No city in the United States has evolved into as many disparate identities in so short a time as has Miami. A bit more than a hundred years ago this former Spanish settlement, located along the Miami River where it spills into Biscayne Bay (now the center of the city of Miami), attracted neither interest nor population. That’s understandable since up until that point, the only way to reach Miami was by boat.
That changed in 1896, when financier Henry Flagler extended his new Florida East Coast Railroad south from its previous terminus at West Palm Beach. By the turn of the 20th century the first of Miami’s real estate booms was underway, a pattern that continued unabated right up to the Great Depression. Miami was one of the few places on earth where someone could offer you a get-rich-quick deal on 10 acres of swampland, and there was a good chance that you could actually get rich on it.
The 1960s saw another sea change in Miami, generating another boom cycle, brought about by the unlikely combination of the advent of universally available air conditioning and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. As Cuban refugees fled in droves to the U.S., they settled in that part of our country most like their former homeland in climate — namely, South Florida. Miami, whose tropical temperatures were now tamed by indoor climate control, thus tolerable to an influx of workers, became the gateway to the Caribbean for any number of businesses, which soon rivaled tourism as the keystone industry.
The Caribbean population influx also profoundly changed Miami’s personality. It is now largely bilingual, with French and Creole also gaining a foothold with increasing waves of immigration from Haiti. It’s hard to walk a block in Miami without coming into contact with Cuban food, Cuban music, Cuban culture. It is a dynamic, vibrant city steeped in multiculturalism.
Across the bay from the mainland is the renovated Art Deco district, including South Beach, which has become a mecca in its own right, attracting celebrities and those who follow them, whether it be with camera or with autograph book. South Beach is also home to Miami’s nightclub, fashion, music and hip dining scene, and rivals Venice, California, as the place to go to people-watch.
Not all is development (or overdevelopment, some would say). Though the seaside corridor has been urbanized almost from the tip of Florida to midway up the coast, there is still much for lovers of nature and the great outdoors. The Everglades are within a half-day’s drive to the southwest. Off the Atlantic coast a short distance to the south is the only living coral reef in the continental United States. Birders wax poetic over opportunities to spy tropical shore birds and waterfowl found nowhere else in the States.
And where else in the U.S.A. might you have to brake to avoid alligators crossing the road?
The Art Deco-styled waterfront district of South Beach has it all — beautifully restored historic buildings, funky shops and boutiques, elegant restaurants and casual cafes, fabulous people watching, and a wide, clean beach. The Art Deco district runs from 6th to 23rd Streets between Ocean and Lenox avenues, and it’s a great spot for a self-guided walking tour (the Art Deco District Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive, has maps).
Rent a car and head to Key Biscayne, an island connected to Miami via two bridges and the Rickenbacker Causeway. Nature, beach and marine enthusiasts can choose between the Miami Seaquarium and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.
Explore Miami history via the neighborhoods of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove (renting a car is advised). Coral Gables was developed in the 1920s and is best known as home to the Biltmore Hotel, noted for its resemblance to Seville’s Giralda Tower. Bring a swimsuit and head to the Venetian Pool, a fantasy-themed public pool created out of a rock quarry.
Coconut Grove is Miami’s oldest section, with construction beginning in the 1870s. It’s also a place of fashionable boutiques and restaurants. Worth a detour: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, an early 20th-century Renaissance-style — and quite grandiose — estate built for a Chicago industrialist who wanted to recreate a 16th-century Italian estate.
Little Havana is the famous 3.5-square-mile site where many Cubans fled after escaping their country. “Calle Ocho,” or 8th Street, is the main drag and central point (particularly between 11th and 17th Avenues) and it’s best as a walking-around destination.
Serenity seekers should head to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where manmade lakes wind around one of the world’s largest palm tree collections — not to mention other verdant examples of flora and fauna.
If you love art, don’t miss Wynwood, a former warehouse district that’s been revitalized by galleries, cafes, street art and the incredible Wynwood Walls (a mural arts project). This neighborhood is also home to the Margulies Collection, which displays a rotating selection of modern art. Check out Viator’s Wynwood tours.
Another must-stop for art lovers is the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAAM), which boasts a fantastic waterfront location in addition to its collection of international modern art. Before or after your visit, leave a little time to sit in one of the museum’s loungers or benches overlooking the bay.
The New World Symphony’s Wallcast series offers some of the city’s best free nights out. Pack a picnic and sit out on the lawn as an evening concert is simulcast onto the wall of the building outside. Concerts run on select dates between October and April.
Head about 30 miles north to Fort Lauderdale, where attractions include lively Las Olas Boulevard (for shopping and dining), Bonnet House (a historic home) and a couple of fine museums.
“Floribbean” is the catchphrase for Miami’s dominant style of cuisine, which combines flavors and ingredients from Latin America, the Caribbean and the American South. Miami’s proximity to the sea means you’ll find fresh seafood on many menus, and its large Cuban community makes this perhaps the best city in the U.S. to find classic dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), ropa vieja (shredded beef) and, of course, Cuban sandwiches. And don’t forget the mojitos!
Cena by Michy is the second coming of former Food Network host chef Michelle Bernstein’s Miami restaurant (formerly known as Michy’s). Now with a revamped dining room and menu, the restaurant offers a bevy of inventive but not overly fancy dishes such as goat cheese cavatelli, sweetbread tacos and seared octopus.
For all-day casual fare and plenty of prime people watching, head to the News Cafe in Miami Beach. There’s a little bit of everything on the menu at this sidewalk cafe, including pasta, pizza, paninis, salads, seafood and even Middle Eastern dishes.
Located right next to Wynwood Walls’ colorful murals, Wynwood Kitchen & Bar serves up a delicious Latin menu that includes dishes such as ceviche, vaca frita and 48-hour crispy pork with cheddar chipotle grits.
For some of the best Cuban food in town, head to Morro Castle; described by some as the epitome of a hole in the wall restaurant, it nevertheless gets rave reviews for its food and affordable prices.
A bit against the grain of typically glitzy South Beach, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar is rural American South kitsch, with reclaimed-wood ceiling beams, Mason jar lamps and the like. Enjoy snacks (from deviled eggs to watermelon and cheese), salads (from iceberg wedge to smoked brisket), free-range chicken and fresh seafood specialties. Plus, choose from a wide selection of bourbons lining the shelf above the bar.
Serving up mid-priced comfort food like burgers, buckets of fries and all-day breakfast, Big Pink is a ticky-tacky Miami Beach institution. It’s also a great option for families.
City Hall feels different depending on when you come — clubby and political during weekday lunch, when many of Miami’s movers and shakers come to make deals; fun and lively in the evenings; and spiritual during Sunday brunch, usually accompanied by a live gospel singer. The menu features plenty of seafood and comfort food.
Shopping in Miami
Get your plastic ready because Miami has plenty of places to splurge. In addition to dozens of malls and mega-malls (we’ve listed a few favorites below), there are several major shopping districts in South Beach and other areas of the city.
For serious shopping in South Beach, head straight to Lincoln Road, an outdoor shopping area of unique boutiques that runs between Lenox and Washington Avenues. Here you can hunt for housewares, clothes, art and other goodies — and take a break at one of its many sidewalk cafes.
In north Miami Beach are the upscale shops at Bal Harbour, where you’ll find big-name designers like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Jimmy Choo, Tiffany and Fendi.
You’ll find more luxury brands in the up-and-coming Design District, including Cartier, Dior, Hermes and Versace — as well as numerous art galleries and design studios.
In Coral Cables, the Miracle Mile (Douglas Road and 37th Avenue to LeJeune Road and 42nd Avenue) has a mixture of fashionable boutiques, spas and eateries. Specialties include clothing, furniture and housewares, and specialty gifts.
Miami is home to a number of malls and shopping centers. Our favorites are Bayside Marketplace — for its wealth of dining and shopping options and its convenient location within walking distance of the cruise port — and the Dolphin Mall, Miami’s largest mall. It’s divided into three districts: Ramblas (designed to look like a village square with several eateries), Playa (where you’ll find casual clothes and home decor) and Moda (home to more upscale boutiques).