For the moment, at least, Little Havana is as close as most Americans can get to experiencing Big Havana (the real Havana), since traveling to the Cuban capital is still a no-no. Although President Barack Obama recently cut restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island and signaled that he'd like to improve relations between the two countries, the 47-year U.S. embargo remains firmly in place, limiting travel by most U.S. citizens.
No worries, though. Here are 10 ways to experience the distinctive Cuban vibe without crossing the Florida Straits.
1. CHOW DOWN
There are lots of places to sample Cuban food in Miami, but there's only one Versailles (3555 SW Eighth St., 305-444-0240), a meeting place for exile families for more than 30 years. Don't come to this sprawling restaurant for a romantic, candlelit dinner. Savor the buzz of Little Havana and such affordable specialties as ropa vieja (shredded beef in a tomato Creole sauce, $10.50) and lechon asado (roast pork, $9.95). Dishes are typically served with rice and fried plantains. Wash it all down with a Presidente beer (from the Dominican Republic, $4.35) and save room for a creamy flan Cubano ($2.95).
2. BUZZ UP
After a meal at Versailles, head to the restaurant's outdoor counter to sip a dark, lethally strong cup of cafe Cubano. Order a double ($1.35), then linger. On a recent night, caffeinated members of the Miami police, fire and rescue squads shared the counter space.
3. LOOK THE PART
No one has a better selection of guayaberas, the pleated four-pocket men's shirts that are worn untucked, than Ramon Puig's La Casa de las Guayaberas (5840 SW Eighth St., 305-266-9683). This strip-mall shop boasts that Puig has been making "the best guayabera in the world" for 63 years. Prices range from about $25 for a short-sleeved cotton and polyester blend to several hundred dollars for an elegant, long-sleeved linen shirt.
4. BUY A TRINKET
Snag a large Cuban map towel for $15 or a calendar showing scenes from the island for $10 at the small souvenir stand of 87-year-old Nicacio Machado (SW Eighth Street and 35th Avenue), across from Versailles.
5. PLAY DOMINOES
Or at least watch the regulars (typically older Cuban-American men) flaunt their stuff in tree-shaded Maximo Gomez Park (better known as Domino Park), at SW Eighth Street and 15th Avenue. Don't leave without checking out the colorful 1994 mural showing leaders from seemingly every nation in the Western Hemisphere - every nation, that is, except Cuba.
6. GET SPIRITUAL
Miami is home to dozens of botanicas, shops that cater to followers of Santeria and Voudon, religions that blend traditional African and Roman Catholic beliefs. La Negra Francisca Botanica (1323 SW Eighth St., 305-860-9328) is typical, with its impressive stock of candles, incense, books, potions and statues of saints.
7. LIGHTEN UP
After pondering good and evil at the botanica, put on a smile and head to the best costume and magic shop this side of Oz. La Casa de los Trucos (The House of Tricks, 1343 SW Eighth St., 305-858-5029) offers such must-have items as an "I Love Lucy" wig ($24.99) and a ball cap topped with brains ($14.99).
8. LISTEN UP
Miami is a mere 200 miles from the coast of Cuba. It's so close that Cuban radio stations can be heard on an ordinary AM radio, especially at night when signals travel farther. Radio Reloj (Clock Radio) is known for its fast-paced, government-sponsored newscasts, always with the sound of a clock ticking in the background. Try AM frequencies 570, 820 and 860.
9. ROLL ON
A trip to Little Havana isn't complete without a visit to a cigar factory. El Credito (1100 SW Eighth St., 305-324-0445) has been making hand-rolled cigars with Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco for 41 years. Best to visit on a weekday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the rollers are busy at work, making up to 150 cigars a day at their traditional mahogany desks.
10. RELIVE THE PAST
The most unusual attraction in Little Havana is the two-bedroom house where 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez lived after surviving the 1999 crossing from Cuba to Florida that left his mother and 10 others dead (2319 NW Second St.). The tragedy became a telenovela (soap opera) that climaxed when federal agents raided the house to seize Elian for a reunion with his father in Cuba. His Miami relatives turned the Little Havana house into a museum. Display cases show some of the toys the boy was given during his five-month stay.