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Going Places: Party Time (and More) in Ybor City

Ybor City has its history and its artists and is ever a place for revelry.



 

When I invited my most straight-laced friend to Ybor City for the weekend, he raised a skeptical brow. “Ybor City?” he asked. “Isn’t that where college kids go to party?”

Meaning: Aren’t we a little grown up for that place?

True, the Tampa-area hot spot has long had a reputation for its wild party scene, but the historic district isn’t just for 20-somethings. There’s plenty for adults to do there, too.

Ybor City was founded by cigar manufacturers in the late 1800s and first populated by Cuban and Spanish immigrants who came to hand-roll cigars in its factories. The area prospered until the Great Depression, when worldwide demand for cigars fell. As factories closed and residents moved away, the neighborhood entered a period of decline that lasted until the 1980s. Artists began moving into the community and rehabbing the old buildings, and the influx of commerce revitalized the district. By the early 1990s, Ybor City had transformed into a nightlife destination.

Photo by Kevin Tao via Flickr

Today, Ybor’s main drag, Seventh Avenue, has a look and feel similar to Bourbon Street. The alleyways are cobbled, and the old brick buildings have a romantic feel. Still, on first pass it’s hard not to notice the tattoo parlors, pizza joints and hookah lounges—the kind of places that seem hip only when you’re under 25—and the crowd definitely has an out-to-party vibe. But it’s possible to enjoy Ybor without getting wrapped up in any of that.

Well, almost.

Walking down a mostly-empty Seventh Avenue in the late afternoon, my friend and I ended up in the tasting room of Florida Cane Distillery, a sleek, cool space with no party kids in sight. The man behind the bar poured us both a sample—vodka for my friend and moonshine for me—and the booze was smooth and slightly sweet.

“That’s got a kick to it,” my friend said as we stood to leave and wobbled out the door.

We walked unsteadily to the other end of the avenue, to the Columbia, the oldest restaurant in the state of Florida, originally famous for its Cuban coffee and Cuban sandwiches that it fed to the cigar factory workers at lunchtime. Now, the restaurant fills an entire city block and seats 1,700. We had reservations for the nightly flamenco show as well as dinner, and as the hostess led us to an elegant candlelit dining room I found myself smoothing my hair and straightening my jacket. I glanced at my friend; he was adjusting the collar of his shirt. A waiter in a tuxedo handed us menus, and my friend leaned over to whisper to me, “Guess this place really is for grown-ups.”

The dinner was exceptional. We toasted glasses of sangria and feasted on plates of tapas—grilled calamari, crab croquettes, beef empanadas. The dancers came on stage, long skirts swirling and castanets clicking, as we shared a basket of churros at the end of the meal.

“Should I have another sangria?” I asked my friend.

He smiled wickedly. “Why not?”

After dinner, we conferred briefly and decided we might take one final stroll on Seventh Avenue before heading home. The sun had gone down while we were inside, and the nighttime street was crowded with revelers. A man walked by carrying a python around his neck. A woman in a fishnet bodysuit and not much else whipped passers-by lightly with a riding crop. A young man with pink hair carried a “Legalize Marijuana” sign. Women danced on the bar at a place on our right, and across the street a line of people waited to get into one of Ybor’s famous nightclubs. It was mayhem, but in the best possible way. I looked at my watch and then up at my friend.

“It’s still early,” I said.

He cocked his eyebrow. “Want to stay awhile?”

 

IF YOU GO

  • If you’re looking for a grown-up beverage, skip the bars and head straight for Florida Cane Distillery. Their signature vodka has a clean finish with a hint of sweetness, and the moonshine delivers a hot pepper kick. 1820 N. 15th St., (813) 347-6565
  • Columbia Restaurant is a must-visit Ybor City destination. Be sure to catch the flamenco show, held every evening except Sunday. Some menu favorites? The white sangria; the tapas; and the churros served with chocolate sauce, melted caramel and guava jam. 2117 E. Seventh Ave., (813) 248-4961
  • Want to try one of the hand-rolled cigars that put Ybor City on the map? Seventh Avenue is lined with cigar shops, many with people rolling cigars while you watch. Tabanero Cigars has a Cuban coffee bar in the back and tables on Seventh Avenue. It’s the perfect place to sip a cortadito while you light up your corona. 1601 E. Seventh Ave., (813) 402-6316

 

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