Right in the heart of Miami is an area from a Cuban storybook. Here in Little Havana you can find hand-rolled cigars, fruiterias, meat markets, herbal stores and windows with cafecitos for only 25 cents. Although Miami is new, as far as cities are concerned, you can walk from downtown with all of its art deco high rises right into old-time Cuba. On 8th Street, Calle Ocho as it’s commonly called, between 12th and 27th Avenues, lies a time warp into another reality. Little Havana is more than just a neighborhood, it’s a cultural museum.
History of Little Havana
Before the 1960’s there was little Cuban influence in Miami, but after the infamous Cuban communist, Fidel Castro came to power, many Cubans fled to Miami seeking a better life. The early waves of Cuban refugees that came to Miami where upper class Cubans trying to save their fortunes from being stolen by the government. Originally, many thought their move to Miami was temporary but slowly realized Castro wasn’t going anywhere. By 1985, almost half the city of Miami’s population was Cuban and more were coming.
In the mid-80’s a large group of working class Cubans arrived and settled in the area of Miami now known as Little Havana. Slowly but surely this once Jewish neighborhood was lit up with the sights and sounds of Cuban, Hispanic, and Latin flavor.
How to Get to Calle Ocho
The three-square miles of Little Havana are located west of central Miami. Calle Ocho or 8thstreet is the area’s main drag and the heart of the neighborhood. From Miami International take exit 4, from the I-95, South LeJeune Avenue. LeJeune is the same as 42ndAvenue. Continue straight down the street and you will hit Calle Ocho. Little Havana technically begins after you pass 37thAvenue.
What to Do on Calle Ocho
Most visitors to Little Havana flock to its center, Calle Ocho. This is where all the action is — from authentic Cuban coffee shops, to open-air fruit stands selling fresh squeezed guarapo, sugarcane juice, to the scent of a newly rolled Cuban cigar — when you head to Little Havana, you salsa down Calle Ocho. But, this tight-knit neighborhood is more than just one main drag.
Maximo Gomez Park, or Dominos Park as the locals call it, is the gathering place for the older generation of Cubans to meet, drink some cortado, and play dominoes. This 35-year tradition attracts some pretty large crowds, too. These players may be old, but don’t be fooled, they are fierce.
Around the corner from Dominos Park, don't miss the Little Havana Paseo de las Estrellas (Walk of the Stars). It is reminiscent of the one in Hollywood, but stars are given to Latin American actors, writers, artists, and musicians.
At the corner of 13th Avenue lies a memorial park with monuments to many Cuban heroes. It’s a peaceful place, and a nice area to take a break. You can see memorials to Jose Marti (poet and revolutionary), Antonio Maceo (war hero), the Island of Cuba Memorial, and the Memorial Flame (to the heroes of the Bay of Pigs). There is a large ceiba tree with things around it- don't touch! These are offerings left by patrons affected by the souls there; to touch or remove these offerings is considered very bad luck.
Of course, a visit to Little Havana wouldn’t be complete without experiencing one of the area’s many festivals. Viernes Culturales, or Cultural Friday, is an art, music, and cultural festival held on the last Friday of the month. It is a large Latin street party complete with music, dancing, street performers, food, local artist's wares, and theater. It is good, clean fun for the whole family.
The Calle Ocho Festival is held each March and has come to be known as the biggest street party in the country; more than 1 million people from around the world come to this single-day event! You'll see dancing, eating, partying, costumes, street performers, and the biggest Latin stars performing. Major news crews from all over broadcast the event as Cubans from all over the country return to celebrate their roots.
Whether it's your first time on Calle Ocho or you want to see it with new eyes, whether you are coming for a day in Domino Park or the Calle Ocho Festival, there's always something new here in Little Havana. It's a piece of history you have to see to understand.
Where to Stay in Little Havana
If you’re looking stay in the Little Havana area, there are a variety of locations to choose from. The Historic Miami River Hotel is walkable to both the beach and Little Havana. It’s a small hotel but offers great service and free wi-fi. The EPIC Hotel, is located on the Miami River and will appeal to those looking for a more modern feel — each room includes yoga mats and a waterfall showerhead.
Best Bars in Little Havana
Little Havana is home to some of the most popular live music venues in Miami. So, if you’re looking for happening nightlife and popular bars, you’ll find it within these streets. Ball & Chain is a Little Havana staple. Located in the heart of Calle Ocho, this bar, restaurant, and live music venue is great place to grab a drink with friends or spend the night salsa dancing with a partner. It is authentic Cuban at its best. Another can’t miss hot spot is Bar Nancy, also on Calle Ocho. This nautical themed bar, where, although you won’t find much Cuban influence, you will find some pretty innovative cocktails.
And lastly, Hoy Como Ayer, another Calle Ocho landmark, is where you’ll want to head for the late-night Latin hangout. This intimate bar and music venue is always pumping a steady stream of authentic Hispanic music and showcasing many local Latin Funk artists and salsa dance groups. Visit there any time of day, you’re bound to have a good time.
Best Restaurants on Calle Ocho
No trip to Little Havana would be complete without indulging in some authentic Cuban comfort food. Just walk up and down Calle Ocho and you’ll find tons of tasty Cuban restaurants. Versailles has been feeding Little Havana since the 70’s and serves a full array of Cuban cuisine. From plantain soup to the famous Cuban sandwich, stop here for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. For some classic Cuban burgers, head over to El Rey de las Fritas. This restaurant is home to the original Frita Cuban, or Cuban Burger, and prides itself on their original burger recipes — it hasn’t changed in 40 years.
For a sweet treat, head over to Azucar Ice Cream Company. They’re the ones with the massive 3D ice cream sculptor on the front. They have a menu of over 24 ever-changing flavors and a whole bunch of Cuban classics like flan, passionfruit, and mamey.