Ybor City serves up a taste of Cuba

Tampa, Florida has such a lot to offer, including this gem with its own distinct identity

Vibrant music, lively restaurants, a hint of revolution and assassination plots and, of course, the whiff of cigar smoke in the air.

Welcome to Ybor City (pronounced E-bore), just a stone’s throw – or short trolley ride – from the city centre of bouncing Tampa but years back in time.

Instantly you are transported to the late 19th century as Cuban revolutionaries plotted the country’s liberation from Spanish rule.

Cigar heaven

Cigar-rolling in Ybor City

Ybor City’s brick streets and buildings were built in the 1880s by immigrants who had been lured to work in the area for the booming cigar industry, which, at its peak, produced 500 million cigars annually.

Mass production has long since ceased but hand-rolled cigars are still being made in the numerous cigar shops that line the route.

But there is so much more to Ybor than your own personal Churchill moment, which my husband enjoyed with a cafe con leche as I watched the area come to life one morning at King Corona Cigars Cafe and Bar.

Walking tour

And this is the perfect moment to go back to that assassination plot I mentioned at the start. Take a historic walking tour and the history of the City will come alive. And one name will be heard more than any other – Jose Marti.

Jose Marti Park

Marti was a leading light in the bid to rid Cuba of their Spanish rulers but in 1892 agents tried to poison him while he was in Tampa. Jose Marti Park is on the site of the cottage he stayed in while recovering and the ground was gifted to the people of Cuba in the 1950s. Until  the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington in 2015 it was the only plot of Cuban-owned land in the United States. Marti, like all the best revolutionaries, eventually died in battle but Cuba was freed of Spanish rule.

Dining delights

All that walking will have helped build up an appetite and that’s good – because food is another of Ybor’s highlights.

And no trip to this part of Tampa is complete without lunch at the Columbia Restaurant. We lunched at the famous eatery which opened in 1905 and is still family-owned. It claims to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world where you can savour the famous Cuban sandwich  and, our favourite, the serve-at-your-table 1905 salad, a mix of ham, cheese, tomato, olives and lettuce.

With so much still to do, you will need somewhere close-by to stay as you enjoy one of only three National Historic Landmark districts in Florida.

Hotel Haya

The Hotel Haya has just opened, named after a pioneer in the cigar industry, Ignacio Haya. The hotel has fused together two historic buildings, one of which, the Warren building, is supposedly haunted by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders who stayed in the town on their way to the Cuban-American war.

The 178-room hotel has three places to eat, including Flor Fina which is an upscale Latin-inspired restaurant featuring what it describes as ‘wood grilled coastal cuisine’.

Cuban sandwich

And, of course, you will be able to find a Cuban sandwich* to set you up before venturing out to the nightlife which caters for all musical tastes.

Then, fired up with revolutionary fervour, you are ready to explore everything else this stunning part of Florida has to offer. Just don’t mention Fidel Castro!

What else to do in Tampa

The city is expanding and has fast become a very hip destination on the Gulf coast. Great restaurants, new and exciting hotels, museums, a major theme park – Busch Gardens – on the doorstep, an aquarium, a zoo, even an annual pirate festival – Gasparilla. We loved the river walk along the Hillsborough River, a great place any time of the day to walk, cycle or just hang out. Buy a CityPass for great discounts on attractions and also the Tampa Riverwalk Attraction Pass. More information at www.visittampbay.com.

For cigar history, visit the JC NEwman Factory museum www.jcnewman.com and www.yborwalkingtours.com to find out all their historic walking tours.

Find out more

To visit Tampa and the surrounding area, please call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.

*Recipe for Cuban sandwich 

You cannot move in Ybor City without hearing of the Cuban sandwich. It was created for the cigar workers in the 1890s and was influenced by the immigrants from all round the world who flocked to Tampa to work in the booming tobacco industry. The Spanish brought fine ham, the Sicilians their salami, the Cubans the marinated pork, the Germans and jews the Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard but, and the locals are very insistent on this, there must be no mayo. No lettuce or tomato. No turkey.

Ingredients:

  • 9 inch piece of Cuban bread or long white roll, toasted
  • 4 ounces smoked ham, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ ounces pork loin, thinly sliced
  • 1 ounce Genoa salami (peppercorn studded preferred), thinly sliced
  • 1 ounce Swiss cheese, thinly sliced
  • 2 pickle slices
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • Soft butter

Preparation:

  1. Layer sliced meats and cheese in the following order: ham, pork, salami and then cheese. Place pickles evenly on top.
  2. Spread mustard on top half of bread. Cut diagonally from corner to corner. Serves 1.
  3. OR: If you have a toasted sandwich machine: Lightly butter both top and bottom of the sandwich. Heat sandwich in press until crisp.
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Ruth Brindle

Travel journalist

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