Cuban culture is everywhere in Tampa, particularly in Ybor City, which is the original settlement from which Tampa Bay as we know it, grew from.
Ybor City started off as a town built in the 1880s for the booming cigar industry and visitors can discover Cuban history including rolling cigars with seasoned tabaqueros, the birthplace of the famous Cuban sandwich, the gates of Jose Marti Park and why free-roaming roosters are protected by law.
The historic landmark city Ybor was built on the success of Spanish entrepreneur Vicente Martinez Ybor, who came over from Cuba to set up a cigar industry and opened the area’s first cigar factory in 1886.
The early citizens of Ybor City preserved their own traditions and were the first contributors to the city’s cultural diversity. Many of them worked in the cigar industry or provided essential goods and services to those coming from other countries such as Spain, Cuba, Germany and Italy.
The Ybor City Museum State Park pays homage to the city’s past.
Click here for a YouTube video on the history of the city.
Hand crafted cigars
Cuban cigar baron Don Vicente Martinez Ybor opened his first factory in Ybor in 1886, and hand-rolled cigars have since been a staple of Tampa history and culture.
Before then, Tampa was a tiny outpost of a few hundred people best accessed by ship. Cigars brought the railroad, thousands of new Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants and worldwide acclaim. Tampa Bay cigars are now among the most sought-after in the world.
In the shops along Ybor City’s Seventh Avenue, cigar rollers expertly create hand-made cigars just like they have for 130 years. J.C Newman Cigar Co is the last operating cigar factory in Tampa and there is even a brewing company called Cigar City Brewing, which creates beers to reflect the flavours and history of Tampa.
Finally, here’s a guide to understanding cigar terminology.
In the early days of Ybor City, owning livestock was commonplace and chickens are now living memorials to the founding and early days of Ybor City. Chickens are allowed to roam freely throughout Ybor City thanks to a city of Tampa ordinance protecting them.
Step off the TECO Historic Streetcar near Centennial Plaza and visitors won’t have to go far to see some roosters, which even have their own Instagram page, run by Dylan Breese, who founded the Ybor Chicken Society in 2013, and which consists of volunteers who spend Saturdays making sure they are healthy, well, and taken care of.
Find out more here.
The original Cuban sandwich
It’s been called ‘the world’s greatest sandwich’ and it originated in Ybor City. The Cuban sandwich consists of roast pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard in toasted Cuban bread. Its ingredients represent the different cultures that lived in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Ybor City.
It is the official sandwich of Tampa Bay. Find out more here.
For a traditional Cuban sandwich in Ybor City, head to Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, which opened in 1905.
The best – and free – way to get from downtown Tampa to Ybor City is the TECO Line Streetcar, a 2.7-mile electric heritage streetcar line connecting Downtown Tampa, Channel District, and Ybor City. The service is free seven days a week to 11 covered wheelchair-accessible stations every 15 minutes.
The first streetcar lines were built in 1892 to take workers to and from Ybor City, Ballast Point, Hyde Park, Sulphur Springs and points beyond and quickly became an essential part of everyday life as workers took the streetcar downtown and to the cigar factories of west Tampa.
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