Contemporary yet historical, tiny but diverse, South Beach—Miami Beach’s long southern stretch down to its tip at South Pointe Park—commands hyperbole. It is the Miami stereotype come alive. The action centres on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue between 5th Street to the south and Lincoln Road to the north. Every Miami scene ever filmed in any movie seems to have been shot here. Hyper-tanned rollerbladers glide along the beach down Ocean Drive past whimsical, pastel-hued art deco buildings. Seven-foot, eight-stone models saunter past four-foot, ten-stone geriatrics. Eurotrash and celebs rub oiled shoulders with artists, hipsters and a sprinkling of local stock in the sidewalk cafés, designer boutiques, lounge bars and dusk-to-dawn clubs.
Then there's the turquoise ocean, the waving palm trees and the delicious blue skies. The whole place would be almost beyond perfect were it not for South Beach's pervasive seediness. The m'as-tu-vu scenes at the likes of Nikki Beach Club and Mansion are brought back down to earth with a bump by the scattering of beach bums with their possessions piled high in supermarket trolleys, and the prostitutes prowling Washington Avenue after dark. Add in the stubbornly egalitarian nature of good ol' redneck Florida, and you end up with the startling juxtaposition of world-class hotels next door to grungy tattoo parlours and sex shops. It's little wonder that the place lends itself so perfectly to lurid TV and cinema.
South of 5th Street
The lower swathe of South Beach below 5th Street (known as South of Fifth Street or, more cutely, SoFi) is quietly hip, tucked off the tawdry main drag. You'll find one of the Beach's best restaurants here in Joe's Stone Crab, known worldwide for its succulent crab claws and creamy key lime pie. For a cheaper bill and a dress code that leans towards sandy feet and beach wraps, head to Big Pink for enormous portions of diner food, including excellent cakes and pies (it's open late too).
A wonderful respite from the urban madness is South Pointe Park, a verdant spot on the very tip of Miami Beach. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Government Cut channel, the aquatic highway for cruise ships, it provides wondeful views.
Or, for a little culture, duck into the Jewish Museum of Florida, which tells the story of Miami's large Hebrew community. A popular 'only in South Beach' stop is the World Erotic Art Museum, which houses a huge collection of erotic art, including a sizeable collection of antique penises.
Restaurants and bars in South Beach
Everything about the SLS is painfully hip, including The Bazaar, its house restaurant. Opened in 2012 by culinary giant José Andrés, The Bazaar has already risen to the top of local foodies’ must-visit list, earning it the distinction of being the second most-booked restaurant in the city, according to online reservation site OpenTable.com. Perhaps that’s because the food and overall vibe of the place are an experiment in decadence, bringing a playful spirit to the old-world glamor that defined the city’s art deco era. The menu is lively, combining elements of Spain and Latin America to wind up with dishes like Papas a la Huancaína (Peruvian potatoes with sea urchin) and Cuban coffee-rubbed churrasco with passionfruit. If you can snag a reservation, strap on your seatbelt and get ready for a wild ride.
Rustic and homey, this off-the-beaten-path Italian is full of locals looking to escape the madness of South Beach. Luckily, they’ve found a place to do it where the laid-back vibe is totally authentic and the food is damn good, too. Antipasti includes a creamy burrata cheese (locally made) served with pickled aubergine. A small pasta menu ticks all the right flavor notes (the short rib lasagna is a customer favorite). Pizza, too, is dependably delicious and well thought out, with fried eggs, meatballs and mushroom fricassée as toppings.
The lauded addition to the Collins Avenue cocktail crawl continues to gain plenty of accolades, as cordial mixologists—waistcoats and all—pour deliciously inventive drinks in a space that feels worlds away from the hustle of South Beach, yet is in the heart of it all. The Club’s retro stylings, complete with leather banquettes, live lounge music and a side patio for cigar smoking, make it feel as if the Rat Pack could walk through the door at any moment.
Things to do in South Beach
More than 800 buildings from the 1930s and early ’40s survive in the city’s historic Deco District, between 5th Street to the south and Dade Boulevard to the north. The Art Deco District Welcome Center is run by the MPDL, which first sprang into action when it tried to save two blocks of Ocean Drive, from 12th to 14th Streets.
Founded in 2005, this 12,000-square-foot homage to erotic expression houses the collection of late WEAM director Naomi Wilzig. More than 4,000 pieces include everything from works by Rembrandt and Picasso to sex toys and artifacts across time periods and geographical regions. The penis collection is the highlight—a mind-boggling array of phalluses in all shapes, colors and sizes (including a six-foot-tall member and a massive wooden four-poster bed, with posts shaped like…you guessed it).
Hotels in South Beach
There’s no escaping the beach when you book a room at this commanding beachfront property, which sits on an entire city block. The nature-inspired interiors bring the sea inside via reclaimed wood structures and a neutral color palette with sandy tones and beachy (off) whites dotted with foliage. The vibe is decidedly Zen, more Martha’s Vineyard than summer in the Hamptons, but at night the sense is that you’re back in South Beach, where a stylish rooftop pool and bar gives way to one of the city’s best rooftop parties, lasting way into the wee hours.
This 1941 L. Murray Dixon-designed tropical deco stalwart received a $35 million top-to-bottom makeover courtesy of Menin Hotels (the folks behind Sanctuary), before its grand reopening in late 2012. Guest rooms recall the 1940s, with streamlined dark wood furniture, silver silk curtains and simple white and blue color schemes; gadgets include iPod docking stations and 55-inch flatscreen TVs. Dining and drinking options keep an old-school flavor; the Regent Cocktail Club mixes up classic concoctions, while the Rec Room evokes a hint of 1970s-style basement playroom. On the roof, there’s a 5,000-square-foot sun deck complete with infinity pool, loungers and 360-degree views.
Small, intimate and quirky, the Freehand has more character than many of its South Beach competitors. The interior is a whimsical Pueblo-Deco blend, dotted with vintage pieces from flea markets. Pleasant rooms—choose from shared rooms for four or eight or private rooms for two—offer tasteful touches such as writing desks—indeed, the whole place has a homey feel. Not so retro is the Broken Shaker, the hotel’s bar—which is as popular with locals as it is with guests—where handcrafted cocktails are the drinks du jour. 27 Restaurant, the adjacent locavore concept from Bar Lab, serves up dishes inspired by Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Music and nightlife in South Beach
America’s only full-time orchestral academy, the New World Symphony grooms graduates from conservatories for careers in the symphony and other high-profile posts. Concerts range from classical to experimental, and the quality is high: guest teachers have included Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, and past guest conductors have included Sir Neville Marriner and Paavo Järvi. Founder Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony often lends a hand too. Since 2011, the symphony’s home has been a Frank Gehry-designed showstopper in SoundScape Park, where they regularly hold outdoor WALLCAST concerts throughout the season.
The quintessential beach club, Nikki Beach is an outdoor fantasyland sprawling over a stretch of sand with tiki bars, lounge chairs and torches. Decorated with beautiful people, it’s like the Playboy mansion meets Survivor, where the fittest don’t merely survive, they flourish. Buxom beauties attract well-oiled, deep-pocketed sugar daddies, and the studs also get rewarded for their packaging. In addition to the restaurant and beach club, there’s a club and lounge where the party gets started during daylight hours during Amazing Sundays: thongs and bikinis are de rigueur.
Owned and operated by the same people who gave the world LIV, this two-tiered LED-explosion is a little edgier with a reputation for booking deeper, slightly more underground house acts. Nestled on the south end of Collins Avenue, it costs just as much as to get drunk here as it would at its big sister but features a much roomier dance floor. Catch it in the first episode of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Miami-centric dramedy Ballers.
Shopping in South Beach
Consider WD 555 the ideal wine trifecta: the place to try, buy and pair your new selection. The three-in-one concept features a wine store, bar and restaurant with a breezy terrace. Beginners will want to stop by on Tuesdays for free wine tastings and live music, while those in the mood for a food pairing can opt to pick up a bottle from the shop and bring it to the restaurant for a nominal corkage fee.
Do you need a drop-waist dress from the 1920s? Can’t manage without a Pucci print skirt from the ’70s? You’ll find both here, along with high-necked linen and lace dresses, funky neckties, costume jewels, shoes, furs and postcards. Brands include Gucci, Balenciaga, Chanel, Vuitton and even hard-to-find Zandra Rhodes.