History & Legends
Take an adventure back in time and unlock some of Tampa Bay’s rich history and hidden gems.
In, 1521 Tampa began as an Indian fishing village. Native tribes called the village by the bay "Tanpa," which meant "sticks of fire." On maps, made by the early explorers, the spelling became "Tampa." Then in the spring of 1539 Hernando de Soto sailed into the Tampa Bay area to search for gold. After that, the area was left largely untouched for 200 years.
In 1772, a Dutch cartographer named Bernard Romans, gave the name “Hillsborough” to the local river, county and upper arm of Tampa Bay. This was done in honor of Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the Colonies.The United States purchased Florida from Spain in 1821. Three years later, Fort Brooke attracted traders to what is now downtown Tampa and enabled the settlement to become the town of Tampa in 1855. Meanwhile, in 1834 Hillsborough was organized as Florida's 19th county and was a sprawling area that included what is now Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Hilghlands counties - but despite the size, its population only numbered 836.
Then a man named Henry B. Plant came to explore the city. He extended the railroad to Tampa in 1884 and started a steamship line from Tampa to Key West to Havana, Cuba. In 1891, Plant further boosted the area with the opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel. The hotel cost $3 million to build and furnish and attracted entertainers, sports figures and dignitaries from around the world.
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Tampa was the port of embarkation for troops headed to Cuba. A colorful colonel named Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt organized his "Rough Riders" at the Tampa encampment.
With the opening of the Henry B. Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel, the city's attention was turned to a sparsely populated area west of the Hillsborough River. In 1886, O.H. Platt purchased 20 acres of land across the Hillsborough River creating Tampa's first subdivision, Hyde Park. Platt named the area after his hometown Hyde Park, Illinois. During the land boom between 1910 and 1925, this residential area became home to many prominent citizens.
Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, moved his cigar business from Key West to a palmetto-covered area, east of Tampa in 1885. The following year the first cigar factory opened and more Spanish cigar manufacturers began moving their factories and workers to Tampa. The Spanish, Italian, German and Cuban workers who settled here to work in the cigar industry created a strong, vivacious Latin community known as Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore). Nearly 12,000 people worked in more than 200 factories making Ybor City the "Cigar Capital of the World." That reputation endured until the emergence of Fidel Castro and the embargo on Cuban tobacco. Now designated as one of three National Historic Landmark districts in Florida, Ybor City is a mixture of historic buildings, artisan galleries, shops and nightclubs.
Tampa’s Historic Latin Quarter – Ybor City
Founded by Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor as a cigar-manufacturing center, Ybor City is one of only three National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Red brick buildings, wrought iron balconies and narrow brick streets give it an old-world charm that is a refreshing change of pace. See a “hand-rolled cigar” being made or just relax and “people watch” with a cup of Ybor’s famous café con leche.
Columbia Restaurant – the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world! Family owned for over 100 years, the Columbia is a landmark in Tampa's historic Ybor City since opening in 1905; today the Columbia is owned and operated by 4th and 5th generation members of the founding family. Try the “Original” Cuban sandwich, the official sandwich of Tampa, or one of the other many authentic Cuban infused Spanish menu selections and enjoy a nightly Flamenco Show.
Watch a hand-rolled cigar being made – Historic Ybor City was once known as the Cigar Capital of the World, producing over 500 million hand-rolled cigars annually at its peak. Although there are only two cigar factories that are still active in this now thriving entertainment and historic district, you can still see cigars being hand-rolled as you walk down Seventh Avenue, which was recognized nationally by the American Planning Association as one of the “10 Greatest Streets in America” in 2008.
Ybor City Social Clubs – The Centro Asturiano, Cuban and Italian social clubs still remain as symbols of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of the Spanish, Cuban, Italian, German, and Romanian-Jews immigrants who helped build the great city of Tampa. The buildings have fascinating stories to tell about the past, and inspiration to give towards the future. The historic buildings can be viewed by taking a self-guided tour or through several organized tours of Ybor City.
Downtown Tampa’s Historic Sites
From its most popular time in the Roaring Twenties, Downtown Tampa has restored some of its most popular original attractions to preserve the history.
Historic Tampa Theatre – Built in 1926 as one of America’s most elaborate movie theaters, the ornate Mediterranean-style structure has maintained its historic feel and offers a movie experience unlike any other! Recently ranked as the number three movie theater in the world, each movie begins with a unique performance played on the historic Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.
The Floridan Palace Hotel – Also built in 1926, the hotel was meticulously restored and renovated, and recently reopened in 2012. The Floridan is one of the few hotels in Tampa Bay on the National Register of Historic Places.
Henry B. Plant Museum – Built in 1891 as the Tampa Bay Hotel and a stop along the rail line, the hotel brought many visitors and business to Tampa Bay. Renovated and restored, the original furnishings, architecture and artifacts still adorn the walls. Now on the University of Tampa campus, visit the Museum and be taken back to a time of magnificent balls and tea parties.
Named after railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant, who connected the railroad into Tampa, the former Tampa Bay Hotel now showcases the moorish architecture, opulent furnishings, and spectacular tropical gardens that attracted dignitaries from around the world.
An symbol of the opulent spending during the roaring '20s, the Tampa Theatre was built as one of America's most elaborate movie theaters. Even today, the Tampa Theatre is ranked as one of the best movie theaters in the world.