For most Americans Cuba remains an enigma. Classic Ford Thunderbirds and rum drinks with Papa paint a murky picture of a country many know little about. The gamblers and Hollywood starlets of our imaginations are reminders of a playground that ceased to exist with the Bay of Pigs. For more than half a century Cuba remained off-limits to Americans, but in pockets of Florida the culture took root and is still very much alive today.
Take for example Ybor City, a historic neighborhood near downtown Tampa, where in the 1880s Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor opened the doors to what would become the world’s largest cigar factory. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark District and the only place outside Castro’s island where you can walk on Cuban soil -- that’s because the Friends of Jose Marti Park is technically owned by the Cuban government.
From the oldest Spanish restaurant in the U.S. to the smells of milky-iced Cubano coffee wafting down the cobbled sidewalks, Ybor City is your chance to explore Cuba without ever leaving home. Here are a few experiences you won’t want to miss:
Ybor City Museum
Housed inside the historic Ferlita Bakery, this museum traces the story of Martinez-Ybor and how he turned a tiny immigrant town into a thriving metropolis. For a closer look, tag along with an Ybor City ambassador who will show you the sights and tell you the stories.
La Segunda Bakery
Ask any Tampa native and they’ll tell you the Cuban bread at La Segunda is worth the hype. Show up on a Saturday morning and you’re guaranteed to find a crowd waiting for guava turnovers, medianoche sandwiches and the legendary Cubans served fresh on that heavenly bread. What makes the loaves special is time. The process takes up to ten hours and everything is done by hand. The signature palmetto frond that drapes across the top, giving it that all-important split, is your a guarantee you’ve found the original.
Tampa’s go-to address for Cuban food remains the Columbia. It has been a family affair since cigar workers frequented this neighborhood cafe for Cuban coffee and hearty sandwiches in the early 1900s. More than a century later the same family is still serving up traditional recipes like red snapper alicante, pollo riojana and their signature “1905” salad. For an added treat, time your visit with a live flamenco performance and the sounds of the Dick Rivers Trio.
The TECOline is a two-mile line connecting Ybor City to downtown Tampa and the Channelside District. It’s a throwback to yesteryear and a great way to see the area with kids.
Stroll passed a storefront window along Seventh Avenue and you’re bound to see men and women rolling fermented tobacco leaves into the area’s favorite export. With guillotine-like cutters, they snip the straights with almost brutal precision. Once known as the Cigar Capital of the world, the area boasted 230 cigar factories at its height. Today, it’s your best bet for a sweet cafe’ con leche and a smoke with the locals.