Nestled on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay in central Florida is the nation’s oldest Cuban-American community.
After more than 50 years of political animosity, economic interference and cultural estrangement, Cuba and the United States have finally reestablished diplomatic ties. This means unrestricted travel to Cuba is hopefully in our near future, but for those who want a taste of the island now, Ybor City has the cigars, food and architecture on what is literally designated as Cuban soil.
It was the search for the perfect place to roll cigars that brought Spanish cigar manufacturer Vincente Martinez-Ybor to the quiet shores of Tampa in 1885. Escaping the political turmoil rocking Cuba during the Ten Years’ War was what first led the Spanish cigar baron to Key West, but business didn’t take off until Martinez-Ybor moved to the undeveloped land east of Tampa, less than a mile from the harbor with rail access to the rest of the country.
It’s no coincidence that the first cigar factory Martinez-Ybor opened was also the largest in the world.
Luring torcedores (skilled cigar rollers) from Cuba with thousands of mass-produced shotgun-style houses called casitas, the new Ybor City quickly boomed into one of the largest communities of Cuban, Italian and Spanish immigrants in America.
The “Cigar City” reached its apex in 1929, when thousands of torcedores exported 500 million hand-rolled cigars made in hundreds of factories around the city.
Tampa’s Ybor City area was one of the largest communities in the southeast when the Great Depression hit. Luxury items, like cigars, became tougher to sell and as worldwide demand plummeted, so did Ybor City’s population. Workers were laid off. Factories that didn’t burn down either closed or switch to cheaper, machine-produced cigars, and life grinded to a halt.
The ensuing decades after World War II were not kind to Ybor City, but a slow rebirth began to take shape in the mid-1980s. Fueled in equal parts by a burgeoning arts community and abundant space for nightlife, the Ybor City of today is recognized as a National Historic Landmark District — and Tampa’s nightlife capital.
The Ybor City Museum Society has preserved much of the original area, while other structures have been renovated inside as restaurants, art galleries, retail stores and nightclubs. In 2008, The American Planning Association ranked 7th Avenue, the heart of Ybor City, as one of the “10 Great Streets in America.”
Jose Marti Park
A block north of Ybor City’s Western gate, Jose Marti Park is as close to Cuba as you can get in Tampa. The land is literally designated as Cuban soil. A frequent visitor to Ybor City during the late 19th century, Cuban nationalist, lawyer, poet and soldier Jose Marti recovered from an assassination attempt at the wooden house of Paulina Pedroso, an Afro-Cuban nationalist and supporter of the revolution.
Marti died in combat, and the Pedroso property languished in obscurity before being bought and donated to the Cuban government. Dictator Fulgencio Batista even helped fund the project.
As much a memorial to Marti as to the struggle for Cuban independence, the quaint yet dynamic landmark features a sparkling white marble statue of Marti set against a map of Cuba, his right arm extended, beckoning you to the Cuba of tomorrow.
Shortly after its completion in 1959, the park became a hotspot for pro- and anti-Castro demonstrations, occasionally breaking Marti’s arm during protests. As a result, the park gates close after 1:30 p.m.
For a city whose heyday was more than 80 years ago, 7th Avenue is still stocked with authentic Cuban, Sicilian, Greek and Spanish-style eateries, bakeries and coffee shops.
A light, gourmet spin on a classic French dish that has a little bit of the whole neighborhood wrapped in, La Creperia Café is the perfect place to get a quick and easy breakfast or lunch while you’re out seeing the sights.
Breakfast crepes are served all day alongside salads, sandwiches and meat dishes as inspired as they are delectable. Try The Texan, a chicken and kalamata olive barbecue beast from the Savory Crepe section or Bolero sweet crepe with sugar butter and lemon. Wash it down with a cold or hot drink from the restaurant’s extensive coffee menu.
Before cigarettes became the tobacco of choice, the world smoked Ybor City cigars. Made with tobacco and palm leaves imported from Havana, more than a century later Ybor cigars are still created the same way.
Those looking for an authentic cigar from the golden era should start with the Nicahabana, a cigar shop on 7th Avenue. Hand-rolled on site using traditional Cuban tobacco and palm leaves, Nicahabana has made all types of cigars for more than 50 years. With prices starting at just $4, you can puff on your own piece of Ybor history.
If you’re looking for brand-specific cigars, Metropolitan Cigars carries everything from its own unique house blend to world-famous labels, among them Ybor original Arturo Fuente.
The Columbia Restaurant
No trip to Ybor City would be complete without a visit to The Columbia Restaurant, the oldest and most famous continually operating restaurant in Florida. Occupying the same block on E. 7th Avenue that Casimo Hernandez Sr. first purchased in 1905, The Columbia is widely considered one of the originators of the Cuban Sandwich, sold quick and cheap for the hungry torcedores while on their lunch break.
A family operation for five generations, the original menu, like the original restaurant, has been preserved, expanded and improved upon.
Start with the Original “1905” Salad, tossed at your table with the restaurant’s famous garlic dressing, then move on to Palomilla (marinated top sirloin cut very thin and quickly grilled) or the Valenciana, the classic arroz con pollo chicken and rice dish based on Hernandez’s original recipe. The Columbia also serves the El Floridita Daiquiri, the favorite cocktail of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, paella and what promises to be the best flan you’ve ever tasted.
In Ybor City, the past doesn’t just come alive, it lives concurrently with the present and even the future. Cigars may no longer be the life force driving, but art, culture and nightlife keep the cobblestone streets and old-world brick buildings humming with life. Take a stroll down 7th Avenue and experience this living Cuban Connection — day or night.