“This is the crossroads of the Americas,” a Miami resident once told me — and although they’re known for their bragging, it was barely an exaggeration. It may be one of America’s most popular destinations, but Miami is one of the least American places in the 50 states — a city where Spanish is more often than not the first language, with the nations of the Caribbean and South and Central America contributing heavily to this swaggering gumbo of cultures bubbling in the Florida heat.
You come for the beach (all 85 of them) and the nightlife — Miami is up there with Vegas as the US clubbing capital, and few bars are as idyllic as those found in the South Beach hotels. But you come back for the city: a place leaning into the elements, of bridges scything across waterways, yoga classes on the sand, and a culture that revels in its uniqueness, rather than trying to be cookie-cutter American.
I came here to experience the nightlife, but was captivated by South Beach’s art deco architecture (the world’s largest concentration of 1920s and ’30s buildings) and by the water, so warm and calm. The braggadocio fascinated me, too. I’d never been anywhere so unashamedly brash and materialistic as South Beach. No wonder Gianni Versace made it his home.
Today’s Miami is unrecognisable from that of my first visit a decade ago. Like its West Coast cousin, Las Vegas, it’s gone from a beach city geared towards tourism to one centred around locals, and that embraces its downtown area. The neighbourhoods are reinventing themselves, from skyscraper-packed Brickell to the Design District, stuffed with flagship stores and designer labels; from Wynwood (once a rough neighbourhood, now an arts district so popular that artists are declaring it over) to Little Havana — for years a no-go area for tourists, now one of Miami’s most unique draws. The city today is proud of its Latin heritage — South Beach’s famously glitzy vibe, based around bling and good looks, is largely gone. Nights out now are more relaxed affairs, often featuring Cuban cabarets and drinks in bars hidden within taco stands.
Of course, no location can match that of South Beach. Two of my guilty pleasures are waking up to dawn over the Atlantic (as I did on my last trip, while staying at the low-key Loews Miami Beach Hotel), or watching Ocean Drive mutate from a quiet architectural relic in the morning to a catwalk of the beautiful come dusk. But there’s more to Miami than the obvious. Time to feel its rhythm.
Where to eat
In food, as in all other areas, the emphasis is shifting towards the Downtown area. One of the first of the new wave of restaurants was Mandolin Aegean Bistro, which opened in the tamarind-fringed garden of a 1930s house near the Design District in 2009. The ‘Aegean’ menu (essentially Turkish and Greek) combines everything from sucuk to saganaki, with vegetables from their organic garden.
Mignonette, set in a nearby former gas station, is an oyster bar and seafood restaurant with a Cajun flavour, where even simple dishes (like snapper with beurre blanc sauce) are something special. And if you fancy something heavier, Quality Meats, which opened last year in an art deco former hotel, is a steakhouse with a difference: the veg comes from local farms and staff wear butchers’ coats and make dishes like steak tartare tableside.
But there’s no contest when it comes to the most iconic place to dine: Gianni’s, at Casa Casuarina, aka the Versace mansion; now a hotel where visitors can dine. The Italian food is great, and prices aren’t bad for South Beach, but it’s the setting that’s out of this world: the eight tables overlook Versace’s gold-plated pool and you can explore the property between courses. Dress to kill, obviously.
Bodega is the place to be seen in South Beach — a ‘secret’ bar beyond a fridge door at the back of the eponymous taco shop. And for a quirky take on the classic South Beach hotel bar, try 1930s House, at Thompson Miami Beach, with a Cuban band on Friday.
There’s further evidence Miami nightlife is reacquainting itself with its Cuban heritage at Ball & Chain, which opened in 2014 and has singlehandedly revived the bar scene in Little Havana. A re-envisioning of the music joint that was here from 1935-1957 (Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole performed here during segregation), it’s now a place where hipsters and Cuban OAPs alike drink mojitos, dance to the house band and watch shows on the garden’s pineapple-shaped stage. Elsewhere, at El Tucán, new in Brickell, a full-on Cuban cabaret channels the Havana of the 1950s.
But Wynwood is the place for serious nightlife. Start with a craft beer at Wood Tavern and work your way down the street until you reach Coyo Taco, another fantastic Miami restaurant with its own hidden bar behind a secret door.
But Miami’s ‘going local’ focus of the past few years has extended to its shops. Wynwood and Sunset Harbour — a formerly industrial pocket of central South Beach — are now the places to go for all things ‘made in Miami’. Wynwood’s main strip is home to a growing number of shops, as well as galleries: Plant the Future, whose ‘plant art’ now graces South Beach hotels like The Miami Beach EDITION, sells beautiful, high-class terrariums; Wynwood Letterpress does custom stationery, as well as selling everything from candles and keyrings to notepads and paper from local makers.
Over in Sunset Harbour, local brand Eberjey — which styles itself as ‘the opposite of Victoria’s Secret’ — sells delicate lingerie, swimwear and loungewear, while surfshop TKS Miami has its own line of clothes, as well as offering paddleboard tours of Sunset Harbour and its islands, and lessons on South Beach. Panther Coffee, a local brand that’s mushrooming across Miami, sells its own roasts from its cafe near Eberjey.
Little Havana is the place to go for Cuban cigars and Latin American art. Luis Molina Fine Art Gallery, for example, exhibits Afro-Cuban paintings, while Romena Camacho sells her beautiful Ecuadorian beaded jewellery at her Little Havana To Go store. The Miami Preservation League’s Art Deco Gift Shop, meanwhile, is a cut above your average gallery store, with vintage posters, magazines, clothes and jewellery as well as modern pieces inspired by the visual arts design movement.
Top 10 local tips
02 Yes, this is a hot city, but locals love their air con. Don’t go out without layers.
03 Umbrellas are another essential, thanks to the tropical climate.
04 Up early? Join the locals for the 7am free daily yoga classes on South Beach itself (at Third Street level). Borrow a mat from your hotel and bring a donation for the teacher.
05 Miami’s Cuban influence shines through in its coffee. Seek out a sweet, strong cafecito at hole-in-the-wall joints around town.
06 South Beach’s art deco architecture is like nowhere on Earth. Don’t forget the residential streets, either.
07 South Beach may be huge, but it’s often packed. For a quieter experience, go south of Fifth Street, or north of 23rd.
08 Avoid the restaurants touting for business on Ocean Drive — however good the ‘deal’ looks, there are always better places to eat.
09 Miami is particularly disability-friendly, and the city offers free ‘beach wheelchairs’ that navigate sand and even water.
10 If you plan to hop between South Beach and Downtown, it’s worth buying a ticket for one of the tour bus loops — unlimited city-wide for 48 hours.
Books: Miami, by Joan Didion (out of print but available online).
Time Out Miami & the Florida Keys. RRP: £12.99.
On screen: Countless films and TV shows have been shot here, from Scarface and There’s Something About Mary to Dexter and Miami Vice.
Places mentioned: Sense Beach House.
How to do it
Travelbag has four nights, room-only, at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, including flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic from £1,259 per person.
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)