"36 Hours in Miami and Miami Beach"
From South Beach to Little Haiti and beyond, the metropolitan Miami area has plenty to offer everyone from beachgoers and music lovers to gallery hoppers and foodies.
By Brett Sokol | published online February 14, 2019
There was a time when it wasn’t unusual to hear visitors use South Beach as shorthand for the entire Miami metropolitan area. The confusion was understandable — for those weekend warriors there was little reason to venture beyond the city of Miami Beach’s telegenic, Art Deco-emblazoned, southernmost tip. No more. South Beach’s famously louche night life has fanned out across Biscayne Bay and onto the mainland, along with cutting-edge art galleries, top-notch restaurants and funky but chic boutiques. The growing pains are unavoidable — traffic jams may sprout up anywhere, and some residents of previously off-the-radar neighborhoods aren’t exactly thrilled with the rent hikes that come with being “discovered.” The upside? An already dizzying multiculturalism has only gotten richer: Little Haiti and Little Havana now find themselves competing for attention and influence with Little Venezuela and Little Moscow. As for the actual white, sandy stretches of South Beach, they remain as stunning as ever, and a meeting spot for locals from Greater Miami’s far-flung corners to strut their barely clothed stuff.
1) 3 p.m. Heady art
The Design District, in the city of Miami proper, is chockablock with luxury retailers, from Louis Vuitton to Versace. Amid these temples of conspicuous consumption are two of Miami’s newest museums, right next to each other, and both free. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami pairs a peaceful outdoor sculpture garden with an indoor array of heady conceptual artwork from around the globe. But it’s the spotlight on local talent that often steals the show, from the viscerally powerful minimalist paintings of the late Darby Bannard to the hypnotic, abstract canvases of a relative newcomer on the art scene, Tomm El-Saieh, who is making waves far beyond South Florida. Next door, the de la Cruz Collection displays the personal holdings of the collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz in three high-ceilinged floors filled with rotating displays of avant-garde heavyweights like Isa Genzken and Dana Schutz; permanent space has been set aside for the works of the Cuban-American experimentalist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Around the corner, two smaller and scrappier organizations — Locust Projects and Swampspace — feature installations from tomorrow’s art stars today.
2) 7 p.m. As fresh as it gets
“If it were any fresher it would still be swimming in the ocean” is the operating principle at Miami Beach’s Stiltsville Fish Bar, with its faux-beach shack layout and locally sourced menu. If that combination wasn’t apparent from the claw-foot bathtubs full of ice and the daily catch, the waiters can inform you of the name of the boat that brought in a particular fish — which isn’t quite as advanced a feat as it sounds, since many of those vessels dock across the street at the Sunset Harbour marina. Consider it an opportunity to sample some cast-iron-seared, flaky tripletail ($34), or the similarly native and naturally sweet Florida pompano ($37). Leave room for Key lime pie ($12), a refreshing way to cap off dinner as the restaurant’s movable front wall is raised to catch the evening breeze and a sunset view.
3) 10 p.m. High-low bar scene
The Rose Bar in the lobby of the Delano Hotel remains an elegant, curtain-lined throwback to the Beach’s 1990s fashion-model-centric heyday, and an excellent spot for watching a crowd that’s more than ready for its close-up. If paying $20 for a basic cocktail ruins the fun, go to Mac’s Club Deuce, which revels in its colorful dive-bar status, tracing its origins back to 1964 up through today’s mix of bikers and
slumming socialites. Don’t even think of ordering an appletini.
4) 10 a.m. Choose your beach
Late morning is the perfect time to hit the beach, before it gets too hot and the main drag of the shoreline — running roughly parallel to Ocean Drive from 5th to 15th Street — fills up. But if serenity is what you’re after, walk north. There’s mile after mile of relatively empty sand beneath the same soothing, baby-blue sky, with an accompanying soundtrack of gently crashing surf. The hardpacked sand in some stretches is perfect for jogging, while a boardwalk runs all the way up to 46th Street. If the adjoining Art Deco District intrigues you, the Miami Design Preservation League leads guided tours ($25) there every morning at 10:30 a.m. Afterward, head to the outdoor sandwich bar La Sandwicherie, a French import with sandwiches on melt-in-your-mouth croissants ($8).
5) 1 p.m. Lincoln Road
Lincoln Road’s time as an offbeat shopping burg is long gone, now submerged in a sea of chain stores and tourist-trap restaurants. Still, a few of its tenants from that era are hanging on, including the family-owned Frieze ice cream shop, the Books & Books bookstore, the New World Symphony (now ensconced in a swanky new building, but still performing with their signature youthful brio), and the ArtCenter/South Florida, which has been offering affordable studios to emerging local artists since long before Art Basel arrived. Visitors are encouraged to walk the hallways of the ArtCenter’s aquarium-like studio complex — resident artists hang their work in their studio windows and many are happy to discuss their latest projects. But if their doors are closed and you see them hunched over canvases, do not tap on the glass. They don’t like it any more than goldfish do.
6) 2:30 p.m. Emerging art scene
Miami has become justifiably famous for having one of the country’s most vibrant art scenes outside New York City and Los Angeles. Ground zero for much of this activity has migrated north from the Wynwood neighborhood and into Little Haiti and Little River. To see the artwork made by some of this milieu’s most impressive figures start at the Emerson Dorsch gallery, whose homegrown roster embraces old lions like Robert Thiele, as well as a younger generation that includes Jenny Brillhart, Robert Chambers and Mette Tommerup. If there’s a common thread binding the best of this “Miami school,” it’s in the desire to create tactile objects — whether a painting or a keep-your-distance, spinning helicopter blade — that don’t need accompanying wall text to rivet onlookers. Continue winding your way north with stops at Nina Johnson, Primary Projects, Pan American Art Projects, Spinello Projects, Tile Blush, and the Fountainhead Studios.
7) 5 p.m. Two bookstores
Little Haiti is also home to two specialty bookstores, each as much a cultural locus as a retail outlet. Exile Books focuses on artist’s books — books conceived as artworks to be looked at and held as much as read, from photo-copied fanzines to hand-bound hardcover editions. Libreri Mapou serves the Haitian diaspora, which means not only otherwise hard-to-find Creole-language books and newspapers (as well as their English translations), but also artworks and CDs imported from Port-au-Prince.
8) 7 p.m. Beneath the stars
Find a table at the Design District’s Mandolin Aegean Bistro, where Greek and Turkish cuisines share the menu, and the low-key vibe matches the demure, blue- and white-trimmed 1940s bungalow that houses this restaurant. As intimate as the dining room may be, head for the tree-enclosed backyard patio and dine beneath the stars. To start? A platter of tzatziki dips and tirokafteri spreads with vegetables grown on the premises ($22) or the grilled sirloin kefte meatballs ($16). For a main dish, try a lamb burger ($19) or the beef souvlakia ($32).
9) 10 p.m. Cuban grooves
Ball & Chain dates itself as a Little Havana nightclub all the way back to 1935, complete with storied concerts by Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Yet while the vintage décor suggests either performer might reappear at any moment, evenings here are no mere nostalgia-fest. Some of Miami’s strongest salsa bands like Conjunto Progreso share the stage here with more leftfield outfits like Palo! and the Spam Allstars, who toss funk and psychedelia into their updates on traditional Cuban grooves. On a good night, the end result is the same: a dance floor full of spinning, sweaty bodies taking the occasional break to refuel with an ice-cold mojito before returning to the conga-driven fray.
10) 1 a.m. Music after midnight
Miami’s night life runs until dawn. Indeed, many clubs are practically deserted before midnight. Wynwood offers The Electric Pickle, where the dimly lit, bare-bones setting matches the mood of D.J.s who favor stripped-down house music and head-snapping breakbeats, as well as Gramps, a similarly no-frills bar where post-punk bands often set up to perform live in the open-air backyard. Both spots offer a relaxed mood that’s miles away — in more than just distance — from the velvet-roped precincts of South Beach’s clubland.
11) 10 a.m. Where the bodies are buried
For nearly 30 years, veteran newspaper editors here have been sending their cub reporters on walking tours with Dr. Paul George, an academic and former president of the Florida Historical Society, famed for knowing where Miami’s bodies are buried (literally so, in the case of his “Ghosts of Miami” Halloween cemetery tour). Steeped in local lore, and armed with dry wit, Dr. George’s tours are now offered under the auspices of the HistoryMiami museum. The locales change from month to month, but whether the setting is a cruise up the Miami River ($60), the site of a string of hair-raising shootouts during the 1980s cocaine cowboy era, or a stroll through the jasmine-scented streets of Coconut Grove ($15) — once a notorious pirate's cove, later the first part of modern Miami to be hacked out of the surrounding jungle — you’re bound to learn some fascinating chapters of this city’s past.
12) 1 p.m. On the water
Don’t leave before getting out on the water for a manatee’s-eye view of Miami. South Beach Kayak offers kayak rentals ($30 for two hours) and the ease of launching yourself onto the bay just outside their front door. (They’ll even hold your car keys in case you capsize.) Paddle southwest for a view of the downtown skyline, or head north and hug the shoreline for a look at some of Miami Beach’s priciest and (except for your prying eyes) most secluded real estate. Yes, that’s Lenny Kravitz sitting on his deck. No, he most definitely is not motioning for you to come ashore.
It’s hard to beat the oceanfront view at the 357-room Cadillac Hotel in mid-Miami Beach, and recently restored to the architect Roy France’s original 1940 Art Deco design. Rooms from $440; cadillachotelmiamibeach.com.
If you don’t need to be within walking distance of the sand and surf, consider the mainland’s Vagabond Hotel, a 1950s roadside inn given a retro-chic overhaul. Rooms from $189; thevagabondhotelmiami.com.
Airbnb options abound, and many are far more affordable than nearby hotels, especially at the height of the winter season. But such short-term rentals are banned in most of Miami Beach: City officials there have been engaged in a legal civil war with many listings, even turning off the water for repeat offenders. Best to stick to offerings within the city of Miami, where you can expect to pay $175 and up for a one-bedroom unit near the Design District, and $250 and up downtown.