I recently planned a three-day trip to Ybor City in Tampa, Florida. It was supposed to be a fun and flirty weekend away with a summer fling, but it ended up being a solo adventure to remember. I won’t bore you with the details of my messy dating life, but let’s just say it all fell apart just a few days before we were supposed to leave.
Did it hurt? A little. But was I about to cancel my vacation because of this? Absolutely not. Instead, I decided to follow through with the original itinerary and head to Ybor City (pronounced EE-bor). I had never been to this neighborhood in Tampa, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. What I found was a hub for Cuban art and history, an epic nightlife scene, a brand new swanky hotel, and some fantastic food.
First a little background: Ybor City is a U.S. national historic landmark that takes you back in time the minute you step into the neighborhood. Known as the “cigar capital of the world,” it was first put on the map in 1886 after Don Vincent Martinez Ybor (the neighborhood’s namesake) opened a Cuban cigar factory and established a corporate empire. Today, the iconic area is still shaped by the influences of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish immigrants who worked in the factories or opened their own businesses. By bringing their traditional cultures to the U.S., they were able to create a prosperous community full of diverse shopping, dining, and socializing.
From its beat-up brick-paved streets and wrought-iron balconies to the friendly neighborhood chickens roaming the sidewalks, Ybor City is an antique little nook in an otherwise modern city. And it’s hot all over again right now. Since I was determined to make my weekend in Tampa better than it would have been with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I filled each day with as much exploring, food, and drinks as possible.
Check my must-dos, eats, and sees in Ybor City below!
Live Like Mr. Ybor at Hotel Haya
For a bit of brand new luxury influenced by a legendary past, book a room at Hotel Haya. Having just opened in the fall of 2020, its accommodations and amenities are state-of-the-art and squeaky clean while still staying true to Ybor’s rich and colorful character. In fact, the property combines two historic buildings with modern-day construction. This fusion includes the Las Novedades building, which was once Tampa’s oldest restaurant, built in 1890, and the Warren building, which was believed to be haunted by Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The remnants of old bricks intertwined with new sleek white walls made the hotel’s hallways feel like a time-jumping whirlpool.
The Cuban culture is visually intermixed throughout the rest of the property as well with vibrant red and blue decor sprinkled throughout the infrastructure, lobby furniture, and hotel rooms. The potted green vines hanging from the ceiling in the Cafe Quiquiriqui grabbed my attention the most. This coffee spot is where I spent each morning of my stay…alone (insert eye-roll emoji here).
But the clinking machinery and espresso aromas swirling through the cafe pulled me into what felt like a mini Havana and the tropical-inspired pool area — which comes complete with daybeds, palm trees, and poolside service — kept me safe from any pity parties I might have been tempted to throw.
Do Yoga With Chickens
One thing I loved about Hotel Haya is that it partners with many local vendors and artists to support small businesses in Tampa. For instance, the hotel puts on a free yoga class with Union Three Yoga Studio every Sunday morning for guests and locals alike. The best part is that the last Sunday of every month is a special “chicken yoga” class. Yes, yoga with real-life gobbling chickens.
Ybor City is filled with wild chickens that have become a welcomed bunch in the community, which speaks to the uniqueness of the neighborhood. This quirky class is in partnership with the Ybor Misfits Microsancturay, which provides care for Ybor City’s injured, ill, lost, and abandoned chickens. I never thought I would think of a chicken as “cute.” But the little feathered friends pecking at my yoga mat while I stretched into Warrior II were truly adorable.
Charlotte (pictured above) was a real treat, confidently clucking her way through the ballroom like a local celebrity.
Indulge in Calorie-Packed Goodness
In my opinion, one of the best parts of every vacation is the local flavor. Of course, I had to get a taste of the cultural cuisine in Ybor City. While I love the mouth-watering delicacies of Cuba, my Italian roots led me to my favorite restaurant in Ybor City. Casa Santo Stefano serves authentic Italian fare with many of its ingredients and decorations imported from family-owned businesses in Sicily. The complimentary bread and olive oil had me salivating before I even ordered the main course. Every person gets their very own loaf of fresh-out-of-the-oven goodness that somehow masters the crispy on the outside to warm and soft on the inside ratio. Housed in a refurbished macaroni factory, the inside of the building is now adorned with hand-painted, colorful backsplashes and tabletops that transport you straight into the slow-paced Sicilian lifestyle. You’ll also see vintage photographs displayed proudly on various walls to represent the founding Sicilian families in Tampa.
If you really want to immerse yourself in the melting pot that is Ybor City, go to Columbia Restaurant. Owned by the same family since its opening in 1905, it serves a collection of Spanish and Cuban dishes like black beans and rice, seafood paella, and tapas galore. Follow this hearty meal with some traditional dessert at Flan Factory, known for its variety of flavored flans and menu of Cuban classics. As a well-established sweet tooth haver, I can be quite the critic of all things sugar. To my delight, the caramel custard aroused my taste buds with every spoonful.
Hit Up the Bustling Nightlife
As a small 5’2” woman, I normally wouldn’t take to the late-night streets of a city I’m not familiar with alone. However, I made some friends at the hotel bar who invited me to join their festivities. I decided to embark on the journey that is the Ybor City bar scene with my new squad of locals to show me around. First, we took a quick walk down the block to Copper Shaker Ybor City. With a slew of signature craft cocktails and a live DJ, it was the perfect spot for a few casual drinks and good vibes.
The real party started at Southern Nights Tampa, an LGBTQ+ nightclub. We’re talking LED lights, drag shows, and techno music blasting through the night. I even made my way on stage for a dance party with strangers. An infamous history of wild parties and all-night ragers in previous decades left Ybor City with a less than fantastic reputation, but I found the nightlife to be welcoming, inclusive, and a downright blast.
My headache the next morning was well worth the adventures.
Go Shopping on 7th Ave.
The main stretch of Ybor City is down 7th Avenue. With lights strung across the street from building to building and palm trees lining the sidewalks, 7th Avenue is the social and retail center of the city that’s often used for parades and celebrations. There are tons of wacky shops, local cafes (make sure to order a Cafe con Leche), restaurants, art galleries, and more all within walking distance from each other. There are even a few cigar bars like King Corona.
I’m no smoker, but I had to see for myself what made this neighborhood the cigar capital of the world. When in Rome, right? I could only take a few drags of the heavily concentrated Cuban tobacco before my throat felt like the inside of a crematorium, but I enjoyed the badassery of the experience.
Visit Armature Works
Riverside views, occasional live music, and a classic indoor marketplace full of local cuisine are exactly what you’ll get if you venture just outside of Ybor City to Armature Works in Tampa Heights. It’s a fully restored, mixed-use building complete with event spaces and the Heights Public Market, which was crowded with tons of people scattering to the many popular food spots like hungry ants. There’s also a large turf field with lounge chairs, tables, and lengthy walkways overlooking the Hillsborough River where you can dig into your marketplace grub or take a leisurely stroll by the water.
Getting to Armature Works from Ybor City is a breeze, as it’s only a 1.5-mile drive or walk from the end of 7th Ave. Or in my case, a scooter ride. There are plenty of easily accessible Bird electric scooters in Tampa, so I downloaded the app and made my way out of the neighborhood. Yes, I scootered over a mile in a dress and platform sandals. And yes, Ridin’ by Chamillionaire was on repeat in my head for the entire 10-minute commute.
Check Out the Ybor City Museum
If you’re a history junkie and want to dive deeper into the history of what made Ybor City what it is today, head to the Ybor City Museum. For a mere $4 admission rate, you’ll get access to several exhibits that showcase the neighborhood’s rich heritage and a Mediterranean-style garden within the Ybor City Museum State Park. Included in your ticket is also a tour of the casita, a small house that has been restored and furnished to look as it would have when it was a cigar worker’s home. An afternoon at the Ybor City Museum takes you through a journey to the late 19th century, exploring all of the intricacies of this long-lived cultural hot spot.
In the end, I found Ybor City to be a great surprise, filled with immense character. In fact, I was glad to have been ditched before this trip because it threw me out of my comfort zone and gave me the motivation to make the most out of this one-of-a-kind historical hub. Dating drama is easy to put on hold when you’re saluting the sun with rescue chickens!