It's only a two-hour drive from Naples, but Miami is unlike any other city in Florida, or unlike anywhere else in the entire country.
It's always been unique, famous even, for its heady blend of Latin American cultures and South Beach glam; a place where celebrities cross paths with locals in the hotel lobby, where hotshots peacock past open-air eateries on Ocean Drive in neon pink Lamborghinis, and visitors from around the world sweat out hangovers in the shallow cerulean waters of the Atlantic.
It is still all those things, but over the past decade a slew of massive redevelopment efforts have taken place at breakneck pace, completely transforming the city and surrounding area.
Storied art deco hotels have undergone much-needed renovations in a race to compete with the onslaught of new ultramodern accommodations. Towering glassy all-white condominiums, many still under construction, have tripled the downtown skyline.
'Starchitect'-designed arts and culture hubs offer an alternative to the 24/7 party scene. Residents now flock to fringe neighborhoods, injecting new life into long-overlooked locales. There have never been more options tempting the inquisitive traveler to expand their itineraries beyond the beach.
I grew up in Naples, yet somehow never managed to make the short trek across the Everglades save for a brief visit to tour the University of Miami. Granted, I moved out of state after college, and would not have had as much fun until I turned 21 anyway. But these excuses did nothing to curb my co-workers' enthusiasm for heckling me about it. When I moved back to Naples in December, a flood of text messages began pouring in from friends of mine, from New York to Paris, asking me about Miami and if we could visit. I began to feel like a trip was necessary to maintain my credibility as a Floridian.
Fortunately, I have a great friend who lives there. Since March I've made three weekend-long trips to visit him. He's been an excellent host and tour guide. Together we've checked the mandatory things to do and places to visit off the list, as well as enjoyed forays into the lesser known and (sometimes) more exclusive side of the 305.
Whether you're a snowbird needing a vacation from your vacation, a young Neapolitan in desperate need of nightlife, or an out-of-stater who's accumulated enough sky miles on your rewards credit card for a round-trip ticket, Miami is the answer. Today, I humbly share my newfound insider knowledge in the hopes that you'll come to love this multidimensional, sometimes crazy, always fun city as much as I do.
This 2½-mile stretch of shoreline, bounded by Fifth Street to the south and 24th Street to the north, is where the crazy happens. Iconic art deco hotels line Ocean Drive, with their street-level bars and restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalk. If you're not staying at one of these hotels, one could easily make a day out of stumbling back and forth between bar and beach. Flip-flops, sandy feet and bathing suits are the norm at any of these places. Be sure to catch the famous drag show at Palace on the corner of 12th and Ocean, every Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The traffic-stopping boozy brunch is welcome to all, and a South Beach staple.
If you're looking for a quieter place to stay or a nicer bar to sip cocktails, a short stroll north on the Miami Beach Boardwalk, which buffers the beach from Ocean Drive, will take you to a cluster of luxury hotels. Top picks include The Ritz-Carlton, SLS, Delano and Loews, where chic poolside oases offer guests upscale rest and relaxation. Sorry, but clothes are required for these establishments.
After a day at the beach, plan on taking a disco nap then heading a little further up the shore to Mid Beach, which, after a string of new hotel openings, is the hottest 'hood in town. Note: Dress to impress — you will not get in the door to the clubs here otherwise — and if possible, your group's male-to-female ratio should favor the ladies. Yes, these places are that exclusive (or trying to be), but it's often worth it. I was enjoying live music in the plush Living Room at the Baz Luhrmann-designed epicenter of all the buzz, Faena Hotel, when the Rolling Stones walked in with owner Alan Faena, about a week before their concert in Cuba. And later that night, at the Faena's Gatsby-esque Saxony Bar, I was mid-sip in a prohibition-era cocktail when Usher was discretely escorted to a private room.
If you can schmooze friends in the area ahead of time to get on the list at any private parties, do it. If not, ask around about what's happening that night. Last weekend, a deejay hosted an intimate 100-person gathering at the Tropicale bar at The Edition. This party had a wonderful, relaxed vibe compared to neighboring watering holes. Everyone was sociable, groups were mixing and mingling, and I met some amazing people.
Downtown and Brickell
Make a sojourn inland for a day and visit the Pérez Art Museum Miami's (PAMM) world-class contemporary art collection. After, grab a cocktail from The Herzog & de Meron-designed building's Stephen Starr restaurant and bar, Verde, and enjoy stunning views of the Biscayne Bay underneath the monolithic veranda. Nearby, Bayfront Park will likely have some type of outdoor concert or event to cap off the afternoon. The soon to be completed Frost Museum of Science, which abuts PAMM, will add another stellar option to your day on the bay.
South of downtown, across the Miami River, is Brickell. There isn't much to see in this now densely populated neighborhood where many of downtown's young finance bros have decided to call home, but there are plenty of good places to eat and drink. Start off with a beer at the low-key Blackbird Ordinary, then over to SoCal Taco Co. for crafty tequila incarnations and new takes on classic tacos. Around the corner is the waterfront American Social, where I recommend loading up on less expensive drinks before Ubering over to posh riverside quay River Yacht Club. Undoubtedly, a parade of increasingly larger yachts will make their way to this lively outdoor lounge reprieve.
Miami's answer to Brooklyn, Wynwood is an up-and-coming hipster neighborhood north of downtown replete with art galleries, microbreweries, surprisingly expensive boutiques and, in this case, graffiti art. Colorful, grungy and weird, this off-the-beaten path patch of converted warehouses is a must for beer lovers and alt-art aficionados alike. Amble through the shops and galleries on Second Avenue, but be sure to hit the main attraction, Wynwood Walls, an open-air six-building complex with graffiti art from around the world.
Then make the rounds to Wood Tavern, Gramps and J Wakefield Brewing for small batch and other hard to find craft beers.