Uniquely Ybor City: History and Culture Collide in Tampa Bay

Although plenty of visitors come to Tampa Bay for its beaches and theme parks, you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore some of its history and culture too. Ybor City is a must-see destination for history buffs because its role in the cigar-making industry in the late 1880s helped put Tampa on the map.

Today, Ybor City retains the unique Latino heritage brought by the Cuban and Spanish immigrants who turned it into the “Cigar Capital of the World.” Ybor City is just 1.5 miles from downtown Tampa, so it’s easy to add it on to your Florida itinerary or make it the center of your trip to Tampa Bay.

Learn About Ybor City’s History

Ybor City Museum State Park’s F. Ferlita Bakery Building in Tampa, Florida. Photo Courtesy of Steven Martin.

Ybor City is named after Vincente Martinez-Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur who founded the city in 1885 along with other cigar manufacturers. Together, they attracted thousands of immigrants to the city by providing jobs in cigar factories and building homes to house the growing workforce. Many of these workers came from Spain and Italy, but a large portion came from Cuba  – and so did the tobacco that was used to make the cigars. This led to a huge Cuban influence on Ybor City, not just culturally, but also politically. Many workers supported Cuban independence from Spain, and were active in mutual aid societies, creating a thriving social fabric that lasted for decades. Eventually, the cigar boom died out in the early 1900s, and Ybor City was hit hard by the Great Depression. But this “Golden Age” lives on in Tampa’s museums.

Start with a visit to the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. Museum, the last cigar factory in Ybor City that’s still in operation today. Take a 75-minute tour, where you’ll learn about the history of cigar-making and see the factory floor in action. If you want to try your hand at cigar-rolling, you can take a hand-rolling class run by expert rollers. J.C. Newman also offers a three-level cigar museum, an interactive theater, and a gift shop.

Next, see a different side of Tampa with a visit to the Tampa Baseball Museum, which is located in the childhood home of local legend Al Lopez. You’ll learn about Tampa’s first baseball team – founded in 1878 – and over 135 years of baseball history. More than 80 players and coaches are represented, with plenty of signed hats, baseballs, and other memorabilia on display.

Finally, wrap up the day with a trip to Ybor City Museum State Park, which features a public garden, an educational exhibit, and a statue of Vincente Martinez-Ybor. The Museum is located in the former Ferlita Bakery building, while three “casitas,” or small worker houses, let you see a turn-of-the-century home up close.

Getting Around Ybor City

TECO Line Streetcar in Ybor City Historical District in Tampa, Florida.

In Ybor City, getting around is part of the fun. Although the Ybor City Historic District is small enough to explore on foot, the TECO Line Streetcar adds some novelty to the experience and connects it with other parts of the city.

The TECO Line Streetcar is free to ride and stops in Ybor City, Downtown Tampa, and the Channel District. You can ride on a restored open-air streetcar or a replica of the model that used to carry passengers between the 1920s and 1940s.

If you prefer to move around at your own pace, you have two great options: bikes and scooters. The Coast Bike Share program has hubs all around the city where you can pick up and drop off a bike. Rates start at 25c/minute or $20 for a day pass.

For scooters, you can choose from private companies like Lime, Bird, and Spin, all of which have their own pricing options.

Explore Ybor City’s Culture and Cuisine

Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson.

Ybor City’s culture isn’t stuck in the past. Along with its museums and historical sites, Ybor City has a range of events and entertainment venues to keep you busy.

If you’re here on the weekend, drop by the Ybor City Saturday Market in Centennial Park, which features arts, crafts, and food from local vendors. Shop for coffee, bread, salsa, and more, as well as jewelry, soaps, and candles to take home.

Other highlights include La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been baking bread, cookies, and pastries since 1915, and Gaspar’s Grotto, a casual bar and restaurant that offers Cuban sandwiches and a lively pirate theme.

And don’t miss Columbia Restaurant, which has over a dozen dining rooms, some dating back to the early 1900s. The restaurant is a total of 52,000 square feet and can seat up to 1,700 customers, in fact, the establishment takes up a whole city block! Don’t miss out on the 1905 salad – a classic Tampa dish that’s a mix of iceberg lettuce, ham, and olives – all tossed tableside.

There’s still plenty to do even after the sun goes down. Ybor City is home to Tampa’s Gayborhood, with LGBTQ-friendly venues like Bradley’s on 7th and Southern Nights. Each venue attracts a different crowd, with themed events like Drag Queen Bingo, karaoke, or simply a good old-fashioned dance party.

For live shows, check out the Improv Comedy Theater, which hosts open mics and headliners almost every night of the week. Go for the laughs and stay to admire the performance space in the restored Centro Español building.

Or, check out the Ritz Ybor for live music acts and other special events. It’s the go-to spot for EDM and indie rock bands like Snail Mail and Beach Fossils.

Ybor City also has a burgeoning craft beer scene at venues like Tampa Bay Brewing Company, home to brews like Flame-Mingo and Gourds Gone Wild.

Visit Ybor City Any Time of the Year

Ybor City’s main street in Tampa, Florida. Photo Courtesy of Steven Martin.

Tampa Bay’s mild weather and year-round tourist season mean there’s something for you to do every month of the year. Plus, when you visit Ybor City, you’ll be well-placed to enjoy the other activities that Tampa Bay has to offer.

Check out the Sunset Music Festival in May, the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in October, and the Gasparilla Pirate Fest in January.

But don’t worry about taking everything in. Be sure to make some time to stroll up and down 7th Avenue and admire the palm trees and iconic architecture. You might even see some of Ybor City’s famous wild chickens while walking down the street!

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