learn about the city’s history.

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