The best places to start your touring of Tampa's unique National Historic District known as Ybor City are the Chamber of Commerce and the Ybor City State Museum, housed in the former cottages of cigar workers and a former bakery at Ninth and Palm avenues.
Pick up a walking tour map and study the exhibits, artifacts and photographs to learn the history -- the beginnings in the 1880s when Don Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar workers from Key West, where transportation to mainland markets was slow and undependable, to 40 acres of land he had purchased east of Tampa for $5,000, and the construction of the world's largest cigar factory.
Tampa then was a village of 700, plagued by malaria, yellow fever and typhus epidemics and with no rail network but with a terrific harbor and a frontier mentality eager to welcome new ideas for expansion. Ybor and his associates, mainly Gavino Gutierrez, who surveyed the town for possible guava growing and processing, were impressed with the plans of railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. He planned to open the world's largest hotel, today the University of Tampa, with distinctive Moorish turrets, towers and minarets.
Today, Ybor's cigar factory -- 100,000 square feet of red brick, heart of pine, cedar and oak -- is known as Ybor Square, a ramble of nostalgia markets amid-antique stalls. It's across the street from the park-shrine to Jose Martí, the Cuban revolutionary who turned what was a guerrilla movement against Spanish rule in Cuba into a full-scale revolt. Martí inspired the thousands of cigar workers in Ybor to support the cause. Three years after he was killed in a skirmish in Cuba, the United States was engaged with thousands of its own troops. Their staging area was Ybor City and Tampa, where Plant's newly completed hotel was headquarters for the Americans.
Col. Theodore Roosevelt was quartered there, but his regiment of cowboys and collegians, the Rough Riders, were over in Ybor City, where their raucous behavior and gallop through one of the restaurants was immortalized forever as The Charge of the Yellow Rice Brigade. It is now recorded for posterity on one of the 25 historical markers scattered throughout Ybor City.
The cavalry charge was along Ybor City's main street, Seventh Avenue, and into the town's oldest restaurant, Las Notepads, which has its own marker and some of the most beautiful tiles in all of Florida. Close by is Florida's oldest continuously operated restaurant, Columbia, at 2117 E. Seventh Ave, a required stop on the dining trail of tourists as well as locals, who still order the famous 1905 Salad. The rich history, the growth from a simple corner coffee shop, is displayed on the walls, and at night there's genuine flamenco, with dancers and guitarists from Spain.
For a total immersion, check into Ybor City's only inn, named for Don Vicente de Ybor himself, a distinctive two-story structure built by the Don in 1895 and used by architects and designers when laying out the town. For more than 30 years, until 1968, it served as the A. A. Gonzalez Clinic, a health care center.
By the 1990s it was derelict and vandalized, seemingly an inevitable target for the wrecker's ball. But builder-developer Jack Shiver bought the relic four years ago and worked the magic of restoration.
For years, Shiver had been dreaming about opening such an inn in the heart of his beloved Ybor City and he had been collecting various antiques to furnish it with -- an imposing grandfather clock to stand guard in a corner of the lobby (grand prize winner at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco), a baker's dozen of French chandeliers, beautifully carved chairs and cabinets.
Shiver built 16 rooms, all add-ons to the grand salon and each with balcony, handsomely restored parquet floors and gold ceiling molding, and private bath. The formal dining room is where the complimentary continental breakfasts are served. It's open to the public for lunch.
Downstairs is the Black Orchid Martini Bar, with an industrial strength air evacuation system, meaning that cigar smokers can get their fill, puffing on the town's best-known mass market Havatampa, or one of the hand-rolled premium beauties bought in the town that tobacco built.
Robert Tolf is the author of six books on country inns, including Florida Country Inns.