September 1, 2015
Of all the emblematic neighbourhoods in Miami – the Art Deco District, Little Haiti, bohemian Coconut Grove, stately City Beautiful (a.k.a. Coral Gables) – Little Havana may just be the most colourful. Bright with painted tiles, wall murals and filled with echoes of Cuban exilio, every street offers a lesson in the island’s culture, whether it be from a wandering rooster in a resident’s backyard or the iconic one in front of El Pub restaurant, one of the city’s best-known Cuban diners – and a popular pit stop for cafécito Cubano, strong, sweet coffee served like espresso. Take a look at our guide to Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood for a true taste of authentic Cuban culture in Magic City.
Southwest Eighth Street, or Calle Ocho, is the central conduit of Little Havana. Chockablock with casual bars, cafes and more formal restaurants of every Hispanic stripe, bakeries and coffee windows (called ventanitas), cigar shops, art galleries and botanicas that sell spiritual supplies, Calle Ocho is the beating heart of Little Havana. Beginning just west of downtown Miami and the bustling Brickell business section, it’s known for the activities that have come to define the region, especially Carnaval Miami, a series of events that includes the ostentatious musical romp that locals refer to simply as “Calle Ocho.” Produced by the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana, the annual festival sees more than one million people dance and sing to nearly 30 internationally live acts set on different stages along two miles of the street.
Calle Ocho is also the setting for the non-profit Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays). Directed by Pati Vargas, this free monthly art festival, which takes place on the last Friday of every month from 7-11 p.m., draws visitors of all ages and ethnicities to enjoy activities ranging from Latin dance classes to cigar rolling lessons in Miami’s Little Havana district. In conjunction with the event, which was developed in 2000, author and regional expert Dr. Paul George has been offering a variety of different walking tours of the surroundings free of charge.
Originally opened in 1926 as a cinema, the Tower Theater became an important place for displaced Cubans in the 1960s, both as an introduction to American cinema and as somewhere they could come and see Spanish films. It fell into disrepair after closing in 1984. Miami Dade College was granted permission to take it over in the early part of the new millennium and, now fully refurbished and run by the Cultural Affairs Department, MDC’s Tower Theater shows foreign and domestic art and independent films in both English and Spanish. It also acts as a lecture hall, meeting place and exhibition space.
Certainly, as Grace Della knows, Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood is one of the tastiest places in the entire state. Another expert tour guide, she launched Miami Culinary Tours and regularly leads visitors around the area to taste mariquitas de maduros (shaved, deep-fried plantains), empanadas (filled turnovers) and the ideal Cuban sandwich, a treat unlike any other made with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, all pressed together on flaky Cuban bread. Della swears by the Ball & Chain restaurant, originally debuted as a saloon in 1935, for Cuban sandwiches and chicharonnes (deep-fried pork skin), as well as perfectly muddled mojitos.
You can score a similarly stupendous Cuban sandwich at El Exquisito Restaurant and the infamous Versailles Restaurant, where any dish is served alongside a potent dose of island politics. Off the main drag, at Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co., respected hometown chef Alberto Cabrera introduces patrons to an elevated version not only of the Cuban sandwich (with pork belly rillettes, Molinari salami and red wine mustard), but also of the Elena Ruz (turkey, whipped goat cheese, berry compote, bacon and rocket), along with Media Noche croquetas and guava pound cake.
If fruits like guava are unfamiliar, head to Los Piarenos Fruteria (1334 SW 8th St) or El Palacio de los Jugos for an education in tropical produce ranging from soursop to sugarcane, which you can have pressed into juices or batidos (Cuban milkshakes) and sip while you stroll the colourful aisles.
HistoryMiami, the city’s pre-eminent history museum, also offers an excellent walking tour of Little Havana. Like Miami Culinary Tours, it’s rich with stops for snacks such as pastelitos (pastries) filled with guava at one of the bakeries – Yisell Bakery is a favourite of many residents – as well as art gallery visits. If Cuba Ocho Art and Research Center isn’t on the list, make sure to visit on your own. It’s a cultural highlight, showcasing the island’s fine arts, from visual to literary.
A stroll down Cuban Memorial Boulevard is equally striking. The landscaped monuments dotting the Boulevard demarcate important Cuban events, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the hundredth anniversary of poet, revolutionary and national hero José MartÃ’s death.
No visit to Miami’s Little Havana district would be complete without witnessing a fierce domino battle. Maximo Gomez Domino Park is a landmark, located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Street. Built in 1976 and named for the soldier who helped secure Cuba’s freedom from Spanish rule, the park is home to mainly older Cuban men who match tile after tile, all the while smoking cigars and talking politics. If it seems odd to them to be a tourist attraction, gawked at by toddlers licking caramel flan ice cream cones from the nearby Azucar Ice Cream Company, you’d never know it by the intensity of their play.
Be cautious about getting in on the action, though. Even if you speak the language, there’s a strict hierarchy here ruled by a social club, the Circulo de Santiago de Cuba, and you have to be from the city of Santiago to enter it.
That doesn’t prevent you, however, from buying some dominos from a souvenir shop to set up yourself or take home and practice your moves. (You can also play chess or even checkers if you like; Cuban ladies play canasta and other games as well). The most interesting boutique, the Little Havana Welcome Center, also has the most unlikely collection of Coco-Cola memorabilia, in addition to other terrific goods that will remind you of your time in this culturally enriching area of Miami.
If you can’t tear yourself away while the sun still shines. Grab some dinner and hang around until the hour Cubans consider is proper for going out – around 10 or 11 p.m. Then head to Hoy Como Ayer nightclub to listen to live Cuban bands and learn some salsa moves from the locals.
Header image: Welcome to Little Havana © GMCVB/www.Miami andBeaches.com
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Miami from London Heathrow. Explore Little Havana on your next trip.
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Written by Jen Karetnick