Ybor City is a historical city built on the ambition and dreams of migrant workers who moved to Tampa seeking a better life. Ybor City’s residents created an environment to raise their children, establish businesses, and follow their dreams. Today the ironwork balconies, brick-paved streets, and towering marble and granite social clubs continue to tell the stories of the immigrant experience.
Ybor City offers its visitors the chance to learn from its history by participating in its present. The massive red brick cigar factory buildings once filled with hundreds of cigar rollers are now shops, restaurants, and hotels. Although the industry may have changed over the years, the city’s soul remains.
I have recently found myself wandering the street of Ybor City, stopping at each historical marker to read the history of the land I was standing on. Gathering the knowledge of this city led me to an afternoon of discovering the heritage and culture that shaped the city. What was once the site of the first Cigar factory is now the newly renovated Hotel Haya.
La Segunda Bakery & Café
You can’t start a day of exploring on an empty stomach. La Segunda is the authority on Cuban bread and pastries. Open since 1915, La Segunda is the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread, producing over 18,000 loaves of bread daily. Four generations have overseen operations, ensuring quality products are prepared using the same handmade traditions since the early 1900s.
It’s hard to decide what to try amongst the bakery case of sugar-topped pastries. My go-to order is a guava cheese turnover, a breakfast sandwich, and a cafe con leche. Whatever catches your eye, it is guaranteed to be delicious.
Once the location of Ybor City’s original Fire Station, Centennial Park is now a collection of historical plaques and statues honoring the immigrants and local leaders who shaped the history of Ybor. Park benches around the perimeter are the perfect place to enjoy breakfast as the Ybor Chickens scratch through the dirt for their morning meal.
Centennial Park also hosts many festivals throughout the year. The weekly Ybor City Saturday Market brings vendors selling fresh produce, handmade gifts, art, and food. Annual events such as Festa Italiana and the Taste of Latino Hispanic Heritage Festival celebrate the food and culture of the people living in the Ybor and Tampa area.
Ybor City Museum State Park
The Ybor City Museum State Park is where you get a complete education on the history of Ybor and the Spanish entrepreneur Vicente Martinez Ybor, a noted industrialist and cigar manufacturer in Cuba, Key West, and Tampa. The museum focuses on the immigrants who brought their skills and determination to build the city into what it is today. Cigar manufacturing started in a pine scrub swampy unknown town and grew into a flourishing, prosperous area.
The Ybor Museum State Park is located in what was once the Ferlita Bakery. The brick ovens are on display for visitors to learn about the history of the bakery and the supporting industries that thrived during the height of cigar manufacturing in Ybor. The museum also plays a 20 minutes video for arriving visitors to watch, priming them for the displays they will see throughout the museum.
The self-guided museum focuses on the lives of the people living in Ybor in the early 1900s. Many black and white photos show factory floors filled with cigar rollers carefully crafting hand-rolled cigars. As you exit the museum, you will notice that the buildings shown in the photos still stand today. Just behind the Ybor Museum is Casa Olivia, the only remaining wooden cigar factory building. Today, Casa Olivia has since been remodeled into luxury apartments; however, the outside facade remains just as it looked a hundred years ago.
Mutual Aid Societies
The Ybor Museum focuses on the industry and each immigrant group’s support through their nationalities Mutual Aid Societies. These societies were established as membership clubs that provide medical services, theater, entertainment, and language classes. Between 1891 -1902 there were five primary Mutual Aid Societies: Centro Español de Tampa, Centro Asturiano de Tampa, Circulo Cubano de Tampa, Unión Martí-Maceo, and Unione Italiana.
These monumental buildings still stand around the city today. Although membership has dwindled significantly over the decades, many mutual aid societies still operate today.
Ybor City Visitors Center
The Ybor City Visitor Center is more than a gift shop to buy souvenirs. I was struck by the elaborate decorations and cigar memorabilia packed into this tiny space. If you haven’t already received your fill of historical videos to watch, you’re in luck; the visitor center also has a short ten-minute video on the impact of cigar manufacturing, and a peek at life in Ybor City during the turn of the century.
If you are a souvenir collector, the Ybor City Visitor Center is a must-stop to pick up gifts that pay homage to the Ybor City chickens, cigars, and art. You can also find flyers for other local attractions, restaurants and a friendly staff willing to help with any questions.
Parque Jose Marti
Ybor City was an important site for the launch of the fight for Cuban Independence from Spain. José Martí spurred support by delivering impassioned speeches to Cuban cigar workers. Through his poems and essays, José Martí became a symbol of Cuba’s struggle and a synonym for liberty throughout Latin America. As a patriot, José Martí rallied the Cuban people to fight for their freedom and paid the ultimate cost for his beliefs by doing on the battlefield in 1895.
Today, José Martí is remembered in Ybor City with a park that bears his name. Located at the former site of revolutionary Paulina Pedroso’s cabin, the Cuban government donated the land, which still owns the property to this day. José Martí Park is open to the public from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Soil from each Cuban province blankets the ground, and flags flank the statue of José Martí for both the United States and Cuba.
JC Newman Cigar Factory Tour
J.C Newman Cigar Factory is the only cigar factory still producing hand-rolled and machine-manufactured cigars in the Tampa Bay area. Keeping the history alive, guided one-and-a-half-hour tours are available Monday – Friday for $15 per person. The groups are small and fill up fast. This is a must if you are visiting the Ybor City area.
I wrote an entire post on my experience touring the J.C Newman Cigar Factory. I entered this tour with zero knowledge of cigar manufacturing. With every floor we climbed, from the basement to the third story, my appreciation grew for the craftsmanship and time put into each cigar.
There are several places to stop for an afternoon coffee and cigar. However, King Corona has recently been my favorite stop for an afternoon break. There is indoor and outdoor seating; both are great options for people-watching and taking in the city’s atmosphere.
I’m not an authority on what cigars to purchase; however, I know a good cup of coffee when I taste it. King Corona offers a truly memorable coffee; the Cafe Corona. Espresso and steamed milk with a hint of cayenne kick from their spicy caramel sauce are like none other. It is no wonder it was voted Creative Loafing’s “Best of the Bay” coffee.
The Columbia Restaurant is an institution for Spanish dining. Family-owned and operated since 1905, the Columbia Restaurant has expanded to seven locations throughout Florida. The Ybor location is where it all started. Vibrantly painted tiles decorate the outside of the restaurant walls, while wooden spirals delicately support the lattice archways. A heavy wooden door creaks open, and it feels like you have been transported to a faraway Spanish country.
The footprint of the Columbia expanded, filling city block, making it the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. The restaurant has twelve distinctly different and heavily decorated dining rooms. My favorite is the El Patio Dining Room. The natural light from the skylight makes the room feel airy and soft. Centered in the dining room is a colorful mosaic-tiled fountain; the faint babble of the water only enhances the serenity of the dining experience.
The restaurant’s atmosphere is not the only star of this dining experience. The menu is packed with pages of delicious options. For first-timers, I would suggest the classics: a pitcher of sangria, the 1905 salad (prepared tableside), Pollo Manchego, or El Combo de Cuba for the entrées, and Flan for dessert. Whether you stop in for lunch or dinner, it will become one of the most memorable meals in Tampa.
The TECO Streetcar is my favorite feature in the Ybor City and Downtown Tampa area. The slow but steady streetcar travels from Ybor’s 7th Ave to the Tampa Convention Center. Eleven stops along the way include popular sights like Sparkman Wharf, The Florida Aquarium, and Amalie Arena.
Outside, the trollies are wrapped in unsightly advertisements as they roll down the city streets. However, the inside is like stepping into the 1920s at the peak of the Tampa Streetcar popularity. Blond wood envelopes the entirety of the interior, the ceiling is embellished with red and green art deco style design, and leather straps for standing passengers hang from polished brass rails. While the design of the trolley cars looks like they are from the roaring 20s, riders do not have to rely on an open window to keep cool. These trolley cars are an air-conditioned traveling oasis during the hot summer months. Whether your day in Ybor leads you to explore the downtown area or looking to rest your legs on the 45-minute round-trip ride, a free ride of the TECO Streetcar is the hassle-free way to explore the historical attractions in Ybor.