Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The 4-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.
Ready for a weekend away? Head north from Miami to Tampa Bay, where the city within the city beckons. Ybor City, aka the Latin Quarter of Tampa, is a winning combination of historical time capsule (think the 1880s), architectural gems, and modern happenings.
HOME BASE: Hotel Haya
Located on the Ybor City block where Spanish immigrant Ignacio Haya opened the district’s first cigar factory in 1886, the brand-new building that houses the boutique Hotel Haya mixes elements of old and new into a welcoming space. On 7th Avenue in the heart of Ybor’s Historic District and filled with local artists’ and artisans’ work, the hotel is the perfect jumping-off point to experience this cool place that began as a factory town. We suggest booking a balcony suite, and you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the swirling nightclub scene that wanders past, especially on weekends. There’s a pool scene, too, and Flor Fina, the Haya’s modern Latin/Mediterranean restaurant, serves up some memorable dishes, like coffee bacon or smoked pineapple guacamole, along with the de rigueur Cuban sandwich.
HISTORY LESSONS: Walk Back Into the Cigar-Filled Cuban Past
Whether you are a staunch lover of Cuban cigars or find them less appealing, the neighborhood’s cigar-centric history is legitimately fascinating. Along with Ignacio Haya, another Spaniard turned up in the Tampa area with a plan to manufacture cigars there: Vincent Martinez Ybor moved his Key West operation to the settlement in the same year as Haya, and the two competitors caused the cigar boom that, at its height in the 1920s, was putting out 500 million cigars a year.
To find out all about the diverse immigrants who flocked to Ybor City to find jobs, sign up for a walking tour with Max Herman. He’s the top guide at Ybor City Historic Walking Tours, who will regale you for hours with solidly interesting facts, including why chickens run loose all over the central city park! It’s the first thing to do when you hit town, especially if you love history, feuds, a bit of murder, and other tall tales, told by a master storyteller.
WHERE TO EAT: Columbia Restaurant and Other Tasty Stops
Florida’s oldest restaurant sits right in the heart of Ybor City, easily spotted by the blue-and-white tile mosaics. Columbia Restaurant opened in 1905 as a small diner serving up Cuban coffee and sandwiches; now, almost 120 years later, it claims to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world and packs patrons in for both lunch and dinner. Start with their famed sangria (red or white) and sample the special dishes that have kept them in business for all these years — the hearty 1905 salad; the award-winning “Mixto” Cuban sandwich first cooked up in 1915 and still the same recipe; and the devil crab croquetas, fried up with blue crab and doused with the house hot sauce. Family owned all along, the Columbia is a delicious part of Ybor City’s history.
Carmine’s Ybor is another venerable eatery, established in 1948 and still a staple of the 7th Avenue scene. With a mix of Italian, Cuban, and Spanish flavors and their own devil crab concoction, it’s a place where there’s certain to be something to satisfy even the pickiest eater in your crowd. Hit Acropolis Taverna on 7th for Greek delights and a bit of belly dancing and singing thrown in, or just hang out at Zydeco Brew Works to get your fill of craft beer, Cajun bites (gumbo, po’boys, muffalettas) and some Zydeco tunes.
NIGHTCLUBS GALORE: From GaYbor to Gasper’s Grotto
Nightlife in Ybor City has got it all, from the popular gay club scene known as GaYbor – including the vampy Southern Nights TAMPA dance club and Bradley’s on 7th, just a few steps from each other – to places like The Castle, where you can get your fetish/cosplay fantasies on or The Ritz Ybor, the district’s hotspot for live music. Wander 7th Avenue after dark and you’re bound to find a buzzy club; try Gaspar’s Grotto if your kink includes pirates, a bottle of rum, and live music.
MUSEUMS AND MORE: National Historic Landmarks — and Baseball, Too
Ybor City’s charms are obvious — so obvious that it is one of only two designated U.S. National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Just wandering the streets here — or riding the iconic yellow streetcars — is an architecture lover’s delight. Brick and stone buildings mark where cigar factories once stood, while wood-frame homes built before World War I reveal how the immigrant workers from across the globe lived, sometimes in crowded circumstances. Check out the Ybor City Museum on 8th Avenue to see a typical worker’s casita home and other interesting exhibits.
If baseball is your true love, hit the Tampa Baseball Museum just down the street, in the Al Lopez House. Lopez was the first Tampa (and Ybor City) native to make it to Major League Baseball (with the Brooklyn Dodgers); his childhood house is the new museum that opened in September 2021 and explores the legacies of 89 pro baseball players from the Tampa area.
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