EXPERIENCE CUBAN CULTURE IN MIAMI

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Just west of Downtown Miami sits Little Havana; a vibrant riverside neighbourhood known the world over for its colourful streets, family-run businesses, authentic restaurants and thriving arts scene. And though you’ll find traces of Cuban culture wherever you are in Miami, Little Havana is the beating heart of it all.

Heading into the neighbourhood via SW 8th Street – known as Calle Ocho to the locals – you’ll find Cuban motifs on tiled or painted murals. Some streets are cobbled; the place is neighbourly and quaint. It’s quite the contrast to the modern high-rises of Downtown or the grand hotels of South Beach. If you’re staying with us in Miami, Little Havana is just an hour away by bus; travel by taxi and it’ll take you 20 minutes tops.
 

A History of Little Havana

Cuba’s influence in the city dates back to the 1950s (and the Cuban Revolution), when Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista. Wealthy and middle-class Cubans, keen to escape a communist regime, fled to Miami in their droves. Interestingly, many of them hadn’t intended on staying for long; they were waiting for a U.S. led coup to overthrow Castro. But the Bay of Pigs was unsuccessful, so the Cuban exiles permanently settled into their new home. The name ‘Little Havana’ emerged during the 1960s, and although many Cuban families began to disperse across the city, the neighbourhood remained a landing point for new immigrants and a hotbed for Cuban-owned businesses.

As the Cuban community grew, the city became bilingual. This encouraged people from other Spanish-speaking countries to settle in Miami too. Today, 98% of residents in Little Havana are Hispanic, with the majority hailing from Cuba and other Central or South American countries.
And Miami’s status as ‘The Capital of Latin America’ has made it one of the United States’ most popular tourist destinations; migration has shaped the city’s economic growth. Its cruise industry is booming; the Port of Miami is one of the busiest in the world, welcoming millions of visitors each year.

It’s not difficult to see why tourists flock here; Cuban culture – and history – permeates every corner of the Magic City. It’s in the food people eat; it’s in the music they listen to – it’s even in their coffee. And what’s not to love about the richness and diversity of that?




 

Cuban Food in Miami

You don’t have to go far for a taste of authentic Cuban cuisine, especially in Little Havana. Here are some of our favourite neighbourhood haunts.

La Carreta
Everything about La Carreta is authentically Cuban, even the name (la carreta – or ‘the oxcart’ in English – were used to carry loads on Cuban sugar plantations). Established in Little Havana way back in 1976, this family-owned restaurant is loved by locals and tourists alike. Serving up Cuban classics like ropa vieja (a slow-cooked, shredded beef dish) and boliche (a Cuban-style pot roast), as well as vegetarian and vegan-friendly options, La Carreta has a traditional, homely vibe.

Versailles
After opening its doors in 1971, Versailles quickly became a regular meeting place for Miami’s Cuban exiles; for newcomers to the country, it would’ve been a gateway into the community too. Conveniently located on Calle Ocho, Versailles still feels like a hub. And if you like your cafe con leche with a side order of political significance, you’ll get it here. Historically, the restaurant has seated U.S. presidents, governors, legislators and commissioners looking to gain support from the exile community. But hey, even if you’re just looking for authentic Cuban fare and a menu that can feasibly cater to anyone, Versailles is still the place to go.

La Rosa Restaurant
For fine Cuban cuisine, head to La Rosa. If you’re the type who likes getting dressed up for dinner, you’ll love it here. Located on the western side of Little Havana, this upscale restaurant serves classic dishes done well. Their seafood selection alone is well worth the visit; go all-out with the parrillada de mariscos (La Rosa’s take on a mixed seafood grill) – a certified feast of lobster, mussels, shrimp, clams and fish.

Sanguich de Miami
You can’t go to Little Havana without trying a proper Cuban sandwich. And the el Cubano – Sanguich’s take on the national favouriteis the place to get one. This gourmet sandwich shop and café prepares everything in house, right down to the pickled cucumbers. In fact, it’s the quality of their food that’s put them on the map (though it helps that the place looks nice when you step inside too – it’s definitely Instagrammable). They’re open until 9pm Monday-Thursday and 10pm Friday-Saturday (closing at 8pm on Sundays), which is ideal if you’re in need of a late-night snack.

La Camaronera
If you’re not much of a meat-eater but love fruits de la mer, make a point of going to La Camaronera. This famous little fish joint was founded by a family of Cuban fisherman in 1966. The Garcia brothers (there were 11 of them in total) left Castro’s Cuba in 1964 to set up shop in Miami. Initially a fish market, La Camaronera’s restaurant opened in 1976 (coinciding with the purchase of a few deep fat fryers). Diners would come in to eat the brothers’ daily catch, which had been fried to perfection. The restaurant still only serves fish and seafood (fries and side salads are optional extras); highlights include the snapper sandwich and their famous fried shrimp.

 

Cuban Arts & Culture in Miami

Art and culture brings vibrancy to Little Havana. And though you’ll feel it just by walking through the neighbourhood, there are plenty of events and activities on offer that bring its Cuban flair to the fore. 

Viernes Culturales
If you’ve timed your trip well, you’ll get the chance to really immerse yourself in Miami’s Cuban culture by heading to Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays). On the last Friday of every month (from 7-11pm), Calle Ocho invites visitors to experience the artistic and cultural delights of the neighbourhood. As one of Miami’s longest-running (and free) monthly events, it can be busy. Roughly 4000 people descend upon the neighbourhood, and for good reason; it’s one of the best ways to get a real sense of life in Little Havana. Events and activities range from the performative to the visual; expect music, dancing, poetry, theatre and art exhibits, as well as historic tours of the neighbourhood.

Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Centre
Cubaocho is a local venue offering visitors and locals a chance to immerse themselves in Cuban culture. It’s a museum, art gallery, live music venue and bar all rolled into one; more than anything though, it’s an experience. Housing one of the largest privately-owned Cuban art collections in the world, Cubaocho is a passion project for owner (and art-lover) Roberto Ramos. Sailing from Cuba to Miami in 1992, he had little with him bar a few historical Cuban artworks. Ramos has spent over 30 years tracing his country’s artistic heritage; Cubaocho is a celebration of this, stemming from his belief that art should be freely available for all to enjoy – ideally with a mojito in hand.

Máximo Gómez Park
This modest patch of grass – which also goes by the name ‘Domino Park’ – is a landmark in Little Havana. Whatever the time of day, you’ll find local residents sipping coffee, catching up with friends and – you guessed it – playing dominoes. It may not be the high-impact activity you were hoping to hear about, but the reality is that Cubans take dominoes very seriously. Even if you’re not in the mood to watch a game, it’s worth taking a detour through the park; its paths are paved with huge domino tiles for one thing.

Calle Ocho Walk of Fame
Just outside Domino Park you’ll find the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame, which pays tribute to some of the biggest stars to come out of Cuba and Latin America (including “Cuban Oprah” Cristina Saralegui). Singer Gloria Estefan and boxer Roberto Duran also feature, as well as Celia Cruz – one of the most popular Latin artists of the 20th century. The first stone went down in 1987 (in honour of Ms. Cruz); it was an important milestone for the neighbourhood – and for Cuban and Latin American culture in general.

Afterwards, head over to Ball & Chain; an iconic bar and music venue that’s occupied the same building since the 1950s. Just one minutes’ walk from the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame, it’s a great place to people-watch over tapas and cocktails. Come nightfall, it turns into a fully-fledged club, hosting everything from salsa and live jazz events to karaoke and disco nights. If you’re after some good old fashioned fun, you’ll find it here.

So there you have it. To switch up your setting, head over to Little Havana for the day; you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Cuba (it’s like having two holidays in one!).