Whether you love it or hate it, Cuba holds a fascination for many Americans. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Florida.
And while Miami may be the first city you think of, Tampa's history is also liberally sprinkled with Cuban influences, which you can discover at Tampa's Ybor City State Museum and on a walking tour of the nearby historic district.
Tampa's Ybor City State Museum can be found in the renovated historic Ferlita Bakery — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
For those who are just itching to visit Cuba, Tampa’s Ybor City State Museum is a good place to start your exploration of Cuban history and culture.
The museum features permanent and temporary exhibits that depict the arrival of thousands of Cuban immigrants to Ybor City, Tampa’s historic landmark district.
Their arrival was precipitated by the relocation of Don Vincente de Ybor’s cigar factories from Key West. One of the first things Don Vincente did was to set up a steamboat route from Havana to the Port of Tampa to ferry over workers. Soon, the workers and their families had set down roots and made Ybor City their home.
Museum exhibits document the creation of the mutual aid system, where families belonged to a club or society that provided them with leisure and recreation activities as well as with social services such as healthcare.
These mutual aid societies formed the backbone of community life in Ybor City, and the grand El Circulo Cubano, or Cuban Club, can still be visited today, along with many other landmarks associated with Cuban history.
Charming renovated casitas allow museum visitors to see what life was like over 100 years ago — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
Just ask a museum staff member to help you design a custom walking tour to take in the Cuba-related sights that you're most interested in.
Before you leave the museum, make sure your tour includes the on-site restored casitas. Casitas are similar to the shotgun homes of New Orleans, and they were built to house the cigars workers and their families. Initially built by the cigar factory owners, these homes were often the first homes immigrant families ever owned.
The museum has staged these charming homes to show visitors just what it would have looked like to live here over 100 years ago, and they're even available for overnight rentals.
Another important aspect of the Tampa-Cuba connection is the connection to revolutionary Jose Marti. Although his efforts toward Cuban independence did not come to fruition in his lifetime, he's still acknowledged in Cuba as a national hero.
Marti spent considerable time in Tampa, making impassioned speeches to the cigar workers, organizing the Cuban Revolutionary Party and engaging in fundraising efforts.
The stone entrance of Jose Marti Park marks the border between Tampa and Cuba — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
On your walking tour, visit the front steps of what was the Ybor Cigar Factory, the largest cigar factory in the world at the time.
A plaque out front of the beautiful, three-story brick building honors the pivotal speech Marti made at the top of the steps to the workers assembled below, convincing them to donate their hard-earned pay in support of the cause of freedom.
Another spot to visit is the Shrine of Jose Marti. During his time in Tampa, Marti would stay at the home of close friends. When this home burned down, the lot was turned into a park and shrine dedicated in his memory.
This park holds the distinction of being owned by the Cuban Government. So theoretically, when you visit the park, you're actually visiting Cuba!
If you're visiting Cuba and have a layover in Tampa, or you're just interested in learning more about the history of Cubans in Tampa, then make sure to visit the Ybor City State Museum and Ybor Historic Landmark District.