South Beach is usually the first thing people think of when it comes to Miami; famous for its turquoise Atlantic shoreline, kitschy Art Deco architecture, Latin swagger and pulsating nightlife. While this portrait is accurate, Miami is in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Neighbourhoods such as Wynwood, the Design District, Downtown, Little Haiti and Little Havana have injected the city with newfound energy, buzzy homegrown restaurants and hipster bars.
Thanks in part to Art Basel Miami Beach, North America’s largest contemporary art fair, held in December, Miami now boasts a bona fide international arts scene year-round. Landmark museums include Perez Art Museum Miami and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Still, the simple pleasure of a day at one of the city’s beautiful beaches is hard to beat.
Get your morning started by taking in the sights and sounds of South Beach. The heart of Ocean Drive spans from 5th to 15th streets and runs parallel to Lummus Park and the beach. It’s a cacophonous swirl of neon lights, pulsing music, Art Deco architecture and sidewalk cafés. Instead of grabbing a table, take a stroll to get a taste of this somewhat infamous strip.
Get lunch at La Sandwicherie, a charming lunch counter specialising in enormous sandwiches on baguettes or croissants. I love the chicken salad, piled high with lettuce, tomato, onion, cornichons, olives, peppers, Swiss cheese and crave-worthy French vinaigrette. Eat at the counter or take it down to the beach for the perfect picnic.
Stroll down the pedestrian Lincoln Road Mall, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay across the heart of South Beach. Here, you’ll find sidewalk cafes, art galleries, performing arts venues, boutiques and prime people watching. Don’t skip Oolite Arts, a mainstay since 1984, to view their latest exhibition and roughly 20 open artist studios to get a glimpse into their creative process. You’ll also find shops, like Zara and H&M amongst local boutiques.
Freshen up for dinner and head to Sunset Harbour, a trendy South Beach enclave overlooking Biscayne Bay that locals flock to. Grab dinner at Pubbelly Sushi where you’ll delight in creative, deconstructed sushi by beloved local chef José Mendin, with a backdrop of playful anime-like characters drawn on the walls. The bigeye tuna roll on crispy rice drizzled with truffle oil is one of my favourite dishes. Afterwards, head down the street for drinks at Bay Club. You’ll find a local crowd mingling over craft cocktails and glasses of Italian wine.
If you’re not ready to call it a night, you’re in the right place. South Beach is famous for its unrivalled nightlife and filled with hedonistic megaclubs. Start at Basement at the chic Miami Beach EDITION hotel. This multi-faceted, semi-subterranean lounge features an upscale sports bar, a four-lane bowling alley and a small ice skating rink. For the true club kids, all roads lead to LIV, the two-level megaclub at the Fontainebleau, known for headlining DJs ranging from Tiesto to David Guetta. It’s smart to purchase tickets in advance. The main acts go on at around 2am, when the confetti starts flying and glow sticks come out.
Start your morning in Little Havana at the legendary Versailles Cuban restaurant where you can either grab a table inside for a proper breakfast or order from the ventanita (little window) and sample sweet, strong Cuban coffee with pastelitos, such as guava and cream cheese pastries, croquetas and empanadas.
You can also book a Little Havana Walking Tour to explore Domino Park, Cuban bakeries, rum shops, cigar shops, art galleries and fruit markets in just a few short blocks along the famed Calle Ocho.
Head downtown for the afternoon and visit the Pérez Art Museum Miami on Museum Park overlooking Biscayne Bay, set inside an architecturally significant building by Herzog & de Meuron. The contemporary collection focuses on international art of the 20th and 21st centuries from the perspective of the Americas. There’s also a lovely museum restaurant, Verde, offering grab-and-go selections, as well as a formal dining room with spectacular views of the bay (expect seasonal salads, pizza and pasta).
Continue your culture crawl north to the epicentre of the Wynwood Arts District. Wynwood Walls is an outdoor museum devoted to street art. Wander past the walls to discover works by artists such as Shepard Fairey, Retna, Kenny Scharf and the London Police. The sprawling complex includes a garden, indoor gallery and the studio of local artist Peter Tunney.
Under the guidance of executive chef Brian Nasajon and bar manager Ben Potts, Beaker & Gray is a Wynwood staple serving up dishes made with seasonal, sustainable ingredients. As a result, their menu of small plates is packed with flavor. Not to be missed items include cheeseburger croquettes with aji amarillo, hamachi with honey and buttermilk and pumpkin gnocchi with pork rib and manchego. Cocktails are equally creative and made with fresh ingredients.
If nightclubs aren’t your thing, not to worry. Miami has its fair share of mellow late-night haunts. While you’re in Wynwood, hit up Gramps is another great option with a large outdoor patio and multiple rooms playing host to anything from rock music to stand-up comedy. Order the Penicillin, made with Scotch and honey.
If you’re still not ready to call it a night, head downtown to The Corner. This hip cocktail bar, which is more New Orleans than Miami, stays open until 7am on the weekend, so the party really never has to stop.
Looking for a free romantic evening out in South Beach? Grab take-away burgers from Shake Shack on Lincoln Road and head to New World Symphony’s SoundScape Park. On most Wednesday evenings from October to May they screen free films under the stars projected onto the landmark building designed by Frank Gehry. There’s also a programme of free simulcasts of symphony performances.
From the South Pointe jetty to 85th Street, Miami Beach is dotted with quirky and colorful lifeguard stands that are often a reflection of the area’s Art Deco architecture. Think red and white stripes to resemble a lighthouse, or neon pink and orange for tropical flair. They mark city blocks to help orient you – and make for great photo opps.
Did you know?
With a melting pot of Latin cultures from Cuba to Central and South America, Spanish is widely spoken throughout Miami. While you’ll get by with English, it doesn’t hurt to brush up and have some fun with the locals.
Where to stay
Faena Miami Beach is a theatrical fantasia in red, gold and tiger print, dusted with mind-bending contemporary art. Both commissioned and acquired art is deeply incorporated into the hotel’s design scheme. Outside by the pool, a woolly mammoth skeleton dipped in 24-carat gold stands inside a temperature-controlled glass case overlooking the beach, palm trees swaying overhead.
Doubles from $500 (£355).
The Plymouth has a louche, subtropical clubhouse appeal with an oval-shaped lobby outfitted in rich jewel tones and an original Art Deco mural restored by artist Roman Chatov. It feels like a hidden secret, located a couple of blocks off the beach on Collins Park in South Beach’s northern perimeter.
Doubles from $200 (£163).
This hip hotel-hostel is housed in a 1930s Art Deco building, formerly the Indian Creek Hotel. The Roman and Williams design is eclectic with mix-and-match furniture, but Freehand Miami’s highlight is the lush, expansive courtyard with a nearby pool, home to the award-winning Broken Shaker cocktail bar, which has a party vibe at night and a mellow one during the day.
Dorms from $30 (£22).
What to bring home
When to go
High season in Miami runs from November to April, when many visitors from colder parts of the US and from Canada descend in droves on the city for some subtropical warmth and sunshine. Daytime temperatures in winter are normally in the mid 20s. In summer, it’s much hotter (typically around 30 degrees celcius during the day) and more humid. As this is the low season in Miami, hotel rates fall by as much as 50 per cent (August and September are normally best for absolute bargains) and everywhere is less crowded.
Various major events take place through the winter. Topping the list is Art Basel Miami Beach in December – North America’s largest and buzziest contemporary art fair. There’s also the Miami Book Fair International in November; the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and Miami International Boat Show in February; and the Ultra Music Festival in March.
Know before you go
British Consulate General: 1001 Brickell Bay Drive, Brickell, 33131; 00 1 305 400 6400; gov.uk
Sightseeing passes: A Go City pass (smartdestinations.com), valid for one, two, three or five days over a two-week period, covers admission on 34 attractions. Prices start from $89 for a one-day pass (children aged three-12 $69)
Tipping: It’s customary to leave between 15-20 per cent for service. Unlike elsewhere in the US, an 18 per cent gratuity/tip is often automatically added to your bill at restaurants and nightlife spots in South Beach. This isn’t always the case, so to avoid over- or under-tipping, be sure to check your bill to see if a gratuity has been included
Getting around: Taxis and ride-sharing apps, like Uber and Lyft, are readily available throughout Miami, especially in popular tourist destinations like South Beach, Wynwood, the Design District and Brickell. While Miami is a driver’s city much as Los Angeles is, there are a variety of public transportation options that can be useful, especially if you’re traveling within a single neighbourhood. The free Miami Beach Trolley operates multiple loops throughout the city. There’s also an extensive Metrobus and Metrorail system throughout mainland Miami, as well as the free Metromover for getting around downtown.
Local laws and etiquette:
• In the US, sales tax is added after a purchase and not included in advertised prices. Sales tax in Florida is six per cent: this applies to purchases in shops, and in bars and restaurants. A hotel tax of 13 per cent applies in Miami. Prices given in this guide for attractions, restaurants, bars and hotels have been calculated to include sales tax.
• Roughly 70 per cent of Miami’s population is Spanish speaking. However, most people are bilingual, so you’ll be able to communicate just fine in English.
• Drinking alcohol on the beach is technically illegal, but widely practised. Just be discreet and you’ll be fine.
• Topless sunbathing on the beach is common in multicultural and exhibitionist South Beach.
Emergency services: 911; non-emergencies, 00 1 305 476 5423
Currency: US dollar
Time difference: - 5 hours
Flight time: London to Miami is around nine hours
Shayne Benowitz has called South Beach home for over a decade. She loves the city’s blend of subtropical beauty and international cosmopolitan flair.