Miami, Florida, has always billed itself as a travel destination. Warm weather, sandy beaches and bright sunshine were selling points more than 100 years ago, just as they are today. But Miami's allure extends beyond its shores. People from all over the Caribbean and Latin America have settled in Miami, giving the city its distinctive, lively international character.
The warm-weather fun is still a big attraction, but the biggest draw is the cosmopolitan flavor coupled with all the great restaurants, sports teams (Dolphins, Heat, Hurricanes and Marlins) and upscale sheen—plus a long list of TV shows that have "Miami" in their titles.
South Beach, with its cheerful, sherbet-colored art-deco buildings and palm-tree-lined avenues, is the center of Miami's trendy dining and nightlife scene. Other corners of Miami, including Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, offer their own versions of fine living and colorful happenings.
And don't overlook the natural world—though you may have to drive to the Everglades to get a good view of it.
Miami is a sparkler of a city set against the water. The downtown area hugs the junction of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. A surge of development brought life to sleepy downtown neighborhoods, transforming them into urban vistas of galleries, cafes, nightlife, restored homes and high-rises. To the south, Coconut Grove is 3 mi/5 km along the water, and South Miami is about 6 mi/10 km away. Farther south, you'll find Homestead and, beyond that, the Florida Keys.
The neighborhood of Coral Gables is approximately 6 mi/10 km west of Miami. Beyond that is Kendall—a vast stretch of condos, homes, shopping malls and restaurants that reaches the edge of the Everglades. Miami Beach is a finger of land separating Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic, connected by five causeways to the mainland. At its southern tip is South Beach, also known as the Art Deco District.
Originally settled at the mouth of the Miami River by the Tequesta Indians, Miami wasn't much more than a trading post when real estate and railroad developer Henry Flagler extended his railroad to meet it in 1896 and then dredged the harbor to allow his fleet of steamships to dock.
The land boom of the 1920s put the city on the map, thanks to the millionaires who built mansions along Biscayne Bay. The economic bust in 1929, combined with major destruction from a hurricane the previous year, reduced Miami to a depressed shadow of its former self, with few jobs and little development.
In the 1940s, the invention of air-conditioning and the return of ex-servicemen who had savored Miami's charms during World War II led to steady growth. In the 1950s, thousands more arrived—from New York, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere—to start careers, raise families and become movers and shakers. Miami was transformed into a cosmopolitan hub.
Beginning in 1960, a flood of Cuban refugees turned Miami into a bilingual city within about five years. Succeeding decades brought many other Latinos, as well as Haitians, Asians, Israelis, Canadians and Europeans. Today the city is considered a melting pot of the Americas, with more than 60% of its citizens foreign-born. Miami's government, politics and businesses reflect its diversity.
Although Miami is scarcely more than a century old, it has architecturally significant public, commercial and residential buildings—including some designed by architects with international reputations. For visual treats, take a slow drive along side streets in historic neighborhoods such as Little Havana, Miami Beach, South Beach, Coconut Grove and Coral Gables.
Downtown in the Miami-Dade Cultural Center you'll find both the Miami Art Museum and History Miami (which offers excellent walking tours). Southwest of the cultural center, around Southwest Eighth Street ("Calle Ocho"), is Little Havana—home not just to Cuban immigrants, but also to Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and other Latin-American and Caribbean immigrants. If you're there in March, join more than a million revelers at Little Havana's Calle Ocho Festival, a one-day extravaganza billed as one of the biggest block parties in the world.
It will only seem as if a million people are on the streets of South Beach, the supertrendy section of Miami Beach between First and 23rd streets. The best way to see the sites there is on a walking tour offered by the Miami Design Preservation League. Also, Jungle Island's home on MacArthur Causeway is a quick trip from just about anywhere.
On the mainland in Coconut Grove, don't miss the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, an Italianate palace surrounded by formal gardens that are a great place to stroll.
For a look at early settlers' life in Florida, visit The Barnacle, a pioneer residence. Also worth a visit is the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach.
Nightlife in Miami is hot and heavy. The Latin influence dominates the scene, with jazz and rock also popular. Electronic and hip-hop music are favorites of the younger crowd. The most recent club revival started in South Beach and has spread across the country.
Clubs open and close quickly and regularly change names, locations and themes; finding them is a challenge even for locals. Look in the Miami New Times, a free weekly publication, and on the Miami Herald's website. The Friday edition of the Miami Herald has a pull-out section containing activities, restaurants, clubs and entertainment currently taking place in Miami and adjacent areas.
If a particular kind of music interests you, call some clubs and ask when it's available. A club may start the night with rock and later switch to a Latin beat. Many clubgoers migrate from venue to venue through the night.
Many hotels have on-site clubs that change their names, concepts and music types as often as the stand-alone clubs. You must be 21 or older to drink in clubs. Expect to be carded even if you're in your 30s.
Many celebrities live in the Miami area, and others wander through to participate in Florida's billion-dollar-a-year entertainment industry or just to play. If you are interested in celebrity spotting, keep your eyes open, ask your hotel concierge what movies or television shows are being shot while you're there, and hope you get lucky.
Dining in Miami is a multicultural smorgasbord, where you can sample Cuban arepas
, Brazilian churrasco
, alligator nuggets and the best of old-world cuisines. Miami-Dade County is covered with restaurants, from trendy tourist areas such as Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and Miami Beach to established neighborhoods such as South Miami and Kendall—where some of the best restaurants and values are found.
Latin-American cuisine is ubiquitous, with Italian, Japanese and Thai fare being close runners-up. "Floribbean" meals, which fuse Caribbean spices and fruits (papayas, oranges, plantains, mangos, avocados) with Florida classics, have gained popularity. The creation is both light and exotic.
Foodies will enjoy sampling the country's largest collection of home-grown tropical and subtropical fruits in the Homestead and Florida City farming communities. Fruit and Spice Park is the perfect place to sample fresh exotic fruit such as mamey and guava. Area farmers markets provide delicacies for guests to take with them.
The dress code varies greatly in Miami. If you're in doubt, call and ask before you go. Many restaurants and clubs are very specific about what is or isn't acceptable—and because many of-the-moment restaurants in South Beach and elsewhere double as lounges and late-night clubs, chic dressing there is de rigueur.
Many restaurants in Miami offer early-bird discounts for dinner before 6 pm, especially during the off season in the warmer months until October. Also, Miami has restaurant month in August every year with big discounts at many of the finer restaurants.
Typical dining times are 7-10 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2 pm for lunch and 6-10 pm or later for dinner. These guidelines aren't firm in Miami-Dade, a round-the-clock community with a growing number of after-hours and 24-hour dining locations. Many restaurants cut back on their hours and days during summer.
Do make dinner reservations for restaurants in Miami Beach, and not at the last minute.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$30; $$$ = US$31-$60; $$$$ = more than US$60.
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