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A Hot Hotel, Cuban Heritage, and Quirky Tours — Welcome to Ybor City

As I tour Ybor City with Max Herman it occurs that I may be in a multi-century time warp. In one minute, we’re in a seemingly untouched building that supported the Cuban immigrants of the 19th century and the next moment we’re facing the fabulous and fun Hotel Haya, which opened in the teeth of the pandemic and has blossomed as a destination property. We walk past artsy contemporary boutiques and cafes that are interspersed with cigar bars that harken to Ybor City’s earliest industry. En route through the quirky enclave we pass free-roaming heritage chickens, which are esteemed in Ybor City not unlike the way cows are in India. Instead of religious idolatry, it’s a nod to the fowls’ importance in helping the Cuban community establish itself in a part of Florida that 150 years ago was far afield and situated in territory that was difficult to tame. Even odder than the chickens is the most bewildering fact about Ybor City: It is home to the only piece of official Cuban territory in the United States. Parque Amigos de Jose Marti was created in honor of the freedom fighter who helped lead the Cuban revolution from his home in Ybor City, where he barely survived an assassination attempt before returning to his island country and dying in battle. A statue of Marti is surrounded by gardens that the chickens adore and which tourists wander into, intentionally or not.

max herman tampa bay tours ybor city

Max Herman founded Tampa Bay Tours to educate visitors on the fascinating history of the area, including Ybor City, known for its Cuban heritage. At top, a dominating Chihuly-style chandelier, made by a local artist, is the showpiece of the Hotel Haya. The property is leading a resurgence in the neighborhood. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

Cutting through Ybor City is Tampa’s safe, clean, reliable, and free streetcar, which feels mid-20th century and, like so much else, reminds me of a Floridian New Orleans, a place of joviality, liberalism, commingled cultures, and, yes, ghost stories, too. (The Cuban Club, dating to 1885, is reputedly one of the most haunted buildings in the United States.) Ybor City is the northerly stop on the streetcar. As it heads on the 20-minute ride towards Tampa’s downtown, it passes new developments that promise to continue the city’s great transformation by elevating Ybor City into an It spot for gastronomy and travel.

To be in Tampa these days is to feel like you’re on a carousel, a ticklish merry-go-round where things are upbeat and change is happening at a rapid pace, even in Ybor City, which feels like it has fought the idea of progressing time.

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ybor city statue

Vicente Martinez-Ybor founded the neighborhood of Tampa that bears his name. A Cuban immigrant, he launched Ybor City into the cigar-making capital of the world during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Herman helps me make sense of all of the paradoxes and dichotomies of the place he lives in. The guide for Tampa Bay Tours punctuates the Big Easy similarities for me as he embraces the character of the location, doffing a fedora and twirling an antique-looking cane while wearing a guayabera, a traditional Cuban shirt with frills running down from shoulders to hem. He has stepped out of time to lead you back to the past of a district that endured yellow fever, diplomatic and political controversies, and economic upheaval, steadfastly marching to its current budding renewal — led by its new sophisticated hotel.

“Hotel Haya brought a little class to the edge of Ybor City,” Herman says. “It’s almost like it started a renaissance in Ybor City. Before it came, 7th Avenue was like Bourbon Street. Very loud, lots of partying, not all of it pleasant. But you see things changing, some more class, some more good restaurants, and still that connection to history.”

marti park ybor city tampa

This little park in Tampa’s Ybor City is the only place within the borders of the United States that actually belongs to Cuba. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Hotel Haya is a gem and it’s not by accident that it is the catalyst for change. Owned by Aparium, a boutique brand with contemporary sensibilities (its Populus in Denver is dubbed the nation’s first “carbon-positive hotel”), the property arrived as revitalization was accelerating in Ybor City.

“What Aparium’s strategy focuses on is up-and-coming or newly changing neighborhoods that are about to have a breath of life. These areas have a new art or nightlife scene but they’re missing that key community ingredient that’s needed to bring people together,” says Natalie Wolfe, Hotel Haya’s director of lifestyle  (yes, Aparium promotes cool staff titles, too). “Ybor is emblematic of that tactic they do. Now you see change happening in Ybor more quickly as different developments are starting to go up.”

heritage chicken in ybor city

Heritage chickens in Ybor City are legally protected. They roam the streets and inspire the culture of the area. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

They include Gasworx, a 50-acre mixed-use neighborhood that is Tampa’s next mega-project, and Ten Rooms, an upscale and diverse dining space from acclaimed local restaurateur Ro Patel that debuted in May. It joins Hotel Haya’s restaurant and bar, Flor Fina, as chic dining spots in the district.

Flor Fina is noted for the cocktail list that blends classic flavors with novel ingredients and evokes both the Caribbean and southeast United States in taste. The cuisine has earned a local following and brings creativity to dishes like plantain-crusted snapper and a humungous paella that serves four diners. You still get the delicious Sunshine State fish and seafood, but with a unique and modernistic take.

Next to the restaurant is the hotel’s pool, which is intimate and bathed in sunlight. On Saturday afternoons, it opens up to locals as well as Hotel Haya guests for a dance party complete with DJ and beverage vendors. Connecting with the property’s past, the hotel has a refurbished dining hall and event space, Los Novidades, that retains many of the historic details from an era when Theodore Roosevelt and his Roughriders rode into Ybor City, and reportedly ate beans and rice before charging on toward Cuba. The hotel also reveres Ignacio Haya — who rolled the first cigar in Tampa on April 13, 1886 — through seminars on the practice. Only one original cigar factory, J.C. Newman, remains in Ybor City (in 1927 there were 232 such factories) and its team partners with Hotel Haya to offer classes on how to make the tobacco-filled product — and participants can take their creations home with them. The hotel’s cafe, Quiquiriquí, takes its name from the “cockadoodle-doo” of the Ybor City chickens.

patatas bravas ybor city tampa

Flor Fina at Hotel Haya serves Caribbean- and Spanish-style dishes, including patatas bravas. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The hotel’s rooms are modern, large, and comfortable, with plush beds, warm wood floors, and tiled bathrooms. Some feature long terraces that face onto 7th Avenue. The location is not for light sleepers. As Herman notes, Ybor City is still a party destination, especially for the Tampa student crowd, with rooftop clubs along the avenue and lively bars in the area, including a LGBTQ+-friendly nightclub across the street from the hotel. Still, for a cultural immersion into one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in the U.S., blended with sophistication and comforts, Hotel Haya is an outstanding choice.

Most importantly, staying there lets you explore more of Tampa to learn why its significance both economically and in the tourism world is poised to extend its hot streak. The Water Street District has won global accolades for urban planning and the city has earned many kudos for destination marketing. Ybor City promises to continue the trend of making Tampa not only a place to visit right now, but the most exciting metropolitan destination in the U.S. at the moment.


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Where else are you going to find free-roaming chickens, Michelin-worthy restaurants, an official piece of Cuba, no-charge public transit, and relentless sunshine? Don a fedora and step into a place where Florida’s past and future meet. Chances are you’ll quite happy with your present.



Tampa’s free streetcar rides take passengers between the city’s downtown and Ybor City. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Hotel Haya Location: 1412 East 7th Avenue, Tampa, Florida (see map below)
Room Rates: Nightly weekend stays in July start at a remarkably affordable $149 USD per night. Check the hotel’s website to plan your travel dates.
Max Herman’s Tours: Ybor City’s Historic Tours and Ghost Tours can be booked online, and range from $10-$30 USD.



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Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.