I no longer pretend that I enjoy smoking cigars, a charade that I perpetrated for a good deal of my life, despite a history of nasal allergies.
The aroma of a cigar shop, however, is still irresistible. When I need my fix, there's no better place than Ybor City, the historic Latin Quarter on the eastern side of downtown Tampa. The assortment of shops, restaurants and bars along Ybor's hub on Seventh Avenue, evokes the mood of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Depending on the hour, Ybor City's diversions can appeal to a variety of senses: There's the scent of Cuban coffee in the morning, the sight of historic architecture and the sounds of a variety of music that accompany Ybor's night-time party vibe.
The streets were relatively quiet on my recent weekday visit, when a sudden summer rainstorm briefly made window-shopping a challenge. I ducked under an awning and watched a cigar roller at work inside the front window at Nichabana Cigars. The tiny shop on Seventh Avenue is one of six cigar stores that work almost as well as bars as a setting for friendly conversation with strangers.
Ybor also boasts an array of interesting restaurants.
I'm often tempted to sample one of the signature dishes at the Acropolis Greek Taverna (acropolistaverna.com) and would still recommend them. This time, however, I stopped at the iconic Columbia Restaurant (columbiarestaurant.com), the original location of an establishment that has expanded to Celebration, Clearwater Beach, Sarasota and St. Augustine since opening in 1905.
The Columbia's signature 1905 Salad — iceberg lettuce with julienne of baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese and garlic dressing — is big enough to be a meal. The Columbia's quiet courtyard is a nice spot to relax with a book amid the Spanish architecture.
Burn off the lunch calories with a stroll along Seventh Avenue, where there are plenty of funky shops in the manageable 10-block stretch between 13th and 23th streets.
I browsed "apparel for the brave" at Black & Denim (blackanddenim.com) and vintage T-shirts at Revolve Clothing Exchange (revolvewear.com), but settled for a drink in the shaded courtyard at New World Brewery (newworldbrewery.net) with a few new friends.