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 built Tampa Bay. For the first 50 years of its life, Tampa Bay was a sandy little garrison town barely connected to the rest of the U.S. That changed in the 1880s when Cuban cigar magnate Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his operations from Key West to a patch of scrub just east of downtown. The port guaranteed easy access to Cuban tobacco and the Cuban labor to roll it into cigars. Soon, the railroad arrived to carry those cigars to market in New York and beyond. Within a few years, Ybor City -- and Tampa Bay with it -- had exploded in population from a few hundred people to several thousand. Pretty soon, Tampa Bay was a melting pot filled with Cuban, Spanish, German, Italian and Jewish residents. At its peak, the local cigar industry produced 500 million cigars a year, earning Tampa Bay the nickname, Cigar City. You'll still find Cuban masters rolling hand-made cigars in Ybor City just like they have for 130 years.
2. The Cuban sandwich was invented here. Don Vicente Ybor had a problem: those thousands of highly paid cigar makers would go home for lunch and some never came back. He needed a way to keep them fed and at their posts during the day. He put the problem to a local chef, who combined what he had at hand and, after a few tweaks, produced the delicacy now know as the Cuban sandwich. (No, it's not from Cuba -- or Miami, for that matter.) Between two slices of Cuban bread, the Tampa Bay version of the world-famous sandwich combines mojo pork, ham, salami, pickles, Swiss cheese and mustard. In the olden days, the workers ate them cold. Eventually someone came up with the idea of pressing them, and a true masterpiece was born. You'll find Cubans all over Tampa Bay, but for my money the best ones are at the Columbia Restaurant's Columbia Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center. Grab one for lunch with some plantain chips.
3. Famed R&B singer Ray Charles got his start here. Ray was born in Georgia, but when 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 the beautifully construction Perry Harvey Sr. Park on the northeast corner of downtown.
4. Teddy Roosevelt slept here. Before he was president, Teddy Roosevelt was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Cavalry, leading a tough bunch of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. As the U.S. prepared to wage war on Spain in the late 1890s, Roosevelt and the rest of the invasion force mustered in Tampa Bay preparing to set sail from our port to Havana, a 300-mile straight shot due south. Roosevelt and the rest of the military leadership made their headquarters at the elaborate, moorish-styled Tampa Bay Hotel, whose silver minarets remain an iconic feature of the Tampa Bay skyline. The hotel is now Plant Hall and houses the administration offices of the University of Tampa. But you can still stroll the wide verandah and explore the museum dedicated to the Henry Plant, the man who brought the railroad and Tampa Bay Hotel to town.
5. "The Twist" dance craze started here. 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 teen-agers dancing on Central Avenue during its hey day 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.
6. Pre-fabricated housing started in Ybor City. Ever the efficiency expert, Don Vicente Ybor needed a quick way to house the throngs of workers pouring into Tampa Bay looking for work. He struck upon the idea of ordering up small, simple homes ("casitas") that could arrive by train partially built and be quickly assembled in about a week by construction crews. Workers had the monthly mortgage deducted directly from their pay. You can still see some of the original casitas when you visit the Ybor City Museum State Park.
7. Manatees love Tampa Bay. 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 come by the hundreds to the warm water outfall at the Big Bend power plant south of town -- it's the smokestacks you can see on the southeastern horizon. The TECO Manatee Viewing Center is free, though parking can be tight. The boardwalk offers an excellent vantage point for watching manatee lumber and lounge in the warm water. The nature center will teach you all you ever want to know about manatees. The nature trail that runs parallel to the power station has great views of spotted rays, spinner sharks and other marine life. Want to get a little closer to a manatee, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo 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.
8. Tampa Bay loves beer. Florida's first commercial brewery opened in 1897 in -- you guessed it -- Ybor City, cranking out cervezas for thirsty cigar workers as well as for export to Cuban, which was a steady trading partner for Tampa Bay until the Cuban Embargo in 1962. In the 1950s, Tampa Bay became the home to Busch Gardens, which began as a brewery and botanical garden before become one of the world's best theme parks. America's oldest brewery, Yuengling, runs a bottling plant near Busch Gardens and offers free tours. But Tampa Bay's love affair with suds really took off a decade ago when Cigar City Brewing opened and quickly became the area's premier craft brewer. In recent years, Cigar City has inspired two dozen other craft breweries, making Tampa Bay Florida's hub for craft brewing and a rising star on the national craft brewing scene.
9. You can visit Cuba without a passport. Until the U.S. restored diplomatic ties with Cuban in 2015, the gated Jose Marti Park in a quiet corner of Ybor City was for 53 years the only piece of Cuban-owned property in the United States. The park, which is protected by international treaty, was the site of a boarding house were Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti (and his fabulous mustache) was nursed back to health after being poisoned in an assassination attempt by agents of the Spanish government. Marti was a frequent visitor to Tampa Bay and found both moral and financial support for his rebellion among Tampa Bay's wealth cigar workers.
10. The world's biggest pirate invasion happens every year. Every January, the upstanding residents of Tampa Bay go slightly nuts and become pirates for the day. Led by the spirit of legendary pirate José Gaspar, members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla sail their three-masted caravel, the José Gasparilla, into downtown, guns blazing. The invaders hustle the mayor for the key to the city and, having received it, set launch the third-biggest parade in the country along Tampa Bay's showcase Bayshore Boulevard. The parade kicks off two months of parties, parades and festivals that make up Gasparilla Season.
11. Wild chickens roam the streets. Step off the TECO Historic Streetcar in historic Ybor City, 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; Ybor City has a large and healthy flock of wild chickens strutting their stuff on the streets and in the 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. The roosters are easy to find, resplendent in glossy feathers and crowing at the top of their lungs. The hens are harder to spot. They're probably hunkered down under shrubbery. Take all the photos you want, but please leave the birds in peace: They're protected by city ordinance.