Explore the Charms of Little Havana

Calle Ocho in historic Little Havana
Referred to as Florida’s “modern-day Ellis Island” by historian Paul S. George, Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is home to a unique mix of cultures brought to the U.S. by immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and other Spanish-speaking countries. It earned its nickname because so many of its inhabitants were Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s rule in the 1960s, leaving behind the capital city of Havana and other regions within the country.
The influx of Cuban immigrants to the neighborhood west of Downtown Miami hit its peak in the mid-1960s and quickly spread to the neighborhoods of Shenandoah and Riverside. During the Cuban Revolution, many exiles believed that their stay in Florida would be temporary. At the time, it seemed likely that Castro would be deposed. As it turned out, Castro retained control of Cuba in some form or another until 2008, and many refugees never returned home. Today, the neighborhood population of Little Havana is over 90 percent Hispanic or Latino, making it the largest demographic in all of Miami.
Calle Ocho, otherwise known as Southwest Eighth Street, is where you’ll find some of the most authentic Cuban charms. This is where generations of Cuban immigrants have smoked cigars, sipped thimbles of coffee and filled the streets with rousing conversation outside of family restaurants and neighborhood parks. Calle Ocho is home to the famed Versailles and Exquisito restaurants, the Little Havana Cigar Factory and the Tower Theater, among many other landmarks.

Exploring Little Havana Through Its Food

Coffee Shop window in Little Havana
The people, the music and the food sometimes say more about a neighborhood’s charm than any landmark or historic district. Little Havana’s Calle Ocho Festival is a good reminder of that. Recognized as the world’s largest outdoor Hispanic festival, it has been a staple of the neighborhood since 1978. An estimated one million visitors join the day-long event every year. It even claimed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1988 when over 100,000 people formed the world’s largest conga line during the party.
If you can’t make it to Little Havana during the Calle Ocho Festival, you can try the following Cuban foods year-round.
  • Medianoche — Meaning “midnight” in Spanish, the medianoche is one of those signature neighborhood dishes that hasn’t changed much since its creation. The sandwich traditionally consists of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, sweet pickles and mustard. Whether it’s the contemporary creations served up at Miami Smokers or the old-school standbys from Versailles, this Cuban sandwich shouldn’t be skipped.
  • Café Cubano — Cubans take their coffee seriously, so many of the favorite java hotspots in the whole city are within this neighborhood. Traditionally, Café Cubano is half espresso, half sugar, but if you’re so inclined, you can order it as a cortadito with a splash of steamed milk or as colada if you want to share with friends. Head on over to La Colada Gourmet on Calle Ocho for a cup of authentic Cuban coffee.
  • Frita Cubana — Otherwise known as “the Cuban hamburger,” the frita Cubana features a seasoned patty topped with a heaping portion of fried potatoes and onions. Although there are dozens of places to try this Cuban classic along Calle Ocho, you actually have to leave the neighborhood for the most well-known example. Try Fritas Domino La Original, originally in Little Havana but now in West Miami, to try some famous fritas.


Unique Landmarks in Little Havana

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Looking for off-the-beaten-path sites to explore? There’s plenty of them in Little Havana. From havens that celebrate immigrant culture to movie houses of the distant past, the neighborhood is certainly hospitable to the unique and interesting.
  • Domino Park — George calls Domino Park “an abiding passion” for its regulars. Although it’s officially known as Maximo Gomez Park, Domino Park pays tribute to one of the most widely-played Cuban pastimes. Meander through the park, at Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue, and you’ll observe plenty of regulars smoking cigars, sipping coladas and playing a round of dominoes.
  • Coral Way School — Built by the Works Project Administration in 1936, it features Mediterranean Revival architecture and stunning tile work on the building and interior courtyards. It has the distinction of being the first bilingual school in America, offering a curriculum that encourages fluency in English and Spanish for all students.
  • Tower Theater — Whether you’re into historic theaters, Art Deco charm or old-school marquee signage, the Tower Theater — or Teatro Tower, as it’s known to locals — is worth a visit. The 1926 landmark theater, which sits directly across 15th Avenue from Domino Park, has served the community for over 90 years.

So Much More to See

Of course, this isn’t a conclusive list of the most charming or interesting things to see in Little Havana, just a starting place for exploring the neighborhood. Be sure to visit the Little Havana Walk of Fame, which honors famous Cubans, including Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias. To round out the visit, add one or two of the neighborhood’s memorials honoring the immigrants’ journey to America. Plan to attend the Viernes Culturales the last Friday of the month to enjoy art, food and live music while you’re exploring this colorful Miami enclave.
Interested in more Miami history? Pick up “Little Havana” by Paul S. George, “Miami Beach” by Seth H. Bramson or “Miami in Vintage Postcards” by Patricia Kennedy.