By: Shayne Benowitz & Jennifer Agress
Experience Little Havana’s vibrant art and culture scene.
Little Havana is a true reflection of Hispanic culture. Go there for authentic Cuban fare, a strong cafecito, a good Cuban cigar, Latin festivals or an intense game of dominoes, and leave feeling more relaxed and informed than ever before. From salsa-dancing and art exhibits, to a historic movie theater, concerts and more, Little Havana boasts a thriving arts and culture scene with a distinctly Cuban flair.
For anyone planning a vacation to Miami, it’s likely that “drink Cuban coffee” or “try Cuban food” is on your To Do list. More than any other city in the United States, Miami and Cuba have close cultural connections. Over the second half of the 20th century, many Cubans immigrated to Miami and their heritage is alive and thriving today. It’s easy enough to sample Cuban cuisine and enjoy a morning café con leche in any neighborhood in Miami, but to get a true taste of Cuban culture, a trip to charming Little Havana is a must.
As you approach the heart of the neighborhood at SW 8th Street—known as Calle Ocho by the locals—you may feel you’ve been transported to another time and place that’s wholly separate from the lavish South Beach hotels or modern downtown high rises. There’s something quaint and neighborly about the area. Some of the streets are cobblestone and you might spot a chicken roaming free in a neighborhood park. The street is lined with bakeries, coffee stands, restaurants, and fruit markets, all locally owned. You get the sense that it’s a tight knit community, where old men shuffle down the street and wave cordially to their neighbors with the greeting, Que tal? Como esta?
The streets are colorful with both painted and mosaic tile murals. They depict symbols of Cuba, like tropical fruit, musical instruments, dominos, and cigars, while others illustrate Cuban legends, from poet and revolutionary Jose Marti to the singer Celia Cruz who once performed in the neighborhood. And speaking of music, it permeates the streets at all hours of the day - whether it’s blaring from speakers at Lily’s music shop, an impromptu performance by local band Timba Live, or the beat of rumba heard through open doors at Top Cigars. The sound of dominoes clacking from Domino Park is always music to the ears.
Viernes Culturales & Art Walk
The Futurama Building at 1637 SW 8th Street is the epicenter for art in the neighborhood. The creative workspace features 12 studio/galleries occupied by local artists, and they’re open to the public. With 20 galleries in the neighborhood, many are found on the surrounding block by the Futurama Building, including Mildrey Guillot, Obrapia Fine Arts, Kontempo Art, and Molina Fine Art Gallery. Another cluster of galleries can be found off Calle Ocho at SW 6th Street and SW 12th Avenue.
While the neighborhood is a fantastic place to visit by day, there are two big nights that draw a crowd every month. Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) is the last Friday of the month when the neighborhood welcomes roughly 4,000 visitors to celebrate the arts and cultural offerings of local restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries along Calle Ocho from 13th to 17th Avenue. There’s a stage set up on the street for dance and music performances, and the galleries keep their doors open until 11 pm for visitors to peruse their collections. Viernes Culturales, or any weekend evening, would be an ideal time to swing into Cuba Ocho. The eclectic art and research center features antique furniture (including pieces once owned by Frank Sinatra), local art, a rum bar, and live jazz music, as well as a spacious outdoor patio.
The other cultural night is the Little Havana Art Walk on the second Friday of every month. This is a more staid version of Viernes Culturales where the galleries stay open into the evening hours, and it’s possible to meet the artists and see brand new works. Finally, the annual Carnaval Calle Ocho Festival in March is a cultural highlight of the year for the neighborhood.
Cubaocho Museum and Performing Arts Center & Tower Theater
The Cubaocho Art and Research Center is a local venue where Cuban artists, famous local musicians and intellectuals gather to play music, admire art, engage in interesting discussions about history and philosophy, or simply enjoy their Cuban culture, whether it’s a hand-rolled cigar or a chilled rum drink. The brainchild of Roberto Ramos, this museum and performance venue houses one of the largest privately owned Cuban art collections in the world, including the 1937 work “La Rumba” by Antonio Sánchez Araujo, an oil painting that spans 113 inches in length. Ramos first came to the United States with his brother in 1992, sailing all from Cuba by way of a tiny wooden boat. Of the few things he brought with him, one was a painting by Cuban painter Carlos Sobrino, the 1953 “El Saxofonista,” which can now be found in his Miami home. His obvious love for art, and for Cuba, became the foundation of his gallery: a place where he could showcase pieces of art, which he’s collected around the world, that depict life in Cuba between 1800 and 1958.
Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue, Tower Theater is one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks. Art Deco in style, it first opened as a movie theater in 1926. Decades later, it became a popular spot for Cuban immigrants to watch American blockbusters in English, with Spanish subtitles, to help them understand both life in the United States and the English language. Today, the building is owned and operated by Miami-Dade College, and serves as a place for people to gather for cultural exhibitions and performances, MDC-sponsored educational lectures, and films in both Spanish and English.
Cuban Food & Nightlife
Perhaps the best way to get to know a culture is through its cuisine, and this is certainly true of Cuba. Start a morning in Little Havana at Yisell Bakery with a Cuban coffee, either a colada, cortadito, or café con leche, and a pastelito (Cuban pastry). The guayaba y queso (guava and cream cheese) is a classic choice. Nearby is Los Pinareños fruit market, named for the region of Cuba that the owners are from. Peruse the fresh tropical fruit and ask for a batido de mamey, a sweet milkshake made from the mamey fruit. There are a number of restaurants to choose from in the neighborhood, and El Cristo is a great choice for lunch or dinner. Try a Cuban sandwich and croquetas from the lunch counter or a meal of ropa vieja (a juicy shredded steak dish) with black beans, rice, and platanos maduros (sweet plantains) inside the dining room. At the end of your day or evening in Little Havana, you’ll be enchanted by the friendly people and lively culture, and you’ll leave with your belly full.
After a good mojito and an even better cigar, it’s time to dance the night away. When in Little Havana, there is nowhere better to go than Ball & Chain and Hoy Como Ayer. In its same location since the 1930s, Ball & Chain is a Cuban-style restaurant, lounge and music venue known for its delicious food, beautiful people-watching, great music and strong cocktails. Hoy Como Ayer, which translates to “Today Like Yesterday,” is known for its salsa dancing and Latin funk music. You might recognize this Little Havana icon from the movie “Chef,” as the place where Sofia Vergara takes John Favreau to salsa dance. Its wood-paneled walls are covered with photos of Latin music’s biggest names, some of whom still perform there today, while its glittery décor and disco ball give the haunt a kitschy, but adorable vibe.
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