Tampa surprises some visitors with its lively urban vibe. There’s a lot happening in this growing metropolis, with gleaming glass towers sprouting up like weeds. But there’s also some lovely history to enjoy here, and that starts with the Ybor City neighborhood.
Ybor City is located roughly a mile northeast of downtown Tampa and is home to quite a few of the city’s gay bars, including Hamburger Mary’s—a nice diner vibe and Drag Queen Bing, Bradley’s on 7th—everything from pool tables to go-go boys, Southern Nights—music videos, more pool, drag shows, and Honey Pot—a younger crowd, both men and women.
You’ll also find plenty of rainbow flags flying in front of stores and restaurants across the district, a sure sign of a welcoming community.
But Ybor has a lot to offer travelers of all stripes, with loads of history and great architecture throughout. I spent a couple of hours walking the district’s streets with Lonnie Herman of Ybor City Historic Walking Tours—Herman is the area’s pre-eminent fan and historian.
As we walked along from block to block, he effortlessly pointed out architectural details on buildings while weaving in the story of how Ybor was born and how it evolved.
He offered plenty of interesting facts, too, such as how the engineer who laid out Ybor’s streets was from New York City—and he used the same numbering grid system as the Big Apple does.
The city was founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a wealthy businessman who was looking for a location to manufacture cigars. More and more cigar manufacturers followed once they saw Martinez-Ybor’s success.
Tampa annexed the burgeoning city in 1887. By the 1920s, there were 230 cigar factories in Ybor, employing 12,000 workers. Sadly, there are only two left today.
“The area features a lot of lovely bricked plazas, and there is a Saturday market held in Ybor throughout the year with food, produce, crafts, and “a little bit of everything,” according to Herman.
Ybor is a national historic landmark district, one of only three in the state of Florida. Because of this, the area’s ten square blocks are protected—and for the most part, nothing on the outside of the district’s buildings can be altered.
There’s a fun little side trip you can make in Ybor City, and Herman literally has the key. José Martí Park is a small quarter-acre park that legally sits upon Cuban soil. The park is a tribute to José Martí, a Cuban national hero and important figure in Latin American literature. Martí campaigned in Florida and was a huge contributor to the success of the Cuban War of Independence.
The land here has been owned by the Cuban government since 1956—so you can amaze your friends and technically visit Cuba before they get the chance! On the day we visited, the park was locked, but Herman produced a key, unlocked the gate, and let us wander the grounds—yet one more reason to hire his services for a couple of hours.
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