Ybor City is the former Cigar Capital of the World, thanks to one enterprising businessman, Vincente Martinez-Ybor. He established his cigar-making business in this historic quarter of Tampa in 1885. By 1927, Ybor City was producing over 6 million cigars per year.
Enjoy a pleasant amble around the quiet cobbled streets on a historic walking tour, learning about the enterprising individual responsible for founding the city which still bears his name and discovering the decorative Spanish-influenced architecture in the area. The tour lasts around 1¾ hours and is led by a long-time local guide and eloquent storyteller, Lonnie Herman. You will stroll at an easy pace between shady spots and strategically placed street benches as the history of Ybor City unfolds before your eyes.
Lonnie begins to tell the story of Ybor City circa 1885, with the fascinating background to Vincente Martinez-Ybor’s life. Born in Spain, he was sent to Cuba where he learned the cigar business before escaping to Key West where he built his cigar-making empire. Better transport connections, financial incentives, his good friend Gavino Gutierrez, and the chance to build his very own city eventually lured him to Tampa where he established “Mr. Ybor City.” Martinez-Ybor’s attempts to secure a reliable workforce led him to build workers’ homes and offer ownership on very favorable terms, especially as he was already in his late 60s!
By 1927, the cigar-making business in Ybor City was at its peak, with 230 cigar factories, and 12,000 workers. However, by 1929 the Great Depression took hold; fewer cigars were sold and cigarettes became the “new” cigar.
The walking tour highlights some of the key buildings still remaining on 9th Avenue, such as the mock castle exterior of the former Spanish Men’s Fellowship Hall. Built in 1905, it now serves a new purpose as a nightclub. Martinez-Ybor’s first factory, a huge redbrick building, is now the headquarters of the Scientology Church, occupying the block on the Avenue Republica de Cuba between 8th and 9th Avenue.
The colonnaded building opposite the factory, built in fine Italian Renaissance style, was the Cherokee Club, the Factory Owners’ Club. Another historic balconied building we looked inside was the elegant Don Vincente de Ybor Historic Inn, formerly a doctor’s clinic and maternity home, now said to be haunted. If this tale makes you curious to know more, you may be interested in the two-hour Ybor City Ghost Tour which runs after dark, tracking the spine-chilling tales of past residents.
The historic tour visits the metal steps where Jose Marti made the speech which signaled the start of the revolution against the Spanish in Cuba. We also visited the pretty Parque Amigos de Jose Marti, where the Pedrosa House stood and where Marti frequently stayed under the family’s protection. The park is normally kept locked, but the tour guide has a key, giving access to the only patch of Cuban-owned soil in the USA!
The tour concludes in the Visitor Information Center in the former building of the Spanish Social Club. On the old stage, a short movie tells a quick history of Ybor City – but nothing that you won’t have already heard and seen in detail from this excellent walking tour!
This is just one of the many interesting places to visit featured in my book Favorite Days Out in Central Florida available in both paper and electronic format.