For a relatively young city, Miami packs quite a colorful history. This urban zone, which was born at the mouth of the Miami River on Biscayne Bay more than 100 years ago, has been enriched by waves of refugees, each contributing to a mosaic of different cultures, from the Bahamas and the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South America.
But the Cubans who emigrated after the Fidel Castro Revolution of 1959 have arguably made the strongest imprint. This amalgam of cultural traits has created a unique atmosphere of new attractions, including hotels and restaurants selling diverse cuisines created by imaginative chefs of many nations.
Visitors who want to immerse themselves in the early exile culture of Miami should first explore Calle Ocho (SW 8th St.), in the heart of Little Havana, says Kevin Doran, owner and operator of Two Foot Tours, a local company that specializes in walking explorations of the city's main attractions.
"Calle Ocho has been described as the Cuban Plymouth Rock, because it is in the area where Cubans first settled in Miami after the Castro revolution," he says. "Along SW 8th St., between 10th and 17th avenues, you'll find numerous restaurants, art galleries, shops, monuments and historic markets."
Maximo Gomez Park or "Domino Park," at 1444 SW 8th St., is the meeting place of Cubans who gather to play dominoes, smoke cigars, exchange stories and debate politics. A mural of the heads of state that came to Miami for the 1993 Summit of the Americas adorns the eastern wall of the park.
The Tower Theater on 15th St. is an area icon. Built in 1916, it became an entertainment landmark for Cubans who came to the city in the 1960s, as it was the first movie house to present popular American films with Spanish subtitles. Now beautifully restored, the theater is a venue for art exhibitions, theater and film and dance performances. Just like Hollywood, Little Havana has its own "Walk of Fame," which stretches from 12th to 17th avenues. A growing number of polished bronze stars honor Hispanic performers and other luminaries.
El Credito Cigar factory (1106 SW 8th St.) is a window into cigar manufacturing. It belongs to the Perez Carrillo family, which started the business in Havana in 1907. It has become the largest hand-rolled cigar company in Miami, and it's a great place to watch master tobacco rollers—most of whom learned their craft in Cuba—as they meticulously create fine cigars from scratch. The roster of famous clients includes President Bill Clinton. Afterwards, try a potent Cuban cafecito, a chilled tropical fruit shake, from any of the walk-up windows provided by many Cuban restaurants in the area.
Visitors who are there on the last Friday of the month should head to the stretch of Calle Ocho between 14th and 17th avenues, starting at 7 p.m. This is when the street is transformed into an open-air gallery and lively street party with music, flamenco dancing, food, art, shopping and street theater.