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While, technically speaking, Miami is listed as part of the Gold Coast, for our purposes it is very much an area in its own right, a vast, sprawling conurbation of almost 2,000 square miles and nearly six million people. Its official centre is Downtown Miami, but there is also Miami Beach, the suburb of Miami Lakes, South Miami and North Miami Beach. South Beach, or SoBe, is the Art Deco district of Miami Beach, while other notable suburban areas are the island of Key Biscayne, gorgeous Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. The city has a high immigrant population and great ethnic diversity, hence you’ll find neighbourhoods like Little Havana and Little Haiti, where the Caribbean influences are extremely strong and Spanish is widely spoken.
While Miami International Airport doesn’t have as many direct flights a week as Orlando, both British Airways and Virgin do fly here daily, while Fort Lauderdale is barely half an hour’s drive to the north. It is a good three-and-a-half-hour drive from Orlando but only an hour’s flight, while a new high-speed rail link from Miami to Orlando should be operating by late 2019.
This is the place to come for some of the most famous beaches in Florida, scintillating nightlife, culture and the arts (including several great museums), the swankiest resorts, memorable dining and an overall Latin flair that culminates each year in Calle Ocho, “the largest block party in the world,” throughout Little Havana over 10 days each March.
Miami was founded in 1896 after railroad tycoon Henry Flagler was persuaded to bring his burgeoning rail route south from Palm Beach. It was named for the Miami River, which in turn took its name from an 18th century Indian tribe. Its reputation as a great holiday destination grew in the 1940s and 50s, and it became a favourite haunt of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, and it has enjoyed renewed growth and popularity since the 1990s. This is also the Cruise Capital of the World, with more cruise ships calling at Miami than anywhere else.
While the unbroken 14-mile stretch of gorgeous sands is the No.1 reason most people head here, there is a lot more to Miami than just the beaches. You definitely need to spend plenty of chillout time in places like South Beach, Mid Beach, North Beach, Bal Harbour, Sunny Isles Beach and Golden Beach, but this long sliver of barrier island shouldn’t be confused with Miami proper, where the main attractions are located.
The area’s history can be seen at the extensive Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Coconut Grove and the chic HistoryMiami, while the superb 1920s Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is a Designated Historic Landmark and is worth seeing even if you’re not staying there. The nearby Venetian Pool is another amazing piece of local history in a unique Mediterranean setting.
Miami Seaquarium, located in Key Biscayne, is guaranteed fun for all the family with its array of animal exhibits and dolphin and killer whale shows, while Island Queen’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’ cruise around the waterways highlights the real glamour of the city. There are also a variety of city tours that highlight the whole area, by bus, boat, vintage car and even by seaplane.
Miami’s art scene is another highlight, and you’ll find plenty to admire, in both contemporary and traditional terms, at Wynwood Walls with its street art, the Latin-focused Frost Museum of Art and the flagship Perez Art Museum. In addition, there are architecture walking tours of the Art Deco District in Miami Beach, which add significantly to the history and appreciation of the area.
As well as the headline attraction of the Seaquarium, Miami boasts a host of animal-themed options, none better than Jungle Island, a family adventure into various natural habitats, including parrots, kangaroos, orangutans, lemurs and their signature liger (a rare tiger-lion hybrid). By the same token, there are more than 40 exotic species to discover at the excellent Zoological Wildlife Foundation, and more again at Zoo Miami, with a number of special animal encounters to enjoy.
Of course, this is also another gateway to the great Florida Everglades, and there are numerous tours on offer that will provide a taste of this unique eco-environment that covers a vast portion of south Florida. From airboat rides to tram tours, this is an essential adjunct to any Miami stay and a look at the true heart of the Sunshine State and its vast array of nature, from the inevitable alligators to roseate spoonbills, the green tree frog, a profusion of butterflies and even armadillos.
Sports & Activities
Miami offers all of the Big Five spectator sports, so you will never be short of a game (or three) to watch. The Miami Dolphins of the NFL (American football) play from September to December; the Miami Heat are the basketball option from October to April; baseball is on offer with the Miami Marlins from April to October; the Florida Panthers are the ice-hockey team of the NHL (also Oct-Apr); and David Beckham’s Miami team in Major League Soccer is due to start in 2020.
Play Golf in Miami
Unsurprisingly, golf is the big participation sport hereabouts, with more than 100 courses to choose from, most of them with gorgeous layouts and challenging water features, while watersports also feature significantly among the local offerings, especially for sailing, kayaking and parasailing. There is an excellent Speedboat Tour that shows off the prowess of this Miami Vice-style powerboat, as well as a number of other boating and water-tour options based at the Bayside Marketplace.
Possibly the most significant aspect of Miami is its ethnic diversity, with a huge array of Latin and Caribbean influences, which make for a fascinating array of experiences around the city. The Cuban district of Little Havana makes for a great place to visit on any of several organised tours (especially as the food is so good), while Ermita de la Caridad del Cobre is the most important Cuban church and a truly peaceful oasis. Look out in particular for the cigar factories where you can see how the hand-rolled art of cigar-making is still kept alive.
Be aware Miami runs the gamut from some extremely poor neighbourhoods to some of the wealthiest. Both Coral Gables and Coconut Grove are great places to take a tour and admire the high-priced homes and mansions, while downtown Miami itself is a maze of glittering high-rise towers and condominiums. Boat tours that include ultra-exclusive Fisher Island will be able to showcase the amazing celebrity culture of the city, which is also on display along Ocean Drive in South Beach, where the beautiful people like to be seen in the evening.
This is definitely the place to come for a major shopping expedition, with numerous malls, purpose-built centres and some of the most high end retail opportunities in Florida. Just to start with, the Bal Harbour Shops attract all manner of upscale shoppers, especially for jewellery, while the Miracle Mile in Coral Cables is another source of high fashion and designer names.
When it comes to the Malls, there is a dazzling choice in places like Aventura Mall, Dolphin Mall, The Falls Shopping Center and Brickell City Centre, with its fabulous design. And then there are a range of purpose-built outdoor complexes that include great restaurants alongside the shops. These include the Shops at Midtown Miami, the funky CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, Bayside Marketplace, the pedestrianised area of Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach (which also features some great dining possibilities), and the all-round fine style of The Shops at Merrick Park, with six fine-dining outlets to go with its 60 tempting retail outlets.
Another up-and-coming prospect is the Miami Design District, where eye-catching architecture and other design elements mingle with high-quality designer shopping.
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
If you’re ready for a great culinary adventure, then Miami will be more than happy to oblige, especially as its range of restaurants increases every year and varies from street-food offerings in Little Havana to the truly gourmet dining of the city’s five-star hotels. Here, you’ll find Peruvian, Mexican and Salvadoran cuisines rubbing shoulders with Korean, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern offerings. Cuban influences abound, and Latin-American fusion cuisine is creating new frontiers in elegant – and taste-filled – dining.
It’s hard to go anywhere in Miami and not find a great restaurant, but Coral Gables and Coconut Grove are two of the must-try areas, along with Little Havana and South Beach, where the Miami mix is at its most noticeable. The Latin seafood speciality of ceviche is highly featured (look for it especially at Pollos and Jarras, CVI.Che 105, Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latin Grill and La Mar by Gaston Acurio).
When it comes to true high-end and drop-dead gorgeous places for dinner, the highlights include Latin-influenced OLA, Seaspice, the Italian style of Scarpetta, A Fish Called Avalon, the Japanese fusion of Zuma, the modern tapas of Bazaar Mar, and the total sophistication of Casa Tua. When it is Stone Crab season (Oct-May), then Joe’s Stone Crab is the local institution to try.
For a great mix of tastes and history, look for the Art Deco district’s Food Tours, which offer a variety of walking tours around the area that talk about the period architecture and combine it with regular stops – and samples – at a number of different restaurants. Truly delicious!
Miami is simply the most iconic, sophisticated and downright entertaining part of Florida. The only thing it doesn’t have is theme parks, but, for those looking for highlights in dining, shopping and nightlife, this is one of the most scintillating hotspots in America, let alone the Sunshine State.