Miami's Little Havana is a microcosm of lively Cuban culture. Colorful, tasty, aromatic, friendly, interesting and soulful are some of the descriptions of this fun solo destination. When traveling I always seek out what is unique about a place and why. I first discovered Little Havana ten years ago while visiting Miami with my husband. Because of his love of premium cigars, we decided to spend some time exploring this area to shop for hand-rolled cigars and to sample a real Cuban sandwich. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we ended up spending the entire day there. Now, each time I am in Miami I return to dig deeper into what makes Little Havana so magnetic.
Conveniently located west of downtown, most of the noteworthy places are on or around the famous Calle Ocho, Eighth Street, between SW 12th Ave and SW 17th Ave. The dramatic contrast between the many nearby downtown luxury high-rise towers and the quaint village feel of Little Havana makes you think you have left the trendy mega-city. Typical sights and sounds of this Cuban enclave includes roosters crowing, chickens roaming freely in some places, people playing dominos in the park, and rumba music coming out of the shops day or night. The many locally-owned, mom and pop restaurants, markets, and specialty shops make for an enjoyable day for the solo traveler's visit here. On my recent Miami to Maine Driving Adventure, I returned to this area to shop, eat and once again take in the earthy, vibrant Cuban culture.
My first stop is always the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Company (CTCC) located at 1528 SW 8th St. I'll never forget when my husband and I wandered into this cigar shop. Initially what drew us in was the handsome elderly gentleman sitting in front of the store wearing a Panama hat and smoking a wonderful smelling cigar. We both sensed this cigar shop and factory was special. The gracious gentleman out front, Señor Pedro Bello Sr., turned out to be the shop's owner who welcomed us in and began to give us a tour. We learned CTCC was established in 1896 in Havana and his family had fled to Miami during the Castro revolution bringing with them the valuable Cuban tobacco seed which is now planted and grown in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Carrying on the proud Cuban cigar family tradition in America was his desire.
The CTCC is tastefully arranged with myriads of cigars, cigar paraphernalia, family mementos and interesting oil paintings. As you wander through the store watching the cigar rollers hand roll cigars and chatting with either Señor Bello Sr. or his personable son, Peter, you are offered a cup of cuban coffee, the perfect compliment to a great cigar. Cuban music is playing and it makes you want to linger in this happy, authentic establishment. You will learn what makes a good cigar: the quality of the tobacco and the wrapper, the fillers used and the skill of the roller. The CTCC only employs trained cigar rollers from Cuba who have immigrated to the US. Peter shared with me the family always tries to help and support Cuban refugees build a new life in America.
A unique touch to the CTCC store is the many oil paintings of famous people who have ties to Cuban American history or the cigar industry. The artist Milton Bernal, known as the tobacco painter, is from Cuba. The paintings have a distinct look and style with their paint color selection and their realism. Something totally original to these portraits is that they are painted on Cuban seed tobacco leaves. Peter is an enthusiastic collector and supporter of this artist's work, which can be purchased.
If you or someone you know indulges in cigar smoking, you can't go wrong with the cigars from the Cuban Tobacco Cigar Company. Premium hand-rolled cigars at reasonable prices are what they are known for. Señor Pedro Bello Sr. received the cigar industry's prestigious Crystal Leaf Award and is a legend on Calle Ocho.
For lunch I like to go to El Pub which is located close to CTCC at 1548 SW 8th Street. It's not fancy but the food is delicious Cuban comfort food. Being pressed for time on my last visit I tried the walk up window. Said to make the "best Cuban sandwich in Miami," I decided I would have this baguette made with ham, roast pork, swiss cheese, mustard and pickles plus a mango drink for my mid-day meal. It did not disappoint. On top of the tasty food the prices are extremely reasonable adding to its popularity.
Being a coffee connoisseur and a lover of Cuban coffee, I started my search for a Cuban gift shop to get my fix. The last time I visited Little Havana I bought a special coffee pot for brewing this extra strong cup of java. Cafe Cubano is a cuban espresso coffee brewed from a darker Italian or Spanish roast which is sweetened with Demerara sugar commonly known as Turbinado, a light brown partially refined sugar that has a caramel flavor. Drinking a Cafe Cubano is a traditional social, cultural activity in the mid-afternoon for Cubans. I tried it for the first time in Little Havana, it was delicious and quite filling.
Sentir Cubano, an emporium for all things Cuban is where I picked up my coffee refill. This is a wonderful shop for those who are looking for Cuban memorabilia, clothes, gifts, Latin music and much more. It has the best selection of Cuban goods in Little Havana. The comfortable "guayaberas," free flowing shirts with distinctive pleats well-suited for tropical climates which are worn by men and women, can be found here. Likewise, Sentir has a good selection of Cuban fiction and nonfiction books. If you are looking for a souvenir from Little Havana this is the place to get it.
The store is located at 3100 SW 8th Street and has a wonderful website where you can purchase over 4000 items of Cuban merchandise. Sentir Cubano sells clothes, food, books, music, antiques, jewelry, vintage posters, photos, cookbooks, and the highly popular Cuban dominos sets with domino stands and tables as well. The store's name, Sentir Cubano, means "to feel Cuban." Below is a video about this store and you will see why it is so popular.
Cuban artistic venues are plentiful in Little Havana. The epicenter for this activity is the Futurama Building located at 1637 SW 8th St which houses creative workspaces and galleries for the local artists. Also surrounding the Futurama Building are many additional interesting art galleries, including Mildrey Guillot, Obrapia Fine Arts, Kontempo Art and the noted Molina Fine Art Gallery, which are all in walking distance. Likewise, Cuba Ocho is an eclectic art and research center which showcases antique furniture, local art, a rum bar, live jazz and an outdoor patio.
Viernes Culturales, known as Cultural Fridays, are held on the last Friday of each month where all of the galleries, restaurants, bars and shops on Calle Ocho stay open until 11:00 pm. A stage is set up on the street where live music is played and people dance in the street. This is a popular monthly event where locals and visitors come to enjoy the Cuban culture. I have never been to Viernes Culturales but I hope to experience these lively Fridays in the future.
My final stop on my last trip to Little Havana was the Versailles Restaurant located at 3555 SW 8th St., a place I have wanted to dine in for a some time. Long known as the "most famous Cuban restaurant in America," having dinner at the Versailles was a wonderful finale to an enjoyable day. Opened in 1971, this restaurant has fed locals and tourists the best Cuban cuisine available. Besides the delectable food, what has made this place such a landmark is that it has played host to US Presidents, governors and legislators. The restaurant's interior is stunning but comfortable with its etched mirrored walls. Besides the main dining area, there is a cafeteria, a bakery and a walk-up counter outside. If you want to see and be seen in Little Havana and enjoy a memorable Cuban meal this is the place.
A short list of other notable places not to be missed when visiting Little Havana are:
Los Pinarenos Fruit Market - The tropical fruit and drinks are high quality. Try the "Batido de Mamey," a sweet milkshake made from the mamey fruit, a favorite amongst the locals.
Visit a local "botanica," a store catering to the Santeria religion, a faith which combines Catholic and Yoruba mythological beliefs that is popular within some of the Caribbean community. Religious articles such as medals, candles and oils as well as readings by a local Santeria priest can be found at these stores.
Visit Maximo Gomez Park, known as Domino Park, located at the corner of Calle Ocho and SW 14th Ave. This is a great place to sit down, enjoy a cup of Cubano con Leche and people watch. Daily Cuban retirees play dominos, smoke cigars and down Cafe Cubano in this park, the heartbeat of Little Havana.
The Bay of Pigs Museum is a great place to visit if you are interested in learning more about Cuban American history.
Azucar Ice Cream Company - Suzy Batlle's ice cream shop is referred to as the "best Cuban ice cream shop" in Miami. Her specialty is "Abuela Maria," a combination of vanilla ice cream, Maria crackers, guava and cream cheese. I never been to her shop but everyone raves about it.
La Casa de las Guayaberas - For the best selection of Cuban guayaberas and clothes for women and men off the rack or custom made this is where you need to go. Ronald Reagan used to shop here when he was in town.
Back in Style Vintage and Designer Clothing and Accessories - Featured in Vogue, Lucky Magazine, Marie Claire, clothes from this hip shop have been worn by famous personalities such as Chloe Sevigny, Daisy Fuentes, Julia Roberts and James Scott making this place a mecca for the vintage style. It routinely furnishes TV, couture fashion houses and celebrities with clothes to wear for film and media appearances. The store sells items from the 1940's to the present, as well as novelty and period pieces.
Sampling different cultures is one of the most enriching experiences gained from traveling. For many it is the highlight of their trip. What people value, their traditions, their cuisines and their expression in the arts have fascinated me my entire life. My Master's thesis even focused on the relevance of culture on political systems. Man's basic needs are all the same, and culture is what makes people different. Visiting Little Havana will delight you and enlighten you to the richness of the Cuban culture. When in Miami spend a fun-filled day on Ocho Calle. Enjoy this last video featuring the "highlights" of Little Havana by way of a food walking tour. It's spot on!