By: Shayne Benowitz
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.
The best way to familiarize yourself with Little Havana is through a guided walking tour. Corrina Moebius of People Place Connect and LittleHavanaGuide.com leads a variety of tours, including the three hour Cuban/Latino Traditions & Arts of Calle Ocho Tour. A true ambassador of the neighborhood, her community involvement and local expertise will make you feel at home amongst the residents and business owners, and eager to explore more for yourself at the conclusion of her tour. You’ll sample Cuban food, learn about a variety of musical traditions, explore art galleries and studios, and gain insight into the art of cigar rolling.
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.
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.
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