I recently spend a long weekend in Miami thanks to Visit Miami and Wow Air. One of the things that surprised about Miami was the heavy Cuban influence that was present pretty much everywhere; in the cuisine, the music, the bars and the overall vibe of the city. After my trip to Cuba in October I really enjoyed being surrounded by Cuban vibes again. In this article I have tried to put together a guide to all the best Cuban things to do in Miami. Going beyond Little Havana I wanted to talk about the Cuban influence including the best Cuban restaurants, bars, activities and much more!
- 1 The Cuban migration to Miami
- 2 About Little Havana in Miami
- 3 Cuban shops in Miami
- 4 Cuban influence on food
- 5 Cuban influence on nightlife
The Cuban migration to Miami
Before we jump into the best Cuban things to do in Miami it’s important to understand the history of the Cuban migration to Miami. I’m by no means a history expert so this is a simplified summary of the events that lead to this heavy Cuban presence in Miami as I understood them. You can check out this ThoughtCo. article for a brief history of the Cuban revolution, or this Wikipedia page for a summary of the Cuban migration to Miami to learn more. In 1959 when the Cuban Revolution took place and Fidel Castro rose to power a lot of the Cubans that didn’t agree with his political ideas were forced to leave. The vast majority of them came to Miami, as it was relatively close and they were hoping to one day go back. I was surprised to find out that they considered themselves exiles, not immigrants, since they didn’t see themselves as staying in Miami forever and wanted to one-day return to Cuba. Over time however, after operations like the Bay of Pigs Invasion and when it became evident Castro wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, Cubans started to settle in Miami and it became a political and cultural hub for Cubans to gather.
About Little Havana in Miami
Little Havana is without a doubt the centre of all Cuban activities in Miami. Named after the capital of Cuba, Havana, the Miami version is the centre of Cuban social, political and cultural activity in Miami. In 2015 Little Havana was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s of 11 Most Endangered Places, and it was declared a national treasure in 2017. Little Havana is dotted with important landmarks such as its Walk of Fame, the Bay of Pigs Invasion memorial, Domino Park and many others. It is also characterised by a lively street life, mostly thanks to the warmth of its residents. We did a tour of Little Havana with Urban Adventures and Zarelys as our guide, a Cuban girl that moved to Miami a few years ago. The tour was fantastic and it was great to hear all about the community in Little Havana and the history of the Cuban revolution and migration from someone that had lived it and its after effects firsthand. In just one morning we walked around most of the neighbourhood tasting Cuban food and drinks and absorbing the Cuban vibes.
Cuban shops in Miami
Havana Classic cigar shop
There are a number of Cuban shops and commercial activities both in Little Havana and around Miami. The one that impressed me the most was the Havana Classic cigar shop. When I was in Cuba I had the opportunity to go horse riding in the tobacco plantations of Viñales, where local farmers showed us how they hand roll cigars. Despite a few extra pieces of machinery the process at the cigar shop in Little Miami was very similar. The moment you walk through the door the pleasant smell of tobacco leaves surrounds you and you feel like you’ve stepped in the tobacco farms of Cuba. You can wander around the shop, learning about the storage process of both the tobacco leaves and cigars, and see how the experts roll cigars.
Cuban influence on food
The Cuban and Latin American influence in Miami is without a doubt most noticeable when it comes to the cuisine. Even in standard restaurants that weren’t advertised as Cuban you could still find mojitos amongst the cocktails and the occasional croquetas on the menu. We had the pleasure to try a number of Cuban cuisines, both in Little Havana and beyond.
Estefan Kitchen is the famous Cuban restaurant of Gloria and Emilio Estefan located in the Design District of Miami. Here you can taste traditional Cuban family recipes, for example lechon flatbread, lechon crispy moros and vaca frita, with a bit of a twist. The interior design of the venue also adds to the experience, with dramatic mosaic murals and an art deco influence, on top of live music and performing bartenders. Since we were escaping the English winter we decided to sit outside, where we could drink mojitos in the sun while enjoying our lovely food and the view over the hustle and bustle of the Miami Design District.
Fruteria los Pinarenos
During our tour of Little Havana we did a stop at Fruteria los Pinarenos, a local family-run cafè and fruit store that has been around since 1968. With its relaxed atmosphere you can just feel the island vibes and imagine you’re in a fruit store somewhere in Cuba. Here we had a freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, just what you need after walking under the sun all morning.
Our Little Havana tour continued on to Yisell Bakery, you can’t have sugar cane juice without some food to accompany it! At this local bakery you can taste typical Cuban pastries, both sweet and savoury, which make for perfect snacks on the go.
Old Havana Restaurant
Old Havana Restaurant took me straight back to Cuba. With their soft bread sandwiches with ham, cheese, pork shavings and topped with fries I felt like I was back in one of the “casa particulares” in Cuba, where our hosts cooked tasty breakfasts and snacks for us. We were also lucky enough to have a local street performer come and play music for us while we were eating, it really added to the Cuban vibe of the place.
Since I was in Miami only for four days and unfortunately couldn’t eat all the Cuban food out there (as much as I tried there’s a limit to how much even I can eat) I’ve asked some friends to share their personal favourites. Jen from Jen On A Jetplane recommends Sergio’s; “The only word more sacred than “cafecito” in Miami is “croqueta.” Croquetas are Cuban appetizers that are log-shaped, deep fried and most commonly ham-filled, though they can contain other stuffings. They’re so addictive it’s wise to buy them by the dozen, and you’ll find trays full of them at any Quinceañera or Noche Buena celebration.
There are several bakeries known for their croquetas in Miami. Picking a favorite can be like declaring a favorite sports team, and allegiances run deep. If you’re looking for a consistently tasty find, however, you can’t go wrong with Sergio’s. Those flying into Fort Lauderdale airport can satisfy their croqueta craving right when they land at Sergio’s airport kiosk. Otherwise, there are 7 additional locations throughout the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, each featuring ventanas, outside windows where guests can grab a bite and chat. It’s such a popular pastime even Emeril Lagasse stopped by Sergio’s ventana for a croqueta when he was in town.”
Puerto Sagua Restaurant
If you’re looking for something bigger than croquetas Scott from International Hotdish has just the place for you; “If you’re headed to Miami and you have a craving for a authentic Cuban sandwich with the atmosphere to match, you need to put Puerto Sagua Restaurant at 700 Collins Ave on your list of places to visit. This mid century, funky diner has a great Americana feel to it. On one hand it feels like a slice of middle America architecture, but on the other it has an obvious influence of Cuban food and flavor. It’s the perfect example of a Hispanic/American greasy spoon combination.
When we visited in 2016, I had their Cuban sandwich. It came with patacones and rice with beans. It’s the real deal; bread with a delicate crunch, which comes from a local bakery, tender sliced meats, and not too much cheese or mustard. The patacones were crisp and salty, and the rice/beans were sticky and flavorful. Between the atmosphere, the food, and the chatter of Spanish, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more authentic Cuban experience in Miami.”
El Rey de la Frita & Versailles
Since advice from the locals is always the best kind, I asked Talek of Travels with Talek, a Cuban that regularly travels to Miami, to share her favourite Cuban restaurants in Miami. “Cuban-Americans living outside of Miami crave good, authentic Cuban food. Sure, many other cities do a good medianoche (Cuban sandwich with soft, sweet bread) but Miami, of course, is ground zero for Cuban comfort food. That’s why when Cubanos head towards Miami, it’s the “Cuban Trifecta” they are lusting for, the three must-visit restaurants that exemplify Cuban food at its best; El Rey de la Frita, Sergio’s (and when two different people recommend the same place, you know it’s good!) and the grand “abuela” of them all, Versailles.
El Rey de la Frita is a modest cafeteria chain with a varied menu but only one legendary dish, the Cuban “frita.” A frita is Cuban-style hamburger consisting of ground beef, Spanish sausage and pork seasoned with cumin, paprika and onions topped with shoe-string potatoes on a bun. This dish is hard to find outside of Miami and nobody does it better than El Rey which translates into “The King.”
Versailles was established in 1971, this Mecca of Cuban cuisine bills itself as “the best Cuban restaurant in the world.” They may be right. Versailles offers the Cuban classics; lechon (roast pork), ropa vieja which translates into “old clothes” because of the shredded appearance of this beef with tomato sauce dish, and the reliable Cubano, a hearty sandwich that has successfully crossed over into the American mainstream. What sets Versailles apart, however, is its status as the unofficial cultural and political center of the Cuban-American community. Want to influence the South Florida vote? You better head over to the Versailles parking lot with a couple of TV cameras and have a cafecito at the counter.”
Cuban influence on nightlife
Although the jetlag was killing me and by the time dinner was over I was ready to go to bed, I still got to experience some of the nightlife in Miami. The heavy Cuban and Latin American influence makes Miami a really fun place to experience the nightlife. The music reminds me of summer beach parties and automatically puts me in a good mood.
When you visit El Tucan be ready for a lot more than just a simple dinner show. This modern-day cabaret has all the glitz and glamour of the jazz eras of the 40s, with a touch of Cuban and South American influence, both in the cuisine and performance style. In addition to international DJs El Tucan also has a resident 12-piece orchestra curated by a Grammy award-winning pianist, composer and producer. Hard to top that!
Ball & Chain
Ok this is me cheating a little bit by recommending Ball & Chain for nightlife, since I didn’t actually make it out. Pathetic, I know. I’m getting old. After the dinner show at El Tucan the jetlag kicked in and I ended up not going out. However on the following day we ended our tour of Little Havana with mojitos at Ball & Chain, so I can still say I had a drink at this famous Miami entertainment venue! From what the other girls said about it, it sounds like just my kind of night, with lots of music, dancing and mojitos.
Have you been to Miami before? What were your favourite Cuban restaurants, shops or bars? Let me know in the comments below! The heavy Cuban influence is something that surprised me about Miami in a positive way. Especially when it comes to food and drink, I loved the Cuban vibes and cuisine.