Little Havana is cultural whirlwind that can leave you giddy and wishing you had Cuban blood running through your veins. Phil and I love the Hispanic culture so much, that we danced salsa as part of our first dance at our wedding and got a standing ovation! Now before you expect us to just break out into twirls and passion at the next house party, we practiced that danced for 3 months and now 11 years later we just “look” like we have the moves. All the pro moves are in our heads and not our bodies but it’s on the bucket list to learn to dance with all that abandon and passion once and for all and move like jello.
The area used to be predominantly Jewish, however, with the mass exodus of Cubans to Miami escaping the harsh polical regime of Castro the region gradually became known as Little Havana.
Generations of Cubans (and a handful of Puerto Ricans) have made their home and work here. A friendly and welcoming group they are proud of their heritage, serenading you with hypnotic rhythms and then whisking you away into a hip swaying, sweaty rendition of salsa or bachata. It’s ok to feel clumsy, let the firmly planted fingers of the elderly señor guide you, while you laugh at yourself for stepping on his toes.
I’ve visited this corner of Miami with the hubby quite a few times, and each time we discover something new and make more friends. Like Yessie, the bubbly host offering tastings of Hurricane wine from Snelby winery in a cigar factory or Pete at Churromania who is always willing to have people take photos with his yellow-green vintage Cuban car in front of the store.
Calle Ocho, Little Havana
The heartbeat of Little Havana lies on 3 square miles of 8th Street, more popularly known as Calle Ocho. Colorful art galleries, boutiques featuring the work of local artisans, no fuss mom and pop restaurants, cigar clubs and live music pulse along this main stretch. There’s a lot to discover but I’m going give you a few options to get a taste of Little Havana in 4 hours. However, if you can go ahead and make a day trip out of it. 🙂
It’s mostly food (don’t judge me) but you never know what unexpected beautiful experience you’ll have along the way, bouncing from stop to the next. Just make sure to bring your dancing shoes!
One of the most fascinating experiences to have on Calle Ocho is at Domino Park. Retired old men and a few women converge over snake like formations of green and white bricks on small white resin tables. A group of four men at the front catch my attention. It was like watching a poker game; jaws set, eyes intent and furtive, except every now and then the silence was punctuated with a litany of Spanish words tumbling over each when players had to pass a play. The player who initiated the passes has a glimmer in his eye as he slams a lone brick onto the table frightening the other bricks.
A slew of Spanish words again as the remaining players protest their defeat. The scene reminds me of my own family over a game of Ludi or any board game for that matter! Sore losers.
A performing arts space where you can dine on and sit around eclectic art. Ornate framed art pieces double as tables where patrons can lean in on varied artists and live bands. We happened to catch Charlie Chaplin rehearsing for his set.
An iconic landmark for meeting older Cubans catching up on the day over a strong cup of cafecito or entranced in a game of dominoes. Join a game, if you dare.
Havana Classic Cigar
Step inside this makeshift factory, art gallery and bar and you may be able to catch Dinora, a petite middle aged woman, make 100 hundred Cuban cigars in an hour. You can also experience a tasting of wines from a local winery with Yessie.
Where to eat
Ball & Chain
We all have that one friend who is always the life of the party. Ball and Chain happens to be that friend on Calle Ocho. It is a restaurant, bar and lounge featuring live bands serenading the hips of tourists and locals to salsa, jazz and bachata rhythms daily. They’re also renowned for their mojitos and the pineapple club in the back.
Café la Trova
Retro vibes and a contemporary twist on traditional Cuban cuisine collide to create a unique dining experience on the east end of Calle Ocho. Dinner is often accompanied by la trova style music. Don’t be too distracted by the façade of an old blue Cuban pickup or the mural-like wall showcasing slices of life from Cuba on vintage paper. And whatever you do, do not leave without trying the jamon serrano croquettes! This crispy fried, melty ham and cheese delicacy is unlike any croquette I’ve had. And it won’t leave your hands greasy, you’ll be too busy licking your fingers clean of the fig jam they sit in. My favorites meals there are the banana leaf catch, crispy whole boneless snapper and the arroz con pollo (rich flavors).
If you’re able to stay up past 9 p.m. (unlike me) join 80’s trova inspired dance party that starts at midnight in the disco room adjacent to the main dining area.
El Pub restaurant
There’s nothing aesthetically special about this restaurant in the modern sense except it feels like walking into a local’s haunt. And that was the reason why I stayed for a while. It was like wandering off the beaten path even though we were in the heart of the “tourist zone.” The walls are plastered with recipes and aged photos of celebrities who dined at the restaurant. A ventanita (walk up window) sits at the entrance serving Cuban coffee, pastries and croquettes.
Definitely try the cafecito (coffee), emapanada de pollo and tostones here. And if you’re feeling adventurous, use the tostones to make a sandwich out of the empanadas.
An old favorite in Little Havana
Los Pinarenos fruteria
Fresh fruit, vegetables and a hodge podge of historical paraphernalia and vintage relics spill out onto the side walk of this open air market. A bunch of bananas hangs from the stores entrance while hand painted spanish signs tell visitors what fruits and veggies rest in hand torn cardboard boxes; guava, papaya, bananas and coconuts to name a few. There’s a walk up juice bar where you can practice your Spanish while ordering natural fruit juices like guarapo (sugarcane juice). The sweet little old lady behind the counter does not speak a word of English but will nod politely at your attempts.
There is no shortage of sweet pastries and ice cream on Calle Ocho, and while I don’t have a sweet tooth I’m married to someone who has five sweet teeth. Here a few of the sweets you should try:
A local favorite with everything from cakes to croquettes. The highlight here is the pastelito de guayaba (guava pastry)
3 Dough 5
A sweet (no pun intended) donut shop in a 50’s inspired eatery.
Try the Dulce de leche donut and take a selfie with the 305 life sized flamingo.
Azucar ice cream company
A popular spot on the strip featuring over 30 flavors of ice cream and sorbet. Try the passion fruit and the guava & cream cheese ice cream and then sink your tushie onto the plastic wrapped guayabera’s (Cuban men’s shirt) masquerading as lounge seating.
Parking & Transportation:
Free trolleys are available with the City of Miami with routes to Little Havana. Check the map to find out more. However, you can self-park at the corner of SW 16th Avenue & SW 8th Street (behind Yisell’s bakery) with the ParkByApp for $4 (2 hours) or $8 (10 hours).
So what do you think? Do you want to spend four hours in Little Havana?
Weekend tip: If you’re in town for the weekend and up for a Mediterranean experience, head on over Mandolin Aegean Bistro 10 minutes away and then stroll around the Design District.