Known as Tampa’s Latin quarter, Ybor city is an eclectic mix of diverse sights and sounds that encapsulates the history, culture and traditions of the various immigrants who came, over a century ago and settled in Tampa. Founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, this historic neighbourhood was where thousands of immigrants mainly from Spain, Italy, Germany and Cuba settled down and laid the foundations for what would grow up to be the most successful cigar industry in the world.
Bustling industrial town
From a barren palmetto patch to a flourishing boom town, Ybor city was the site chosen by Vicente Martinez-Ybor in Tampa in 1886 for the cigar industry considering the excellent port facilities of the city and connectivity provided by the new Plant Railroad. Soon, thousands of immigrants flocked the city to escape political oppression in Cuba and poor living and working conditions in other American cities, making it a centre of major economic development.
V M Ybor ensured the community and business grew from strength to strength and within the first ten years of its existence cigar companies from Havana, Key West, New York and Chicago either shifted base here or just opened branches in Ybor city. This led to the development of several allied businesses like grocery stores, clubs and restaurants.
Witnessing the amazing economic potential of this part of the town, the Tampa board of Trade inducted Ybor city as an integral part of Tampa and it is today of is one of the major boroughs of the city apart from being one of the two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida.
Ybor City Museum State Park
Arguably the best way to begin your exploration of this vibrant quarter is to visit the Ybor City Museum State Park. Housed within the building that was once the renowned Ferlita Bakery of the 1920s, the museum provides great insights into the cornucopia of different cultures, languages and foods that make Ybor city a truly unique neighbourhood. The museum has several artefacts, photographs and comprehensive displays that reveal its history and evolution. The story of the immigrants including the hardships in their respective homelands and their struggles to make it to the “American dream” is indeed a revelation.
The museum also touches upon unique aspects like the efforts made by the immigrants to promote and preserve their native culture and the emergence of ethnic social clubs which were known as mutual aid societies. The museum is a must visit for cigar aficionados for it not only describes every step of cigar manufacturing but also has some interesting merchandise and samples of boxes and packaging material preserved over the last century. A great way to explore the history of Tampa and that of Florida!
Old world charm aplenty
The neighbourhood of Ybor city is best visited on foot and a walk along the paved streets will treat you to some quaint and delightful scenes. Narrow cobbled streets lined with red brick buildings replete with wrought iron balconies and ornate street lamps are a common sight. A walk along 7th avenue reveals the influence of the Jewish with most of the buildings bearing the names of Jewish merchants who owned a majority of the businesses from the early 1900s to 1970 here. The distinct vintage vibe is unmissable as you walk past the tram station and pass storefronts with large decorated windows.
You could also do a house tour of the La Casita, which is the term given to the homes that were first built by the immigrants. Many of these white-coloured colonial looking houses have been preserved and impeccably maintained with all the original furniture in the living room, bedroom and kitchen.
Do not miss the nail drilled just beside the main door which served a purpose akin to the modern-day Amazon. The nail was used hang a basket that had the list of groceries, mainly Cuban bread, needed for the day. The vendor passing by on his bicycle would review the list and drop the stuff accordingly! Bills, apparently, would be settled on a monthly basis.
A walk through the historical Centennial park, a tour of the last operating cigar factory, J.C. Newman Cigar Company and shopping for havana styled cigars are yet other things you could indulge in to gain insightful perspectives into the Tampa of the yesteryears.
Columbia: an epicurean experience
No piece on Ybor city is complete without the mention of the iconic Columbia restaurant that was founded by Cuban immigrant, Casimiro Hernandez, Sr in 1905. Started as a small café for cigar factory workers and synonymous with its delectable Cuban coffee and gourmet sandwiches, Columbia restaurant is being operated till date by the 5th generation of the original founding family making it the oldest restaurant in the state of Florida. With a whopping capacity of 1700 that can be housed within 15 opulent dining rooms, Columbia is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.
The décor is lavish and is grandeur personified with hand painted tiles, exquisite paintings, Don Quixote-themed art, stained glass windows and magnificent chandeliers complemented by bright lights.
The food is authentic and flavourful and includes a wide variety of tapas, soups and sandwiches. Do not miss out on the ‘The Columbia Original 1905 Salad’ as well as the signature ‘Original Cuban sandwich’ that is made using the 1915 recipe of Casimiro Hernandez, Sr.
Spanish flair and flavour is abounding with a plethora of sangria options, mojito made by the tableside and the scrumptious Paella “Española” which is Spain’s national dish.
A more detailed version of this article was originally published in the March 2018 edition of Jetwings (International).