I’m all about landing in Florida and heading straight for a piña colada by the beach… which is probably how I managed to live in the Tampa Bay area for a year and a half and never spend a day in Ybor City. I mean, really, how much do you know about your own backyard until it’s not yours anymore? So on my recent trip to Florida, I enlisted the help of Visit Tampa Bay in getting the most I could out of a day in Ybor City.
Ybor City (pronounced E-bore) is Tampa’s historic district, located just northeast of downtown. It’s named for Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a Spanish entrepreneur who brought the booming cigar industry to Florida from Cuba in the 1880s. An industry that also brought many Italian, German, Jewish, Spanish, and Cuban immigrants (and their respective sandwich ingredients) to the area. It was a town born solely from the cigar industry and almost entirely populated and successfully operated by immigrants. People got along, workers were well-paid, cats and chickens lived in harmony–I guess you could say life was good under a fedora. And it’s that same quality of life you’ll experience while spending a day in Ybor City.
WHY SPEND A DAY IN YBOR CITY?
Tampa’s Ybor City is the original Miami—or, better put, the original Cuban community here in the United States. So, go ahead and forget everything you’ve learned from Pitbull music videos. 813 is the original 305; and women aren’t naturally built like that. Seriously, where does he finds such specimens? Just like Aretha Franklin gets all the credit and fame for Respect (originally written and performed by Otis Redding who, in my opinion, did it so much better), so does Miami get all the credit for stateside Cuban culture. But as Miami’s is modern and relatively recent, Ybor City’s is original and innovative. And it’s a National Historic Landmark.
Spending a day in Ybor City is like going back in time. Or perhaps just a little farther south. It’s a learning opportunity you never saw coming because it’s surrounded by swaying palm trees and blotted out by the sun. The act of smoking cigars on a shaded patio and sipping café con leche (or mojitos—hey, you’re on vacay) will disguise the fact that you’re soaking up history. You’ll learn more from a lunch menu here than you did during an entire semester of American History. To spend a day in Ybor City is to absorb a past culture through osmosis–soaking it in through your eyes, your ears, and your straw rather than through a pre-recorded audioguide. So here are 10 ways to get the full experience during a day in Ybor City.
01 | BREAKFAST AT LA SEGUNDA
Starting your day in Ybor City at La Segunda is more important to your day’s success than having even the vaguest idea how to smoke a cigar. This bakery–once part of a trio: La Primera, La Segunda, and La Tercera—has been operating since 1915 and is now the world’s largest producer of authentic Cuban bread. It was opened by Juan Moré, a Spaniard who, having fought in the Spanish-American war in Cuba, fell in love with adventure and traditional Cuban bread, the way one does. He took his recipe to the thriving Cuban community of Ybor City and went HAM on his passion project.
My passion project? Eating all the cinnamon buns on planet Earth, naturally. Seriously, La Segunda’s was one of the best ever.
Today, La Segunda is one of the few places left employing the labor intensive use of freshly cut palmetto leaves to create that Cuban bread split down the middle. It’s this care and attention to detail that makes everything here so damn delicious. I had the egg and cheese sandwich and a healthy portion of my husband’s cinnamon bun because isn’t that what marriage is? Giving your wife half of your cinnamon bun because she forgot to order one?
La Segunda is a take-away bakery and café so grab your incredible handmade breakfast and head over to one of the local parks because it’s January and the sun shines regardless.
Address: 2512 N. 15th Street, Ybor City, FL
Hours: Mon – Fri 6:30 am – 5:00 pm | Sat & Sun 7:00 am – 3:00 pm
Need to know: Don’t forget the cinnamon bun.
02 | MEET THE WILD CHICKENS OF YBOR
My friends and I took our La Segunda breakfast to Ybor City’s Centennial Park for a quiet start to our day while we fueled up. JUST KIDDING – there’s nothing quiet about roosters-gone-wild first thing in the morning. Meet: the Ybor City Chickens.
Arguably my favorite part of my day in Ybor City was getting to know the area’s wild chicken population. The chickens you’ll meet here are direct descendants of the chickens who lived in the backyards of the neighborhood’s residents over 100 years ago. They’re protected by a city ordinance that makes the city of Tampa a bird sanctuary and they are freaking fabulous:
Protected from harm? Yes. Protected from baby-talk and my persistent camera lens? Definitely not. With the exception of the busier parts of town, they’re almost everywhere in Ybor City—digging for insects, strutting their stuff (you think I’m kidding), crossing the road for reasons unknown, and, occasionally, humping. You’ll see them cock-a-doodle-dooing which is hilarious, nesting with their chicks which is adorable, and chowing down on the pieces of egg that fall out of your breakfast sandwich which is disturbing in a way you can’t quite describe.
03 | YBOR CITY MUSEUM
Just behind Centennial Park is the confusingly-named Ybor City Museum State Park, which is really the Ybor City Museum. It’s simple; it’s small; it’s only $4. Starting your day in Ybor City here will provide the necessary foundation on which everything else you’ll learn today will be laid. I recommend watching the 20-minute introductory video, from a really fancy old couch, which sounds long but will actually show you everything you need to know about Ybor City.
The Ybor City Museum, a former bakery itself, has permanent exhibits on the founders of Ybor City, life in the cigar factories, the various immigrant groups, and their ethnic social clubs. After watching the video, a trip through the museum will only take about another half hour—about a third of the time you’ll collectively spend talking to chickens. Next to the museum is a Mediterranean-style garden with a fountain, beautiful tile work, and a population of outdoor cats that I was told leave the birds alone seeing as how they’re massively outnumbered. So who do you think would win in a fight between one feral cat and ten wild roosters? Please advise.
Address: 1818 9th Avenue, Tampa, FL
Hours: Wed – Sun 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Admission: $4 for ages 5+
Need to know: It’s only through the museum that you can…
04 | TOUR A CASITA
After watching the introductory video at the Ybor City Museum, a tour guide offered to take us on a tour of a casita—a small immigrant home from the early 1900s.
You’ll learn all about immigrant life in Ybor City at the beginning of the 20th century in front of, inside, and out behind a fully-restored casita. (Casita is Spanish for “little house” btw) You’ll tour the living room, bedroom, children’s room, kitchen, and back yard (yeah, that’s where the bathroom is) of a family brought here by the cigar industry. You’ll learn fascinating stuff like how they got ice in southern Florida back-in-the-day, why there was a loaf of bread nailed to their porch every morning, and why they wore wooden shoes with three heels. The guide will explain many of the items in the house and teach you the early 20th-century ways of life and ironing—something I still don’t know how to do as a 21st century woman with electricity.
05 | SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOUR
Okay, so “self-guided walking tour” is a term I use loosely here–you could also refer to it as “taking the long way to lunch”—but despite how informal it is, you’re still going to see a lot of cool sites you’ve seen in the movies. And by “movies” I mean the Ybor City Museum’s introductory video.
I’ve included my walking route in the map at the beginning of this post so you can follow in my Google footsteps. I basically looped around Ybor City, stopping at a few notable sites. From the Ybor City Museum and the casita, I walked west on 9th Avenue to the Cuban Club on 14th Street—one of the many ethnic social clubs from the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
These social clubs—also known as Mutual Aid Societies—played a major part in early immigrant life. They were founded by immigrants, for immigrants and provided medical care, social activities, and a sense of community here in Ybor City for citizens with common backgrounds. These clubs contained cantinas, gymnasiums, entertainment venues, and probably a boat-load of white linen suits. If you’re picturing Ricky Ricardo playing Babalu at the Tropicana Club, I’m told it’s not entirely unlike that.
From there I crossed 9th Avenue and made a very weird stop—the Church of Scientology. The building being what it was I intended on merely looking at it from the street and swiftly moving on, but the building is also something else. What is today the Tampa chapter of the Church of Scientology, was once the city’s first cigar factory, built back in 1886. It’s also where Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti made a handful of historic speeches and an unknown someone ate a mouthful of the first ever Cuban sandwich. Much of the original building has been preserved but security is TOIGHT. Though I admit that upon entering I wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it out, it was very cool to step inside—it pays to have friends
in high places at tourism boards.
I walked around the Church of Scientology and over to Jose Marti Park which I’ll get to in a minute so I’mma skip right over it.
From there I made my way over to 7th Avenue, the guts of Ybor City and the area’s commercial center. Here you’ll find the street lined with vintage clothing stores, cigar chops, tattoo joints, cafés, and probably a girl on vacation who’s already drunk before lunch. Walking down 7th Avenue you’ll see many of the buildings from the museum’s video and all kinds of well-preserved, historical architecture. A day in Ybor City is perfect for history lovers since almost everything here is original. Also on 7th Ave you’ll come across L’Unione Italiana—the social club for Italian immigrants.
And finally, at the corner of 7th Avenue and 21st street, lunch!
06 | GO TO CUBA
…without leaving Florida, that is. Taking the long way to lunch, you’ll pass by Jose Marti Park at the corner of 8th Avenue and 13th Street. Walk through the iron gates and YOU’RE IN CUBA!
The 0.14-acre park is named for Jose Marti, who some refer to as the George Washington of Cuba. He was a poet, a journalist, a professor, and a soldier who died fighting for Cuban independence in 1895. The park has been owned by the Cuban government since 1956 and is barely bigger than a basketball court but you don’t need a passport to get there. Wow, Cuba is really beautiful this time of year.
Address: 1303 E. 8th Avenue, Tampa, FL
Hours: Mon – Friday 8:00 am – 1:30 pm | Closed Sat & Sun
Need to know: Take a good look at those hours; this place closes early.
07 | LUNCH AT COLUMBIA RESTAURANT
Columbia Restaurant is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the oldest and largest Spanish restaurant in the United States; of course you’re eating lunch here. The Columbia was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. and remains in the family to this day. Impressive history aside, the food here is PHENOMENAL and almost everything we ordered—sangria, mojito, gazpacho, the 1905 salad—was prepared table-side. The prices are way lower than they probably should be, especially for a joint utilizing a tuxedo-clad waitstaff.
The menu here reads like the most interesting history book in the world and nothing I ordered wasn’t fully described in detail, and often with black and white pictures of immigrants past. I opted for the most classic of classic Ybor City meals: a mojito, a side of Cuban bread (baked that morning at La Segunda), the “1905” salad, and a Cuban sandwich. Five days later I’m still dreaming of that salad, of all things.
It was here at the Columbia that I had my first ever Cuban sandwich—a sandwich created here in Ybor City in the 1890s for the Cuban cigar workers to eat on their way to and from the factories. As the immigrant population of Ybor City changed, so did the sandwich—an almost perfect analogy for the city. Spanish immigrants brought the ham; Italians brought the salami; Cubans brought the pork; Germans and Jews brought the Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. La Segunda brings the bread and Ashley brings her big ol’ appetite.
Address: 2117 E. 7th Avenue, Tampa, FL
Hours: Mon – Thurs 11 am – 10 pm | Fri & Sat 11 am – 11 pm | Sun 11:30 am – 9 pm
Need to know: Make a reservation! Yes, even at lunch. | No tank tops, guys. (This is Florida.)
08 | EXPERIENCE THE MODERN CIGAR INDUSTRY
The cigar industry in Ybor City isn’t even a fraction of what it used to be, but it still exists. Seventh avenue is lined with cigar shops—all decent, I’m sure—but we stopped at the most highly recommended: Tabanero Cigars. Here you can watch the cigar makers hand-rolling cigars, enjoy one of your own, and ask all the cigar-related questions you can think of because you’re infinitely curious and polite enough that no one shoos you away. You can talk to and take pictures of the workers (but go ahead and ask first), smoke inside or out, and even sip some Cuban coffee so strong it almost brought my 6’4” friend to his knees.
Watching the employees hand-rolling the cigars with such speed and precision was mesmerizing. Trying to smoke my first ever cigar was hilarious.
Address: 1601 E. 7th Avenue, Tampa, FL
Hours: Sun – Wed 10 am – 10 pm | Thurs – Sat 10 am – 11 pm
Social: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
Need to know: They offer factory tours!
09 | RIDE THE STREETCAR
The only thing on this list that I didn’t do personally is ride the streetcar, though it wasn’t for lack of desire. Having grown up in Memphis, Tennessee I love a good, old timey streetcar that will get you somewhere—eventually—for cheap. Even if that “somewhere” is simply back where you started. They’re not fast; they’re not fancy; but they are living history—Tampa’s first electric streetcar lines having been built in 1892.
Ybor City’s streetcar system is cute, classic, and a great way to get to downtown Tampa after one-too-many mojitos. If you really have nowhere to go, I still always recommending riding the rails, even if just in a relaxing loop around the city. For everything you ever wanted to know about the TECO line streetcar system (that’s literally what this page is called which is nuts because I had to look elsewhere to find out when they were built), click here. For more on how to live that hobo lifestyle, hit me up. We can talk beans.
10 | GET YOUR BREW ON
Because no Wanderlusty itinerary ever ended without a stop at a taproom or two, neither does this one. Specifically, Cigar City Cider and Mead and Coppertail Brewing Co. And since we’re in Ybor City I can say: Cock-a-doodle-brew!
CIGAR CITY CIDER AND MEAD
Confession: I’m allergic to apples. Because of this, plus the fact that I don’t really like them, I avoid cider at all costs. I have yet to taste a cider I even mildly enjoy—until I visited Cigar City Cider and Mead, a slight off-shoot of the Cigar City Brewery. The selection here was bananas (lol, I haz fruit jokes) and I loved all of them! Totally worth all the itching. I tried:
- Wise Prick | 5.5% ABV | Cactus and elderflower cider
- Strawberry Acai | 5.5% ABV | You guessed it, strawberry and acai cider
- There’s Always $$$$ in the Banana Stand | 5.5% ABV | Chocolate-covered banana cider that was way more amazing than it sounds. Plus, props for the hilarious name.
While here I also tried my first ever mead (which is nuts since I’m a beekeeper and my husband is a homebrewer. Youda thunk those two things would’ve overlapped at some point, no?). Up to this point I was mildly afraid of mead, thinking it would be harsh, strong, and overall unpleasant. But being 6% Viking I was sure I could handle it. I tried:
- San Juan Hail | 11% ABV | Brazilian Pepper Honey + Pineapple + Habanero + Serrano Pepper + Agave | …and it was smooth as hell.
- Currency | 14% ABV | Red & Black Currants + Orange Blossom Honey | At 14% I truly went all in on my first mead but I can’t say I hate being called “badass” by the group of grown men down the bar from me.
Address: 1812 N. 15th Street, Tampa, FL
Hours: Wed 3-9 pm | Thurs 3-11 pm | Fri & Sat 12 pm – 12 am | Sun 12 – 8 pm | Mon & Tue Closed
Need to know: All Florida ingredients and 100% natural products
COPPERTAIL BREWING COMPANY
Being able to still stand and form sentences after Cigar City Cider and Mead, we thought it a great idea to head to Coppertail Brewing Company for some delicious local beer but mostly because we heard they had food. Coppertail’s wall art, balcony, and beer styles were right up my alley but also, there was a giant Bavarian soft pretzel situation. Besides that, we were told by many other people that the food at Coppertail is top-notch and that I’m a fool for just getting a pretzel. Hello? Does a lunch heavy enough for a grown-ass factory worker mean anything to you? Next time, I’m saving room for drunken shrimp.
Address: 2601 E. 2nd Ave, Tampa, FL
Hours: Mon – Thurs 11 am – 11 pm | Fri & Sat 11 am – midnight | Sun noon – 9 pm
Need to know: The food is apparently the mack daddy of taproom food.
Clearly, Ybor City is my jam.
I made a video! Watch it here:
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Special thanks to the folks at Visit Tampa Bay for showing me around this awesome town and for covering my museum admission even though I tried to get them not to. 🙂