Say it in the right, sing-song lilt of the local Cubans or South American immigrants and the city’s name tells you everything you need to know about its core values: ‘Me-ah-mi. Bienvenido a Me-ah-mi!’
More than any other city in the US, Miami — and more specifically, Miami Beach — is a ‘me’ culture. The luxury city magazines you can flip through in hotel rooms will tell you all about the highbrow culture of Miami — the world-class ballet, the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, the downtown Adrienne Arsht Center, the Design District and the art galleries and murals of Wynwood. That’s all here, sure — but it’s not what brings the world’s party people, its beautiful people, its crazy people and its straight-up curious tourists to the city. Whether they’re parading down Lincoln Road Mall in their highest platforms, strolling Ocean Drive in as little as possible or pogoing to the beat at LIV nightclub in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel, most of the visitors here are hell-bent on having a good time — and being seen by everyone else while they’re at it.
The good news? If that’s not your speed, you can still enjoy a relaxing getaway in South Beach. You just have to know where to look… past the glitter and the fake tans.
What to do
Prime swimming — and moderate surfing if there’s enough wind — is down at this end of the beach, South of Fifth Street (‘SoFi’). But if you’re more interested in eye candy, head to the stretches of sand around 12th Street (the gay beach) and between 15th and 22nd Street, where all the coolest hotels are — it’ll keep you entertained for hours. Don’t forget the sunscreen: Miami sun is brutally hot. If your hotel doesn’t have a beach zone, you can still rent umbrellas and a lounger, and order piña coladas and mojitos, from little huts along the sand.
Forget monuments and art; my favourite sight in South Beach is its people. Along with the sand, the best place to ogle them openly (everyone does) is along Lincoln Road Mall, which runs across the island of South Beach from Washington Avenue (one block from the beach) to Alton Road. That’s where you’ll find one final landmark worth checking out: 1111 Lincoln — a parking garage of all things, but a £38m one, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, which also houses high-end boutiques and hosts lavish events in true Miami over-the-top style.
Where to eat
Sunset Harbor is also home to Pubbelly and Pubbelly Sushi, the former the pioneering original, serving tapas-style plates of rillettes, terrines, braised meats, sausage, Asian street-food staples and even a few vegetables.
South Beach has a strange relationship with food. Despite the near-constant 30-plus-degree weather, and 90% humidity, Italian restaurants and steakhouses reign supreme. The hip hotels along Collins Avenue all have overpriced eateries; two arguably worth the mark-up are The Bazaar by José Andrés at SLS South Beach (creative twists on Spanish tapas), and Restaurant Michael Schwartz at The Raleigh (farm-to-fork freshness). If it’s not too sweltering, I opt to sit outside at both. For an edited version of The Bazaar’s menu, go for Bar Centro on the hotel’s patio, along with signature G&Ts, Cuba Libres and caipirinhas, beneath spinning ceiling fans. Outdoors at The Raleigh, it’s near impossible to take your eyes off the grand art deco curves of the pool, which dates to 1941.
If you’re looking for cheaper eats, highly recommended are Cuban sandwiches or rice and beans dishes at Los Olas Café (T: 00 1 305 534 9333), a great greasy spoon diner, or at La Sandwicherie, a French sandwich shop with outdoor counter seating along a back alley. There’s often a wait but it’s worth it, both for the French bread stuffed to the brim, and the crowd. On my last visit, rapper Ludacris — a Miami local — pulled up and waited in line for his order.
A little further north, on Indian Creek Drive, is another cocktail spot, The Broken Shaker, located at Freehand Miami — a newish hostel that takes a leaf out of the Ace Hotel’s book for its stripped-back cool. The bar itself is tiny but it’s a lovely retro-style corner to sample your way through the latest elixirs infused with shrubbery selected from a collection of mason jars. Of course, the main reason locals flock here is to sit beside backpackers and sip craft cocktails or Miller High Life bottles in brown paper bags in the backyard. This lush, leafy garden, adjacent to Freehand’s pool, is one of the loveliest places to spend a Sunday afternoon, which is when you’ll want to come, since it’s locals’ night. The Broken Shaker recently added food to its menu, so you can chow down on ribs, burgers, flatbreads or donuts as you drink away a sun-drenched evening.
For more of a late-night thing and the potential to meet locals, head to new Korean barbecue joint Drunken Dragon. Yes, it’s a restaurant — you can cook your own dinner at your tabletop grill if you feel so inclined — but you can also pop in to enjoy a mai tai or some other Polynesian-style cocktail. Drunken Dragon is open until 3am on weeknights and 5:30am on weekends. What could be better than pork buns at 2am?
However, if you prefer your booze dens to be straight-up beer and liquor, no food (or, perhaps, decorum) required, there’s always Anthony Bourdain’s favourite dive bar in South Beach, Mac’s Club Deuce (T: 00 1 305 531 6200). Here, regulars will yell at you if you try to open the blinds on a sunny afternoon and you may be overruled if locals don’t like what you select on the jukebox, but it’s always a good time with one of the most diverse, strange and wonderful crowds in Miami. Banish thoughts of chill-out music drifting over banquettes, Deuce is as far away from a velvet rope as South Beach is from south London.
“Let me fill you in on the latest retail news,” says Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, a local travel journalist and blogger, who describes herself as a ‘black-belt shopper’. “We’ve a brand new Gap, Athleta next door, and over on the corner of Lincoln and Washington Avenue is a new Zara. The old Van Dyke Café [an institution that, sadly, recently closed] is going to reopen as a Lululemon.”
For something a little more unique, browse Frankie in Sunset Harbor and Jessie Boutique on Alton Road for slinky dresses and tops to wear out. Gents, Cottage Miami, on West Avenue, will give you the GQ-at-the-beach look you need to sail past doormen. And for the super-fancy threads, head to high-end boutique The Webster Miami, on Collins Avenue, or cab it up to Bal Harbour Shops, an air-conditioned, palm-lined label paradise.
Where to stay
In the existing mix, popular spots that are reliably cool — and more importantly, comfortable — include W South Beach, where the rooms feel more like artsy studio apartments, and Soho Beach House. Another hotel company you may be familiar with has recently landed on the beach: The Metropolitan by COMO, bringing with it the brand’s signature Como Shambala Spa experience. The Met Miami has just 74 rooms in a historic art deco building. Simple, clean lines and shades of pastel green and silver create a streamlined, soothing atmosphere; it feels, in fact, like you’re in a spa, even when you first step foot inside the lobby. The spa and its hydrotherapy pool and sun deck on the hotel’s rooftop don’t disappoint. The hotel’s excellent restaurant, Traymore (the original name of the building) is known locally for seafood but also serves the healthy Como Shambala dishes and juices for the resident health nuts.
If that all sounds too hippy-dippy, you can head a few blocks south to The Redbury South Beach. This intimate hotel has just 69 rooms and a boho rock concept created by Matthew Rolston, which means there are record players and vinyl from Capitol Records in each room.
Another recent addition to the batch of boutique hotels, Gale South Beach, has a stylish rooftop pool with lashings of sun and views of the iconic Delano and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. In December, the Gale opens its extension, the Gale Suites at Kaskades — an annex made up entirely of suites, each with a private balcony and outdoor tub.
South Beach is walkable but a bike is faster and breezier. DecoBike kiosks are numerous. Prices start at $4 (£2.30) per 30 minutes and you can return bikes to any kiosk. Cheaper still is the South Beach Local bus, which circles the island both ways and costs just 25 cents. Cabs are also cheap, averaging $10-15 (£5.85-£8.80) between key locations.
When to go
February to June or during November when temperatures are a balmy 25C. The summer and early autumn — hurricane season — is very humid. December-January is peak season and prices soar.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens can travel to the US without a visa for up to 90 days, but must pre-pay and register online before travel for $14 (£8.28). esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.70.
Health: Buy travel insurance — US healthcare is very expensive.
International dial code: 00 1 305.
Time difference: GMT -4.
Miami & the Keys. RRP: £14.99. (Lonely Planet)
How to do it
Expedia offers seven nights at The Metropolitan by COMO, with flights with TAP Portugal from London Heathrow to Miami via Lisbon for £1,104 per person. Or fly direct on Virgin Atlantic for an additional £63 per person.
Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPMiamiMex
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)