What to Expect on an Ybor City Historic Walking Tour
On arrival in Ybor City, you may be surprised at how quiet this area actually is, particularly outside the winter season which runs from December to April. However, the area is at its liveliest at night, hence so many nightclubs along the street. By day there is the excellent Visitor Center along with cigar shops, tavernas, cafés and restaurants where you can enjoy coffee or lunch. The area certainly has a lot of character with the original cobbled streets, decorative New Orleans-style architecture, fountains, and a beautiful arched entrance to Centro Ybor.
Meet up at the entrance to Centro Ybor with your Cuban-hatted guide, Lonnie, who has been a local resident for over 30 years. He is a friendly walking encyclopedia of local history and experiences!
Lonnie begins to tell the story of Ybor City circa 1885, with the colorful 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!
As your guide recounts the story of cigar-making and the building of Ybor City, the walking tour meanders along the cobbled streets at an easy pace, stopping to view some of the earliest wooden homes, called “casitas”. They are now part of the National Historic Landmark District which covers 10 square blocks. On the wall of each house is the nail on which the delivery boy would push the daily delivery of crusty Cuban bread!
By 1927, the cigar-making business in Ybor City was at its peak, with 230 cigar factories, and 12,000 workers producing 6 million cigars per year. However, by 1929 the Great Depression took hold; fewer cigars were sold and cigarettes became the “new” cigar. An ugly rumor (totally untrue) that cigars were hand rolled and sealed with saliva, fueled by a fear of tuberculosis, added to the marked decline in the cigar business. Finally, automation arrived and Ybor City was doomed. As factories stood empty, many of the buildings were bulldozed and the area gained a reputation as being dangerous and undesirable.
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. Look out for the rooftop cupola, once used to look out for the ships arriving with tobacco leaves from Cuba. Once spotted, a horse and cart was dispatched post-haste to collect the tobacco from the nearby docks before it could be sold to their competitors.
The tour visits the old courtyard where wives would bring a blanket and lunch for their menfolk, who would dash down the steps, eat a hasty meal and then return to their shift, for they were paid by the piece. You’ll learn about the fascinating job of the lectors, who were paid by the cigar workers to read to them as they did their boring task, rolling cigars day after day.
The colonnaded building opposite the factory, built in fine Italian Renaissance style, was the Cherokee Club, the Factory Owners’ Club. This became the city’s first hotel, El Paso, which accommodated Presidents, State Governors and even Winston Churchill in the 1940s. Another historic balconied building featured on the tour is 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 of Ybor city visits the metal steps where Don Vincente de Ybor Historic Inn made the speech which signaled the start of the revolution against the Spanish in Cuba. It also includes 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!
As well as the informative Historic Ybor City Walking Tour, the Ghost Tour of Ybor City may interest visitors. It takes place after dark and the local guide leads the way to the Orpheum Theater where illicit lovers are said to haunt the basement; to the King Corona premises, still the “home” of the long-deceased shopkeeper; and to the Cuban Club where the ghost of a boy drowned in the swimming pool still restlessly haunts the premises.