Miami Beach magic: ab fab in the USA

November 28, 2017
The beautiful Art Deco South Beach Miami surf patrol headquarters

Glamorous. Gorgeous. Glitzy. Vibrant. Colourful. Racy. And Cool. Way Cool.

Think of the coolest person you know and triple it. You might just get close to Miami Beach cool.

If you ain’t struttin’, you’re nothin’ in the South Beach end of town. It’s sassiness on steroids here. All about show.

Miami Beach attracts the rich, the famous, the fabulous, and millions of sun-seeking vacationers from around the world every year.

In this tropical town, English is the second language and the vibrancy of the Central and South Americans shines through. With a strong Latino flavour Miami Beach feels alive and exciting. It’s quite the cultural trip.

South Beach Miami or SoBe as it’s known, is famous as a party town, where the cocktails flow freely and the nightclubs are a star attraction.

We weren’t so interested in the Miami Beach nightlife. We’re done with that. We wanted to explore its famous Art Deco architecture, the arts scene, the Cuban influence and of course, soak up the warm weather.

Hurricane Irma & the tourist economy

We booked our trip six months in advance then one month before our holiday Hurricane Irma, one of the most destructive storms on record, tore through South Florida.

It had only a small impact on our visit to Miami Beach as authorities prioritised the clean-up of popular tourist spots. You can read more on our post What’s it really like visiting Florida after Hurricane Irma?

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of tourism to the local Miami and Florida economy. The Sunshine state welcomed 113 million visitors in 2016.

Wow, just stop and think about that for a second. 113 million visitors to Florida in one year. It’s an incredible number, five times the population of Australia! One local told us that at any one time in Miami Beach, 80 percent of people are tourists.

miami beach promenade

Sunset through the palm trees at Miami Beach

So, what’s the attraction and what should you do and see in Miami and Miami Beach?

Here’s what we loved and learned:

Getting around Miami & Miami Beach

I didn’t appreciate the size of this town till I tried to get around. It’s vast and very spread out.

Miami Beach is effectively an island off the mainland where the town of Miami is situated.

Miami Beach is accessible via several causeways from the mainland but these are serious roadways. It’s not an easy stroll in the way you can walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge or even the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco where there’s a very separate pathway for walkers and cyclists.

You definitely need wheels to get around.

So what’s the most efficient and cost-effective way to explore the town?

Uber vs taxis vs renting a car in Miami

We didn’t even bother trying to navigate public transport. We’d read it was sporadic and unreliable.

Local hotel staff told us Uber is by far the best and the cheapest way to get around. A lot cheaper than taxis. And this proved true.

From the airport to South Beach in a taxi cost a flat $USD35 plus tips on our arrival. On our departure, we paid $USD27 with Uber. When we travelled to the Miami Dolphins football stadium, which was a long way from South Beach, the Uber fare didn’t break the bank. A taxi would have cost a bomb.

The other advantage of Uber is that you can interact with the locals. It’s just not the same with taxi drivers. The Uber drivers all had interesting stories. They hailed from countries that have made Miami what it is today: Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Colombia.

As for hiring a car, I didn’t fancy having to drive around Miami which is a maze of highways and overpasses. Plus, parking is expensive at South Beach. $USD39 a day for valet parking or $USD20 for the local car park.

We hired a car to head to the Everglades and the Keys and were impressed with the Alamo car rental company. That’s the first time we’ve ever been impressed by a car hire company!

Where to stay in Miami Beach

If you want an authentic Miami Beach experience book a beachfront Art Deco hotel at South Beach. Make sure the hotel has a statement swimming pool. That’s where the glamour and action begins. Cocktails, swanning, sunning, stripping and strutting all happen here.

A new beer brand hosted a launch party at our hotel one weekend and the glamourazzi descended in droves. Pool parties are what South Beach is all about. See, but more importantly, be seen.

We stayed at the Surfcomber, a boutique Kimpton Hotel, which is a low-rise hotel on the main drag, Collins Ave. It’s pretty funky and in a great position though it didn’t have quite the sophistication and style (or price tag) of some of its neighbours, like the Delano, Shore Club, or the super trendy 1 Hotel.

The Art Deco Surfcomber Hotel South Beach Miami which is one of many beautiful art deco hotels on Collins Avenue.

The Art Deco Surfcomber Hotel South Beach Miami which is one of many beautiful art deco hotels on Collins Avenue.

Looking as glamorous as ever - the pool at our hotel on South Beach, Miami.

Looking as glamorous as ever – the pool at our hotel in South Beach, Miami.

The Webster Hotel South Beach Miami

There’s a very strong Cuban influence in Miami and you see a lot of these classic old cars in Havana.

Things to do in Miami Beach

#1: The Miami Beach Art Deco Walking Tour

Miami Beach has the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. Along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue it’s like a catwalk line-up of beautiful models all decked out in pretty pastel colours. It’s stunning.

I recommend doing a formal tour. You’ll likely suffer from information overload but it’s a great insight into the area from a local volunteer who’s passionate about architecture and preserving the city’s heritage.

Even better, our guide gave us his personal restaurant recommendations, where he and his family go, generally not where the guidebooks tell you. (See restaurant recommendations below).

The Art Deco walking tours last about 1.5 hours and start every day at 10.30am at the Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive at 10th Street.

#2: Wynwood Walls, Miamis arts district

This is not to be missed. North of downtown Miami, Wynwood Walls is an arts district full of vibrant, exotic murals by many well-known street artists. The area is humming with colour, creativity, hip bars and restaurants. The area covers quite a few streets so allow yourself several hours to wander around and be inspired by the artworks. Make sure you meander down the smaller side streets away from the main street. Time your visit to make the most of happy hour.

The arts district at Wynwood Walls - this is one thing not to miss in Miami.

The arts district at Wynwood Walls – this is one thing not to miss in Miami.

Vibrant street art at Wynwood Walls Miami.

Wynwood Walls Miami

#3: Miami Beach surf patrol huts

Work off those Pisco Sour (my fave) happy hour cocktails by walking along the beachfront promenade which runs for miles beside Miami Beach. It’s a busy thoroughfare with strollers, joggers, bike riders, skateboarders and beachgoers.

South Beach is a hive of activity. Many of the hotels have their own dedicated area on the sand with lounge chairs reserved for guests. The towels are complimentary but if you want an umbrella that’ll cost extra (a steep $USD19 at our hotel). My advice: go early to beat the crowds who have probably been out partying all night and to avoid the scorching midday sun.

If you don’t like lazing in the sun then you must at least check out the colourful surf patrol beach huts. They’re the best part of the beach and must be the best-looking surf patrol huts in the world. They’re dotted along the sand and are a true statement in style.

Everything makes a statement in South Beach Miami including the surf patrol huts along the beach.

Everything makes a statement in South Beach Miami including the surf patrol huts along the beach.

Colourful surf patrol beach hut on South Beach Miami

Surf patrol hut on South Beach Miami

#4: Cycle around town

Miami is so flat which makes it perfect for cycling around. Cruise Collins Avenue and ogle the sexy sports cars draped outside glamorous hotels. Cycle down to the south end of the island, South Pointe Park. It’s much quieter down here where there are more high-rise residential apartment blocks than multi-storey hotels.

You don’t need to wear a helmet on a push bike or a motorbike in Florida, so let the breeze blow through your hair and enjoy the wonderful feeling of freedom.

#5: People watch on Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive is the hub of South Beach Miami. It’s thick with beautiful Art Deco hotels and streetside bars where you can sip super-sized cocktails and watch the eye-popping passing parade. It seems everyone wants to be noticed here, whether they’re ambling along the pavement or revving the engine in a souped-up convertible or huge Harley Davidson.

While it’s very touristy you can’t visit Miami Beach and not spend some time on Ocean Drive. We got stuck in a super heavy tropical rainstorm here one day and had to escape into one of the many over-the-top restaurants where the waitress was almost wearing shorts!

#6: Explore Calle Oche – Little Havana

Calle Oche, Miami’s Cuban quarter on the mainland, is hyped as one of THE things to do in Miami. It’s a relatively small strip of shops, restaurants, convenience stores and the odd cigar den run by Cubans and Latin Americans.

When we arrived, there were busloads of tourists clogging the street and pavement. It felt rather artificial and extremely touristy and we were a little underwhelmed, wondering what all the fuss is about.

We did appreciate the Cuban memorials that commemorate those who died in the Cuban War of Independence and the anti-Castro conflicts. These monuments lie a little south of Calle Oche and for us, represented the heart of the community.

Calle Ocho, the Cuban Quarter, in Miami.

Calle Ocho, the Cuban Quarter, in Miami.

#7: Embrace the local sports teams and go to a game

If you want an authentic experience go to an NFL football game and mix it with the locals at their most passionate and vocal. We became enthusiastic Miami Dolphins supporters for a day as they battled it out with the New York Jets. Thankfully the Dolphins staged a magnificent comeback to score a last-minute victory.

The security to get into the stadium was thorough. No handbags or backpacks allowed. You had to put your essentials into small, clear plastic bag – kind of like you do with your toiletries at an airport – or, if you’re a local you can buy an approved transparent bag at the team merchandise outlet.

I know next to nothing about American football but attending the game was FUN. We were surrounded by season ticket holders who were high-fiving every play of the game and it was virtually impossible not to get swept up in their excitement.

I have to admit though that If the locals are any guide, I think I have missed the sports fanatic gene.

We looked at buying our Miami Dolphins tickets online but ended up asking the hotel to organise tickets for us. It was a good move as we had excellent seats, way better than what we could get online.

We scored seats at the 50 yard line at the Miami Dolphins NFL game.

We scored great seats at the 50-yard line at the Miami Dolphins NFL game.

Where to eat and drink in Miami Beach

There are so many options, many of them so touristy and best avoided.

Our favourite restaurant was Puerta Sagua on Collins and 7th Avenues. It has a wonderful down-to-earth vibe, a buzzy atmosphere, fabulous staff and generous servings. A little bit of Miami Beach magic. It was heaving the night we went and there was a long queue for tables. While the restaurant is a drawcard for tourists it’s also popular with the locals.

Do try La Locanda. This was recommended by our walking tour guide. It’s out of the tourist precinct, full of locals, with typical friendly and hospitable Italian staff and delicious food.

I was a regular at La Rosetta bakery on Collins Ave. They make a decent coffee and a decadent pastry. It’s always packed with locals and interlopers. They’re opening another store closer to Ocean Drive. It’s bound to be a hit.

We splashed out for lunch at the Delano Hotel, quite possibly the most glamorous and sophisticated looking hotel I’ve ever waltzed through. Sit outside overlooking the pool and ponder how the other half lives. 🍹🌴👙

The tacos at the Social restaurant at our hotel, the Surfcomber, were delicious and worth a second visit.

We tried Bella Cuba which is on Washington Ave, just off Lincoln Rd Mall, where the staff were great but the food didn’t wow.

Don’t go to Cuba 1957 – the food was very ordinary, bordering on awful. It was fun to watch the passing parade on Lincoln Road Mall, the main pedestrian and shopping strip in South Beach, but there are plenty of other places to choose from. The gelato at the nearby Gelateria 4D afterwards was much better.

Taxes and tipping

One thing to watch out for and it gets us every time, no matter how many trips we make to the US, is how much taxes and tipping add to the cost of food. It makes dining out a lot more expensive than it seems (especially when you start with Aussie dollars).

Dinner might cost $USD75 but when you add tax and a 20 percent tip it’s $USD100, which is an extra 30 percent. Many Miami Beach restaurants automatically add a 20 percent ‘service fee’ to your bill, so tipping is not optional. It’s very annoying.

One final tip: Learn some Spanish!

It’s obviously okay if you don’t speak Spanish but it should be an offence if you don’t. Shame on me. Learning the lingo has been on my to-do list for a while. After all Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world.

No y problema!

Trip notes:

  • The website is a good source of information on the region.
  • Visit Florida is the official tourism body for the Sunshine State. Nearly 113 million people visited Florida in 2016.

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