Within a few miles of docked cruise ships, a beautiful aquarium and downtown Tampa is a well-known, historic neighborhood named Ybor City (pronounced ‘e-bor’). Perhaps best known for its nightlife and cigar heritage, Ybor is a veritable kaleidoscope of culture, history and entertainment. On any given day, a walk through the neighborhood reveals street cars, roosters, monuments, fascinating architecture, tattoo parlors, cigar shops, nightclubs, mainstream food places, ethnic food places, a large movie theater, as well as other things to see and do.
Ybor City Museum State Park
Being from St. Petersburg, I have my own history with Ybor, mainly related to its nightlife and food. However, what I didn’t know, I’m sad to admit, is what Ybor encompasses in terms of its culture and history. Luckily the Ybor City Museum State Park enlightened me on a recent visit.
The museum showcases Ybor’s rich history and offers an insightful perspective from the people who lived and worked in Ybor during its early days. In fact, the museum itself is an historical landmark, having been a well-known bakery for many of the city’s cigar workers and other residents from 1896 to 1973.
Among the highlights during my visit, was a guided tour of one of the ‘casitas’ (small homes) by Jessica, the park ranger. The casitas were home to many of the city’s cigar workers during the height of Ybor City’s cigar-production (Ybor City was once considered the cigar capital of the world).
However, Ybor’s history goes beyond cigars, according to what I learned at the museum. For instance, Ybor City played an important role in Cuba’s independence from Spain. Also, Ybor City’s cultural diversity goes beyond Cuba and Spain, as many of the early residents were Italian and Jewish. You’ll see Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and Jewish cultural influences when walking around the neighborhood (Ybor City is now considered more of a neighborhood than city).
8th and 7th Avenues
Upon the advice of Jessica, the park ranger at the museum, I took a self-guided, walking tour of Ybor City, making my way along 8th and 7th avenues. This is where Ybor’s kaleidoscope of culture, history and entertainment presents itself, depending upon the block you are exploring.
Among the stops I made was a park dedicated to Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero, as well as the Ybor City Visitor Information Center, which offers lots of history, as well as an Ybor-inspired collection of literature and Ybor City collectables and souvenirs.
Jessica also recommended that I explore Ybor with Ybor City Historic Walking Tours, a company that provides walking tours led by a professional guide with immense knowledge of Ybor’s many buildings and landmarks. This is something I highly recommend as well, as I can only imagine how many fascinating footnotes and anecdotes reside among the many buildings and locations in Ybor — history that otherwise goes unnoticed.
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Modern fun …
Ybor certainly has entertainment. With a large movie theater, food and The Tampa Improv, Centro Ybor is a good place to start when searching for things to do in the Ybor City area. There are also many restaurants throughout the Ybor neighborhood that are well-known, such as Carmine’s and the Columbia. And, of course, there are many other restaurants (and bars) that I’m sure locals can recommend — but you’ll have to put down your smartphone for a second 🙂
Anna in the Tropics
If you’re really looking to get into the spirit of Ybor, I recommend reading (and seeing) the play, Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003. It is set in Ybor City, 1929, during a time when lectors read local newspapers and novels to the cigar workers to entertain them, breaking up the monotony of rolling cigar after cigar after cigar. The play has a romantic quality to it that will make you appreciate Ybor even more.
Have anything to share about Ybor? Be sure to comment below!