MIAMI is intoxicatingly beautiful, with palm trees swaying in the breeze and South Beach’s famous Art Deco buildings glowing in the warm sunlight. Even so, it’s the people – not the climate, the landscape or the cash – that make it so noteworthy. Two-thirds of the two-million-plus population are Hispanic, the majority of them Cuban, and Spanish is spoken here almost as often as English.

MIAMI is intoxicatingly beautiful, with palm trees swaying in the breeze and South Beach’s famous Art Deco buildings glowing in the warm sunlight. Even so, it’s the people – not the climate, the landscape or the cash – that make it so noteworthy. Two-thirds of the two-million-plus population are Hispanic, the majority of them Cuban, and Spanish is spoken here almost as often as English.

Miami has a range of districts that mirror its variegated cultural, economic and social divisions. Separated from the mainland by Biscayne Bay – and actually, a separate city – the most popular is Miami Beach, which is defined largely by the bacchanalian pursuits along South Beach. In addition to an enticing stretch of sand, this is home to much of the city’s Art Deco architecture.

Back on the mainland, the towers of downtown herald Miami’s proud status as the headquarters of many US corporations’ Latin American operations. To the north, the art galleries and showrooms of Wynwood and the Design District are gradually starting to attract more visitors. Meanwhile, southwest of downtown, there’s nowhere better for a Cuban lunch than Little Havana, which spreads out along 8th Street (also known as Calle Ocho). Immediately south, the spacious boulevards and ornate public buildings of Coral Gables are as impressive now as they were in the 1920s, when the district set new standards in town planning. Lastly, sun-worshippers should make time for Key Biscayne, a smart, secluded island community with some beautiful beaches, an easy five miles off the mainland. The Key had a “coloured-only” beach in the pre-civil rights era, and it is still significant in terms of local African American history.

What to do in Miami

  1. Marvel at the Art Deco

The pastel-shaded Art Deco architecture of South Beach provides a gorgeous setting for Miami's most glamorous hotels and bars. For a fun way to take it all in, book onto a Segway Tour.

  1. Glide along in the Everglades

Florida has numerous creeks and swamps to exploring by boat. The most beautiful of these are in the Everglades.

  1. Have your adrenaline pumped in Biscayne Bay

Go sailing around the celebrity mansions of Biscayne Bay, or soak up the stellar views from a kayak. Better still, get your heart pumping with a parasailing or flyboarding adventure.

  1. Go on an Art Walk

Miami is one of the most dynamic art centres in the world, best experienced on a walking tour through the graffiti-wrapped galleries of Wynwood.

  1. Eat your way through Little Havana

A true slice of Latin America, this lively neighbourhood is the place to come for gut-busting Cuban far and heady café con leche. To really immerse yourself in the area's culinary delights, book onto a walking and food tour.

  1. Take the kids to Jungle Island

A wildlife park that features a flamingo lake, serpentarium, parrot area and even a tiger compound, all hidden within a lushly landscaped jungle habitat.

  1. Visit the Pérez Art Museum

Spectacularly sited, this world-class art museum is the jewel in downtown's crown and a symbol of the city's resurgence.

  1. Sip afternoon tea at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables

As Coral Gables' premier attraction, this hotel is both grand and intimate – sit for an afternoon tea, play a round of golf or just take in the atmosphere.

Accommodation in Miami

Accommodation is rarely a problem in miami – though you should expect rates to go up on weekends, holidays, festival weeks and in the main winter tourist season (Dec–April). Though it can be great fun to stay in one of the numerous art deco south Beach hotels, note that they were built in a different era, and, as such, rooms can be tiny.

Coral Gables

All of Miami’s constituent neighbourhoods are fast to assert their individuality, though none does it more definitively than CORAL GABLES, southwest of Little Havana. Twelve square miles of broad boulevards, leafy side streets and Spanish and Italian architecture form a cultured setting for a cultured community.

Coral Gables’s creator was a northern transplant born in Pennsylvania, George Merrick, who raided street names from a Spanish dictionary to plan the plazas, fountains and carefully aged stucco-fronted buildings here. Unfortunately, Coral Gables was taking shape just as the Florida property boom ended. Merrick was wiped out, and died in 1942 as Miami’s postmaster. But Coral Gables never lost its good looks, and it remains an impressive place to explore. Merrick wanted people to know they’d arrived somewhere special, and as such, eight grand entrances were planned on the main approach roads (though only four were completed). Three of these stand along the western end of Calle Ocho as you arrive from Little Havana.

The best way into Coral Gables is along SW 22nd Street, known as the Miracle Mile. Note the arcades and balconies here, and the spirals and peaks of the Omni Colonnade Hotel, at 180 Aragon Ave one block north, which were completed in 1926 to accommodate George Merrick’s office.

Cubans in Miami

During the mid-1950s, when opposition to Cuba’s Batista dictatorship began to assert itself, a trickle of Cubans started arriving in a predominantly Jewish section of Miami then called Riverside. The trickle became a flood when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and the area became Little Havana, populated by the affluent Cuban middle classes who had the most to lose under communism.

These original immigrants were joined by a second influx in May 1980, when the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 islanders from the port of Mariel to Miami in just a few days. These new arrivals were poor and uneducated, and a fifth of them were fresh from Cuban jails – incarcerated for criminal rather than political crimes. Bluntly, Castro had dumped his misfits on Miami. The city reeled, and then recovered from this mass arrival, but it left Miami’s Cuban community utterly divided. Even today, older Cuban-Americans claim that they can pick out a Marielito from the way he or she walks.

That said, local division gives way to fervent agreement when it comes to Castro: he’s universally detested. Despite failing to depose the dictator, Cuban-Americans have been far more successful at influencing the US government. Since the 1980s, Cubans have been vociferous supporters of the Republican Party, and therefore one of the main reasons that the US embargo of Cuba (imposed in 1962) remains in place, for now at least.

Eating in Miami

Miami does Cuban food best, and it’s not limited to the traditional haunts in Little Havana. The hearty comfort food – notably rice and beans, fried plantains and shredded pork sandwiches – can be found in every neighbourhood, and you’ll also want to try Cuban coffee: choose between café Cubano, strong, sweet and frothy, drunk like a shot with a glass of water, or café cortadito, a smaller version of a café con leche (with steamed milk). Cuban cooking is complemented by sushi bars and American home-style diners, as well as Haitian, Italian and new Floridian (a mix of Caribbean spiciness and fruity Florida sauces) restaurants, among a handful of other ethnic cuisines. Coral Gables, South Beach and the Design District are best for upmarket cafés and restaurants. Seafood is abundant: succulent grouper, yellowfin tuna and wahoo, a local delicacy, are among five hundred species of fish that thrive offshore. Stone­crab claws (served Oct–May), are another South Florida speciality.

High art

Introduced in Miami in 2002 as an offshoot of the eponymous Geneva festival, Art Basel has quickly become one of the city’s biggest events. More than 50,000 gallery-owners, dealers, aficionados and art snobs – plus a startling number of fashionistas and celebs – descend over four days in the first week in December, keen to snap up a canvas or sculpture by an unknown, presumably in the hope it will be worth millions in a few years. Local and international galleries show paintings, photographs and varied media pieces from established art stars and emerging artists at the Miami Beach Convention Center, but discussions, film screenings, public showings and performance-art events are held all over South Beach and downtown: in hole-in-the-wall showrooms, local beaches and parks, and even, one year, on a minuscule island in the bay. For information, visit artbasel.com/Miami-Beach.

Little Havana

The initial home of Miami Cubans was a few miles west of downtown in what became LITTLE HAVANA, whose streets, parks, memorials, shops and food reflect the Cuban experience in all its diversity. Note, though, that streets are much quieter than those of South Beach (except during the Little Havana Festival in early March), and today, many successful Cuban-Americans have moved elsewhere in the city, to be replaced by immigrants from parts of Central America, especially Nicaragua.

Make a beeline here for lunch at one of the many small restaurants on SW 8th Street, or Calle Ocho, the neighbourhood’s main drag. Check out also Cuban Memorial Boulevard, the stretch of SW 13th Avenue just south of Calle Ocho, where a cluster of memorials underscores the Cuban-American presence in Miami. Here, the simple stone Brigade 2506 Memorial remembers those who died at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, during the abortive invasion of Cuba by US-trained Cuban exiles.

Miami Beach’s beaches

With twelve miles of calm waters, clean sands, swaying palms and candy-coloured lifeguard towers, you can’t go wrong with Miami’s cornucopia of beaches. The young and beautiful frequent those between 5th and 21st streets, a convenient hop from the juice bars and cafés on Ocean Drive. From 6th to 14th streets, Lummus Park – containing sand shipped in from the Bahamas – is the heart of the scene; there’s an unofficial gay section roughly around 12th Street. North of 21st, things are more family-oriented, with a boardwalk running between the shore and the hotels up to 46th. To the south, First Street Beach and South Pointe are favoured by Cuban families, and are quite busy on weekends. For good swimming, head up to 85th, a quiet stretch that’s usually patrolled by lifeguards.

Miami nightlife and entertainment

Miami’s nightlife is unsurpassed in Florida, and is among the best in the country. At the clubs, house and techno beats are the most popular, followed by salsa or merengue songs spun by Spanish-speaking DJs. Most of the action is centred in South Beach, with cover charges averaging around $20. Door policies are notoriously fierce at current in-spots; the places listed below include laidback local haunts as well as some of the hotter bars and clubs. The free new Times magazine (published Thurs), offers listings of what’s going on where and when – including gay and lesbian info.

Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)

With a $35 million infusion of cash and valued artwork from real estate developer Jorge Pérez, the Miami Art Museum controversially rebranded itself and opened as the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in late 2013. And with a new name, a renovated face – the institution moved to the (also rechristened) Museum Park (formerly Bicentennial Park) into a stunning building overlooking Biscayne Bay. The collection contains a substantial haul of post-1940 artworks (strong on Latin American artists), and showcases outstanding international travelling exhibits (the first focused on the work of Ai Weiwei).

South Beach

Occupying the southernmost three miles of Miami Beach is gorgeous South Beach, with its hundreds of dazzling pastel-coloured 1920s and 1930s Art Deco buildings. By day, the sun blares down on sizzling bodies on the sand, but it’s worth braving an early-morning wake-up call to catch the dawn glow, which bathes the Deco hotels in pure, crystalline white light. By night, ten blocks of Ocean Drive become one of the liveliest stretches in Miami, as terrace cafés spill across the specially widened sidewalk and crowds of tourists and locals saunter by the beach.

Loosely bordered north–south by 20th and 5th streets, and west–east by Lenox Avenue and the ocean, the area referred to as the Deco District actually incorporates a variety of styles: take one of the informative walking tours offered by the Miami Design Preservation League to learn the difference between Streamline, Moderne and Florida Deco, not to mention Mediterranean Revival.

If the tourist hordes get too much, head a block west of the beach to Collins Avenue, lined with more Deco hotels and fashion chains, or to Washington Avenue, which tends more toward funky thrift stores and cool coffee bars. For an extension of that aesthetic, head for the Lincoln Road Mall (between Alton Rd and Washington Ave), a sparkling pedestrianized zone of shops and cafés where the beautiful people stroll and graze.

Wynwood and the Design District

North of downtown and NW 20th Street, the Wynwood Art District is home to one of the largest and most dynamic concentrations of art galleries in the nation. Though it’s relatively safe to explore, galleries are spread out and the area is dodgy at night, so this is one part of Miami best experienced by car. Highlights include the Rubell Collection, 95 NW 29th St (rfc.museum), a massive modern art collection housed in a warehouse that formerly held drugs confiscated by the federal authorities. Further north, the Design District (miamidesigndistrict.net), hemmed in by 36th and 41st streets between Miami Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard, is also worth a wander, crammed with hip restaurants and designer furniture stores. One standout studio here is Locust Projects, 155 NE 38th St #100 (locustprojects.org), a warehouse crammed with tantalizing multimedia installations.

This feature contains affiliate links; all recommendations are editorially independent.

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Andy Turner
10/2/2020
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