Dream of having the confidence to travel solo?
Read my book Get Lost to find out how!
Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Miami! As you sit down to dinner, you poke your flavorless boiled potato and nothingburger with a spork and scowl at your plate. Is this meagre meal really all life has to offer? Wouldn’t you rather be feasting on roast meats? How about sipping on a pina colada and strawberry daiquiri–at the same time. Then this 24 hours in Miami: Little Havana edition is perfect for you!
During this 24 hours in Miami, I’ll guide you through the city’s three coolest arts districts: Little Havana, Wynwood, and South Beach. We’ll experience all the Art Deco, street art, and fine spirits that the city has to offer. There will even be a murder house thrown in! Let’s go!
24 Hours in Miami: Little Havana
Where to Stay?
I mentioned that this 24 Hours in Miami itinerary would feature three of Miami’s coolest arts districts. But if you want to sneak in the fourth arts district, book a room at the Hampton Inn Miami-Coconut Grove. It’s in a peaceful and quiet location, which can’t be said of any of the hotels in South Beach.
I especially need to give this hotel a shout out because of the lovely welcome gift they gave me. As you can see from the photo, this gift was intended for Mr. Fuentes, and I am definitely not he. But I did very much enjoy his complimentary snacks and bottle of wine. #sorrynotsorrymrfuentes
24 Hours in Miami: Little Havana
Morning: Little Havana
Since our time in Miami is so limited, I suggest getting a local guide to show us around during our 24 Hours in Miami. I booked an all day tour with Urban Adventures, my favorite international tour company. The local guide, Zarelys, was originally from Cuba and taught me so much about Miami’s Cuban community that I never would have been able to learn otherwise. I’ll be thrilled to share with you some of what she taught me!
Approximately Top 5: Little Havana
1) Cuba Ocho
The Little Havana tour begins at a museum/bar/performing arts center called Cuba Ocho. The art collection at Cuba Ocho has one of the most fascinating backstories I have ever heard.
It all started with an art collector named Roberto Ramos who escaped from Cuba in a boat with several works on art, including a valuable painting of a saxophone player. He sought refuge in the United States in general and Little Havana specifically. That painting of the saxophone player became the foundation of a marvelous collection of Cuban art.
So don’t be afraid to dream big, my Internet Strangers! One minute you could be a refugee in a leaky boat, and the next you could own an awesome art collection and a bunch of sweet chandeliers over your very own bar.
2) Cigar Store
I’m not advocating smoking, but you really can’t visit Little Havana without checking out a famous Cuban cigar store. You’ll actually be able to watch the master cigar rollers put one of these beauties together.
I’m not using the term “master cigar roller to be funny. Cuban cigar making is the most complicated process I’ve seen since I tried to change my cable company. They use three kinds of leaf. One is the tobacco, another is filler, and the third is an outer leaf that feels like fine leather goods.
You don’t get a free cigar with the tour (believe me, I asked, and I don’t even smoke), but you do get a “cup” of Cuban coffee. I use the term “cup” loosely because Cuban coffee is so strong that you can only have a teeny bit at at time, and it’s always mixed with sugar. I was tempted to grab a large amount of Cuban coffee and chug it down just to see what happens, but I was afraid my head would explode like Wil E Coyote.
3) La Casa de los Trucos
La Casa de los Trucos is a costume store, but we didn’t come here to go shopping. We came here to learn more about Miami’s immigrant community.
Zarelys told me that most of the people in Little Havana either came in the 1980s as refugees, or they came in the 1960s as Peter Pan kids. (The owner of La Casa de los Trucos was a Peter Pan kid.)
Peter Pan kids were refugee children who were relocated to the United States without their parents. The program lasted about two years, as it was quite controversial to separate minors from their parents. Some of the children were eventually reunited with their parents, but most were not.
I’d imagine a program like this would be illegal nowadays, with the whole taking children from their parents thing. But it’s hard to be sure government agencies couldn’t get away with it if they wanted to.
4) Cuban Memorials
Walking around Little Havana is like taking the Cuban history class I certainly never experienced in school. Americans do not study nearly enough Caribbean history, and by that I mean we don’t get any.
There are two memorials in Little Havana that you absolutely shouldn’t miss. One if the flame for Cubans killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion. (This was the major disaster of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, when the CIA tried and failed to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Communist government in Cuba. But Americans don’t remember it much because Kennedy’s assassination kind of overshadows everything else that happened while he was President. This just shows how important good PR is.)
The other is this monument to Jose Marti, a legendary Cuban freedom fighter. (I use the term legendary in a figurative way, as Marti was definitely a real person.) Marti predates Castro’s government by decades. During the 19th century he was a leader of the movement for Cuban independence from Spain. I gather than both right-wing and left-wing Cubans today argue over whether Marti would have agreed with them or their political opponents. But if the ghost of Jose Marti has picked a side, he isn’t telling anyone about it.
5) Cuban Food
Aha! Here we’ve come to the number one reason to visit Little Havana. And possibly this is the number one reason to spend 24 hours in Miami. We had three different food stops and the first was at Old’s Havana for a Cubano sandwich, made with special fluffy bread, ham and cheese, and little potato fries on top.
Just in case you’re worried about your health, I promise the snacks on the tour aren’t all ham and melted cheese. We peeked into a teeny local fruit market where no English is spoken. Fortunately Zarelys was with me, so she was able to get me a fresh papaya juice. (Zarelys whispered to me that the owner is really anti-Castro, so be sure to not say his name aloud. In general, that’s good advice in Little Havana.)
The most impressive food stop was at Yisell Bakery, which is so old school that it doesn’t even have a website. It’s like a place your grandma might run, except even your grandma is on Facebook at this point.
Here you will get to sample a savor pastry, chicken empanada, and a sweet guava pastelito. Zarelys said that guava is usually combined with cheese in Cuban desserts, but this pastelito didn’t have cheese, just the guava goodness.
She also mentioned that while you can find pork and chicken in lots of Cuban cuisine, you won’t find as much beef these days because it’s illegal to kill a cow in Cuba. The cows are needed to provide milk. Zarelys even told me a story about almost getting arrested back in Cuba for having a piece of beef in her car. Well, if beef is outlawed, only outlaws will have beef, as my grandmother used to say.
6) Ball and Chain
Our final stop in Little Havana was a club called Ball and Chain. In the first half of the 20th century, this was a real Miami hot spot. But it eventually lost its luster and closed down. Fortunately it reopened back in 2014, and now offers live music and mojitos to all. (Well, if you’re not on the tour, you’ll have to pay for your mojito.)
Lucky for you, you are on the tour, so you get your very own mojito without having to pay extra.
If you’re even luckier, you might meet this distinguished Cuban-American gentleman who will try to teach you to dance. Unfortunately, I am the worst dancer who ever lived, so we never got further than him repeatedly telling me to not look at my feet. I never managed to dance, but by the end I was staring into space instead of looking at my feet, so I consider that progress.
24 Hours in Miami: Little Havana
It’s time for the second arts district of the evening! There will be more bright colors, more snacks, and even more drinking. And lucky for me, there will be absolutely no dancing. But if you need a little more information than that before visiting Wynwood, I’ll be happy to share with you…
Three Fun Facts: Wynwood
1) Why is Wynwood Famous?
Zarelys said that Wynwood had been dangerous until a local real estate developer named Tony Goldman came in and decided to gentrify. Now Wynwood is famous for its flabbergasting collection of murals, all located within the open air Wynwood Walls Gallery.
I can’t guarantee that any of these pieces will be there when you spend 24 hours in Miami, but I can give you an idea of what to expect. I was excited to see a mural by a street artist named Deih, whose work I had admired in Valencia, Spain.
Also, try to find a mural that matches your outfit. That will impress strangers on Instagram, which is entirely what travel is about.
2) Any Hidden Gems in Wynwood?
Of course! It’s not all giant murals that can be seen from space. Zarelys took me into a sports car and guitar museum, which might as well be subtitled A Museum For Bros. But this place has a more interesting backstory than you might expect.
It was opened by a gentleman who made a bushel of dough in advertising, then decided to pursue his dream of collecting sports cars and high end guitars. It was smart of him to make the money first and then start collecting sports cars. If he’d done it the other way around, he probably never would have gotten the idea off the ground.
The best way to explore this museum is to wander around until you find the car you’d most want to steal. (Don’t actually steal it. This blog does not endorse Grand Theft Auto.) I chose this teeny green machine, which I like is a Mini Cooper. I’d feel like a British model from the 1960s in this baby, which is in my list of top 5 ways I like to feel.
3) I’m Hungry! Will You Please Feed Me?
Of course, Internet Stranger! How do you feel about tacos, ice cream, and beer? First you’ll dine on tacos al pastor at Coyo Taco. This was way better than the tacos I usually can find back home in NYC because they used actual corn tortillas and the pork was appropriately spicy. I like how the pineapple in the tacos mellows out the heat a bit.
For a sweet treat, you’ll stop at Cielito for an artisanal ice cream pop. I recommend the guava and cheese because Zarelys said that was a traditional Cuban flavor. I don’t think the chocolate coating is traditional, but who cares about tradition when breaking the rules is this delicious?
Finally, if you haven’t had enough murals for one afternoon, we’ll pick up a craft beer of your choice at J Wakefield Brewery. Zarelys said that fruity beers are the most popular in Miami, which is the least surprising Miami fact I have ever heard.
The owner is a huge Star Wars fan, so you’ll see everyone from Lando Calrissian to Han Solo on the walls. I just hope they add Baby Yoda by the time you visit!
24 Hours in Miami: Little Havana
Evening: South Beach
We really can’t spend 24 hours in Miami without visiting its most famous neighborhood, and that is definitely South Beach. The evening is the perfect part of the day to visit this neighborhood because the Art Deco buildings are especially gorge in the dark. But fortunately this tour begins in the daytime, so we can still hit up the beach.
South Beach is a great area to explore because there are so many architectural wonders. But I will guide your wanderings and wonderings with…
Three Fun Facts: South Beach
1) Why is South Beach Famous?
Well it’s mostly famous for being the part of the city where the heat is on, where you can party on the beach ’til the break of dawn, ha ha, as Will Smith would say. But that wasn’t always the case. Zarelys told me that South Beach used to be a whole lot of nothing until the turn of the 20th century when a developer named John Collins tried to open it up to real estate development.
Unfortunately for John Collins, he ran out of money before his dream of a developed South Beach was completed. (Don’t cry for him too much because he made a killing in agriculture.) Nowadays, South Beach is developed like whoa, and I bet the ghosts of all those people who made fun of John Collins’s dream are very sorry.
Whenever you visit South Beach, you’re sure to see locals exercising. Just about everyone in Miami works out, which makes sense in a city where you can wear a swimsuit year round. When Zarelys and I visited, there was literally a Model Volleyball Tournament on the beach, which is the least surprising thing to find in Miami after fruity beer and a sports car museum.
2) What Was That About a Murder House?
So obviously I am speaking of the Versace House, where Miami’s most famous murder victim, Gianni Versace lived. (There was a season of American Crime Storyabout this murder, which I fully intent to watch as soon as I finish writing this blog post.)
The Versace Mansion was bought for about 40 million dollars and is now a luxury hotel. (If that creeps you out, it might make you feel better to know that Versace wasn’t murdered actually inside his home.) But we can still see the Versace Mansion without shelling out beaucoup bucks for a suite.
All you have to do is head up to the roof of the Tudor Hotel for a drink and you’ll get a great view of the Versace house. Plus the booze is included with the tour. When in Miami, do as the Miamians do, so I recommend the Miami Vice, which is a drink I’ve never seen outside Miami. It’s half pina colada, and half strawberry daiquiri. Young Don Johnson is not included.
3) Are There Hidden Treasures in South Beach?
Not like pirate treasure! But if you’re a fan of Art Deco architecture, you’ll love the Essex Hotel. Like many of the Art Deco buildings in South Beach, it’s white and looks kind of like a ship.
Zarelys said the Art Deco buildings used to be a lot more colorful back in the day. I wonder why they made this change? Is the white paint just easier to maintain?
But it’s really the interior of the Essex that makes it special. Most specifically, you have the greatest Swamp Mural in all Florida. The mural was originally done for the hotel by an artist named Earl LaPan in the 1930s. When they restored the hotel 50 years later, they were actually able to track LaPan down for the restoration. The only changed they needed to make was adding a gator because this is Florida, and if the gators aren’t properly represented in Florida art, they will go on strike and stop eating babies that fall into the swamps.
That’s 24 Hours in Miami: Little Havana!
What would you do in Little Havana? Have you ever matched your outfit to a piece of street art? And how powerful is the alligator lobby in South Florida? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in Miami and Little Havana that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Miami and Little Havana.