A Day in Miami's Little Havana
By Laura Barton
Far from the gaudy clamor of South Beach and the pastel-hued elegance of the art deco district, Little Havana is home to Miami's thriving Latino community. Cubans began migrating to Florida in the 1950s but their numbers swelled after Castro came to power in 1959, and in the 1960s the area was named Little Havana. Miami now has a majority Latino community, with Spanish the predominant language in some parts of the city. Today, the stretch along SW 8th Street, or Calle Ocho, attracts tourists, but to savor this rich and vibrant part of the city, it's better to slow your pace, stick around a while, and watch the neighborhood unfold.
1. There are few sweeter places to begin your day in Miami than Versailles Cuban Bakery (3501 SW 8th), which serves up hearty scrambled eggs and croquettes (as well as more Americanized pancake stacks with syrup). The real action happens around La Ventanita: the little takeaway window and bakery shop. Here, regulars linger around the counter enjoying café cubano and cortadito con leche evaporada (espresso served with condensed milk), morning empanadas, guava pastries and sugar cane juice with a little lime. If your Spanish is up to scratch, you'll be able to eavesdrop on first-generation exiles' fiery discussions of Cuban politics, local goings-on and the contents of the latest edition of the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper, Granma. It's a bit of a hike from the heart of the district, but worth it.
2. The Cuban Quarter begins in earnest a few blocks east, on Calle Ocho between 17th and 13th, with huge brightly painted roosters, a smattering of art galleries and the Walk of Fame, honouring famous Cubans such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan. The surrounding area features murals, monuments and a statue of the Madonna (said to be illuminated by a shaft of holy light each afternoon), many of which stand around the Cuban Memorial Plaza – a short stroll from the main drag, and a focal point for this community in exile. You'll find an eternal torch dedicated to those killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Plaza de la Cubanidad, which commemorates those who drowned fleeing Cuba in 1994 aboard the 13 de Marzo tugboat. There is also a magnificent ceiba tree on Memorial Boulevard, at the roots of which are offerings left by followers of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, for whom the ceiba is sacred.
3. There are now organised tours of the quarter's famous culinary highlights, from fruit stalls to ice-cream vendors, but it's wise to determine the mom-and-pop restaurants from the tourist spots. A decent choice is El Pub, at no 1548. It is an unassuming diner from the street, though inside it's welcoming, pleasingly old-fashioned, and with excellent bacalao (codfish), Cuban chorizo hamburger, chilindrón de cordero (lamb stew) and plantain chips. Sit at the counter to shoot the breeze with the locals, or nab one of the booths if you prefer a view of the restaurant, with its lazy ceiling fans and glass cabinets stacked with sandwiches.
4. After lunch, you can while away a contented hour watching the domino games at Máximo Gómez park. Here, older men and women sit neatly dressed, pressed and perfumed in the shade, playing ferociously competitive rounds of dominos. Chat to one of your fellow spectators (many of whom are eager to tell you just how, exactly, they ended up in Florida), or simply sit and listen to the rattle and shout of their play.
5. There are plenty of cigar shops along Calle Ocho but chief among them is the one at no 1528: Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company, its reputation well-set by five generations of the Bello Family; Don Pedro Bello may well be sitting in the doorway when you visit, smoking a cigar, of course, like a laid-back, leathery-skinned advertisement.
6. Take a cooling pitstop at the Azucar Ice Cream Company at no 1503 (and if you do, try the mantecado, a Cuban favourite of vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon). If you're still hungry, Los Pinarenos Fruteria at 1334 (famed for its healthy and not-so-healthy delicacies), you'll be ready for dinner at El Cristo. This local favourite, at no 1543, specialises in seafood, serving mixed platters and deep-fried snapper. Sit outside if you want to take in Calle Ocho at night.
7. Music is everywhere in Little Havana: spilling out of car windows and cafe radios; a mingling of son cubano, salsa, merengue and more. Lily's Records, at no 1419, offers the best in Latin music and has passionate, knowledgeable staff.
8. It would be foolish to leave this part of town without taking in a live show (and perhaps a little dancing). While plenty of venues have live bands, the last Friday of the month is Viernes Culturales or Cultural Friday, an open-air festival of art, food and live music. You'll find the hub of events at no 1637.
9. Local's tip: "Visit the studio of one of the most celebrated Cuban artists in the world: the Agustín Gaínza arts gallery (agustingainza.com) is at 1652 SW 8th Street. Agustín is always at his studio and you get a chance to look around, chat to him and even see him in action painting."
10. Where to stay Apart from the sketchy-looking run of love motels with their hourly rates and heart-shaped Jacuzzis, Calle Ocho is still a little skimpy on places to stay. Your best bet at the moment is Airbnb; among its Little Havana properties is a brightly coloured house sleeping six (pictured above), from £61 a night, just a block away from the action. Inside it's clean and bright; outside, it has a hammock and garden. For something more salubrious, the Viceroy, doubles from $285) is a short bus ride away at the other end of 8th Street.