The United Cultures of Florida: 6 Iconic Neighborhoods
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Florida’s diversity lives and breathes in distinctive ethnic enclaves that allow visitors to immerse themselves in other cultures without leaving the state. Experience Cuba or Canada or Vietnam when you visit these tradition-rich neighborhoods throughout Florida.
Miami’s Little Havana
Although Nicaraguans, Hondurans and other newcomers from Central and South America now populate this Miami neighborhood, earning it the nickname “Little Managua,” it’s still widely regarded as the most famous neighborhood for Cuban exiles in the world. Cuban coffee stands, fruit stands, cigar rollers, monuments and shops have always given the area its identity, but a new wave of live music venues and trendy restaurants recently has revived its charm.
Find it: Just west of downtown Miami, the historic district is along Southwest 8th Street (Calle Ocho) between Southwest 12th and 17th avenues.
Start here: Little Havana Visitor Center, 1442 SW 8th St, is a good resource for upcoming happenings, maps and tours.
Explore: The stretch of Calle Ocho from Southwest 12th to 16th avenues is particularly vibrant. Look down and you’ll see stars bearing the names of famous artists and Latin personalities engraved in the sidewalk, including Sammy Sosa, Maria Conchita Alonso, Thalia, Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino and Gloria Estefan.
Landmark: Cuban Memorial Plaza, at Southwest 13th Avenue and Southwest 8th Street, marks the pain of exiles in a string of seven monuments that includes an eternal flame that burns for those who died in the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bust of Cuban independence fighter Antonio Maceo, and a 16-foot raised map of Cuba with a weathered inscription by Cuban poet and patriot Jose Marti: "La patria es agonia y deber." ("The homeland is agony and duty.")
Hot spot: Domino Park (Máximo Gómez Park), at Southwest 8th Street and 15th Avenue, is where Cuban old-timers still gather to play dominoes.
Taste: A 10-minute ride from central Little Havana, Versailles, 35555 SW 8th St., is the neighborhood’s most famous eating establishment and ground zero for anti-Castro political conversations. The ornate, mirror-lined restaurant and its coffee counter window have been the gathering place for Miami’s Cuban exiles since opening in 1971. It serves palomilla steaks, maduros, croquetas and other classic Cuban fare.
Shop: Among the many souvenir shops, Sentir Cubana, 3100 SW 8th St., is packed with Cuban art, games, clothing, kitchen gear, even Fidel toilet paper.
Celebrate: The Calle Ocho Festival in March is the largest Hispanic street festival in the Southeastern United States, attracting 1 million people to its 12 stages, live music and Latin food kiosks. On the last Friday of every month, also look for Viernes Culturales, or Cultural Fridays, a gallery night showcasing the neighborhood’s arts scene.
Miami’s Little Haiti
The cultural heart of the Haitian diaspora, Little Haiti is slowly evolving from immigrant enclave to a hipster scene as artists and galleries edge in from nearby Wynwood. For now, though, Haitian music, street vendors and small, family-owned businesses still dominate the neighborhood, which earned its nickname in the 1980s, when Haitian refugees fled François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s oppressive regime for Miami. The area was officially designated as “Little Haiti” by the city of Miami in 2016.
Find it: North of downtown Miami, Little Haiti is between 54th and 80th streets, primarily along Northeast Second Avenue.
Start here: Little Haiti Cultural Complex, 212 NE 59th Terrace, is the neighborhood hub, with gallery exhibits, Haitian dance classes and performances, and periodic concerts.
Explore: The bookstore and gathering place Liberei Mapou, 5919 NE 2nd Ave., has been providing books, newspapers and Haitian reading material in English and Kreyol since the early 1990s. It also hosts a radio show on WLRN 91.3 on Friday evenings and offers French and Kreyol classes.
Landmark: Notre Dame D'Haiti Catholic Church, 110 N.E. 62nd St., is named for Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the patron saint of Haiti. Its well-attended, exuberant masses are a Sunday tradition. The Stations of the Cross procession on Good Friday, two days before Easter Sunday, includes a 12-block march to the church.
Hot spot: Majestical Lips, 4320 N.W. 2nd Ave., is a spiritual shop that sells herbs, spices, teas and incense, and doubles as a poetry slam salon on the third Friday of every month.
Taste: Chef Creole, 200 N.W. 54th St., is a longtime neighborhood staple that serves Haitian classics, such as queue boeuf, griot and fresh seafood flavored with Bahamian and creole spice. Fans include Jay Z, the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Pitbull. Chef Wilkinson “Ken” Sejour, born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents, has been featured on Anthony Bourdain's “No Reservations” and Vice's “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Shop: Adjacent to the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, the Caribbean Market Place, 5925 NE 2nd Ave., is a modern replica of Haiti’s famous iron market. The colorful gingerbread warehouse houses vendors selling handmade jewelry, art, crafts and clothing.
Celebrate: “Sounds of Little Haiti” is a free event held every third Friday of the month at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex featuring Haitian bands.
This Gulf Coast town has a higher percentage of Greek Americans than any U.S. city. After the discovery of natural sponge beds in the early 1900s, Greek sponge divers arrived, making the sponge industry one of the leading maritime industries in Florida. Today, sponging still exists on a small scale, but signs of Greek heritage are alive and well along the charming brick streets and waterfront docks of the historic district, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
Find it: About 30 miles northwest of Tampa, along the Gulf of Mexico in Pinellas County.
Start here: For great views of the city and surrounding teal-blue Gulf waters, take a boat tour to Anclote Key Preserve State Park, a strand of four remote islands just three miles offshore, with undeveloped, white-sand beaches and an 1887 lighthouse. Spongeorama Cruise Lines, 510 Dodecanese Blvd., operates tours to the park.
Explore: Stroll Dodecanese Boulevard, which follows the riverfront. It’s lined with gift shops that carry souvenirs, home goods, natural sponges, olive oil and soap.
Landmark: St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 N. Pinelllas Ave., is a New Byzantine-style historic church patterned after St. Sofia's in Constantinople, with sculptured Grecian marble, elaborate icons and stained glass. The cathedral was built in 1943, replacing a smaller structure built in 1907 by the community's early Greek settlers.
Hot spot: The famous Sponge Docks, set along the Anclote River, are home to shops and restaurants, as well as periodic crafts and music festivals, and a dinner-and-dancing event series called “Night in the Islands.”
Taste: A 2016 “Best Small Town Food Scene” winner in USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Travel Awards, Tarpon Springs claims many authentic Greek restaurants, including Mama’s Greek Cuisine, 735 Dodecanese Blvd., and Hellas, 785 Dodecanese Blvd.
Shop: Along with sponge shops like Spongeorama, there’s a big antiques scene in the shops on downtown’s Tarpon Avenue.
Celebrate: The Epiphany on Jan. 6 has been celebrated in Tarpon Springs with the Blessing of the Bayou and the Casting of Cross each year since 1903. Today, more than 2,000 people from around the country come for the three-day festivities, which include dozens of teenage boys diving into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by the bishop.
Orlando’s Little Vietnam
Dozens of Asian restaurants, shops and markets line a 10-block stretch of Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue, home to the largest Vietnamese community in Florida. Rebranded the “Mills 50 District,” the stretch came to life in the 1970s, when thousands of Vietnamese war refugees fled their native land. It has grown since then to include establishments owned by Chinese, Thai, Korean and other Asian business owners.
Find it: The hub is at the busy cross section of Colonial Avenue (State Road 50) and North Mills Avenue.
Start here: To see what’s trending, go to cult favorite Hawkers Asian Street Food, 1103 N. Mills Ave., to try steamed buns, lo mein and kimchi fried rice with the hip twenty-somethings who hang out here.
Explore: Don’t let the traffic scare you away because this is one of Orlando’s best areas to venture out on foot, from the ethnic restaurants on Colonial to the new and inventive bars and restaurants along Mills Avenue.
Landmark: The 1940 movie house Cameo Theater, 1013 E. Colonial Dr., is home to “Snap! Space,” a gallery for photographers and multimedia artists that hosts guest speakers, receptions and contests.
Hot spot: Dandelion Communities Café, one block southwest of the Mills and Colonial intersection at 618 N. Thornton Ave., is a vegetarian teahouse in a refurbished, colorful bungalow. Check out the “Dandy” for nightly events, performances, moon parties and drum circles.
Taste: Sizzling hot bowls of pho come out in a constant flurry at Pho 88, 730 N. Mills Ave., one of the area’s largest Vietnamese restaurants. For an authentic Vietnamese meal, try the summer rolls and the Bun Bo Nuong at
Little Saigon, 1006 E. Colonial Dr., typically filled with Vietnamese-speaking patrons.
Shop: Browse Dong A Supermarket, 812-816 N. Mills Ave., the largest Asian market in the state for lemongrass, medicinal herbs and Saigon cinnamon.
Celebrate: The Dragon Parade and Lunar New Year Festival in February started in the heart of the 50 Mills District five years ago, but became so popular, it was moved to Fashion Square Mall, 3201 E. Colonial Dr. It’s full of dancing Kung Fu lions, Buddha-chasing dragons, taiko drummers and beauty queens from the Miss Vietnam of Florida pageant.
Tampa’s Ybor City Latin Quarter
At the turn of the 20th century, nowhere in the United States was as famous for its cigars as Ybor City, the “Cigar Capital of the World.” Founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba, Spain and Italy, the National Historic Landmark District lives on in factory warehouses that have been converted into business lofts, restaurants, shops and nightclubs.
Find it: Northeast of downtown Tampa, the district is bounded by 6th Avenue, 13th Street, 10th Avenue and 22nd Street.
Start here: The Ybor City Visitor Information Center, 1600 E. 8th Ave., offers maps, souvenirs and advice. The Ybor City Museum State Park, 1818 E. 8th Ave., is in a 1923 Ferlita Bakery designed to look like a typical cigar worker's family home, with exhibits and tours.
Explore: The 7th Avenue commercial strip has been declared one of the “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association. Stroll the palm tree-lined 11 blocks between 26th Street and Nick Nuccio Parkway to take in the smell of roasting coffee and the sounds of Latin music.
Landmark: The Ritz Ybor, 1503 E. 7th Ave., has seen silent films, matinees, live nude shows, plays, rock concerts, foam parties and black-tie affairs since it opened in 1917. It’s now an events venue that features house parties, concerts and dance performances.
Taste: Columbia Restaurant, 2117 E, 7th Ave., has been named a “Top 50 All-American Icon” by Nation’s Restaurant News magazine. Opened since 1905, it’s Florida’s oldest restaurant. Enjoy Cuban black bean soup, hearts of palm salad, tapas and paella while watching a live flamenco show six nights a week.
Shop: Seventh Avenue’s funky shops cover a 10-block stretch between 13th and 23rd streets, including La France vintage clothing store, 1612 E. 7th Ave., and Jezabelle & Her Wandering Gypsies antique store, 1527 E. 7th Ave.
Celebrate: The Sant' Yago Knight Parade is one in a series of annual events connected to the Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Organized in 1972, the popular, adult-oriented parade illuminates Ybor City every February with lighted floats, costumed participants, dancing in the streets and lots of beads.
Hollywood’s Quebec South
More than a million Canadians visit South Florida every year, with French Canadian snowbirds particularly flocking to Hollywood, where many restaurant signs include the phrase “Nous parlons Francais” (We speak French) and stores sell French Canadian newspapers. “Floribec” grew from Quebec residents wintering here in the 1970s. Their presence peaked in the 1990s, but there is still a distinct Floribecois feel to the city’s beach side.
Find it: On Florida’s eastern coast, Hollywood is a small town between Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
Start here: The Hollywood Broadwalk is a brick-lined, 27-foot-wide pedestrian walkway that runs 2 ½ miles, with the beach on one side and shops and restaurants lining the other side. It’s been named one of America’s top 10 nostalgic promenades by USA Today.
Landmark: The renovated outdoor bandshell on the Broadwalk at Johnson Street offers live entertainment five nights a week managed by the nearby Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort.
Taste: Poutine is a French Canadian dish that combines French fries, cheese curds and hot gravy. Find it at Frenchie’s Bar & Grill, which has moved from Hollywood to 3190 Hallandale Beach Blvd. in nearby Hallandale Beach, but maintains its status as a French Canadian favorite.
Hot spot: The beach! Studded with palm trees, the five-mile expanse of soft sand and clear ocean water was voted Florida’s best beach by Florida Living magazine. It’s also earned the distinction of “Blue Wave Beach,” an award given to selected beaches by the Clean Beach Council.
Celebrate: Every January, Canada Fest on the Broadwalk brings together Floribec businesses and Quebec singers for a two-day festival, attracting about 100,000 visitors.