Miami needs no second invitation to celebrate itself. Will ‘Fresh Prince’ Smith’s 1998 lyrical opus Miami highlighted what the city’s residents already knew: it’s become the East Coast’s party hotspot, where people celebrate from the nightclubs to the beach and back again simply because life is good.
Money talks in Miami; in terms of purchasing power it’s the richest city in America, and has the highest concentration of international banks of any US city. It’s also hugely influenced by Latin culture: a third of the city’s population is Cuban, while significant Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan and Haitian communities are added into the mix, making modern Miami over 70 per cent Hispanic.
Despite all these identities, however, one stands above them all: bling is king on the beaches, in the clubs and on the streets. Wealth and excess is celebrated, from the flashiest jewellery to the biggest boats, the fastest cars, and the biggest houses. As Mr Smith astutely observed: “You gotta have cheese for the summerhouse piece on South Beach”.
While Miami does big and bold as well as any city, it’s so big and so diverse that there are many below-the-radar spots for you to really get a feel for the city. So get out and explore the best places to eat, drink and be merry in this sprawling, action-packed city.
Where to eat
For an authentic eating experience that you won’t find anywhere else, head to the Little Havana district, just south-west of Downtown. As the name suggests, here you’re in for a little Cuban flavour with an American twist.
Cuban sandwiches have started to make appearances on the menu boards of delis across the world, but there is none anywhere that can compare to those found in Little Havana. Even the bread – a softer, chewier baguette – is authentic, and is stuffed with ham, roast pork Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle. Grab a side of croquetas, the breaded croquettes stuffed with ham, chicken or cod, and you’re all set. If you have room after that, you must try a pastelito, a delicate, sweet flaky pastry made with guava and cheese.
Don’t worry if your Cuban sandwich has beaten you, however, as pastelitos are also a fantastic breakfast, served with sugary Cuban coffee.
The rest of the menu – which you’ll probably find is quite long – will feature breaded steaks and chicken, a good mix of fish and shellfish dishes and the Cuban variation of paella. Whatever you decide on, you’re sure to have a generous helping of the classic Cuban accompaniment: rice and beans.
- Versailles, 3555 SW 8th Street, Little Havana
- Exquisito Restaurant, 1510 SW 8th Street, Little Havana
Where to shop
Away from the big-name stores and vast sprawling malls of Downtown Miami, you’ll find a much more immersive and eclectic shopping experience in Coral Gables. Small boutique stores all packed together give you everything from designer labels to eclectic fashions and antiques.
Walk the Miracle Mile and grab an authentic guayabera, a Cuban dress shirt, or stop in at one of the boutiques for vintage designer pieces that come with personal, friendly service. You can spend a whole day wandering around the collection of small stores – including plenty of family-run ‘mom and pop’ stores – but if you get caught in an infamous Miami rainstorm, make a dash for the Village of Merrick Park; it’s a designer shopping mall which boasts clothes so high-end you’d be hard-pressed to find better in Paris.
- Em-po-ri-um, 2606 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables
- Luminaire, 2331 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables
Where to party
Miami’s biggest (and brashest) nightlife area is South Beach. The big clubs such as LIV and Mansion are the places to be seen, where the rich and famous go to dance, drink and mingle with the rest of the well-heeled jet set.
For something a little smaller and more unusual, head over to the seemingly unassuming suburbs of Midtown and Wynwood. These are growing areas with an artistic feel to them, and there are new nightlife venues popping up all the time. They can be difficult to find, as many a situated speakeasy-style in basements and down side streets, but it’s chancing on these secret spots that makes them extra-memorable.
For live music, there’s no better place to be in Miami than Bardot. The 1920s art deco decor makes it feel and low-lit underground atmosphere makes this feel like real Prohibition-era speakeasy territory – albeit with the most cutting-edge music Miami can boast. Over at Wood Tavern, eclectic is the name of the game. The place is usually packed, but with everyone from the avant-garde, the hipster set and even white-collar workers looking to wind down. The decor is similarly eclectic and all adds to the super-relaxed atmosphere Midtown and Wynwood are known for.
But if you find yourself drawn towards the Beach scene, at least look in on Beats After Sunset, a monthly evening of art cocktails and music at Miami Beach’s Bass Museum of Art.
- Wood Tavern, 2531 NW 2nd Ave, Miami
- Bardot, 3456 N Miami Ave, Miami
Where to go
Florida has some unique wildlife as far as the rest of the US is concerned, and just because you’re in the giant metropolis that is Miami you can still see plenty of it. There are 60 acres of botanical gardens, aviaries and wildlife sanctuaries at Flamingo Gardens, where you can see everything from tropical plants to alligators. Jungle Island is home to over 1,000 tropical birds as well as tigers, leopards and chimps, while marine life is taken care of at the Miami Seaquarium, where you can see sharks, killer whales and dolphins.
If you fancy cooling off from the Florida sun with a swim, but you want something a little different to the packed beaches, look for the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. It was created in 1923 from an old rock quarry, and is refilled daily from an underground spring. As the name suggests, it has the feeling of Venice with its design and architecture, and is an outdoor pool unlike any you’ll find anywhere else in the StatesÂ –Â in fact it’s the only swimming pool on the National Register of Historic Places.
Miami’s close proximity to Cuba – it’s only 200 miles, and the southern tip of Key West is less than 90 miles away – put it on the front line of the Cold War, particularly during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A museum at 1821 SW 9th Street features an extensive collection of pictures, artefacts and CIA documents which provide a terrific insight into the Cold War, including views from the other side of the water, courtesy of Cuban exiles.
Lastly, for something truly weird and unique, head to Little Haiti to the little shops known as Botanicas, where you can find handcrafted artefacts used to practice Voodoo – yes, Voodoo. So why not see if you can find a likeness for someone you know?