As soon as I arrived in South Beach – the bustling, beachfront suburb near Miami – it felt familiar. South Beach has starred many times on TV and in the movies. It provided the setting for Scarface and The Birdcage. But it’s possibly best known as the backdrop for 80’s series, Miami Vice. One of its main thoroughfares, Ocean Drive, was celebrated in a Lighthouse Family song, too. Remember that?
South Beach is also known as Miami Beach. It’s the area that’s filled with trendy bars and fancy nightclubs, where clubbers queue on the pavement hoping to be allowed past the velvet rope. I doubt I’d be allowed in, even if my name was down on the list. People are here for a good time. Latin rhythms fill the air and dance beats blare out of passing limos. The fun, relaxed atmosphere is infectious.
For me, it’s the district’s design that stands out. There are stunning Art Deco apartments and hotels alongside an incredible, long, wide expanse of sand. “Miami Beach definitely stands out because of its Art Deco feel, that you see throughout all of the architecture,” Marisa Marcus told me. Marisa works for the company that owns the Shelborne South Beach Hotel where I’m staying.
We chatted in the leafy shade at the side of the hotel’s inviting, blue swimming pool. We were surrounded by the perfectly symmetrical art deco structures that evoked memories of the golden days of Hollywood. “You don’t see these sort of buildings in newer Downtown Miami,” she added. ”Miami Beach has that history.”
It’s not a long history. The district is just over a century old. I was keen to find out more about the area so I arranged to go on a tour with Paula Fletcher, co-owner of Art Deco Tours. Paula is British and enjoys the best of both worlds – winter in Florida and summers in Warwickshire. “One hundred years ago this was nothing more than a barrier island – a mangrove swamp with rats, rabbits, mosquitos and alligators. It was only reachable by boat,” she told me. “The island itself is about six miles long and two miles wide at its widest point. But, with all the infilling, it is 60% wider than it was 100 years ago.”
Paula explained that rich businessman Carl Fisher was the man responsible for developing the area. His life story reads like the classic ‘American dream.’ He was born into poverty in Indiana in the 1870s. Car ownership was becoming popular and Fisher seized an opportunity in securing patent rights for the first acetylene headlights. “He believed that, one day, people would wish to drive at night,” Paula told me.
He eventually sold out to Union Carbide. That made him rich and allowed him to indulge in his passion for building things. Paula told me he had a favourite expression: “I don’t worry about the cash. I just want to see dirt fly.” He arrived in 1912 at what was then a swampy stretch of sand and decided he wanted to turn it into a paradise for his friends in the north and east. “And that’s exactly what he did,” Paula said.
South Beach is a region of Miami Beach. That’s a separate city to Miami, confusingly. Miami began development when the railway extended through Florida. Fisher realised that the long beaches on his island offered an opportunity, as Miami didn’t have any. “In 1932, President Roosevelt signed The New Deal in an attempt to kick-start the US economy. It offered paid vacation for the first time,” said Paula. “Small hotels were quickly built using the latest building style – Art Deco. In 1941 though, all the hotels were taken over by the military and 500,000 troops were trained in Miami Beach. After the war, car ownership increased and people wanted bigger, better hotels. That’s why you’ll find larger properties further along the beach.”
Most activity is focussed on the beach. As you walk along the sand you pass through different zones. You’ll see watersports areas watched over by lifeguards in wooden, white and red watch towers, twenty feet above the sand. There are areas where clothing seems almost optional. There’s a gay beach marked with rainbow flags, which flutter in the onshore breeze.
You’ll also feel very weak and weedy when you walk past fitness buffs working out and posing along sections of the promenade. At Lummus Park, people play volleyball and there’s a cluster of South Pacific-style thatched huts beneath the towering palm trees. I saw an iguana the size of a small cat dart up the trunk of one tree.
It’s a great place for people watching. You’ll see everything – from over worked out muscle machines, to drag queens, to little old ladies with tiny dogs on leads. “The hotel is at the intersection of 18th and Collins,” explained Marissa. “You can walk down the beach for around thirty minutes, right to the end. Go and see the sunset after a few cocktails. It’s stunning,” she said.
You’ll find boardwalks cutting into the sandy dunes, which front a 17-acre park offering the occasional parakeet sighting. And at the end, a recently refurbished metal pier struts out. It offers an incredible 360-degree view of the beach and Art Deco district. Turn away from South Beach and you’ll see the high-rise skyline of Miami across the water. In the mornings, cruise ships pass the pier en route to the Caribbean.
Another people watching spot, a few streets inland, is the pedestrianized area known as the Lincoln Road Mall. You know it’s a posh retail area because they’ve got one of those Nespresso stores that only sells the costly coffee capsules. But don’t worry – there are also cheaper chains like Gap and H&M.
For more observing with an orange juice on the side, I headed to the News Café. It’s a newsagents mixed with a restaurant and lined with pictures of famous diners. This pavement-side café looks out towards the beach on Ocean Drive. It’s a local institution. Versace had just left here when he was murdered in broad daylight, twenty years ago.
This area was quite dodgy for a time. In the 60s and 70s the smaller hotels became cheap boarding houses. The district first became a retirement area and then an affordable place for the many Cuban and Haitian settlers. Crime became an issue and as people left, properties fell into disrepair. It would have been easier to demolish these decaying buildings and start again.
Architecture lovers owe a lot to people like civic campaigner Barbara Capitman. She formed a group to save the distinctive buildings. She successfully obtained the US equivalent of Grade II listing for special properties in an area covering 1.5 square miles. Paula explained, “There are 800 buildings in three separate styles. There’s Mediterranean Revival, used by the wealthy in the 1920s. That was followed by the Art Deco of the 1930s and 1940s. Then there’s a style called Miami Modern that dates from the 1950s and 1960s.”
Paula’s passion for South Beach is infectious and her stories about the people and events that shaped this district are engaging and enthusiastically told. As we darted in and out of hotels and cafes with beautiful, authentic interiors, Paula pointed out the signature Art Deco design elements – sun burst motifs, speed lines, Egyptian and Aztec motifs and symmetrical patterns. I would never have been able to find so many incredible examples of this period without her help.
“People love Art Deco,” she enthused. “They love these sugar pastel coloured buildings. What’s interesting is that when they were built, they were painted white or left as unpainted concrete. In 1979, when the area was listed, a man named Leonard Horowitz realised that if they were painted in pastel shades they would photograph better. He was right. That’s why the TV series Miami Vice came in. The area was also gritty and run down which helped with the series.”
You can learn more about the different styles of South Beach architecture at the Miami Design Preservation League Museum. I met with Daniel Ciraldo, their historic preservation officer. The collection explains how South Beach developed and also features the stories of the people responsible for its creation and later preservation. Daniel showed me the most popular exhibit. “It’s a hand-drawn map of every block. It’s interesting to see how the city was originally plotted. Most of the buildings are still here.”
There’s another architectural design you’ll see in abundance in South beach, and it’s a bit later than Art Deco. “Miami Modern came about after the second world war,” Daniel explained. “Space exploration had begun so there were rocket ship inspired designs.” It’s a style you’ll recognise in 1950s American cars and even cartoon series like The Jetsons.
Another distinctive building style looks more like something you’d find in Spain. The best example of this Mediterranean-style architecture is on Española Way. That’s a leafy pedestrianized street of bars and boutiques set inside pink stucco buildings with terracotta tile roofs. “It’s a Spanish village and almost looks like a movie set. It pre-dated Art Deco and is all that’s left. There was a major hurricane in 1926, which destroyed many of those buildings. The new, cutting-edge Art Deco design replaced them.”
When you visit Española Way, look out for The Clay Hotel. That’s where Al Capone’s gambling syndicate was based. In the 1920s and 1930’s, Miami Beach was the biggest illegal gambling destination in The States. Local officials were paid off to prevent prosecution. Activity had to be discrete and visitors could look for special signs suggesting places for betting. Paula reveals some of these secrets on her tour. “They’d use symbols in their terrazzo floors. Any design that leads you into a building, like arrows or chevrons, would invariably take you to a casino. A circle marking advised that there was a dance floor within and a rectangle meant there was a bar, hidden away. If your hotel had an arrow, circle and an oblong shape outside, then you knew you’d have a good time,” she laughed. You can book Paula’s tours at ArtDecoWalks.com.
The 200-room Shelborne South Beach Hotel, is a case study in Art Deco design. It’s a tall white tower with soft corners and classic, metal-framed windows. At night, the white, circular portico over the hotel entrance lights up in pink and the Shelborne’s name glows in a neon style light.
Paula knows the Shelborne well. Before it was converted back to a hotel, she had an apartment in the building. “When it was built in 1940, the Shelborne was ‘the’ hotel,” she explained, as we stood on the busy crossroads outside and admired this landmark. “This was where all the big bands played and where they held Miss World and Mr Universe.” Paula pointed upwards to the Shelborne signs on top of the hotel. “That sign is fifty-feet tall. You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”
Marisa Marcus told me that they had retained the hotel’s original appearance during recent refurbishment. “Everything you see on the exterior is original. Everything inside was renovated in a $180m project four years ago. They really wanted to bring back the 1940s and 1950s movie star glamour.” The guest rooms are also decorated in 1930s and 1940s style, with symmetrical pattern wallpapers, lots of angular chrome and Oscar-like figurines holding globe lights. That’s the classic look. Marisa says their designers watched old films to make it feel and look authentic.
At the rear of the hotel, at the beach end of the pool, is a sleek white deco-style diving board with a rounded platform. It leans forward like the bow of an ocean-going liner. Along one side of the pool are wooden hideaways. The cabanas are private rooms with sofas, a TV and wi-fi. These cabanas also offer an outdoor sitting space, hemmed in with flowing white linen curtains for privacy. You can book them during the day, so if you have a long layover at Miami airport, they could provide you with the perfect place to relax. If you’re staying at the hotel you can also enjoy their private beach.
When the sun goes down, South Beach’s nightspots spring into life. I’m not clubber but I grabbed the chance to dine outdoors. The Nautilus Cabana Club features a modern, stylish bar set on decking area around a pool. It’s lovely when it’s lit by lanterns. The food is Middle Eastern with some European and Mediterranean twists. I was treated to a delicious mezze platter.
Miami’s community is diverse and the different nationalities that have made this city their home have greatly influenced menus here. Grace Della moved from Argentina aged 19 and worked for a healthcare website for a year. She started operating food tours at the weekends. Now her business, Miami Culinary Tours, has expanded into a seven-day-a-week operation, running fifteen daily walking tours in different neighbourhoods, like Little Havana, South Beach and Little Haiti.
I met her at a vibrant restaurant where a large group of 60-something American women were having a whale of a time and had clearly reached the drink sampling part of the tour. They seemed to be excited at hearing a British accent. Too much Downtown Abbey? Or maybe too many Daiquiris?
“I think we are one of the top culinary cities in The States,” Grace proudly exclaimed. She believes that Miami’s menus are a real melting pot of cultures. “It started with people coming from Central and Southern America, bringing their food traditions. People in the food industry modified that. They took those dishes that mama used to make in the kitchen and gave them a twist,” Grace said.
For the true taste of Miami, Grace says your meal must contain a fried or boiled banana-type fruit. “Plantains are a staple on a Miamian’s dinner table. You will also smell cumin in every street in Miami and, of course, there’s the Cuban sandwich.” That’s made on bread similar to a French stick and it’s meaty, with ham, roast pork and salami. They also add Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard.
As we chatted an ice cream van passed down the street playing a synthesized version of the Cuckoo Waltz. It prompted me to ask about the area’s sweet treats. “There are very yummy desserts such as tres leches. It is a cake containing three different types of milk – condensed, evaporated and regular milk. It’s a classic. It originally comes from Spain and became popular in Central and Southern America.”
Miami has some very high-end restaurants, although eating out need not be costly. “Miami can get steep if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can pay $30 for chicken wings. That’s a no-no in my book!” frowned Grace. “But Bolibar in South Beach is where locals go. You can buy three empanadas for under $10.”
I told Grace that I got the feeling Miami is a foodie place. When I put on the TV at 6.15am, one channel was airing restaurant reviews! “Yes,” she laughed. “We’re obsessed. This city likes to eat. We were rated the tenth best food city in the US. If you walk into Little Havana and look through the windows you’ll see people baking empanadas and croquettas.”
Grace says the food and the beach vibe means this city should top any foodie’s bucket list. “If you want to try the exotic, the Caribbean mixed with progressive American, then you have to make it to Miami. Where else in the world can you look at palm trees, white sand and have a delicious tropical cocktail next to you, munching on juicy empanadas. That’s the dream of any adventurous foodie!”
After lunch it was time for art. The Wynwood Walls project has transformed the exterior walls of six separate warehouses into giant artist canvases. It said to be the greatest street art collection assembled in one location. So far, seventy artists from twenty different nations have created art works on the area’s 85,000 ft² of wall space. “It’s 680 square acres and it’s covered top-to-bottom, corner-to-corner, with art,” professional graffiti artist Pedro Amos told me. “There’s everything. There’s a woman who knits stop signs and there are guys who stencil poems on the floor.”
Pedro has been invited all over the world to create artworks. He’s well known and respected and has been at the top of his game for around twenty years. He has so many graffiti working holidays he’s invented a term for it – a spraycation! Pedro offers art tours around this part of Miami, pointing out the highlights and offering information about the artists, many of whom he says he knows and ‘hangs out with.’
There are two distinct parts to this district. Artists are invited to add their works within the Wynwood Walls. That’s like an open-air art gallery with plaques, floodlights and security guards on duty, although entry is free. The walls are repainted by new artists every few years, so it’s constantly changing.
The wider district outside the walls is also filled with street art. “The street is not a gallery. People just paint on the facades of buildings,” Pedro explained. With so much colourful art on every wall, junction box and fence, I asked Pedro how he defines graffiti. “It’s all about the letters. You have to be a letter architect, a letter engineer. A capital ‘A’ is three sticks – one up, one down and one across. You can make the one on the left whip around into an arrow. Or you can make the one in the middle connect to the one on the side and have a bit breaking off. We call them ‘pieces’ and it should look just as good in silver and black as it does in colour, because it is all about the letter. Graffiti doesn’t have to be illegal. In fact it’s so solicited now it is no longer taboo,” Pedro told me.
Today, Wynwood is a vibrant arts area filled with funky galleries and cool cafes. But it has not always been so desirable. This former industrial area was run down and dangerous but was transformed thanks to the foundation set up by visionary property developer Tony Goldman, who believed that art could transform blighted communities. Pedro told me it wouldn’t have been wise to visit a little over a decade ago. “Fifteen years ago, if you were standing here you’d have been accosted, mugged or offered drugs,” he told me. It’s certainly different now. You can book a tour with Pedro at MiamisBestGraffitiGuide.com.
If you’re passionate about art, then grab a cab and take a fifteen-minute ride from Wynyard Walls to the city’s showcase gallery, the Perez Art Museum Miami, or PAMM for short. The museum’s showcase of contemporary art is always changing. When I visited I watched a short film about the lives of migrants on a remote Indian Ocean island. I also walked through a forest of reflective disks hanging from the ceiling of a darkened room. That display was designed to disorientate your senses. It’s certainly varied.
The PAMM building itself is considered a work of art. It was designed by a Swiss architect and has been described as “spectacular’ by the New York Times. It’s a sleek, three-storey building featuring thin pillars and overhead cross beams, which makes it look like it’s built from matches. The beams create a canopy that runs around the perimeter.
The architects arranged plants and greenery to appear to pour down between the latticework of canopy slats. PAMM’s Maria Ortiz told me that they worked with an Italian designer to create hanging gardens. She thought the greenery appeared to flow down the building, like Spanish moss. The museum is set in the 29-acre Museum Park, next to Biscayne Bay.
While I was there, I grabbed a taco from the PAMM café, Verde. They have an outdoor space sheltered from the fierce sun by the PAMM’s canopy. Or you could sit in one of the hanging nets, which act as vertical hammocks, sipping a beer and watching the taillights of cars crossing the twin MacArthur Causeway bridges. “At the back of the museum is what we call The Beach,” Maria offered. “There’s a big terrace and steps that you can sit on.”
There are 2.5 million people in the Miami area, so everything you’d expect from a major city is on hand, with the added bonus of the beaches. I’d stay in South Beach, where everything that makes this city special can be enjoyed for free. Grab a seat at a sidewalk bar or café and let the show come to you. You’ll see the eccentric, avant-garde and alternative file past. Within seconds of sitting down, I saw roller bladers pulled by dogs and a woman in a fur coat and shorts – in 35°C temperatures! Or just stroll around taking in the street art and amazing architecture. You won’t need a pair of skates – just pack your shades and soak up the sights of South Beach.
“You can make Miami whatever you want. You can come in from a pub or club at 6am. Or you can go to the beach for yoga at 6am,” Pedro told me, adding, “The best thing about Miami is that although it is so close to the United States, it’s not really like the US.”
Multiple airlines fly from the UK direct to Miami with flight times starting at just over nine hours and one-way fares from £210. You can find out more at MiamiAndBeaches.com.