20 essential things to do in Miami
From the Overseas Highway to Fort Lauderdale and everything in between, experience the best Miami has to offer – restaurants and bars, beaches, dance clubs and more subtropical things to do in Miami and the Sunshine State
© Bruno Frontino/Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
Take in the many sun-soaked pleasures of South Beach
Surf capital of Miami South Beach is a place where you can really enjoy yourself. The scene certainly helps to cement the Miami stereotype; you'll find surfers catching the waves in a turquoise ocean, models sauntering along golden sands and rollerbladers gliding down Ocean Drive. Visit the World Erotic Art Museum for a dose of culture before you chill out among the hyper-tanned celebrities and hipsters in the sidewalk cafés, designer boutiques, lounge bars and dusk-til-dawn clubs. Among the quintessential hangouts are the Nikki Beach Club and the Opium Garden, while great restaurants include Joe's Stone Crab, which is known for its legendary lime pie.
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Go back to the twenties on art deco Ocean Drive
Tans may seem beautiful, but they're temporary; take a stroll past the art deco buildings in South Beach to admire architecture's more permamanent golden era. The glamorous hotels were born when a theatrical style swept the design world in the ’20s, and the best of these giddy individuals are crowded along Ocean Drive. Park Central Hotel and the Imperial, designed by New Yorkers Henry Hohauser and L Murray Dixon, feature bold bands of colour and window 'eyebrows', which are characteristic of this flamboyant style. This is the ideal place to start off exploring the Art Deco District, which contains over 800 buildings from the 1930s and '40s. Visit the Art Deco District Welcome Center for self-guided audio tours.
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Make your home more Miami in the Design District
If your home is crying out for a facelift, then the Design District is the answer to your makeover prayers. Once a pineapple grove, the area evolved into Decorators Row during the building boom of the 1920s, when home-design stores occupied this space. Among the high-end showrooms is Holly Hunt, with deluxe furniture and interior designs by Rose Tarlow, Christian Liaigre and Wendell Castle. And European kitchen-cabinet maker Bulthaup sells reproductions of mid-century modern classics here. Making the most of the Design Art trend are a number of galleries. Established names include Daniel Azoulay (3900A NE 1st Avenue, at NE 39th Street, 305 576 1977) and Barbara Gillman (414 NE 2nd Avenue, at NE 41st Street, 305 573 1920), which show internationally acclaimed artists.
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Kick back with a Cuban in Little Havana
Visit Little Havana for a taste of Cuba. Miami Cubans are incredibly proud of this neighbourhood, even if they don't live there. Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street) and the surrounding area are testimony to the American dream followed by the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled to Miami after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Here, you'll find many restaurants and shops that are replicas of the ones they'd left behind. Mediterranean-style houses with rocking chairs on the porch, fragrant tobacco scents wafting from cigar stores and the hum of Latin music from record shops all help to make this feel like their home away from home.
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Style it out at the Lincoln Road Mall
Designed by iconic architectural guru Morris Lapidus in the 1950s, Lincoln Road Mall was once dubbed the "Fifth Avenue of the South," though it's now simply known by locals as the "Road." Endless sidewalk cafés, clubs and cultural venues stretch along its length (from Washington Avenue to Alton Road), looking glamorous thanks to a $16-million facelift. Van Dyke and Balans are among its best cafés. Still got money to burn? The Village of Merrick Park has three open-air stories with 115 shops and boutiques, including the area's only Burberry, plus Diane von Furstenberg, Etro, Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Sonia Rykiel. Or the best all-rounder, Aventura Mall, has all the big department stores, such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's.
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Step into a fairytale at the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
The sight of the Italian Renaissance-style Vizcaya Museum & Gardens on the Biscayne Bay is straight out of a fairytale. It's bizarre to discover a European-style palace in this beach lovers' paradise, but visiting it is like entering a wonderland. Built for Chicagoan industrialist and Europhile James Deering in the 20th-century, the extravagant architecture conceals an opulent interior. Full of European antiques and decorative works from the 16th to 19th centuries and complete with original fittings, it will whisk you away to a golden age. No wonder it's so popular when it comes to weddings.
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Dine like you're in 'Dynasty' at The Forge
In a city of glamour, the beautiful people need a grand stage on which to eat, so there are some fantastic dining experiences to be had. The 19th-century Parisian façade of The Forge conceals a glitzy interior that is a rococo lover's dream. The steakhouse once hosted the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon. It still has an 1822 Château Lafite Rothschild worth $150,000 to prove its star quality. Decadent wines accompany steak and fish dishes, and there's a healthy spa menu for the calorie conscious. The Wednesday night club scene at this venerable place feels like a real-life episode of 'Dynasty'.
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Get a breath of fresh air in tranquil Key Biscayne
Key Biscayne ('the Key' to locals) may not be as pretty as Miami Beach or attract as many beautiful bodies, but it lacks in looks it compensates for in serenity. The northernmost island in the Florida Keys, its life began as an exclusive resort in the early 1900s and it attracted the US president Richard Nixon in the 1970s, who bought a home here. Despite rising property prices, it has maintained a tranquil air. With little nightlife or shopping, the lure for visitors is nature: there are pristine beaches, two waterfront parks, a cycling path and gorgeous views of Miami. On the east Crandon Park has barbecue and picnic areas for family trips, while at the tip of the island there is good swimming in the 400-acre park of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area.
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Get a taste for modern American cuisine
There's more to American food than 24-hour diners and burgers in Miami. Here, local food is fresh, delicious and different. In the South Beach area, Barton G serves fabulous dishes in theatrical ways. Their popcorn shrimp and grilled sea bass comes in a brown papaer bag, superb Caesar salad comes complete with a cheesegrater, and for the grand finale a plume of cotton candy reminiscent of Dame Edna's wig is served. For those who prefer a light meal, the hip hangout Segafredo is a great option. Here, you can eat tasty sandwiches, salads, carpaccios and desserts while lounging on comfy upholstered chairs and listening to a soundtrack of cool lounge music all day long.
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Dive into a corner of Europe at the Venetian Pool
This large outdoor swimming pool may just be the most beautiful in the world. A former quarry, the site went from pit to porticos when developers decided to convert it into a mock-Italian villa in the 1920s. The ornate results—all waterfalls and twee loggias—may seem kitsch to those who've actually been to Venice, but there's no denying the glamor of the place (except when it's overrun by screaming toddlers and middle-aged aerobics enthusiasts). In its century of service to overheated Miamians, the pool has played host to orchestras, dance troupes and even Hollywood stars.
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Go green at Miami Beach Botanical Garden
Established over 50 years ago and given an impressive $1.2 million makeover in 2011 (designed by the appropriately named landscape architect Raymond Jungles), Miami's Botanical Gardens offer free access to 2.6 acres of glorious horticulture and calm. The weekly farmers' market offers a lovely way to support local traders, and lunchtime yoga classes provide another excuse to spend your day relaxing under a well-kept palm tree. Should this give you a taste for Miami's favourite fitness regime, join the area's huge spiritual community at a multi-level class in one of the many yoga studios.
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Cure your ale-ments with a pint at Abbey
Are you sick of sipping on candy-coloured martinis in glitzy bars and restaurants? Do you fancy spending a low-key evening chatting to locals over a pint of beer? Best go back to basics at the hole-in-the-wall turned microbrewery Abbey on South Beach. It offers European imports as well as several own-made beers. Despite its upgrade to a brewery, it still has the soul of a class dive-bar. This place has tons of atmosphere, a dartboard and is teeming with locals who you can try and chat up. Watch out for drunken arrowists.
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Be an accidental fitness freak on the beach
Why would you waste time in the gym when you can get buff on the beach? With the sun, sea and scenery, sandy sports don't even seem like exercise. For an easy workout, grab a paddleball set or Frisbee at any store on the South Beach, join a game of soccer or round up a volleyball team. For the thrill of wave riding, hire an instructor at Florida Surf Lessons, or try water sports such as rowing and kite surfing. Kick up the power a few notches at the South Beach Bootcamp, where a personal trainer will take you through a rigorous programme. Dance-based Zumba classes are a bit less intense, or to really mellow down, sign up for a sunset yoga class.
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Strike a pose in Miami's swankiest clubs
Miami has a bit of a reputation for cookie-cutter nightclubs, but South Beach is also home to glamorous, individual bar-clubs where you can live it up well into the night. SL Miami is one of the latest intimate lounge spots that are showing up all around SoBe—it's the place to go if you're looking to avoid sticky door policies and the sort of thumping bassline that makes it impossible to carry on a conversation. Cameo is a renovated art deco movie theatre that's a premier venue for superstar DJs. It's popular with a mod squad of glamazons and scenesters, so dress to get noticed.
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Make an Ernest pilgrimage
His most famous works are set in Europe and Cuba, but the quirky town of Key West is where Ernest Hemingway chose to move—on a recommendation from John Dos Passos—after his wife became pregnant in Paris. Considering he only ended up staying for eight years, the locals tend to overhype the connection somewhat; yet this, his former home-turned-museum, nevertheless makes for an appealing attraction. Bizarrely, the star of the show isn't the exhibition or even the house itself, but the family of six-toed cats who roam the grounds, many of them descended from Hemingway's pet kitty Snowball.
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Revisit Miami scenes from the silver screen
South Florida has the stuff of cinematic fantasy: neon glamour, quasi-tropical vistas and buff bodies. It's no surprise that those in the business of dreams adore making movies here. Since way back in the 1920s the motion picture industry has engaged in a heady love affair with the city, and many familiar scenes have played out in its streets. The nightlife of Miami Beach has appeared in the likes of 1964 Bond outing 'Goldfinger', and its gangsta-rapping features in Brian De Palma's remake of 'Scarface'. A hair-raising scene from 'There's Something About Mary' is played out at the Cardozo hotel, and there's a big starring role for the Carlyle Hotel as a gay club on the flamboyant South Beach in 'The Birdcage'.
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Kid around at the Miami Children's Museum
For those with children (and for fun-loving adults) the Miami Children's Museum is the ideal place to visit. With a futuristic design by the stellar architecture practice Arquitectonica, it's an exciting playground with many interactive displays. You can discover a colourful, mosaic-tiled sandcastle, a teddy-bear exhibit and a television studio. Children under five can have an adventure in a sea room and enjoy some everyday exhibits: a bank with teller stations and fake cheques and a supermarket with checkout lanes. For more childish fun, pay the Bayside Marina a visit. Pony rides, face painting and boat trips are sure to put grins on the whole family's faces.
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Get to the art of the matter at Art Basel Miami Beach
Miami Beach is better known for kitsch than fine art, so it seemed odd that organisers of Switzerland's sophisticated Art Basel would choose Miami for its first American sortie. And yet it has been an amazing success: it draws galleries and dealers from around the globe, and showcases the work of more than 1,000 artists and over 200 galleries in the main fair alone. Being in Miami, this is an art fair with a difference: showbiz culture and celebs are part of the equation. Spotting stars buying art and seeing them again at exclusive galas adds to the fun. There are a number of satellite fairs including the NADA fair, Pulse and Design Miami. Galleries hold special shows, South Beach clubs host art parties and restaurants offer specials. This event is all about drinking cocktails on the sand while chatting about alfresco art. For information, visit www.artbaselmiamibeach.com.
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Go back to nature in Homestead's rustic surrounds
If you've had enough of the sun and surf, the farm fields around Homestead make for a bucolic break. The Fruit & Spice Park is the only garden of its kind in the United States, a 30-acre park exhibiting over 500 varieties of fruits, veggies, spices, herbs, nuts and exotic edibles. An old schoolhouse and coral rock building chart Florida's pioneer life. Another throwback to the fruit farming of old is Robert is Here, which started life in 1959 when the shop's namesake, then six, began selling the family's cucumbers from a small stall. Since then, it has grown into an exotic emporium of fruit and veg. In the lovely setting you can drink fruity milkshakes and buy sweet gifts.
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