Flavors of Cuba

You don't need a passport to enjoy the charm of Tampa's Ybor City historic district.
Jennifer l. McKenzie and Les Thomas

It's cigar smoke and colorful shops. It's flamenco dancers and the aroma of rich coffee. Exit the interstate, and take a day trip to Cuba in Tampa's Ybor City historic district.

Ybor City (pronounced E-bore) was once home to thousands of Cuban cigar makers and dozens of factories. Now the buildings along La Setima (East Seventh Avenue) are abuzz with shops, restaurants, and dance clubs. By day the streets are filled with tourists. By night they're nearly as raucous as Bourbon Street.

Join the crowd. When you come for a visit, here's our pick of muy bueno places to enjoy the atmosphere.

Start the day with breakfast at La Tropicana Café, a favorite morning gathering place for locals. Order the traditional Ybor breakfast--Cuban toast, café con leche, and an egg Cuban; (813) 247-4040.

 

Walk over to the Ybor City Museum State Park to see exhibitions about the cigar industry and tour a home where workers lived. "It's great fun when kids come through," says guide Dick Lawrence. "They ask, 'Where's the TV? Where's the microwave? Where are the video games?'"

Browse the shops at Centro Ybor, an open-air entertainment complex, which once was home to Centro Español, the first Spanish club. For trendy fashions and funky home decor take a look at Urban Outfitters and Metropolitan Deluxe.

Empty cigar boxes make great souvenirs. Most of the shops sell them for $2 to $10 each. You can find stacks at King Corona Cigars; (813) 241-9109.

On Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., drop in at the Ybor City Fresh Market for fruit, baked goods, and other treats. It's at 8th Avenue and 18th Street; (813) 241-2442.

 

Dine on Spanish/Cuban fare and watch flamenco dancers at Columbia Restaurant, the oldest dining establishment in Florida. Try the house specialty version of paella ($21.95) or La Completa Cubana ($17.95), a feast of roast pork, plátanos, empanada de picadillo, black beans, and yellow rice. While waiting for a table, see artisans make hand-rolled cigars at Gonzalez y Martinez Cigar Company in the same building as the restaurant.

If you're staying overnight, book a room at the Hilton Garden Inn. Rates start at $99; (813) 769-9267. For lodging with more atmosphere at about the same price, try the Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn; (813) 241-4545. It looks like a place where you wouldn't be surprised to see Teddy Roosevelt come swaggering out of the stuccoed lobby yelling "Bully!" Teddy and the Rough Riders passed through Ybor City on their way to free Cuba.

To get to Ybor City, take Exit 1 on I-4, and go south on 21st Street three blocks to the historic district. Request a free visitors guide from the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau; 1-800-448-2672 or www.visittampabay.com.

This article is from the September 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.