Miami and Los Angeles are both famous for their iconic beach city culture, but they’re much further apart than the 2,733 miles that lie between them.
People in L.A. may think Miami is just another beach city, but its Caribbean-kissed sea, lush tropical flora and striking architecture offer a very different experience from its drier, colder counterpart. And although both cities have a strong Hispanic influence, it’s Cuba, not Mexico that left its mark in Miami, where more than a quarter-million people of Cuban origin live and, a generation later, still speak Spanish as their first language.
From the beginning of its first tourist influx in the 1920s, followed by a dramatic renaissance in the 1980s fueled by the hit TV show Miami Vice, Miami has rebounded to become a spectacular vacation destination and one of America’s most picturesque cities.
I love well-planned airports like Miami International Airport (MIA). It’s easy to navigate and beautifully designed. Plan to arrive in the middle of the afternoon so you’ll have time to check in to your hotel and get ready for your first night out on the town. Catch an Uber or Lyft to your hotel and use these ride services, rent a Citibike, or walk after that. There’s no need to rent a car.
Where to stay:
I vote for South Beach, ground central for the party that is Miami and also the home of the beautiful, restored Art Deco and Mi-Mo (Miami modern) hotels. Now a protected historic overlay, thanks to the efforts of Miami preservationists, South Beach is considered one of the finest representations of Art Deco architecture in the world. There are dozens of hotels to choose from and all line a stunning beach. Prices range from around $200 per night (including breakfast) to over $1,000 a night and upward at such luxury digs as the Delano.
Where to Eat
I would be happy eating Cuban cuisine morning, noon and night, and one of my favorite places for that is Larios on the Beach. Owned by the “king and queen of Miami,” Emilio and Gloria Estefan, Larios is their first restaurant venture (they have another in the Miami Design District) and was opened in honor of a grandmother who emigrated from Cuba and made a living preparing food. Although some restaurants along Ocean Drive are overpriced for what you get, that’s not the case at Larios. Try the Chicken Vaca Frita: crispy seared shredded chicken marinated in Estefan Kitchen Cuban mojo, grilled onions and served with the Cuban mainstay of rice and black beans. ($23) Delicious!
If you venture to Little Havana (which I suggest you do), stop in for lunch or dinner at El Cristo Restaurant and enjoy Cuban cuisine with the locals. Located in the heart of Miami’s Cuban neighborhood, you’ll find many of the same dishes you’d see on South Beach menus, but for much less.
Gianni’s at the Villa at luxury hotel Villa Casa Casurina is a must-do dining experience when you’re in Miami. Located in the former home of fashion designer Gianni Versace, you’ll need either a dinner reservation or a room key to enter though the big wooden doors that lead to a Spanish-style courtyard that opens up to the stars. Tables are available indoors or on the outdoor balcony that overlooks the beautiful mosaic-tiled patio next to the azure pool. Eating here is like having a personal invitation to a Versace dinner party. The menu is a blend of modern Italian Mediterranean prepared with top-of-the-line ingredients. If you’re on a budget, go in August or September during “Miami Spice,” a citywide promotion of Miami restaurants, and enjoy a 3-course meal at Gianni’s for just $39 – which is way, way less than if you order off the regular menu.
Things to Do:
People Watch – Ocean Drive in South Beach has one sidewalk café after another with barkers who beckon passerby with offers of happy hour and giant cocktails. Park yourself at one, order a 21-ounce mojito and some appetizers, then sit back and watch the show.
Take a Salsa Class – One of the landmark nightclubs on Ocean Drive is Mango’s Tropical Café, which features non-stop entertainment, dancing, food, cocktails and, on the second floor, a nightly salsa class called Salsa Mia, described as a “South Beach Salsa Night Experience.” The price is $49 and includes happy hour-priced drinks and appetizers, a free mojito, 50 percent off drinks until 10:30 p.m., full food menu for 10 percent off, and then an all-night dance party with floor shows that run until 5 in the morning.
Listen to Live Music – Enjoy a show at Ball & Chain, a famous nightclub in Little Havana that is the real deal when it comes to incredible live music with a Cuban-inspired dancing/dining/drinking experience. The club opened in 1935 and Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Chet Baker are just some of the music legends that have graced its stage. The venue has been renovated in recent years and isn’t quite as seedy as it was back in the day, but it still offers an “edgy” live music experience unlike any other in the city.
Go to a Drag Queen Show – The most famous venue in the city for this is Palace on Ocean Drive in South Beach, and the best time to go is Sunday for the Drag Queen Brunch. They have drag shows every night, but it’s the brunch that features the best performers fueled by packed-to-capacity-crowds that spill out onto Ocean Drive and often stop traffic. There are two seatings: 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The cost is $45, plus tax and gratuity. Bring lots of single dollar bills to tip the performers.
Take a Tour:
The Guided Walking Tour of the Art Deco District is a must. Led by docents from The Miami Design Preservation League, you’ll be taken on an entertaining and informative 90-minute tour of the neighborhood where you’ll learn about the buildings that have been so beautifully restored to their original condition. As you go along, you’ll hear amusing anecdotes about the history of the area and some of the people that shaped it. The tour departs every day at 10:30 a.m. and costs $25 plus tip for your guide.
The Little Havana Cultural Walking and Food Tour starts at the Bay of Pigs monument in the center of Little Havana and winds through the streets, stopping at an open air market for some fresh mango juice, then Cuban coffee and breakfast pastries at the neighborhood’s favorite bakery, followed by a visit to a couple of cigar shops where you’ll see cigars being hand-rolled. You’ll stop in for some shopping at the local boutiques where you can pick up a Cuban-style shirt or dress, sample some Cuban ice cream at Azucar, and finally feast on a lunch of fried plantains, roasted chicken and the ever present rice and beans, along with plenty of freshly made buttered bread laced with toasted garlic. The cost, with service charge, is $53 with a suggested $10 tip for the guide.
No trip to Miami is complete without some time spent on the water. Thriller Miami offers a speed boat tour that departs from the Bayside Marketplace, where you can browse shops before or after your ride. Your guide and co-pilot will speed you through the beautiful waters of Biscayne Bay, past the homes of celebrities like Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan – and past the mega-mansion of Pfizer Pharmaceutical CEO Ian C. Read, who, thanks to a little blue pill called Viagra, owns the biggest house on the island. Depending on the tour you select, prices range from $38 – $48 plus service fee and tip for your guide.
And while you’re there:
Stop into the World Erotic Art Museum – Founded in 2005, WEAM is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to fine erotic art. In a remarkably short time for a still private collection, WEAM has developed into one of the world’s most renowned permanent museums for this genre.
Take a yoga class at Maham Studio. The studio specializes in 60-minute high- intensity flow classes set to upbeat hip-hop music and pop music. Classes are designed to be a full body workout in an infrared heated space. Stay after to relax in the co-ed steam room and meet some of the locals.
Check out the animals at Zoo Miami (also known as The Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens), the largest and oldest zoological garden in Florida and the only sub-tropical zoo in the continental United States. The lush, tropical, open-air exhibits replicated the animals’ natural habitats.
Stroll through the tropical paradise at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, an intimate 3-acre garden with a very big mission. It calls itself an urban oasis in the middle of the glitz and neon of South Beach, a place where locals and visitors can come and enjoy the numerous cultural and artistic programs for all ages offered year-round.
Visit Vizcaya, described as one of the finest homes ever built in the United States. It’s a historic Italian estate in a spectacular subtropical setting. You can explore the majestic main house and the expansive bayfront gardens – and get some ideas for your next real estate purchase.
Ride the MetroMover. Although the locals might think of it more as a crowded, elevated means-to-an-end, taking the entire loop from Brickell up to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and back is a great way to see the city from above.
And then make plans for your next visit to Miami!
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.