Miami prides itself on its cutting edge creativity, but its broader charms are perennial - a cultural melting point that thrives under a sun that blazes along with its legendary nightlife.
(An article I wrote for Cara Magazine in 2016; updated December 2019)
If Louis XIV were alive today, he’d holiday in Miami. The Magic City’s spell-binding mix of beauty and bacchanal proved a ‘perilous attraction’ to Joan Didion and had Will Smith partying on the beach until the break of dawn. Miami’s multiple moods – supermodel glitz on Lincoln Road, defiant nostalgia in Little Havana, transgressive creativity in Wynwood – express themselves against one of America’s sexiest backdrops, a movie set of teal waters, white-sand beaches and blood-orange sunsets.
Most Miami Cubans may have outgrown Little Havana, but the barrio still hums to the sound of salsa pouring out of the bodegas along Calle Ocho (8th St) and the unmistakable waft of cigar smoke in thick plumes around the old men playing dominos and cursing Castro’s memory in Máximo Gómez Park.
To the north is the Design District, dripping in art galleries and high end boutiques where even a memento of local chic can cost you thousands: if you want an idea of just how opulent the city can get head down toward Coconut Grove and take a wander round its fanciest building, the ornate Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (vizcaya.org), an Italianate villa built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering as a fitting residence for him and his extraordinary collection of art from the Renaissance onwards.
Ever stylish, wonderfully offbeat and sordid in parts, South Beach (SoBe) is the Miami stereotype come to life. Five-star hotels and designer boutiques sit side-by-side with grungy tattoo parlours and dingy dive bars. Along Ocean Drive bronzed beauties slip out of soft-top Ferraris to strut their stuff, barely noticing the beach bums rearranging their worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley. This is the Miami of the movies: of perfect skies and pastel-hued art deco palaces, of rollerblading families gliding through South Pointe Park, of pensioners in velvet leisurewear soaking up the sunshine of their retirements.
Start your night with a cocktail in one of America’s best bars, the Broken Shaker (freehandhotels.com/miami/broken-shaker/) in the backyard of the Freehand Hotel and end it the following morning with a French loaf stuffed with goodies from the walk-up counter of La Sandwicherie (lasandwicherie.com) brings me back to life. For something more substantial – and a finger-lickin’ reminder that Miami is still in the south – try the soul food in Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (runchickenrun.com), across the peninsula in a converted grocery store.
And should you need respite from the city’s multiple charms, the southern end of Biscayne Bay is where you’ll find Stiltsville (stiltsville.org), a cluster of wooden shacks on pilings that over the years has served as a gamblers’ den, a smugglers’ haven and a bikini club with low morals and a high-class clientele. The Sun King would surely have approved.
Hipster A minimalist makeover to an Art Deco classic has resulted in the Freehand Hotel, a favourite with budget travellers who have a choice between a bungalow, suite or quad dorm. And, for everyone, the city’s coolest backyard bar for killer cocktails. Beds from $150. (2727 Indian Creek Dr, +1 305 531 2727, freehandhotels.com)
Rat Pack The Redbury embraces the shiny chic of the 1950s and the psychedelic wow of the 1960s: through the Georgia-peach doors are the paisley wallpapered rooms, all of which have working record players – so you can play the collection of LPs by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Rooms from $300. (1776 Collins Ave, +1 305 604 1776, theredbury.com)
Fabulous Gold columns, huge allegorical murals and artwork by Koons and Hirst on permanent display, the minimalism-be-damned opulence of the Faena Hotel is the vision of Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife Catherine Martin. Together, they’ve given us the hotel version of Oz, complete with a swanky rooftop pool. Rooms from $450. (3201 Collins Ave, +1 305 534 8800, faena.com)
Miami Moca Not coffee, but modern art: the Museum of Contemporary Art has avant garde exhibitions by big names, artist-led lectures and, on the last Friday of the month, jazz concerts for everyone. mocanomi.org