A neighbourhood guide to Miami

Miami has a reputation for glitz, glamour and grit, but lately it’s shaken off some of its rougher edges to embrace all things new. From South Beach to Brickell, there have never been more distinct areas to explore.

By Pat Riddell
Published 10 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST, Updated 7 Dec 2020, 12:28 GMT
Downtown at night
Downtown at night.
Photograph by Getty Images

Something’s happened in Miami. In the past decade, the city has reinvented itself with huge investment revamping its neighbourhoods, skyline and waterfront. Construction continues apace, and the likes of Wynwood, Mid-Beach, Brickell and the Design District have changed almost beyond recognition. Cultural attractions have flourished and Miami has become a modern, confident, international metropolis with annual events making it a year-round destination. Enormous cruise ships begin their journeys here to the Caribbean and beyond, but take time to stay ashore and explore its neighbourhoods, and you’ll soon get the measure of just how much fun Miami is.


If anywhere in Miami reflects its recent renaissance, it’s the onward march of Brickell. A neighbourhood transformed over the past decade, the occasional low-rise still exists, but construction continues ever upwards — in an area that’s just over a square mile, the only way is up. Glass, steel and concrete abound, but there’s more to it than its glossy financial district heart. 

The luxury Brickell City Centre shopping mall looms large here, a $1bn development that’s also home to East Miami, the first overseas property from Hong Kong’s Swire Group. The plush decor and clever interiors belie the hotel’s workaday exterior, its 352 rooms far removed from any of the city’s stuffier business hotels; but its drinking and dining options are perhaps the main draw. There’s the sleek Tea Room, home of the Asian Night Brunch (a five-course menu alongside all the Champagne, sake, wine or beer you can drink), and Uruguayan surf-and-turf Quinto La Huella restaurant, but Sugar is the icing on the cake. Situated on the 40th floor, cocktails and views cement Sugar’s reputation as one of Miami’s best bars, towering over the rest of Brickell and Downtown. Its Balinese-inspired decor and foliage lend it an almost garden party vibe, and those bird’s-eye views over the skyscrapers to South Beach and beyond are, arguably, the city’s most spectacular.

A short walk across the river in Downtown, the Kimpton Epic attracts both locals and out-of-towners to its rooftop bar and restaurant, Area 31. Arrive towards the end of the week and you’ll see DJs cajoling the happy hour crowd, many of whom are holding out for a much sought-after table at the seafood restaurant. Here, local produce and flavours are showcased by South African chef Alex Olivier, while guests look out towards the port where cruise ships are readying themselves for early morning departures.

Stray further north, and you’ll see that Downtown isn’t all steel and glass. Dating back to 1925, Bayfront Park is a welcome respite, with an amphitheatre, fountain and regular yoga sessions and salsa classes. In the same year the park opened, the nearby Freedom Tower was Miami’s tallest building. Standing at 225ft, the Mediterranean Revival-style structure was subsequently considered the ‘Ellis Island of the South’ for its role in assisting Cuban refugees seeking political asylum from Castro’s regime from 1962-74. 

Brave the humidity for another 15-minute walk up the coast, past the American Airlines Arena (home to the Miami Heat basketball team), to find the sleek Herzog & de Meuron-designed Pérez Art Museum Miami. Housing what must surely be one of the US’s most compelling contemporary art collections, this gallery is proof there’s more to Downtown and Brickell than meets the eye.

Room Mate Waldorf Towers Hotel, Ocean Drive.
Photograph by 4corners

South Beach

The quintessential Miami district. Take a pew on Ocean Drive and watch the world go by — towering palm trees sway while joggers work up a sweat, battling for boardwalk space with cyclists and rollerbladers. Volleyball is ever-present and there’s even yoga if you get up early enough. However, it’s the fun once the sun’s gone down that’s synonymous with South Beach.

That and the art deco architecture, which prompts Melissa from the Miami Design Preservation League to call it: “an outdoor living museum”. The rows of starry hotels along Ocean Drive — Breakwater, Colony, Carlyle — need no introduction, thanks to the photography of the neon signage that’s disseminated worldwide, but there are hundreds of other buildings in the style. The fascinating MDPL walking tour introduces a wealth of distinct variations (Mediterranean Revival, Streamline, Miami Modern), as well as the opportunity to learn more about what lies behind the art deco facades.

South Beach’s 1980s renaissance, after decades of decline, saw a growing campaign for the preservation of its buildings, alongside an economic revival that restored its reputation as a glitzy playground.

“South Beach was Las Vegas before Las Vegas existed,” Melissa adds. And while the gangsters and gambling are long gone, the epitaph still applies as it continues to draw visitors for late-night revelling. Gianni Versace was one of the early trendsetters, buying an Ocean Drive property in 1992, and bringing an A-list cachet to the area, before his death just five years later. The former Versace Mansion is now a 10-suite hotel replete with its gold-tiled swimming pool.

Over on the west side of South Beach, the Mondrian Hotel does its best to liven up its quiet and sedate setting. Check in on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of spring break, and you’re guaranteed to find a pool party underway: plenty of toned bodies, designer swimwear, as-expected expensive jewellery, white drapes billowing in the breeze and Miami’s skyline in the distance.

But for something more demure, head north a few blocks for dinner at the rooftop restaurant Juvia. Overlooking busy Lincoln Road, you’ll get magnificent views across Miami Beach. While the boutiques, high street brands and pavement restaurants thrive below, Juvia’s distinct modern Miami flavours flourish. South Beach might appear brash at times, but it’s clear the likes of Juvia are adding a layer of culinary chic. Though a patty at the oldest burger joint in town, Cheeseburger Baby, which is just around the corner, is worth every cent of its $9 (£6.95).

Little Havana

Given that Havana is a little more than 200 miles from Miami, it’s no surprise the two cities have such close links. The 1959 Cuban Revolution saw a diaspora of over 500,000 Cubans move to the United States in the years that followed — with the vast majority settling in Florida.

Just two miles west of Downtown, Little Havana is a hub of that emigration, centred around Calle Ocho, the heart of the area running from 17th to 13th Avenues. It’s a huge contrast to the shiny skyscrapers on the coast and the decadent vibes of South Beach.

“The historic fabric in Little Havana is amazing — 1930s bungalows, 1920s central hallway apartment buildings, coral rock homes, early Miami wood frame houses, and even art deco apartment buildings exist within the neighbourhood,” said Christine Rupp, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust, back in 2017 when the district was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Miami Culinary Tours is a great way to get a taste of Little Havana’s rich pickings. At Agustin Gainza Arts & Tavern, its mom-and-pop shopfront typical of the low-rise buildings that run along Calle Ocho, you’ll find Gainza, an artist who’s shown his work all over the world, mixing mojitos behind the bar at the back of the gallery. It’s this kind of down-to-earth attitude that prevails in Little Havana.

Maximo Gomez Park (Domino Park), built in the mid-1970s, is a landmark in this neighbourhood. Intense, fraught games of dominoes are played here all day long by teams of largely retired locals, smoking cigars and slapping down tiles on the purpose-built tables. And very serious business it is, too. Interfere at your peril.

Tours take in an obligatory beef empanada and a sweet, extremely strong cafe Cubano at El Pub; followed by the ubiquitous and substantial Cuban sandwich at Old’s Havana; a mojito at Ball & Chain; guarapo (freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice) at Los Pinarenos Fruteria; and huge ice cream cones at Azucar — a whirlwind exploration of this Latin Caribbean enclave that’s as satisfying for your appetite as it is for cultural understanding.

Organised tourism to Little Havana is a relatively new thing, with tour buses making inroads in recent years, but rather than being a threat it’s evidently helping the area thrive with visitors and locals alike supporting traditional and new businesses. Don’t miss Havana’s ‘factories’, where Cuban-style cigars are hand-rolled (the embargo still limits their sale), the Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park where icons are remembered, and the Bay of Pigs Museum about the failed 1961 invasion.

Azucar, Eighth Street.
Photograph by Chris Brant

When in Miami

Boat tour
Seeing Miami from the water is the best way to fully appreciate the city. Watersports Paradise offers a range of boat tours and watersports — a great way to get close to Star Island, Biscayne Bay and the infamous Millionaire’s Row. 

Wynwood Walls
Abandoned warehouses and empty buildings were transformed just over a decade ago as a series of street art installations began to draw visitors in their thousands. The area now thrives with bars, restaurants, shops, galleries and vast, multicoloured murals.

With Miami Heat, the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Marlins representing basketball, American football and baseball respectively, sport’s never far away in this city. David Beckham’s Major League Soccer team is expected to launch in 2020 too.

Cuban sandwich
These hefty bites are a serious business in Miami and while quality remains high everywhere, everyone has their favourite spot. Made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles on Cuban bread, you simply can’t leave the city without having at least one, or two.

Off-peak months
The traditional off-peak months (May to September) are often the time to seek out special discounts at spas, restaurants, hotels, museums and more. Check miamiandbeaches.com/offers/temptations for further details.

Art Basel
The international contemporary art fair launched in its second host city in 2002, and sees around 80,000 visitors flock to Miami over five days in early December. The fair hosts 260 galleries from 33 countries showcasing works by more than 4,000 artists. It’s big. 

How to do it

Norwegian operates a nonstop service from Gatwick to Miami, operated by a fleet of new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Fares start from £320 return in economy and £1,109 return in premium, including all taxes and charges.
Rooms at East Miami start from $279 (£215), room only. Rooms at the Mondrian South Beach start from $149 (£115), room only. 

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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