Tampa Bay has a long and colorful history (long for Florida, anyway), much of it is waiting for you to discover. Here are some things you probably never knew about Cigar City.


1. The cigar industry helped 
build Tampa Bay

Cigar Roller

In the 1880s, Cuban cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his operations from Key West to a patch of scrub just east of downtown close to the port. Henry B. Plant’s newly arrived railroad carried Ybor’s cigars to market in New York and beyond. Soon Tampa Bay had grown from a tiny town to a major metropolis and became a magnet for Cuban, Spanish, German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. At its peak, Tampa Bay produced 500 million cigars a year, earning the nickname Cigar City. You'll still find Cuban masters rolling hand-made cigars in Ybor City just like they have since that first one in 1886.



Ray Charles

Ray was born in Georgia, but went to school at the Florida School for the Blind and Deaf in St. Augustine. After graduating, he found his way to Tampa Bay and started playing at clubs on Central Avenue, then the heart of the area's African American community. Ray Charles wasn't the only star to build their chops at Tampa Bay's stop on the Chittlin' Circuit. Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway also made their bones here as well. Central Avenue's business are gone now, but their memory lives on in beautiful Perry Harvey Sr. Park on the northeast corner of downtown.


5. "the Twist" Dance Craze Started Here

Perry Harvey Sr. Park

As the story goes, Hank Ballard, the man who wrote the song Chubby Checker turned into a smash hit, was inspired by seeing African American teenagers dancing on Central Avenue during its heyday in the 1950s. "The Twist" was the B-side of its record, but quickly became a national sensation when Checker performed it on "American Bandstand." And a dance craze was born. Check out Perry Harvey Sr. Park to learn more. You’ll find a sculpture memorializing Ballard and “The Twist” at the entrance to Perry Harvey Sr. Park.


7. Manatees Love Tampa Bay (especially in the winter)


Especially in the winter and spring, Tampa Bay is chock-a-block with Florida's official marine mammal. You can spot them in the Hillsborough River (along with the occasional dolphin) in the middle of downtown. They swarm to the TECO Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend power plant south of town. Admission is free. The observation deck offers an excellent vantage point for watching manatee lounge in the warm water. The nature trail that runs parallel to the power station has great views of spotted rays, spinner sharks and other marine life. To get a little closer to a manatee, ZooTampa at Lowry Park is the only non-profit facility in Florida licenses to treat injured manatees. Their underwater observatory lets you come nose-to-nose with these gentle creatures.


9. You Can Visit Cuba Without A Passport

Jose Marti Park

For more than 50 years, José Martí Park in Ybor City was the only piece of Cuban-owned property in the United States. The park, which is protected by international treaty, still belongs to the Cuban people. Pass through its gates, and you’re standing on Cuban soil. The park commemorates Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti who survived an assassination attempt in Tampa Bay. Marti found both moral and financial support for his rebellion among Tampa Bay's wealthy cigar workers.


11. Wild Chickens Roam The Streets of Ybor City

Ybor City Chickens

Step off the TECO Historic Streetcar near Ybor City's Centennial Park, and there's a good chance the first sound to greet your ears will be "cock-a-doodle-doo!" It won't take long to find the source -- wild chickens strutting their stuff in Ybor City's streets and parks. They are the descendants of the flocks kept as backyard egg-layers and Sunday night dinners by generations of Ybor City residents, a direct link back to the earliest days of the neighborhood. Take all the photos you want, but please leave the birds in peace: They're protected by city ordinance