By: David Appell
Sprawling, sometimes sexy, unruly, and occasionally outrageous, Greater Miami has become an urban mix unlike any other in America: one part sun-splashed resort playground; one part glamorama party capital; and one part (the biggest, in fact) bustling, Hispanic-flavored sprawl – parts of which feel more like Latin America than the United States. It's a magnetic combination that has long attracted the attention of showbiz types, both for filming (from CSI: Miami to Miami Vice and from the campy The Birdcage to the hopped-up 2 Fast 2 Furious) and hanging (in the old days it was "fly me to the moon" with Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, now it's, yo, the likes of J.Lo, Paris Hilton, Uma Thurman, Oprah, and Kanye West).
The long, skinny island of Miami Beach – and specifically image-conscious South Miami Beach (that's South Beach or SoBe to you), with its charming Art Deco District and sizzling dining and club scenes, has for the past decade reigned as one of America's capitals of cool (so cool, in fact, that designer Roberto Cavalli recently launched a $60-a-bottle vodka to be sold only in Miami, along with New York and Los Angeles). It's the kind of place where you might spot Cuban boat people washed up on Ocean Drive or a guy walking a leashed mountain lion on Lincoln Road. Sure there's some pretty interesting and even cultural stuff to do out here, but it's really all about "the scene" – by day, sun and sand amid scantily-clad, hard-bodied rollerbladers and volleyballers; by night, dining and partying amid a mix of the rich, famous, and fabulous (leavened by a good smattering of none of the above). In recent years, a number of seasonal events have sprung up or been cooked up to raise SoBe's profile even further in various areas, from cuisine (February's South Beach Wine and Food Festival) to music (the Winter Music Conference) to art (Art Basel).
If you have three days, you'll have your hands full with South Beach (where you really don't need a car). But if you can make it down for five to seven days, by all means rent some wheels and cruise over the causeway off the sandbar, to areas like Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Little Havana, and the Everglades. These and other parts of Miami-Dade county, where most of the locals live, get less attention than South Beach but have lots of cool cultural and historic attractions, not to mention the caffeinated, Spanish-accented flavor that has turned the tip of South Florida into the capital of Latin America. And it, too, is undergoing a boom – especially evident in the ever-burgeoning condo towers and downtown's huge, futuristic new Miami Performing Arts Center (due to open in October 2006). The mainland parts of Greater Miami presents a sometimes strange mix of poverty and conspicuous consumption but many can be entertaining – and certainly always eye-opening.
Greater Miami includes over a dozen separate incorporated cities (of which the city of Miami is just one) and unincorporated areas, but the city of Miami Beach, on a long barrier island, is where most leisure travelers head, especially to its southernmost 23 blocks, an area known as South Beach. North of here, the high-rise hotels and residences of Miami Beach's 'condo canyon,' give way to communities such as Surfside and Sunny Isles (with resorts of various sizes and price ranges), as well as Bal Harbour, with its famously upscale condos and shopping (and so snooty it insists on spelling its name, Anglo-style).
A half-dozen causeways connect these beach cities to mainland Miami, where car culture generally reigns. Crossing MacArthur Causeway from South Beach (past the cruise and shipping port), you're in downtown Miami; some blocks north is the Design District and its galleries of upscale furnishings and objets d'art, followed by the Biscayne Boulevard corridor; at the north end of Biscayne Boulevard, before entering Broward County, you'll find the prosperous city of Aventura, with the area's largest mall and one of its most exclusive resorts.
Heading west of downtown takes you to funky Little Havana, home now not just to Cubans but many immigrants from all over Latin America and especially Central America. Southwest of Little Havana is one of Miami's most upscale and picturesque areas, Coral Gables, with some good shopping, restaurants, museums, and other attractions – not to mention magical banyan-lined lanes with palatial Spanish-colonial-style homes.
South of downtown, the Rickenbacker causeway leads to Key Biscayne, home to the Seaquarium (on Virgina Key) and several upscale resorts and public beaches. Down the coast along U.S. 1, you'll find yourself in Coconut Grove, a once super-charming 1920s harborfront town of wood cottages and cobblestone lanes that's morphed from boho hippie-haven (in the '60s and '70s) to a super-pricey bourgeois neighborhood of shops and homes today. Attractions include historic homes, the topnotch Coconut Grove Playhouse, and a science museum/planetarium.
Touring Miami is still for the most part a do-it-yourself proposition, but there are several local companies to help you out here and there, starting with Miami Nice Tours, great for an overview, bay cruise, or day trips to the Everglades, Keys, or Fort Lauderdale (305/949-9180; city tour combinations $25-$62). A more recent addition is Duck Tours Miami ($26) which, though a bit hokey for some tastes, does combine a good glimpse of South Beach and downtown with a cruise around the bay peeking at the waterfront homes of the rich and/or famous. A somewhat less detailed but definitely cool new way to see another side of South Beach is via day- or nighttime Segway tour with Florida Ever-Glides (305/695-4245; $65 for 2 1/2 hours).
Most people start in SoBe, to take in the Art Deco buildings up and down Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Ocean Drive. This streamlined, breezily-tropical-feeling architecture heavy on lines and circles is unique in America, and ranges in time from the 1920s to the 1950s, and in aspect from the compact (the boutique, low-rise hotels of Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive) to the monumental (e.g. the Ritz-Carlton and Meliá Royal Palm); don't miss the nautical-flavored Art Deco Welcome Center (305/672-2014) at 10th and Ocean, which also offers information and guided walks; indeed, art deco aficionados should consider the architecture-and-history stroll that leaves from here (Wed, Fri–Sat 10.30am; Thurs 6.30pm; $20; $15 self-guided audio tour).
Running along the eponymous South Beach, Ocean Drive has traditionally been the destination's top draw, and remains a biggie, its string of Deco darlings made even more distinctive at night by tropical-hued neon. Most of these buildings house restaurants and/or hotels, with a sprinkling of shops. Amid all this, at 11th Street, you'll spot Casa Casuarina, a grandiose mansion arising behind a looming metal fence; it achieved notoriety in the 1990s as the over-the-top pleasure palace of designer Gianni Versace, who was murdered before it in 1997. Today, the casa serves as an events venue and private club that costs a cool $30,000 to join (it's not otherwise open to the public).
Right across from all this, of course, is one of SoBe's central lures – the eponymous beach. Lying beyond Lummus Park, a little strip of green running the length of Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th Streets, the wide stretch of sands draw families (between Third and Sixth Streets), gay boys (around 12th), and everyone else in between; amenities include public toilets, outdoor showers, chair/umbrella rentals, and volleyball nets. Above 15th and below 5th, the park stops and the fancy beachfront hotels and condos start – but various streets will still take you out to the sand and Atlantic Ocean, which are free to all.
Along Washington, which amid its Deco charm and sometimes interesting shops, clubs and eateries also has stretches of sleaze (à la head shops, tourist-crap emporia, and a strip club), there are several highlights. Toward its southernmost end, the Jewish Museum (301 Washington Ave., 305/672-5044; Tue–Sat 10am–5pm; $5, $4 seniors/students), housed in a small former synagogue with beautiful stained-glass windows, provides among other things a glimpse at the early-20th-century origins of South Beach, which was essentially a vacation ghetto to which Jews were relegated by the rich goys uptown. Heading northward, you'll see an imposing white building called The Wolfsonian (1001 Washington Ave., 305/531-1001; Mon-Tues, Sat-Sun noon-6pm, Thurs–Fri noon-9pm; $7),a quirky, striking museum of decorative arts, design, furniture, and artwork especially relating to 20th- and late-19th-century social movements in the US and Europe. Then, several blocks north, have a stroll along the charming little European-style stretch leading off Washington calledEspañola Way, lined with darling little boutiques and sidewalk restaurants that are like little slices of France or Spain.
Several blocks farther north, running from Washington west to Alton Road, another main drag that has seen a wildly successful renaissance is the eight-block stretch of Lincoln Road that has been turned into a pedestrian mall abuzz most of the day and night with both visitors and locals reveling in its dining, shopping, galleries, funky 50s Deco fountains and ornamental structures (plus a bona-fide gem of a building, the recently renovated Colony Theater), and a street life that ranges from shirtless studs whizzing by on rollerblades to the crazy guy who dances for money. Duck into the South Florida Art Center at the corner of Meridian Avenue (305/674-8278; daily 11am–11pm; free), where you can watch artists at work in their various ateliers and buy their wares.
One last stop for the culturally inclined is the Bass Museum (2121 Park Ave.; 305/673-7530; Tue-Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 11-am–5pm; $8), recently renovated/ expanded and showing off a world-class permanent collection (including Botticelli and Rubens) and world-class rotating exhibits.
When you're ready to expand your horizons, head west over the Biscayne Bay–spanning MacArthur Causeway to downtown and Watson Island. Families with kids might especially want to stop on the latter, located just before downtown Miami. To your right as you drive westward over the causeway is Parrot Jungle Island (305/258-6453; daily 10am–6pm; adults $25, ages 3-10 $20; parking $6) an elaborate zoo-type complex that is of course strong on our feathered friends but also features critters from orangutans and crocodiles to giant snakes and land tortoises (some presented during regular daily shows, others available for petting). Right across from Parrot Jungle is the Miami Children's Museum (305/373-5437; daily 10am–6pm; $10), a big, state-of-the-art bundle of educational fun that's one of the best we've seen of its kind (highlights include a fire engine simulator, TV and music studios, remote-control boats, and a great arts-and-crafts center; parents can even arrange to have their tots entertained here for the day while they're off doing more adult-type activities). Also worth a quick detour along the causeway are Star and Palm islands, reachable via short bridges and harboring mega-million mansions, some of them belonging to celebs like Oprah Winfrey.
Right off the causeway, downtown Miami is mostly a high-rise business district but does have several tasty carrots to dangle before culture-lovers. The monumental, fortress-like and slightly forbidding Metro-Dade Cultural Center (101 W. Flagler St.) houses the Miami Art Museum (Tue–Fri 10am–5pm, weekends noon-5pm; $5) which mixes provocative shows with a mod collection (including Stella and Frankenthaler), and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (Mon–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5) whose engrossing, sometimes interactive exhibits delve into the recent and not-so-recent past of South Florida and Caribbean. Heading up Biscayne Boulevard to the northernmost reaches of downtown, areas around the Design District – a square mile of fancy stores, galleries, and design firms with a smattering of restaurants – are starting to come into their own, especially so Wynwood, bordered by NW 17th and 37th streets, which has evolved into a hot contemporary arts district with nearly 60 galleries and studios; look for the Rubell Family Collection (95 NW 29 St.; Wed–Sun 10am–6pm; $5) and MoCA at Goldman Warehouse (404 NW 26 St.; Thu–Sun noon-5pm, $2).
From downtown you can veer southward toward Key Biscayne, where Virginia Key's Miami Seaquarium (305/361-5705; daily 9.30am–6pm; $35) served as the backdrop for Flipper; today you'll find look-alike dolphins, not to mention assorted manatees, sea lions, and Lolita the killer whale; check ahead, though, as damage from Hurricane Wilma has forced the Seaquarium to stay closed until an unspecified date in early 2006. Also over here is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center (305/361-6767; daily 10am–4pm; call ahead to reserve; tours $2-$50), which runs fascinating naturalist-led walks, bike rides, and kayak/snorkel trips along local beaches and eco-systems. Finally, if South Beach's strand is too much of a "scene," come out here for the area's most fetching, laid-back alternative: "lighthouse beach" in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area (1200 Crandon Blvd.), with wooded trails, the eponymous 1825 lighthouse, a snack bar, changing/toilet/shower facilities, and chair/umbrella rentals. A slightly livelier beach more popular with locals (and their boom boxes) is nearby Crandon Park (4000 Crandon Blvd.), with two miles of fetching, palm-dotted sands and similar amenities (minus the lighthouse, of course).
Reached by driving west from downtown along SW 7th Street, Little Havana is a cluster of neighborhoods centered on SW 8th Street (aka "Calle Ocho") roughly between downtown's Brickell Avenue and SW 37th Avenue. It was here that the Hispanicization of Miami picked up speed in the early 1960s as Cubans started fleeing Fidel Castro's dictatorship. Most of that era's immigrants have moved to ritzier or roomier environs and newer Cuban refugees tend to settle in a Greater Miami city called Hialeah, several miles to the northwest, so these days Little Havana has been left increasingly to immigrants from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Furthermore, much of main drag Calle Ocho is frankly dumpy – but key parts of it still make for an interesting stroll among art galleries, classic Latin restaurants such as Versailles (see Dining), and unique shops such as Little Havana to Go (Cuba-related paraphernalia, at No. 1442) and Aguila Vidente (santería voodoo supplies, at No. 1122). Watch the old gents in starched guayabera shirts still animatedly playing dominos in Domino Park on the corner of 15th Avenue, and catch the cigar rollers at La Gloria Cubana (No. 1106). You can also check out the nearby Latin American Art Museum (No. 2206); the huge, colorfully-themed fiberglass roosters stationed at strategic intervals up and down the street; the Stars of Calle Ocho (embedded Hollywood-style in the south sidewalk between 13th and 16th Avenues and especially clustered in front of the McDonald's); and at the corner of 13th Avenue, extending from SW 8 Street several blocks along the median, an eternal flame and series of monuments to the Bay of Pigs invaders and other veterans and victims of the fight against the Castro regime (get an eyeful of the huge, protruding roots of the towering tropical tree there, called a ceiba, or silk cotton tree).
A short drive south of Little Havana, this waterfront community is known for its lush, rainforesty-feeling landscaping and fun downtown, anchored by a small Mediterranean-style mall/cinema complex called CocoWalk. It used to be quite the boho/hippie hangout, and is now known more for a mix of shops and restaurants catering to both high-rollers and high-schoolers. Park and stroll around, perhaps stopping in at one of Miami's oldest extant homesteads and "hammocks" (native hardwood forest), the 1891 Barnacle House (3485 Main Hwy.; Fri–Mon 9am–4pm, otherwise by appointment at 305/442-6866; $1), now run as a state park and where concerts on the lawn and under the stars are also held.
Outside the downtown Grove, families and/or astronomy geeks might be want to pop into the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium (3280 S. Miami Ave.; daily 10am–6pm; $20); space and other natural phenomena come alive for kids and adults alike at this cool and interactive facility. That said, one of the top draws – not only in this area but in all of Florida – is actually the Vizcaya mansion (3251 S. Miami Ave.; daily 9.30am–4.30pm; adults $12, ages 6-12 $5) right across the street, business mogul James Deering's early 20th-century take on a grand Italianate renaissance palazzo. Brides, debutantes, and tourists alike flock for picture ops amid lush formal gardens overlooking Biscayne Bay, or to simply gawk at the scenery and roomsful of priceless antiques.
Just west of Little Havana and Coconut Grove, one of South Florida's original planned communities (back in the 1920s) has a colonial-Spanish theme and street names to match (eg., Ponce de Leon, Granada, and Sevilla). These days, the residential parts of Coral Gables are wonderful to drive through, with grand old (and not so old) houses surrounded by huge banyan trees that provide atmospheric overarching canopies and entertainingly gnarly, complex trunks. Meanwhile, mainland Miami's only other appealing downtown, a section of Coral Way known as Miracle Mile, is undergoing a makeover that makes for great strolling and hanging out, with a growing number of cool restaurants, ice-cream parlors, watering holes, and shops.
Of outlying Gables attractions, one of our favorites is the spring-fed Venetian Pool (2701 De Soto Blvd.; 305/460-5357; Nov–March Tues–Sat 10am–4.30pm, Apr–Oct various daily schedules between 10am and 7.30pm; $6.25-$9.50 depending on season), dug out from coral rock in the 1920s and surrounded by fantasy Mediterranean-style walls, turrets and bridges; possibly the most romantic swimming hole anywhere, it attracts everyone from model types (it's popular for photo shoots) to families. Another don't-miss is the historic Biltmore Hotel (1200 Anastasia Ave.) an imposing grande dame favored by Al Capone during his Florida forays; you can have a wonderful meal or simply walk around, gawking at the glamorous Esther Williams-era pool or the soaring, star-spangled lobby complete with bird aviaries. If you're still up for more artwork, the University of Miami's nearby Lowe Art Museum (1301 Stanford Dr.; Tue–Wed/Fri–Sat 10am–5pm, Thu noon-7pm, Sun noon-5pm; $7) is a real treat, with goodies from ancient Rome to Roy Liechtenstein; Old Masters (Tintoretto, El Greco, Rembrandt) to modern biggies (Chagall, Botero, Stella), plus treasures from Africa, Asia, and Native American tribes.
Other Local Attractions
Out in West Miami, some 25 miles west of Miami Beach, Metrozoo (12400 SW 152th St.; daily 9.30am–5.30pm; $11.50, ages 3-12 $6.75) is well worth the drive for its almost 300 acres of natural habitats and uncaged exotic creatures from all around the globe. While you're out here, kids (and quite a few grownups) will also get a kick out of Coral Castle (28655 S. Dixie Hwy.; Mon-Thu 9am–8pm, Fri–Sun 9am–9pm; $9.75), a flight of fancy comprising turrets, fountains, a rocking chair, even a revolving nine-ton door you can push open with a finger – all built out of coral with nothing but hand tools over a 28-year-period in the mid-20th century; the man responsible was a Latvian immigrant who went crazy after his bride went AWOL. These days the place attracts New Agers and paranormal enthusiasts; there's even an annual Mystical Fair.
In North Miami, 20-30 minutes (depending on traffic) up Interstate 95 or Biscayne from downtown, the county's last major art museum is worth a stop, especially if you're on your way to Fort Lauderdale or the impressive Aventura Mall (see shopping). The Museum of Contemporary Art, aka MoCA (770 NE 125th St.; Tue–Sat 11am–5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5) is big, angular, and crammed with paintings, sculpture, and installations (Julian Schnabel and Louise Nevelson are among those on permanent display, while Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo have been showcased in rotating exhibits). The museum is also the focal point of a growing North Miami gallery/restaurant corridor, inevitably dubbed NoMi. As long as you're up here, check out the Ancient Spanish Monastery (16711 W. Dixie Hwy.; Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, last admission 4pm, weekend hours vary; $5), a 12th-century cloister carted over from Spain by William Randolph Hearst and set up here in the 1950s; aside from ranking as Western Hemisphere's oldest building, it's currently doing duty as an Episcopal church.
The last beach worth mentioning in the Miami area is yet further north, at Sunny Isles, where the clothing-optional crowd favors the northern section of the lovely, locally popular Haulover Beach, east of Collins Avenue between 156th and 159th streets. There are changing/toilet/shower facilities here, along with chair/umbrella rentals, but you might want to bring your own drinks and snacks.
If you are fortunate enough to have time to spare, give a thought to branching out to the other highlights of South Florida. While the region also includes tony Palm Beach (a roughly 90-minute drive north) and Naples (two hours west, on the Gulf Coast), our top choices for a day out of town include the nature-loving Everglades, architecture-filled and history-rich Key West, and the shopping mecca of Fort Lauderdale. Regarding transportation, you can sign on to day tours of the Everglades, Key West, or Fort Lauderdale with Miami Nice Tours (305/949-9180). Still, to get the most out of Fort Lauderdale, as well as the rest of the Keys, you'll need your own wheels.
This majestic river of grass and mangroves takes up millions of acres of the western reaches of Miami-Dade County, with the Everglades National Park, occupying a million and a half of those same acres; here you can still see gators and other wildlife and take air-boat rides. It's usually no more than an hour's drive from Miami; get there by taking the Tamiami Trail west or US 1 south to Homestead and Florida City. There's also an outpost of the local Miccosukee Indian tribe that's interesting to visit. Summer is very buggy and not as optimal for wildlife-spotting.
The chain of hundreds of coral islands stretching 150 miles into the Atlantic are neither chic nor elegant, but rather a laid-back, outdoorsy slice of old Florida, right down to the motels and honky-tonk shell shops you'll find lining U.S. 1 as it winds its way through the lot. The best known, of course, is Key West, a lovely three-hour drive south of Miami, famous for its tropical-Victorian-fantasyland feel, Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville vibe, and hedonistic laissez-faire – though on days when cruise ships are in port, the main drag, Duval Street, can turn into a sea of decidedly unpicturesque tourists. Worthwhile local highlights include the Ernest Hemingway Home, Harry S Truman Little White House, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. But Key Largo, with its underwater hotel and spectacular Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is only an hour or so from Miami. Islamorada is another popular destination, and many of the smaller keys have a lot to offer, too. Information on the Keys is available through www.fla-keys.com and www.floridakeys.com.
Just 30 minutes north of downtown on Interstate 95, this one-time sleepy backwater went through the spring-break college madness period to become a vibrant, revitalized business and vacation center with some wonderful shopping (at gargantuan Sawgrass Mills mall, which includes the great new kids' museum "Wanadoo" and the lovely East Las Olas downtown shopping district); a beach promenade and strand you might dig even better than Miami Beach; historic Old South homes such as Bonnet House and Stranahan House; great dining; and exceptional arts scene including a very good Museum of Art (the Museum of Science and Discovery is pretty good too, especially for families). For something a little different, pop into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. A day up in Lauderdale is a day well spent. See http://www.sunny.org for more information.
With about 50 public and private golf courses, Greater Miami's greens offer nothing if not variety. Best putting is at the five courses of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa (4400 NW 87th Ave.; 305/592-2000), including the famed "Blue Monster." If you think the former too far to get to, consider the closest links to tourist haunts: Bayshore Par 3 (2795 Prairie Ave., Miami Beach; 305/532-3350) is within walking distance of South Beach; Normandy Golf Course (2401 Biarritz Dr., Normandy Isle, 305/868-6502) is in Miami Beach, just above South Beach.
Thanks to its long vacation-magnet history, it goes without saying that Greater Miami has a well-developed hotel and hospitality industry indeed; some properties dating back to the fifties and beyond hang on as budget digs, while others have been splendidly refurbished – especially in South Beach's Deco District – and yet others are constantly being built. In fact, we're pleased to report that especially on the upper end, both hotels and restaurants are now increasingly moving beyond style (and attitude) over substance; we're finally starting to see service and amenities to match the sometimes stratospheric prices. For those of you on a more modest budget, fear not, there are still a few quality places to lay your noggin. In addition to the following handful of favorites, check out Shermans Top Miami Hotels.
On the increasingly crowded luxury side of things, the Ritz-Carlton (800/241-3333) in South Beach still delivers, on balance, the best mix of service, amenities, and ambience. With 376 rooms, the beachside property boasts an excellent location (two blocks east of the popular Lincoln Road pedestrian shopping/dining runway, a short stroll north of Ocean Drive) and a retro-mod decor befitting the landmark Deco building it's housed in; one drawback is a pool area that while attractive is a tad short on landscaping and can feel crowded in peak season (though the notorious "tanning butler" may make up a bit for that). Downtown, the Five-Diamond standout is the Mandarin Oriental a 327-room oasis of Asian-tinged luxury, sophistication, and impeccable service, with a nationally acclaimed restaurant and spa, all on a small offshore islet. Finally, we still have a soft spot for Coral Gables' grandiose Biltmore, the 1926 Mediterranean Revival dowager overlooking its own 18-hole links; its 276-room premises are cinematic and its Sunday Champagne brunch in the courtyard legendary.
In the moderate range, the Ocean Drive location and 30 entertaining theme rooms of the fashionista-popular Pelican are well-nigh unbeatable. Over in the Gables, you'll be charmed by a historic ivy-covered jewel called the Hotel Place St. Michel, just off Miracle Mile with European flair, 27 antiques-appointed rooms, and a romantic restaurant with a fine, French-influenced New American menu and a popular Sunday brunch.
Finally, good budget options have not been completely crowded out in Miami. Your most outstanding bets for serious savings in South Beach start with the early 20th-century Clay Hotel, very centrally locatedat Washington Avenue and romantic Española Way; it combines impeccable dorm-style quarters with nicely furnished private rooms complete with baths, phones, TV, and AC. Your best alternative to cheesy airport motels is the utterly charming Miami River Hotel, with four pink-and-green cottages on the Miami River just west of downtown, convenient to the Grove, Gables, and Little Havana. For the atmosphere, pool, Jacuzzi, gardens, 40 antiques-stocked rooms, and daily breakfast, it's a steal.
No Michelin stars just yet, but both the mainland and Miami Beach have in the past several years has really made impressive strides, graduating from a dining landscape populated with a plethora of Latin American restaurants both good and bad, humble and upscale, alongside a slew of the mostly mediocre and the outdated (with notable exceptions, classics such as Joe's Stone Crab and Hong-Kong-quality dim sum at Tropical Chinese). Even the advent of chic dining in South Beach was highly overrated, long on the sizzle, but the quality – eh, not so much. Nowadays that's changing, with more restaurants that are both exciting and stylish while offering true quality and high standards of service. Now we're even starting to see superbly rendered haute versions of exotic cuisines such as Ethiopian (Sheba in the Design District) and South African (South Beach's Madiba). The causeways between Miami and Miami Beach also mark a divide between the strenuously-hip, often expensive South Beach dining scene, and the more diverse offerings elsewhere. But you can also get pricey, precious fare on the mainland and funky, economic eats on the Beach – and there's also no shortage of upscale restaurants worth every penny on both sides. Here's just a smattering of top picks of the current crop.
In SoBe, we've really got to start on the upper end with the renowned, no-reservations Joe's Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave.; 305/673-0365), founded in 1913, updated, and still packing 'em in mid-October to July for its tasty crustaceans and straight-ahead surf-and-turf fare (go early, late, or for weekday lunch). Of more recent vintage – launched in 2004 in the recently-renovated clapboard Brown's Hotel, which in 1915 was the very first hotel built in Miami Beach; Prime 112 (112 Ocean Dr.; 305/532-8112) is a high-end steakhouse with a celebrity following and yummy high-end takes on comfort food (truffle-infused mac-and-cheese, Kobe beef burger). For even more creative "spice route" fusion grub and chic-er surroundings (dig that huge, phantasmagoric tank filled with live giant jellyfish), not to mention a $45 cup of kopi luwak, the world's priciest coffee, head to a 2005 newcomer called Vix (1144 Ocean Dr.; 305/779-8888) in the Hotel Victor. Finally, what would South Beach dining listings be without gimmicky hotspots? Start with Barton G (1427 West Ave., 305/672-8881), known for its theatricality – desserts like Big-Top Cotton Candy and Over-The-Top Popcorn Surprise – and a magical, gorgeously lush and romantically lit outdoor patio (the food itself can be a bit uneven). Or try eating good nouvelle French-American fare in bed at B.E.D. (929 Washington Ave., 305/532-9070). Or check out the Bollywood/Middle Eastern flavor and aphrodisiac cuisine of Tantra (1445 Pennsylvania Ave.; 305/672-4765), with its smokable hookah pipes and a hopping late-night scene.
Our mainland high-end favorites include the stylish, popular Chispa (225 Altara Ave., 305/648-2600) in Coral Gables, with possibly the best "Nuevo Latino" (tropical Latin fusion) cuisine in America; try seared, marinated calamari for starters and cap off your meal with the signature caramelized guava cheesecake. Downtown in the Mandarin Oriental, Azul (500 Brickell Key Dr.; 305/913-8288) is still among the top tables in town for its stellar water/skyscraper views and appealing nouvelle Mediterranean cuisine with Asian, Latin, French, and Caribbean influences.
Moderately speaking, happening South Beach choices include Lincoln Road's cool, all-white Cafeteria (546 Lincoln Rd.; 305/672-3663), with sometimes spotty/snotty service but tasty updated comfort food served in a Deco former Cadillac showroom; there are sidewalk tables out front and a buzzing lounge scene in the back. A couple of blocks west, Nexxt Café (700 Lincoln Rd.; 305/532-6643) is one of the premier Lincoln Road venues for hanging, schmoozing, and people-watching; again, service is hit-or-miss but the world-hopping menu is pretty extensive, tasty, and the portions fairly generous. Over on Ocean Drive, the News Café (800 Ocean Dr., 305/538-6397) is a great perch with a good menu that offers a bit of everything – sandwiches, salads, grilled stuff, plus a few Middle Eastern dishes. Just above downtown Miami near the Design District, check out Soyka (5556 NE 4th Ct./Biscayne Blvd. 305/759-3117), an industrial-chic former garage with a diverse crowd and a nice New American menu (the burgers and crab cakes are stand-outs). On the Gables' main drag, we also like the straightforward modern American fare at Houston's (201 Miracle Mile, 305/529-0141), along with the buzzy social scene various nights per week.
For cheap eats, even increasingly pricy South Beach has its treasures. Top of the list and right in the thick of things is Pasha's (900 Lincoln Rd.; 305/673-3919) with indoor/outdoor seating, a funky-mod look and healthy Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean-style grilled meats and salad. Hip locals jam into Lime Fresh Mexican Grill (1439 Alton Rd., 305/532-5463), or go for a little taste of ethnic Miami that you're highly unlikely to find at home: the savory Haitian specialties served amid riotously colorful murals at Tap Tap (819 Fifth St., 305/672-2898), named after that country's colorfully painted trucks. Across the MacArthur Causeway, don't pass up a pilgrimage to Little Havana's Versailles (3555 SW 8th St., 305/444-0240), the comandante of Cuban eateries in Little Havana, where lots of Cubans and other Latins still flock for solid home-style cooking amid amid glass chandeliers and backlit mirrors meant to suggest the Versailles in France. Over in Coconut Grove, very special mention also goes to Scotty's Landing (3351 Pan American Dr., Grove Key Marina; 305/854-2626) for its fresh, succulent seafood and Coronas, served on a covered wharf overlooking boats, water and mangroves, sometimes to the accompaniment of mellow live music.
By now, who isn't über-aware that South Beach has made itself a top contender for America's premier par-tay capital? Some of the reasons for that include Crobar (1445 Washington Ave.; 305//672-8084) a onetime theater with an industrial-chic look, hot DJ's, celeb sightings, live shows, and of course lots of pumping tunes; a newer club along similar lines is Mansion (1235 Washington Ave., 305/532-1525). Also still very hot, glam, and possibly more of a celeb magnet is Opium Garden/Privé (136 Collins Ave.; 305/531-5535), which we like more for its open-air dance floor than the velvet-rope scene and VIP rooms. The scene over on neon-bathed Ocean Drive, meanwhile, is a little less rarefied and more "middle-America" than the above, typified by one of its premier good-time spots, Mango's Tropical Café (900 Ocean Dr., 305/673-4422). More info on the nightlife scene is available at www.cooljunkie.com/miami.
There's plenthy of action across the causeways, too, whether you're in the mood for down-home or upmarket, laid-back lounge or rock-yer-socks disco, spicy Latin or good ol' American roadhouse – will have you aching for more. Put off by SoBe's tightened-up noise and other regulations, the really gargantuan, warehouse-type dance palaces have set up shop over in downtown; the two top hotspots of recent times are Club Space (34 NE 11th St.; 305/372-9378) and The Pawn Shop (1222 NE 2nd Ave.; 305/373-3511).
Downtown, a little farther south, are a couple of worthwhile spots that are both the opposite of the above and very different from each other. Bahía, the poolside lounge at the shiny highrise Four Seasons hotel (1435 Brickell Ave., 305/358-3535) is slick but laid back, and attracts a young, prosperous, and pretty crowd (especially weeknights/Fridays after work) with live music and great drinks and noshes. Meanwhile, the crowd and tunes are more eclectic a few blocks west, at Tobacco Road (626 S. Miami Ave.; 305/374-1198), a small former speakeasy (est. 1912) that still pulls in young and old with its varied music (especially blues); it also serves good burgers and steaks.
If you're staying farther out west, give a thought to the downtown Gables, which has developed hopping scenes even on some weeknights, especially at a pair of restaurant-bars: Houston's (201 Miracle Mile, 305/529-0141) and the recently opened Tarpon Bend (65 Miracle Mile; 305/444-3210). Or check out the great Latin music and vibe at Little Havana's hot little hole-in-the-wall, Hoy Como Ayer (2212 SW 8th St., 305/541-2631), known for playing everything from yesterday's boleros (love songs) to today's salsa; check for the special parties and shows (by regulars such as the nationally known Cuban singer Albita) – any will provide you a night you'll never forget.
Gay nightlife is also fairly strong in SoBe (albeit, strangely, not as strong as it is in less glamorous Fort Lauderdale); many clubs have "gay nights," and promoter Edison Farrow's SoBe Social Club also holds a Friday-night party at Madiba restaurant/lounge and a rotating Tuesday happy-hour in different venues each week. The two top permanent watering holes for drinking, dancing, and whatever are still Score (727 Lincoln Rd.; 305/535-1111), with a big, boom-boom two-story interior (dance floor, strippers, and quieter upstairs lounge) and a sidewalk-café-style setup outside, and Twist (1057 Washington Ave., 305/538-9478), a more compact spot, also with two floors, that tends to get going a bit later at night.
Miamians are as mall- and shopping-crazed as anywhere in America, if not more so. And that's not even counting the ever-burgeoning offerings aimed at the wealthy and the chic, nor the multitudes of Latin Americans living or just shopping here.
In South Beach, Lincoln Road boasts more than a hundred stores; some of the quirkier galleries and boutiques hang on among the Gap, Williams Sonoma, Victoria's Secret, and Starbucks. Farther south, you'll still find a few funkier shops on Washington Avenue, while the collection of retailers concentrated on Collins and Washington between Sixth and Eighth Streets tend toward the likes of Armani, Kenneth Cole, Nicole Miller, and Versace.
Over on the mainland, the mammoth and well-done Aventura Mall (19501 Biscayne Blvd.), just below the Broward County line, is South Florida's largest mainstream shopping complex, where Macy's and four other department stores anchor more than 250 retailers from midrange to exclusive.
Below Aventura and across the William Lehman Causeway, at 180th Street (and a roughly 20-minute drive up Collins Avenue from South Beach), is the ritzy city of Bal Harbour (so snooty it simply insists on the British spelling, dahling), whose Bal Harbour Shops complex (9700 Collins Ave.) is still, for many people throughout America and beyond, the gold standard for Platinum-Card consumerism. Its 500,000 square feet harbor two stories worth of chichi retailers (Cartier, Prada, Dior, Armani, the usual suspects), and several fine-dining restaurants.
Downtown Miami, meanwhile, is good for a price break from the city's upscale shopping. Along Flagler Street, check out bargains on electronics, clothing, and jewelry, or head to somewhat touristy but fun Bayside (401 Biscayne Blvd.) with lots of cute – and yes, plenty of upscale – shops, eateries, and entertainment/amusements including sightseeing and party cruises out on the Biscayne Bay.
Heading west, you'll find shopping in Coconut Grove a mixed bag of upscale, downscale, and off-the-scale, with boutiques lining the pedestrian downtown area and occupying two smallish malls, CocoWalk (3015 Grand Ave.) and the somewhat less successful Streets of Mayfair (2911 Grand Ave.). Meanwhile, over in Coral Gables, the half-mile downtown stretch of galleries, bridal shops, and boutiques known as Miracle Mile , has been joined by a Bal Harbour wanna-be, the Village of Merrick Park (San Lorenzo Ave. between Ponce de Leon Blvd. and LeJeune Rd.): gracious design, fancy shops, the lovely Elemis day spa, and upscale dining, anchored by Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
When To Go
With its subtropical climate, Miami can get uncomfortably hot in July and August (though this is usually not much of a hardship, since air conditioning is ubiquitous), but is delightful late fall through spring. For that reason, November through May is generally considered high season, and the hot months low season (though even the dog days of August aren't always a slam-dunk in terms of finding available rooms in SoBe, thanks to families on summer vacation and Europeans who get most of the month off from work). Best bang for the buck in our book is September and October, after the kids go back to school but before the winter kicks into high gear. The main catch there is hurricane season: The season runs June through November, but late-season hurricanes (like Katrina and Wilma in 2005) have a way of popping up and throwing vacation plans awry. Fortunately, if you're going to South Beach and downtown, these areas bounce back very quickly, with minimal loss of electricity – so unless, say, your flights are screwed up by an actual storm hitting on the day you're due to fly, you have a pretty decent chance of riding things out with minimal inconvenience. Power outages have tended to be more of an issue in the Gables and Grove.
November to May
June to August
Best bang for your buck:
September to October
Nearly a hundred airlines serve Miami International Airport (MIA), including almost every major US carrier; there's also good service from Europe and of course excellent airlift to/from Latin America and the Caribbean. It's a little bit farther away, but the better-managed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport (FLL) offers generally cheaper flights and less congestion; in addition to also hosting all major airlines, it has made something of a specialty of attracting lowfare carriers such as JetBlue, ATA, Southwest, and Spirit. Flight times to South Florida run about two-three hours from the Northeast; three-to-four hours from the Midwest; and five-to-six hours from the West Coast.
Incidentally, Amtrak or Greyhound, and via Interstate 95 in your own car are, of course, very viable alternate ways down to Miami, but its location near the bottom of the big, long peninsula that is Florida means long travel times by ground (it takes six to seven hours just to make it up to the Georgia border from down here).
GETTING INTO AND AROUND MIAMI
In ideal traffic (these days meaning mostly after evening rush hour), it can take as little as 20-25 minutes to drive from MIA to South Beach, about 15 to downtown and Coral Gables; taxis to downtown should run up to $21, to South Beach $32. You can also order up a Super Shuttle (800/258-3826) to South Beach for about $14–$16 or downtown for $10– $12.
All the major car-rental firms have depots at MIA, as well; but if you're absolutely sure you will be going to South Beach and not ever leaving it during your entire visit, don't bother – gas prices in SoBe are much higher than elsewhere in Miami, parking is a major pain, and you can pretty much walk everywhere anyway. If you're staying anywhere else, or planning to roam far and wide, on the other hand, wheels are critical.
From FLL, a 45-minute to hour-long drive, expect cab fares to be higher, in the $60–$70 range, while shuttle service to South Beach via Airport Express from FLL (954.359.1200) should run you just about $17). There's also a South Florida commuter rail service called Tri-Rail (888/874-7245) with a stop near FLL and a one-way fare of $3, but you have to first take an FLL shuttle to Tri-Rail's Dania Beach stop, and on the other end it leaves you at MIA, from which you'd have to transfer onward.