Did you know you don’t have to visit Cuba to get a taste of Cuban culture? If you’re American, you don’t even need a passport! Visiting Miami traditionally was all about the beaches and party scene but now that neighborhoods like Wynwood and the Design District have started becoming their own destinations, people are coming for cultural reasons (with a serving of beach and party on the side). After living in Miami for 14 years I can there is no end to the things to do here and there is never a dull moment. Little Havana in Miami is a delightful neighborhood full of great food, music, art and history. Here’s everything you need to know to take a walking tour of Little Havana.
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There is such an exciting mix of cultures that give the city its unique character. One of these is the Cuban community. How did so many Cubans end up in Miami? Well they didn’t only come to Miami. In the late 19th century, Cubans made their way to Tampa and Key West so both of those places have flourishing Cuban communities also. However, I will focus on Miami’s unique history here.
The first wave of refugees began fleeing Cuba immediately after Castro’s forces drove President Fulgencio Batista into exile on Jan. 1, 1959. Until 1965, roughly 200,000 Cubans, most from the educated upper and middle classes, left Cuba to escape Communist rule and a national take over of land and industry. These were wealthy landowners, bankers and business barons. They laid the groundwork for the next wave.
The second wave came between 1965 and 1973. Around 350,000 small business owners and working-class laborers came at this time. These groups of Cubans prospered economically and were a huge immigrant success story in America.
This is an infamous time in Miami when a mass emigration of Cubans traveled from Mariel Harbour, Cuba to the USA in October 1980. This was in response to 10,000 Cubans trying to gain asylum on the grounds of the Venezuelan and Peruvian embassies. Fidel Castro said, “OK whoever wants to go, get the hell out.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit). He also opened his prisons, his mental institutions and planted them along with those he deemed socially unacceptable such as homosexuals and prostitutes on boats to Miami.
During this time 125,000 Cubans reached Miami. This group of people are forever known as the “Marielitos”. Sadly, this altered the previously rosy view of Cuban immigrants to the rest of America. Cuban immigrants were now stigmatized and unfairly so since only a small percentage of these people were found to be true hardened criminals. Interestingly, out of the around 125,000 refugees that entered the United States around 16,000 to 20,000 were estimated to be real criminals according to a 1985 Sun Sentinel magazine article. This is the “Scarface” era of Miami, soon to be followed by the “Miami Vice” era. (those are must watch before coming BTW)
Before the 1980s, all refugees from Cuba were welcomed into the United States as political refugees. This changed in the 1990s so that only Cubans who reach U.S. soil were granted refugee status under the “wet foot, dry foot policy“. While representing a tightening of U.S. immigration policy, the wet foot, dry foot policy afforded Cubans a privileged position relative to other immigrants to the U.S. Essentially, if a Cuban could get a foot onto US soil, they could stay and quickly obtain refugee status along with the perks. If they were intercepted at sea (“wet feet”), they would be returned to Cuba or sent to a third country.You don’t have to visit Cuba to get a taste of Cuban culture. Little Havana in Miami is a delightful neighborhood full of great food, music, art and history. Here’s everything you need to know for a visit Click To Tweet
Well, first you have to get to Miami, obvy.
Miami International Airport
MIA is very conveniently located in the center of the city, 15 minutes from just about anywhere within Miami. This is an American Airlines hub with many direct flights from many places in the world.
Fort Lauderdale Airport
FLL is about 25 minutes north of Miami and sometimes has cheaper flights since budget carriers like Spirit, Jet Blue and Southwest fly here.
You can get shared rides on the shuttle from Miami Airport or Fort Lauderdale airport.
It is very easily reached via Uber or Lyft and is only 10-15 minutes from downtown Miami and the airport.
The Miami Trolley is a fun AND FREE way to get around Miami and it now goes to Little Havana.
The street you want to look for is called Calle Ocho. This means “8th Street”. This is specifically SW 8th Street near SW 17th Ave. Please don’t confuse this with NW or SE 8th Street or 8th Avenue or you WILL get lost in Miami, and likely in a place where no English is spoken! Honestly, for a grid city, it is REALLY confusing because you have to have directions exactly right. There is much more than than just Calle Ocho, of course, but for tourists, this is the place to start for a walking tour of Little Havana.
Visiting is SO easy. You really only have to walk up and down one street, Calle Ocho, to get a taste of many things, literally! You need to arrive hungry and ready to taste everything you see. Here are some spots not to miss. Start at the corner I mentioned above and just walk a few blocks one direction and then cross the street and walk back. Easy peasy.
Starting on the corner of 17th Ave and Calle Ocho you will be in a little section of Calle Ocho with many art galleries.
Gainza has been in the South Florida art scene for over 30 years. He has exhibited in galleries in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean, including his native country, Cuba. His shop now offers tapas and the famous cafecito and mojito. His paintings are spectacular!
Everybody knows that Cuba is the place for cigars, right? Well, what makes a good cigar? What makes it an authentic “Cuban”? You will learn all of this and can watch a cigar rolling master at work. There are several places on Calle Ocho for this. This is only one of them. At this particular place (Cuba Tobacco Cigar Factory), they have a massive cigar that was smoked when Castro died.
Any restaurant or bar in Miami will have these but a fun place to have it with live music and a lovely garden complete with a pineapple stage is the restaurant Ball and Chain.
This is such a wonderful glimpse into local life. This started with just a few old men playing dominoes and eventually, the city decided to make a nice park for the elderly. The rules are you have to be over 55, no gambling, no alcohol, no guns, no knives, no spitting. According to the hilarious tour guide, “All the things good about Cuban Dominoes out the window!”.
There is a gorgeous mural here commemorating the Summit of the Americas in 1994. The men playing dominoes are really serious but really friendly and don’t seem to mind if you politely watch. If you are lucky you can witness an argument. LOL
This is a monument to honor of the fallen of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Their names are engraved on the monument, and there is an eternal flame at the top. Very briefly, the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failed military invasion of Cuba by a CIA sponsored counter-revolutionary military group made of mostly exiled Cubans. As the US involvement became apparent to the world, and with the initiative turning against the invasion, Kennedy decided against providing further air cover, which was part of the original Eisenhower plan. This was a horrible turning point for US Cuban relations, strengthened Cuban Soviet relations and was a massive failure of the Kennedy administration that forever demonized the Democratic Party in the eyes of the Cuban community.
Jose Marti was the national hero of Cuba for dedicating his life to the fight for Cuban independence. He was a great journalist, poet, diplomat, and at the end of his life, a general. This is right next to the Bay of Pigs Memorial.
This pays tribute to Cuban and Latin American stars that the Hollywood Walk of Fame “forgot”. Celia Cruz, aka the Cuban Aretha Franklin, was the first star placed here and somebody always leaves a fresh flower next to her star, which is so touching.
There’s not one specific place for it. It is really all over and easy to find. Almost every street corner has some and it’s all really cool. This may be my favorite mural in Miami.
There are plenty of tours of the area available, some focused on art and culture, some food and some both!
I highly recommend this one, which I did recently. You will basically see everything I showed you above and get to try all the treats I will mention below. It was truly tons of fun. I learned a great deal AND ate a great deal!
Cuban food is infamous. I can attribute some weight gain to this cuisine when I first moved to Miami. Honestly, it’s some of the least healthy food ever but truly delicious. Miami has some of the best using traditional Cuban recipes and tropical ingredients but with the addition of some American items not found in Cuba.
This is the first thing I run to get the second I land in Miami. Cuban coffee is the equivalent of liquid crack. It is STRONG. It is typically mixed with a TON of sugar. You’ve been warned.
The terminology confuses non-Miamians so I will “esplain to ju”!
Don’t ask for sugar with it. It will already be there. In fact, the first words I learned in Spanish were “poquito azucar” (little sugar). You can get these anywhere and you will see little windows on the sides of restaurants and bakeries like this, specifically for coffee. This is at a place called Cafe Havana. I DO hope they get a sustainability movement here soon and ditch the styrofoam and plastic for something compostable!
Fun Fact: When McDonald’s opened here they didn’t understand why nobody would buy coffee until they learned about Cuban coffee. They were the first McDonald’s in USA to serve “cafecito”.
This is ubiquitous in Latin American cuisine. It is essentially a dumpling. Dough wrapped around a filling and either baked or deep-fried. The most common are stuffed with shredded chicken or ground beef but sometimes you can find vegetarian ones with spinach or cheese. Every country makes them slightly differently. The Cuban version is very different from the Argentinian. This one from the window at El Pub, pictured above.
I was obsessed with these when I first moved to Miami. It translates to “stuffed potato”. It’s picadillo (ground meat with spices) inside a ball of mashed potato, all breaded and deep-fried. It’s extremely filling. I don’t have a photo! Sorry! Just look for the big fried ball type object. They are usually found in bakeries or in glass cases along with empanadas and pastelitos.
I don’t think mojitos are good anywhere else in the world (except Cuba). The classic 5 ingredients are white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water, and mint. Add ice. Sometimes bars use Sprite instead of soda water but I find this too sweet. This one below is from the restaurant Ball and Chain, on Calle Ocho
This is a great example of a Cuban- American creation. It was a Cuban idea made with ingredients not found in Cuba like mustard, pickles and those little shoestring potato chip fries. The ingredients are Cuban bread (like a soft baguette sometimes made with lard), roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, dill pickles, mustard. In Tampa (where there is stiff competition for “the original” or “the best” Cuban sandwich, they use salami. You will NOT find this in Miami. LOL. Sacrilege!
I don’t typically eat pork but I had to try this while in Little Havana because it’s such a special thing. It has both ham and pork on it. They love their pig products! There is a vegetarian version with just cheese and condiments.
You can really go to any bakery that you see. One I know is on Calle Ocho is Yisell’s. Further away is Versailles. Try all the pastries that your stomach can fit. They are especially good with a Cafe con Leche. Pictured is pastel con guayaba. Pastry with guava. There is also one with guava AND cheese (my favorite) or just cheese. The cheese used is similar to a sweet cream cheese or ricotta. There’s also a sweet pastry with meat inside, pastel de carne. It sounds weird but it’s good.
This place is owned by a local Cuban woman and has an astounding variety of flavors and some have the greatest names. When Fidel Castro died, she made a flavor called Burn in Hell Fidel. It’s dark chocolate with cayenne pepper…I loved it. There was a line around the block for two weeks full of old Cuban men who couldn’t wait to yell “Burn in hell Fidel!”. The signature “Abuela Maria” is vanilla blended with Maria cookies, guava, and cream cheese. I will continue going until I try them all. The Mantecado is delicious. Try the various tropical fruit flavors like mamey and guava. You don’t typically get ice cream in those flavors in most places!
If you pass a fruit stand or shop, go in and marvel at the enormous mangos and Florida avocados which can be bigger than your head. Try a fresh mango, coconut juice or sugarcane juice.
All this food should keep your stomach happy but if you want a proper Cuban sit-down meal, there is no shortage of places. Vaca Frita (fried beef dish), Tostones (fried plantain), Yuca (type of root vegetable served with garlic sauce), Black Beans and Rice, Maduros (sweet plantains) are all things to try.
Looking for more things to do in Miami? I got you covered!
I hope these Miami guides are helpful! Where else in Miami do you want to visit? Drop me a comment and as always, share the love!
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