Everyone has that one friend who goes on a vacation and has the enviable knack to uncover all the little hidden gems and off the beaten path experiences. That beloved pal is a voracious researcher and while they enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity, their detailed planning may be more thrilling than the trip itself. This knowledgeable person is just the type to organize a day in Little Havana.
When we think of a Miami journey, we envision endless days on a beach with bottomless mojitos and plenty of sunburn to go around. But not for the consummate curious traveler. Across the sparkling blue Biscayne Bay, here’s a whole other world beyond the sandy shores of Miami Beach. It usually takes several visits to Miami for a traveler to first step foot in Little Havana, but hopefully you have that enterprising chum in your clique who will read this article to line up the perfect outing. Beach? What beach?
Little Havana is actually a very large swath. It stretches east to west from Southwest 3rd Avenue up to Southwest 38th Avenue and from Northwest 7th street to Southwest 22nd Street. For your day, we will focus on the heart of Little Havana, concentrated from 13th to 17th avenue on 8th Street, or better known as Calle Ocho.
For a tranquil start to your exploration, begin at 13th Avenue and Calle Ocho, by paying your respects at Cuban Memorial Boulevard. This 4-block peaceful enclave is must-do attraction, as it sets the tone for understanding why this neighborhood is so special. Stand solemnly at the Eternal Light dedicated to Brigade 2506 who fought valiantly during the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle to reclaim their homeland of Cuba back from the communist Fidel Castro regime. Many lost their lives in the struggle to restore Cuba to its pre-revolutionary days and this monument reminds us of their magnificent courage to fight for what was theirs.
But the commemorative statue is a testament to why Little Havana exists in the first place. Unable to return to their homeland after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs operation, Miami exiles who settled in the neighborhood around 1958-59 hoping to return to Cuba in 1961, now found their long awaited aspiration thwarted. Still, the ever look-on-the-bright-side kind of people that they are, the Cubans worked tirelessly to create the lively neighborhood we can enjoy today. Spend a little time here getting to know the history of the Cuban struggle and when you already to move on, it’s time for a little morning refreshment.
Little Havana is all about family, and here you’ll meet one of the first families to settle and start a business in the neighborhood. As one of the oldest enterprises in the area, a visit to the Hernandez family fruit and vegetable market will make you feel right at home. And that’s easy to do when you meet the sweet matriarch Senora Hernandez and her two hard-working adult sons Pete and Angel.
Stand at the open-air wooden counter and choose your morning beverage. Will it be a cold glass of fresh papaya and melon juice or how about the unique guarapo juice made from thick stalks of sugar cane-very Cuban! Or maybe you want to watch Pete or Angel deftly crack open the skull of a young coconut for your coconut water drinking pleasure.
If they aren’t too busy stocking the shelves with mountains of fresh produce or filling thirsty tourist drink orders, have a friendly chat with any of the family members and they will be so proud to share their history with you. And if your Spanish is fluid enough, choose Senora Hernandez as your conversing partner; the 80 something grand dame of Little Havana is one of the most delightful people you’ll meet this day.
Now it’s time for a little nosh....
Just dash across the street from Los Pinerenos to this supermarket made in heaven. What is truly charming about many establishments in Little Havana is that they are multi-purpose. For example, art galleries often have a bar so you can gulp while you
glimpse, you can hear live music in a scent-filled cigar emporium, and this supermarket is much more than a bunch of bland aisles.
Passing by the aforementioned rows of stocked shelves, make your way to the back of the store where you will find a dizzying array of Cuban baked goods that you might just need an encyclopedia to learn about them all. Fortunately, you needn’t go that far as the friendly servers behind the counter will help you make the right choice for you. However, I strongly suggest you try one of their beef or chicken empanadas; redolent with bold spices and encased in one the richest, buttery empanada doughs in town, this morning treat is so much better than just a slice of toast. But maybe you are more of sweet tooth fan, so maybe something made with traditional guava is in order.
Whatever you choose, sit down inside with your morsel perhaps with some Cuban coffee to make sure it all goes down smooth. Or take it to go to our next destination, a whiff of the signature Cuban aroma- cigars!
While food is a dominant offering in Little Havana, no visit is complete unless you step foot into a cigar atelier. Here, it’s not necessarily about the finished product, it’s about the process, as there is nothing like the experience of watching an adept cigar roller engrossed in their craft.
Unlike factory-made cigars, most of the cigar stores in Little Havana sell hand-rolled ones and Havana Classic is one of the best. As you enter the spacious and airy establishment, you’ll probably be greeted warmly by the gregarious Jessie or Karen who will offer you a burlap covered seat at their homey bar while they expertly prepare a cafe cubano for you. With your system all revved up, stroll over to one of the several highly trained cigar rollers and watch in awe how fast they produce their wares. They make it look all so easy when in fact it takes years and years of proper tutelage and diligent practice to perfect this most Cuban art form. They are all very friendly, but if Roberto is working that day, be sure to seek him out for a photo op together. He is what you would definitely dub a “character” and this is meant in a most kind way. His sweet smile can turn anyone’s morning tired frown into a broad set of gleaming pearly whites.
The staff will educate you on which one of their homemade cigars you or a lucky recipient would best enjoy according your lifestyle. Included in this lesson is how to store and care for your carefully selected stogies. With this new education under your belt, it’s time for dress up fun...
This female writer has to admit that my very first impression of this shop was that they could have sold anything and the visit would have been worth it. During my premier experience, I met the owner, the very attractive Fidel Asis Lopez whose perfectly tanned epidermis and mesmerizing suave smile caused me to fumble and lose my train of thought for what I wanted to purchase. Since that first awkward encounter, I’ve come to know Fidel well and that his character handsomeness is definitely not to be outdone by his generous spirit. And the reflection of that warmth is expressed in this gem of a store.
While there are copious amounts of merchandise for sale here, what you come here for is the classic guayabera shirt. With four strategic pockets on the front of the garment, ask Fidel or any of his affable employees to tell the story of the guayabera. I’ll leave their animated expression of the tale to them so your experience there will only further be enhanced. Have them select a guayabera for you, they are master stylists. And don’t forget a chapeau-a debonair hat to put a fine finish to your new Cuban garb.
It’s time for lunch and we have just the place..... McDonalds. Just kidding, but we are going to visit the haven of fast food for what lies outside the Golden Arches.
You might have noticed as you strolled through the sidewalks, that there are stars plastered to the ground every few feet akin to the idea of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. Little Havana borrowed heavily on the idea and these stars celebrate prominent Hispanic figures mostly from the world of entertainment. A concentrated collection of them are in front of McDonalds. Stop to admire the shiny brass engravings and perhaps you’ll recognize a name or two. One that is symbolic of the unknown selection process is a star for Samy. Who is Samy you might ask? Every entertainer needs their stylist and Samy was the hairdresser to the stars! Although not the front man of the show, nevertheless this neighborhood recognizes the efforts it takes to make the show go on. So, we aren’t quite sure of the science of the selection process to receive a star in your name, but who cares when the choices are glamorous and fun.
Now it’s really time for lunch...
Head for the red awning that adorns Old’s Havana, just one step away from McDonalds for your midday meal.
Bustling at all hours everyday, this convivial place has an amazing Cuban sandwich or a crispy vaca frita plate waiting for you. The narrow, but comfortable dining room crammed to the hilt with memorabilia, is a favorite in the neighborhood with good reason- swift service with excellent Cuban cuisine that Cuban mothers can stamp with approval.
Order a Cuban sandwich, done right with just the right amount of salty ham, mojo sauce marinated pork, tangy pickles, oozing melted cheese and piquant mustard all pressed together between two slices of buttery crisp bread. They stick to the traditional here, and so no lettuce or tomato is within ten feet of your sandwich. Or try any one of their full plates piled high with sweet plantains, boiled or fried yuca and fluffy rice that feature any number of Cuban comfort food main dishes.
Since the weather in Miami is pretty much 365 days of warm sunshine, ask to be seated on the patio if there is availability, and enjoy the atmosphere al fresco. Include the sight and sounds of live roosters roaming around, perhaps one will dash right past you-it’s all part of the show.
Spend some leisurely time here slowing digesting your repast, then it’s time to hear and see a little click-clack action, Domino Park.
I stand corrected however, and should really call this park by its proper name, Máximo Gómez Park. You’ll see this handsome man’s bust center stage in this gathering place as he was and still is an important icon of Cuban freedom. He was one of two generals that led the charge for freedom for the Cuban people from 400 years of Spanish rule over their tiny island. And while you should certainly pay homage to this brave soldier, you are really here for gaming fun.
Dominoes, the national game of Cuba, started in this park actually right outside of its present location. The area that sits directly opposite the park’s gates which is an open air plaza now, was once strewn with old rickety tables that the first Cuban settlers to the neighborhood used to play their day-long games. In 1976, the city of Miami honored the the citizens with a gated, more plush park of their own. Gone were the unstable surfaces in which made it difficult to line up their shiny dominoes properly and in their place new cemented tables with built-in chairs were erected. This action certainly came in handy as over the years Domino Park acts as the de facto town square and for any central gathering place, it has to be comfortable for its inhabitants.
The players, although they learned the game at their relative’s knees, are all aged 55 or older, probably done so as to keep the raucous conversations just between contemporaries. Even if you don’t quite understand the domino game, it’s actually more of a game of life that’s intriguing to watch. If your Spanish is good enough, you’ll overhear humorous tales of which baseball team is better and stories like this that at times can get quite heated. But no need to be taken aback at the aggressiveness of their behavior-these residents cherish and adore each other so much so that in the very zenith of what looks like a bullish argument, kisses and hugs come out in full force.
After a full immersion in the psychology of the neighborhood denizens, it’s time for a jolt of caffeine...
I’ve mentioned cafe Cubano, or Cuban coffee several times already, but now you’ll properly partake in this super-charged beverage here at El Pub. Step right up to the blue-tiled ventanita, the window on the outside of this favorite neighborhood restaurant and order your afternoon pick-me-up from the smiling señora who is all too happy to serve you.
You’ll be able to see your coffee being prepared right in front of you. The large stainless steel coffee maker takes its load of rich ground beans and turns it into liquid heaven. Order a colada, that’s Cuban coffee to share and pass out thimble-sized portions to people standing next to you at the window. You don’t even need to know them, you just need to show them you know the inside secret on how to make friends ( and influence people- hey, isn’t that a famous book?)Cuban-style.
Squeeze out every last drop of rich, inky coffee and now it’s time for a little art...
Head west one more block and on the same side of the street at 1652 SW 8th, and step into the colorful world of famed artist Agustin Gainza. A man with a heart wrenching and heartfelt story all at once, Cuban-born Agustin and his lovely wife Ester own and operate this cheerful spot that is crammed with all original works by this talented and award-winning giant.
Here, choose from one of his gorgeous framed large canvases that tell Cuban stories or how about that painting distilled down to a suitcase-friendly coaster for your mojito. Everything is bright, bold and indicative of the life of an artist who has a long tale to tell. I’ll leave it to him and Ester to regale you over a cocktail at their in-store bar area while you discuss which painting will look good over your fireplace.
By this hour you might be feeling a little peckish, so head for an early dinner just steps away...
Turn eastwards just a few doors down from the gallery and you’ll be first greeted by a massive mural of Ernest Hemingway adorning one of the restaurant’s gorgeous walls. Why the choice of one the greatest writers in literary history? Well, the word Salao comes from one the master’s most famous books, The Old Man and the Sea and Papa Hemingway was a frequenter visitor to Cuba. There is no better person to watch over you as you chow down on a plate of freshly prepared seafood, the feature of this sleek restaurant. As one of the newer restaurants to pop up in a sea of old-timers, Salao is a refreshing addition to the neighborhood.
You’ll be seated in an open-air space so you can view the bustling street life out front while jealous passerbys desire a bite of your pescado. Throw a dart at the menu’s seafood selections because anything you choose will be a winner. For land lubbers, there is plenty of red meat, pork and chicken dishes to choose from as well. The purple-tinged place is all at once relaxing yet pulsates with a steady underlying energy that’s the heart of the Cuban soul.
After supper, it’s movie time. But first a little dessert at Azucar Ice Cream.
Continue to walk eastwards and cross over to the north side of the street. Follow the sweet smell of sugar and the crowds to the crowning glory of Little Havana. Cubans have always been proud of their cuisine, but in this neighborhood the ending to any meal has got to be Azucar Ice Cream.
Created, owned and operated by Cuban Suzy Battle, homemade ice cream is lovingly churned with Cuban fruits and flavors. Choose from any of the chilled concoctions that have no peer-mamey, cafe con leche, dulce de leche, avocado and so much more. But please, forgo the plain vanilla ( which I think is there just out of courtesy) because on this day you are going full-on Cuban.
Take your last licks of your frozen treat and then head back again across the street for a flick at the famed Tower Theatre.
Born in the 1920’s and becoming a haven for Cuban refugees to learn English through film, Tower Theatre is a must do no matter what movie may be playing.
Definitely not part of a multiplex, this old fashioned theatre has it all. Excellent motion pictures with many foreign gems, this will be a rare opportunity for you to immerse yourself in yesteryear that you’ll easily forget about those often disappointing Hollywood blockbusters.
As one of Little Havana’s Art Deco jewels, the theatre is very popular during the month-long Miami Film Festival that takes place every March. In keeping with its understated glamour, during festival time, a bright red carpet is rooted from the sidewalk to the theatre doors to add that extra special sparkle Miami is known for.
Sit back and enjoy the show in one of the last remaining true movie art houses and work up a thirst for the pièce de resistance of your day.
When you emerge from the theatre, bright sunshine has gone to bright lights. You’ll be so glad you stuck around the neighborhood the entire day as you’ll get to experience two Little Havanas. The feeling at night is alluring and exotic side as a contrast to the day’s lightness and frivolity.
You’ll once again cross the street to enter the welcoming open doors of one of Miami’s most famous drinking and dancing institutions.
Ball and Chain has an illustrious history filled with intrigue and characters with shady pasts, but for your purposes, you just order one of the best mojitos of your life and settle deeply into one of their cushy chairs on the pretty patio and let the Cuban music wash over you like our roaring Atlantic Ocean.
Spend your late night into the wee hours of the morning sipping on carefully crafted cocktails and perfecting your salsa moves. If you have two left feet, then settle for watching any one of sequined outfitted stunning dancers show their fancy moves. And if you plan your visit just right, maybe a famous band might be playing on the outdoor pineapple-shaped stage pavilion.
Lean over to the people next to you and all at once celebrate a well earned exploration of this precious southwest corner of Miami.
But wait.......there is something missing from this plan.
A memorable and magnificent visit to Little Havana won’t really happen on the level that you expect unless you know the stories behind all the attractions listed here. With the exception of a few, most of these destinations are on the Little Havana Food & Cultural Tour by Miami Culinary Tours' well designed itineraries. Let our master storytellers really give you a once in a lifetime tour that captures the entire Cuban world. For without the all important rich anecdotes, what’s presented in this article won’t live up to the experience you deserve. Even that meticulous vacation planner friend who serves as the director of fun for your group will be impressed by our award-winning status as the leader in making magic for all our guests.
By Robyn Webb