Ybor City heats things up with a Latin spice that lingers from its heyday as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Once nearly 12,000 Cuban, Spanish, Italian and German immigrants worked in the district, which had more than 200 cigar factories, as well as social clubs and casitas that housed factory workers and their families. When the Cuban embargo nixed the importing of prized tobacco, the district began a slow slide.
Its designation as a National Historic Landmark District in 1991 reversed a fate that saw whole blocks bulldozed in the '60s and '70s.Ybor's wrought-iron balconies and 19th-century street lamps shine again, and historic buildings hold shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Now that the district has addressed problems such as inadequate parking and crime, more people than ever are flocking to Ybor, says Tom Keating, president of its Chamber of Commerce. It has transitioned in the past few years from a nightclub district frequented largely by the young to a place of dining and entertainment for all ages.
Get an overview of the district at the Ybor City Visitor Information Center & Museum in Centro Ybor on Eighth Avenue. Centro Ybor, an open-air mall, was fashioned from the 1912 Centro Espa�ol social club. Here you'll find the family-owned Tampa Bay Brewing Co., with its outdoor beer garden and home-brewed ales and lagers, and the Stogie Castillo's Cigar Lounge and Factory and its 250-square-foot humidor.
Dining in Ybor abounds. For Italian, the elegant Bernini of Ybor (1702 E. Seventh Ave.), with its pastas and wood-fired pizzas, is a favorite. Carmine's (1802 E. Seventh Ave.) lets guests choose from the tastes of the district's Cuban and Italian heritages, while Samurai Blue (1600 E. Eighth Ave.) bills itself as "the coolest sushi and sake joint this side of Neo-Tokyo." Of course, no visit to Ybor City is complete without a meal at the venerable Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. Seventh Ave.), where flamenco dancers entertain diners.
There are many places in which you can pick up a stogie and see cigars hand-rolled with precision. Workers still turn out more than 1,000 cigars a day at Havana Dreams (1717 E. Seventh Ave.), and shops selling the local delicacy are easy to find.
Light up, then join the crowd as it flows down Seventh Avenue and its side streets. Hop around until you find a fit -- there's a venue and drink for every taste. Music is as diverse as the faces in the crowd. The raw grind of live rock thumps out open doors and vibrates brick streets; deejays spin hip-hop under strobe lights; a sizzling salsa beat draws in partygoers from the sidewalks.
Among the hot spots to try: The Castle (2004 N. 16th St.), with its goth atmosphere; King Corona Cigars & More (1523 E. Seventh Ave.), which Keating calls "quintessential Ybor"; posh Club Prana and its five levels of fun (1619 E. Seventh Ave.), and the Honey Pot (1507 E. Seventh Ave.), which offers burlesque shows on Fridays and Saturdays.
Get the most out of your visit with a stay at the historic Vicente Martinez Ybor (1915 Avenida Republica de Cuba). The elegant boutique hotel occupies a building that once housed the offices of a development company owned by cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor, for whom the area is named.
Details: Ybor City Visitor Information Center & Museum, 1600 E. Eighth Ave, Suite B104; 813-241-8838; ybor.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun