This city was the last site for the Super Bowl at the Raymond James Stadium. But visitors here find many entertainment options all year round.
The latest accomplishment sought by Tampa-St. Petersburg, in conjunction with Orlando, is an attempt to bring the Olympics to the area. Whether that is successful or not, Tampa remains most famous for its yearly Gasparilla Festival.
Every year for nearly a century, the world’s only fully-rigged pirate ship in February carries a band of swashbucklers trailed by a local flotilla to celebrate the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar.
The “invasion” is followed by a parade where a crowd of half a million or so beg the cigar-chomping pirates riding on floats to throw them the traditional strands of plastic beads that symbolize the event.
The Mardi Gras-style Gasparilla has been ranked among the top 100 festivals in the country, but revelers here will find entertainment everyday in nearby Ybor City, which once was the “Cigar Capital of the World” with nearly 12,000 cigar-makers.
Cigar-rollers are hard to find anymore, and Ybor City declined for a number of years, but thanks to a revival in the past decade it is again attracting visitors of all ages looking for historical sites, excellent dining or nightclub-hopping.
Or maybe even just a good cigar.
Ybor City, named after a prominent Cuban cigar factory owner, has not only become a National Historic Landmark District, but also a lively Latin Quarter. Its ambiance reflects wrought-iron balconies, brick streets, globe street lamps, boutiques, coffeehouses and nightclubs that pulse with late night energy.
Watched over by a large contingent of police, an estimated 40,000 people converge on the closed streets of Ybor during a typical weekend night. The area draws two million visitors a year.
They find such new attractions as an 84-room, 11-suite Hilton Garden Inn that opened recently. It was the first new hotel in Ybor City in more than a century, according to a spokeswoman, a sure sign that this revival is “smoking.”
In addition to every type of music imaginable, Ybor City’s nightlife offers the 7th Heaven Psychic Cafï¿½, which is said to be the only one in the area. The signature dish here, and the most popular, is the artichoke dip. A psychic reading costs $15 to $20.
One of the best restaurants here is Italian-oriented Bernini’s, open for lunch and dinner. The menu changes daily and may include Carpaccio of salmon and black Angus filet of beef perfumed with Italian white truffle or Vesuvio Pizza with marinated chicken and smoked mozzarella.
A popular dish is a salad with grilled pears, mango, papaya, Gorgonzola and walnuts in a Persian grape and poppy seed vinaigrette dressing. A booking tip for the romantically inclined: reserve one of the cozy five tables on the second floor with window views overlooking the street.
Another recommendation is to have dessert at the Ovo Cafï¿½, called “Black, white, and chic all over.” The artistic-looking cafï¿½ offers lunch and dinner, but it may be even better known for its desserts such as waffles topped with blackberries, strawberries and freshly whipped cream. The restaurant also has champagne by the glass, $9.95 for Piper Heidsieck, extra dry.
The state’s oldest restaurant is here, the Columbia, which opened in 1905 and takes up an entire block. It can seat up to 1,660 people. An evening Flamenco show is only $6. The Spanish Bean soup is recommended. There’s also an oversize and popular “1905 Salad.” If you’re willing to wait a half-hour or so, the Columbia’s paella is special. Sangria is available anytime.
You can’t get traditional breakfasts such as ham and eggs, but visitors seeking real Cuban atmosphere should also try the family-run, limited-menu, 63-seat La Tropicana on 7th Avenue. A favorite with talkative locals who dip long slices of Cuban bread featured here into cups of cafï¿½ con leche.
Another nearby place to visit for local color is the La Segunda Bakery on 15th street, which churns out 5,000 loaves of Cuban bread a day and supplies most of Ybor City’s restaurants with bread and homemade desserts.
Without benefit of a tour, visitors can find their own way to Ybor Square, a national historic landmark on 13th street in the heart of Ybor. It’s a former cigar factory, built in 1886, which now features hand-rolled cigars, casual clothes, antiques and crafts in a “Nostalgia Market.”
Want to see cigars rolled by hand? You can find the art on display at the Columbia Restaurant or stop by Gonzalez y Martinez Cigar Factory on 7th Avenue and 21st Street to watch professional rollers daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The nearby Ybor City State Museum tells the story of immigrants’ life and the area’s cigar-making history. Visitors can tour three restored cigar workers’ houses known as “casitas.”
The best time to visit, however, is Halloween. The Guavaween, a Latin-style Halloween celebration based on Tampa’s nickname “The Big Guava,” is held every October. The event features a mythical Mama Guava who has sworn to take the “bore” out of Ybor (Ee-bore) city, and a parade of her devoted followers.
The festival is an all-day event beginning with a Family Fun Fest with activities for the entire family. At night, it gets livelier, with the closed-off streets filled with partygoers disguised in a menagerie of often-outlandish costumes.
It’s rowdier than the daytime crowd, but there’s little chance of Ybor being boring at any time.