The secret side of Florida – where you can go on animal safaris and free trams that kids will love

FLORIDA may be warm all year round but Tampa Bay and its vibrant Latin Quarter are smoking hot.

America’s historic Cigar City is one of Florida’s fastest growing regions — with tourists and businesses flocking to the area.

Tourists are flocking to Florida's Tampa Bay, nicknamed Cigar City


Tourists are flocking to Florida’s Tampa Bay, nicknamed Cigar CityCredit:

With its subtropical climate, coastal scenery and abundance of family-friendly attractions, it’s easy to see why.

The historic Latin Quarter, Ybor City, has a diverse blend of cultures and its beautiful buildings lend a hint of New Orleans charm.

In the late 1800s, immigrants from Cuba and Spain came here to work in the flourishing cigar industry. They were soon followed by Italians, Germans and Eastern Europeans, and today Ybor City is a National Historic Landmark District.

We stayed at the new boutique Haya Hotel, which combines Cuban-influenced style with an industrial design twist.

My stylish, spacious suite featured floor-to-ceiling windows (with excellent blackout curtains) and funky velvet furniture; there was even a chaise longue to lounge on by the large TV.

Not that you should feel the need to flick through the channels given the array of entertainment on your doorstep.

You only need to step outside to find yourself on one of Ybor City’s most vibrant streets, crammed full of shops, restaurants, historic landmarks and other curiosities.

First stop was the factory and museum of the JC Newman Cigar Company, a key part of the city’s history for 67 years.

You can see the manufacturing process, from preparation of the tobacco leaves to the final product, hand-rolled on site.

A place at the bottom of the pecking order

The area is named after Vicente Martinez Ybor, the chap who first brought his cigar business over from Cuba and set up a thriving community for his workers.

The elegant Cuban Club played a central role and today it is said to be one of the most haunted buildings in the country.

I didn’t see any strange apparitions but the theatre did have a fabulously eerie atmosphere — ghost hunters will love it.

Still on the Latin beat on our walking tour, we visited a tiny piece of territory that belongs entirely to the island of Cuba. José Martí Park is a small, peaceful patch of greenery dedicated to a Cuban revolutionary who led the resistance against Spanish rule.

There’s a statue dedicated to him in the park, which contains soil from Cuba’s provinces.

Fittingly, strutting about in José’s park were Tampa’s famous chickens, which roam the streets freely.

They are the descendants of the birds brought over by the first Cuban immigrants and are protected by law.

They seem to know it too. A feisty flock approached us, clucking and crowing, when we wandered into their territory, and we beat a hasty retreat. We knew our place at the bottom of the pecking order.

You will cross paths with the famous Tampa chickens


You will cross paths with the famous Tampa chickensCredit:

We stopped off at Florida’s oldest restaurant, the famous Columbia, which started as a sandwich shop in 1905 but today can seat a mind-boggling 1,700 customers.

Speciality is, of course, the Cuban sandwich — a grilled masterpiece stuffed with salami, roast pork, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard.

That evening we headed to the uber cool rooftop bar of Casa Santo Stefano, the perfect place to watch the sunset with a glass of prosecco in hand.

A fun way to get around is by streetcar, a heritage “tram” whose carriages are replicas of the ones that travelled the city’s streets in the 1920s.

It’s a free service and takes you downtown to the Riverwalk, a pedestrian path that runs along the Hillsborough River and features a host of fabulous attractions.

There’s a vast aquarium, history centre, art and photography museums and the Henry B Plant Museum where you can see the restored rooms of the former Tampa Bay Hotel.

Across the road we had a delicious pit stop at the Oxford Exchange restaurant. Another waterfront hotspot is Sparkman Wharf, a fun place to wander around with its buzzy vibe, trendy bars and new restaurant The Battery — which offers no fewer than 110 different types of whisky.

If you’re looking for excitement, Busch Gardens is an African-safari theme park where you can see lions and tigers and “go on safari”. We spotted rhinos, zebras and giraffes. Hand-feeding the giraffes from our safari truck was great fun.

Thrillseekers will love the rides at Busch Gardens, especially new rollercoaster, the Iron Gwazi, which claims to be the tallest, fastest and steepest in America, plunging 206ft.

For retail therapy, head to the chic shops of upmarket Hyde Park village. My favourite was The Candle Pour, where you can combine your favourite fragrances to make your own candles.

The city is also home to Gasparilla — a long-running festival, including an invasion from pirate Jose Gaspar.

“Pirate” Jose may be more folklore than fact, but Tampa Bay really is packed with treasures.

GO: Tampa

COVID: Fully vaccinated travellers and children under 18 can enter the United States without pre-departure testing. Unvaccinated travellers currently cannot enter the US.

GETTING THERE: British Airways flies from Gatwick to Tampa with return flights from £376pp. See or call 0344 493 0124.

STAYING THERE: Rooms at Hotel Haya start from £153 per room per night. See

OUT & ABOUT: The Riverwalk Attraction Pass with entry to eight attractions is from £41 per adult and £26 per child for a day pass or £58 and £36 for a three-day pass. See


Workers at one of Tampa's cigar factories attempt to keep up with demand


Workers at one of Tampa’s cigar factories attempt to keep up with demandCredit:
Tampa's trams are the best way to get about the city


Tampa’s trams are the best way to get about the cityCredit:
Tampa has a vast aquarium - along with its famous theme parks


Tampa has a vast aquarium – along with its famous theme parksCredit:


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