It’s late morning in Ybor City, and the streets are awakening as I walk to a local coffee shop to start my day discovering this “city within a city” in Tampa. Passersby greet each other with handshakes, heartfelt hugs and “¡Buenos días!” I can’t help but feel light in my step, seeing the warmth exchanged among locals.

Beyond the door to La Tropicana Café, the aromas of freshly brewed coffee and freshly baked Cuban bread fill the air. My appetite sits up and takes notice. Within moments, I’m seated at a table, and a brimming cup of café con leche is set in front of me, as well as a healthy portion of hot, buttered Cuban toast. Though I’m not a big coffee drinker, I figure when in Rome—or rather, Ybor City—and take a sip from the steaming mug while plotting out the day ahead. Toward the back of the restaurant, a group of longtime friends and café regulars gather for their morning tradition of starting out their days together, their laugher echoes through the building.

Its tastes and aromas

Back outside, Ybor City’s streets and buildings evoke a sense of the late-1800s. Shopkeepers open their storefronts along the narrow streets. Above, wrought-iron balconies are filled with patrons relaxing and observing the hive of activity below. The merchants and signs have changed since the 19th Century, but the buildings and vibe remain very similar.

Stopping in front of King Corona Cigars & Café, I’m quickly reminded that Ybor City was once the “Cigar Capital of the World.” Factories within just a few miles of where I’m standing produced 700 million cigars a year, and all of those cigars were hand-rolled in the Cuban tradition. Inside King Corona, I look through the floor-to-ceiling, glass-windowed humidors and recognize a few labels that are still produced in that same tradition within a few blocks of the shop—J.C. Newman, Tampa Sweethearts and the shop’s namesake cigars. Around me, aficionados light up. The scent of tobacco mingles with more Cuban coffee and Cuban sandwiches hot off the grill. The warm smells get me thinking—it’s time for lunch, and I want to indulge in an Ybor City tradition—a Cuban sandwich. As I sink my teeth into the roast pork, ham and salami goodness, the medley of flavors bursting from within, I quietly thank the master in the back who’s been crafting this traditional specialty for years.

Its historic touch

It’s afternoon when I emerge once again into the Florida sunshine, and decide it’s time to do a bit of window-shopping. At a corner, I wait for the bright yellow TECO Historic Streetcar to pass, a replica of the original streetcars that transported locals throughout Tampa 100 years ago. Now it’s doing the same on a smaller scale between Ybor City and downtown. As the streetcar’s bell announces its arrival at a station, I remember La France, a vintage shop that I want to pop into for a look around. The shop maintains a spirit of the past through its eclectic collection. I meander around the vintage racks, pulling hats and dresses to try on, wondering who may have worn them decades ago, and to where.

As I continue my stroll, roaming roosters crow in the distance—certainly late for any wake-up call. Maybe they’re still weary from the night before, which could easily be the case. Ybor City isn’t all work and no play by any means. In its heyday, after factory doors closed for the night, social houses opened up. Cubans, Spanish, Italians and Germans, all had a place to go to get a taste of home. I recall that on a recent ghost tour, I learned that several of Ybor City’s prominent buildings housed casinos on their second floor—illegal even in the late-1800s, yet oftentimes overlooked by the law enforcement of the day. Many of these social houses can still be found in Ybor City. Some are still operating, used for special functions such as wedding receptions.

Its vibrant nightlife

As the evening descends on Ybor City, people begin to gather to celebrate the happiest of hours with cold pints poured at local breweries—not a surprise, since the first brewery in Florida, Florida Brewing Company, was right here in Ybor City, established in 1897. I pass by Tampa Bay Brewing Company, its outdoor patio teeming with patrons enjoying the cooler evening air and pints of beer brewed just inside. Nearby stands Cigar City Cider & Mead, created by the extremely popular Cigar City Brewing, which has made a name for itself by winning numerous awards on the international beer scene. Both of these popular spots are continuing the proud tradition of Tampa craft brewers.

Notes of live music fill the night air, wafting from open doors of venues dotted throughout Ybor City: there’s Crowbar, New World Brewery and the Orpheum, all of which welcome both local and national bands to take their stages. And tucked inside The Columbia Restaurant, the state’s oldest restaurant (open since 1905), colorful flamenco dancers showcase their talents six nights a week to the delight of an inspired audience.

I smile as I leave Ybor City, knowing I had discovered a true gem filled with a wealth of flavors, culture and history tucked on the outskirts of downtown Tampa.

Until next time, buenas noches, Ybor.

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