Miami, immortalised by cult film classics like Miami Vice, Taxi Driver as well as by Will Smith's memorable homage to 'the city that keeps the roof blazing', in the song, Miami, (released in 1998), used to be the city where the party never stopped, but the truth is that Miami's growing up. A former playground for the elite in the showbiz realm, including Gianni Versace and Madonna, Miami, now more of a haven for rest and relaxation, has seen its hey-day. There is still however, a strong focus on its South Floridian Art Deco and with the annual international fair, Art Basel, Miami's Design District, and Wynwood, Miami is becoming an important gateway for contemporary art between South and North America.
The first thing that will hit you as you arrive at Miami Airport, is the surprising importance of Latin American culture and tradition but especially the language. With Miami having the largest Latin American population outside of the South American continent, don't be surprised if certain fluent Spanish speakers don't speak English.
Miami can be split into two distinctive areas: South Beach (or 'SoBe') and Downtown. South Beach is the island linked to the mainland via bridges'.
Many people travel to Miami hoping to stumble into half-naked celebrities roller-blading along the palm-fringed Ocean Drive, and while Ocean Drive is fun for its Art Deco hotels, there is more to Miami. Parallel to Ocean Drive is Collins Avenue, which takes you all the way up to Aventura. Collins is where most of the life unravels. With the main shopping area, enormous iconic hotels made famous by the 'movies' or by famous international designers, like the Delano and its Philippe Starck refit, Collins is also where you will find a surprising array of cheap and tacky souvenir shops selling 'I love Miami'-branded t-shirts and key-rings along with the most revealing bikinis ever made.
As Miami matures and evolves away from its brash glitzy image, the pace has slowed despite the steady openings of upmarket hotels and bars. Miami now attracts a mid-range class of tourists coming to relax on the beach and indulge in cocktails at lavish hotel bars; low-budget tourists who have always dreamt of experiencing the fast life of their imagined 'vice city'; high-end art dealers, and businesspeople. Despite this divided atmosphere, Miami still hides a few gems, which we tell you about further down in the 'To do' and 'To see' sections.
For art-lovers, there are a number of spots to visit, including the art squat on Espanola Way, the art centre on Lincoln Square, Wynwood, the Design District, as well as Coconut Grove for a more classical and upmarket touch. Originally an artist colony, the neighbourhood has since evolved into more of a residential area with a few galleries (by appointment only). Hotels are also beginning to have impressive multimillion-dollar art collections. Our top three are the Sagamore, with its incredible collection of contemporary art and installations; the W South Beach, the group's flagship hotel has original pieces by some of the art world's biggest names including Basquiat, Warhol and Gormley; and the Four Seasons Downtown with original Botero sculptures throughout the shared spaces of the hotel. And last but not least, Gianni Versace's mansion, now a luxury boutique hotel, is also impressive to visit during afternoon tea out in the garden by the pool, which contains 24-carat gold tiles - on a more dramatic note, it is at this house, on the doorstep, that Mr Versace was assassinated in 1997.
Art-Deco aficionados must head to Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue to get a real sense of how different South Floridian Art Deco is in comparison to the movement in Europe. For the contrast, visit Artesan Antiques, in the Design District . Also, the Viceroy Miami is an important stop to make as the designer, Kelly Wearstler, has made an outstanding contribution to the scene through the hotel's chic and elegant décor, especially up in the restaurant.
If what you have come to the city for is a bit of star-spotting, the places you are most likely to see them is lounging by the pool at several key hotels, including The Setai, The W, The Tides (which is actually where part of the video for Will Smith's 'Miami' was filmed), the Delano and the Mondrian.
Party in Miami: Nightlife in Miami takes place at luxury hotels, with the W bar top of the list (but from midnight onwards). Mary Brickell Village is also a popular neighbourhood in Downtown Miami, where there are lots of bars and restaurants. The best time to party in Miami is during Art Basel and Fashion Week.
For visitors on an extended holiday, there is also Key Biscayne to visit, which is about a half-hour drive from South Beach. Here there are numerous parks and pleasant cycling itineraries to explore.
In all fairness, without its thriving atmosphere and pungent smell of wealth, there isn't much else to Miami apart from the few essential places we cite here. Number one on our list is Wynwood, just north of Downtown. A run-down area that nestles outside the city centre sandwiched between a disaffected railway and several neighbourhoods with an unsavoury reputation is a patch of several streets lined by warehouses. The walls and buildings are covered in street art, making Wynwood the largest outdoor museum of street art and graffiti. Truly impressive, especially due to the neighbourhood's derelict and eerie atmosphere - you cannot leave Miami without having visited these streets.
Next on the list is Little Havana, which is a small cluster of streets in the same style found in the Cuban capital. Cigar manufacturers, shops, restaurants and bars with live Cuban music in the evenings are some of the things you will find here. An hour or so is all one needs to explore the area. Little Haiti is also worth a quick visit - most people, even locals, won't have heard of it, and those who know it will discourage you from going, telling stories of frequent police ambushes and gang shoot-outs. However, it is a calm neighbourhood mainly inhabited by the small Haitian community that came over to Miami in the 1980s when the green settlement was still called 'Lemon City', due to the lemon groves in the area. Today, Little Haiti is the poorest area of Miami. Here you will find another atmosphere to the rest of the city - despite the poverty-stricken atmosphere, there are friendly faces and the locals like to strike up conversation with the few tourists who stumble past. The area is known for its voodoo centres and shops as well as Sweat Records, a decent record shop whose founders also organise music nights Downtown.
As far as the well-known spots go, the Design District, between Little Haiti and Downtown, is a good one for design aficionados; here you will find everything from furniture to Louboutin's latest creations. There is also Espanola Way, a picturesque street modelled on the narrow winding streets of Barcelona's Gotico, where there is a handful of eateries, from French to Mexican and you will also find an artist 'squat', which is open all day to visitors - a good place to go for dinner in the evening.
For a spot of shopping, there is also Lincoln Square on 'Collins and Lincoln' (meaning where the two roads cross), where there is another artist centre that is worth a look-in.
If you want to spend some time exploring the Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys, then allow yourself at least 10 days in total. Three days in Miami is plenty, a couple of days at the Everglades (with a night spent at the park) should be sufficient and at least three days in the Keys in necessary to truly experience the relaxed pace of life in this bizarre microcosm. Remember that driving to the Keys takes at least four hours there, four hours back.
Getting around Miami is extremely costly via taxi, so if you are planning on exploring the sights, it is best to hire a car or to have a go at using the city's well-developed public transport (buses and rail).
Another important factor is season in Miami. If you want to experience Miami as it used to be, then the best time to visit is during Art Basel. However, expect prices to be sky-high and book early. If you are on a budget, avoid January (peak time for New Yorkers or 'snow-birds' as the Miami crowd calls them. The best time to visit is in February outside of school holidays as the weather is hot and prices are lower.
There are several things to avoid in Miami. The first is Ocean drive for food. Unless you've got a table at the Avalon, forget it. Ocean Drive lines Miami Beach and is the touristic heart of the city, however, the restaurants occupying the ground floor of most iconic Art Deco hotels are to avoid. Most serve the same average overpriced Mediterranean fare and persistant hawkers will make sure that you succumb to their price-slashing practices. If you are however looking for somewhere to eat on Ocean Drive for breakfast, head to The Pelican Hotel's restaurant for the best pancakes on the Drive and for a quick bite to eat at lunch try The Porch at the The Betsy Hotel (also a good choice for lunch or dinner), situated at the very beginning of Ocean Drive.
When exploring the Everglades, tourists love taking the fan boats to explore the crocodile-ridden marshes - however, and ironically enough, there is nothing worst for destroying the area's ecosystem, so we encourage our readers to choose another way of exploring the park and its marshes.
When in the USA, tasting a good burger or two obliges, however one mustn't leave without trying the first class Cuban fare on offer at Puerto Sagua (700 Collins Avenue), and at small modest eateries dotted around Little Havana. Try a sandwich mixto at the counter or ropa vieja (meaning 'old clothes' in English), a minced beef dish served with rice, beans and plantain bananas. For something quick and easy, head to Jerry's Famous Deli (1450 Colline Avenue)- another gem when it comes to Art-Deco.
Local specialities aside, the place to have dinner is Downtown at the Viceroy Miami Hotel. Not only does its retro-Art Deco restaurant look absolutely incredible with its emblematic futuristic décor, but the menu is divine. The food here is easily the best we have had the privilege of trying throughout our frequent travels and needless to say, comes very highly recommended.
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