Pastel-hued deco design buildings, palm-fringed boulevards and sun-kissed bodies on white-sand beaches; Miami – the beating heart of the state of Florida.
During the two and a half years that I spent living and working in North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to experience the variety that the Sunshine State has to offer on numerous occasions; this included two separate trips to Miami. My first time in the aptly named ‘Magic City,’ I travelled with a friend, and we celebrated the New Year, hitting up the key attractions in South Beach and Downtown Miami. The second time I visited, I was by myself; I hired a car and ventured out a little further.
Miami and its surrounding suburbs could almost be a world of their own, a melting pot of ethnicities from around the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami is one of the few genuinely international cities in the United States – over half the population is Latino and more than 60% speak predominantly Spanish – with so many different facets, it’s hard to believe they all fit in one place.
When tourists think of Miami, they generally consider Miami Beach to be a part of Miami when in fact it is a municipality of it its own. Miami is on the mainland, while Miami Beach is four miles east across the Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach, more specifically Ocean Drive in South Beach (1st to 11th Street) is everything that you see in the movies, white sand, art-deco design, cruising cars and in-line skaters.
The pastel shaded heart of South Beach is the world-famous Historic Art-Deco District. Stretching between 5th and 23rd Street, along Ocean Drive, Collins Drive and Washington Drive, the whimsical pastel buildings evoke the beauty of Miami and were, in the early 20th century, meant to arouse the future and futuristic modes of transport. Today, the 800 plus 1930s and 1940s art-deco structures have National Protection. Ocean Drive has some of the most striking art-deco architecture in Miami Beach. Between 11th and 14th streets you’ll see some of the best examples: the Congress Hotel shows pristine symmetry in it’s three story exterior. The Tides is one of the most beautiful nautical themed hotels, and the Cavalier (pictured below) flaunts its seahorse theme, in stylised depictions of the sea creature.
Dotting the shores of South Beach itself are the brightly coloured South Beach Lifeguard stands. Each stand has a unique art-deco design and features an array of bright colours. The stands were introduced after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida’s shores in the early 1990s and became a hallmark of Miami’s revival after the devastation. Today, there are 31 chimerical stands scattered along South Beach, and besides providing support to the Miami Beach Patrol Lifeguard staff, they’ve become a cherished symbol of Miami. Each lifeguard stand has its own charm, but my personal favourite is the lifeguard station at 13th street, (pictured below) painted red, white and blue, it depicts the beloved American flag.
South Beach offers much more than just white sand beaches and beautiful buildings. It is home to some of the best bars and restaurants in the whole of Miami, if not the world. Whenever I travel, I attempt to eat local cuisine that is low-cost. Nonetheless, I will always treat myself to at least one meal from an acclaimed restaurant. In Miami, I chose Hakkasan. Located on the top floor of the Fontainebleau Hotel’s spaceship-like tower, Hakkasan is a Michelin star, award-winning restaurant that offers modern Cantonese cuisine. Hakkasan has been rated within the top 20 restaurants in the world by Restaurant Magazine, and after dining here, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s as close to a perfect dining experience that one can have; from the 1930s Shanghai setting to the attentive waiters to the flavour infused food. My recommendation: Crispy Orange Chicken.
Another noteworthy restaurant in South Beach is the Sugar Factory. Located on Ocean Drive itself, Sugar Factory is an American Brasserie famous for its celebrity-inspired Couture Pops. Having dined at another of their locations in the Meatpacking district of New York City, I knew the standard of food would be high and the selection extensive. I wasn’t disappointed. After much contemplating, I ordered a S’mores Martini (non-alcoholic) and the Banana-Split waffle. The waffle was cooked perfectly, and the fruit so fresh and juicy. The martini, however, was unrivalled. The star of the show.
Across Biscayne Bay is Downtown Miami, the beating urban heart of Miami. The bustling epicentre is packed tightly with fluorescing skyscrapers, modern art galleries and a wealth of shops, bars and restaurants. Downtown Miami is a mix of old and new, a neighbourhood of layers and unlike other parts of Miami, you don’t need a car. Free public transport is available to shuttle you from place to place, and parts of downtown are walkable.
It was downtown, from the Bayside Marketplace, north of the Miami river, that my friend and I embarked on our cruise around the Miami Islands. A 90-minute narrated tour past the Downtown Miami skyline, the Port of Miami, Fisher Island, Miami Beach and Millionaires Row – an exclusive area of Miami known for its billion-dollar, star-studded homes. I found our cruise not only enjoyable but informative and marvelled at the grandeur of the houses sprinkled through the Miami islands.
Little Havana is Miami’s vibrant Cuban heart and is the most prominent community of Cuban Americans in the United States. The district is a living, breathing, immigrant enclave and was one of the neighbourhoods I was most excited to explore. Cubans began migrating to Florida in the 1950s, but their numbers swelled after Castro came to power in 1959, and in the 1960s the area was named Little Havana. Its main drag, Calle Ocho, attracts tourists for authentic Latino food and music, however when I wandered off the main track, I saw the neighbourhood unfold.
My first time in Miami, I found a hole in the wall take out (Pinolandia, 119 NW 12th Ave, Miami) and in broken Spanish, I ordered the best Cuban/Nicaraguan food I have ever sampled. Strips of succulent steak, rice and beans and the most delicious Cuban toast. Upon returning to Miami a few years later, I visited the famous Versailles Restaurant, featured in one of my most loved movies, ‘CHEF.’ Versailles restaurant is ranked the number one restaurant for Cuban food in Miami year after year. Be sure to try the celebrated Cuban sandwich if dining at Versailles.
Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue is Maximo Gomez Park, or as the locals call it ‘Domino Park.’ Named after the famous Cuban revolutionary commander, Maximo Gomez, the park is a quintessential hangout for Cuban veterans and families. It is where you’ll find the real Little Havana locals smoking Cuban cigars, talking over the latest headlines, all while playing a game of dominoes.
When I visited Miami solo, I rented myself a car as it allowed me the freedom to explore further. If you head north, away from South Beach, you’ll find the Design District, a mecca for interior designers and home to dozens of galleries and furniture showrooms. Wynwood, the former warehouse district, has quickly become the standout arts hub of southern Florida. Starting with murals, street art and graffiti, today there are more than 70 galleries and museums housed in abandoned factories and warehouses. This thriving district centres around Wynwood Walls, a collection of murals and paintings laid out over an open courtyard. Wynwood walls is as unique as it is creative. Embellished in everything from life-size murals and graffiti quotes to abstract paintings and larger than life sculptures and although the galleries are significant, Wynwood is an outdoor art exhibit, and some of the best art can be found by simply wandering the streets.
Miami is a city of layers, and after visiting the city twice I feel that I have still only scratched the surface. I hope to return one day and explore Little Havana and Wynwood further but also venture to new neighbourhoods, including Coconut Grove. Miami’s oldest neighbourhood; it is an upscale, leafy neighbourhood with relaxed sidewalk cafes, chic shops and bayfront views that exudes bohemian vibes. Little Haiti, steeped in the complex and rich cultural histories of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants that reside here, the neighbourhood is known for its global restaurants, colourful street murals and fruit stand. Nonetheless, Miami, the Magic City, truly offers something for everyone.