Miami, Florida: beach clubs, skyscrapers and sunsets over the Caribbean. Down in the Magic City, the sway of the tropics fills the streets. Bars with perpetual happy hours, oversized cocktails and pumping music line South Beach boulevard, and the weekend really lets loose. But it’s more than just a party town on the peninsular. Here’s our quick guide to Miami.
I’ve wanted to visit Miami since I was a little kid. Don Johnson and Miami Vice, Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins, and later the inspiration behind my favourite game GTA Vice City, I couldn’t wait to see what this place is like.
This was our first time in Miami and we were keen to get a good look at the place. We only had a couple of days in this fascinating eastern US city, but – as usual – we really packed it in. Here’s our snapshot guide to Miami, Florida – what to do, where to go and – most importantly – what to eat!
If you’ve only got a couple of days in Miami, this guide will help:
Snapshot guide to Miami, Florida
And after just leaving Cuba, Little Havana in the south of the city was high on our hit list. But first the beach…
South Beach Miami really comes up to expectations. It’s enormous, showy and there’s always plenty going on. Sun loungers and umbrellas line the sandy horizon and even on a quiet day there are people everywhere.
This is Saturday afternoon and everyone’s getting their rays in before the party starts.
But the beach isn’t just for people. There are vehicles everywhere. Beach bikes and lifeguards’ jetskis are ubiquitous, but there are also cars driving up and down the sand.
In fact, you need to be careful when you first set foot on the beach as the first 50 metres are a designated road for (authorised) vehicles to hurtle up and down.
If you’re looking for the heart and soul of this city though, you have to come to the beach. It’s what everyone dresses for, it’s what everyone looks for and it’s what everyone comes for when they visit Miami. Florida.
Miami South Beach Boulevard
As the evening draws in, so the main strip along Miami’s South Beach wakes up. The afternoon sun sees bars unveil their happy hours and DJs kick start their playlists.
This is one of the better times of the day to find a spot and people watch!
The beachside venues quickly fill up with parties. If the classic Saturday night ‘scene’ of drinking games, pumping music and crowds isn’t for you, it might be time to find a new place to enjoy Miami.
This part of town at this time of night made us feel old before our time. The moment we walked past a bar were a staffie was doing a 25-second countdown for a girl drinking a litre cocktail. We knew South Beach was about to get messy.
However, bad it gets in Miami, it’s always good to see the boys (and girls) in blue are ready to help. It’s also good to see they have an open mind about things! Love this rainbow cop car outside the station.
Miami Beach’s lifeguard towers and sunrise
One thing not to miss on Miami’s South Beach is the lifeguard towers. Each one is designed and detailed differently. And as you’re on the east coast, the sun rises over the water, which is always something to enjoy.
This guard tower – painted up with the Stars and Stripes – is very popular (translation: we had to wait a while to get a shot of it without loads of people getting photos and selfies with it) with everyone who visits this part of South Beach.
If you’re here on a weekday though, you’ll have fewer people to compete with for a clear shot of the towers.
Getting up early in Miami is very rewarding. The parties have all but finished and the vibe is much more chill.
Make sure you pick a lifeguard tower you like the day before and put it in the shot with the rising sun. If you’ve got a DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera like our favourite Olympus camera, set your camera to F16 or F22 on Aperture Priority mode and you should get solar flares like this.
Alternatively, even if you’re shooting with your phone, hold your sunglasses up to the lens and see if that effect makes a difference to your shot.
Got to love beach shots with sunrise over the water. Thankfully Christina even enjoys getting up in time to see and shoot sunrise, so I get to stay in bed and enjoy the fruits of her labours. I’m much more of a sunset type of person!
Miami’s Little Havana
Little Havana is a fascinating suburb of Miami. As Cuba went through its revolution in the 1950s, lots of the Cuban elite – worried about the changing political situation – left the country.
People left for lots of different reasons; political, financial, ethical, moral. Most of them came to Miami, which is only 90 miles from Cuba.
We were excited to see how Little Havana measured up to our recent experience in the real Havana.
Although Little Havana is a mere shadow of the real thing, it’s still definitely worth coming here.
On SW 7th Street – the main hub of Little Havana, there are lots of little details you can find here that will seem weird unless you’ve been to Cuba. The ladies selling long white paper cones of peanuts and old men sitting in the park playing dominos with pieces that have from 1-9 spots rather than the traditional 1-6 are good examples of this.
Allow yourself to be pulled into bars by cool-looking old men offering great drinks and live music. Listen to the latin tempo and watch the salsa. It’s worth the slightly expensive mojito.
Little Havana may not be the most accurate depiction of Cuba, but it’s fun, safe and interesting. Well worth a visit. Plus your (probably Cuban) taxi or Uber driver will be happy with your story of your visit.
The Cuban population here has caused a remarkable influence over the town, where people now openly recognise the Spanish influence and that the majority of Miami’s citizens are Cuban or are Spanish native speakers.
Miami’s personality – Museum of Ice Cream pop-up
Miami, like a lot of America’s coastal cities, has a good sense of humour and knows what its visitors and locals want. There’s always something going on and always something different to enjoy.
The Museum of Ice Cream is a great example of this with all its bright colours, fun nature and lure of sugary excellence.
To be honest the ‘museum’ part of the Museum of Ice Cream is a bit loose, with only a brief stat session at the very beginning to educate. However, the brightness, fun and clever design of the space is really what everyone’s here for. Oh, and ice cream of course!
Even the stairways are bright enough to give you a sugar hit. If there’s ever a time for you to find your inner child again, it’s in Miami in a pop-up like this.
We’ve made our way to the roof, which overlooks part of Mid Beach. They’ve rewarded our sugary climb with an ice cream – not that we need any more. This whole concept is so Instagram worthy:
As you can see, the Museum of Ice Cream can make even me have fun – or at least make me look like I am! That swing is actually not made for blokes if you know what I mean!
We came away from this pop-up happy, sugared and full of the Miami zing. Check out the MoIC website to see if there’s a pop-up about to happen near you. It’s worth going to.
Miami’s beach clubs, bars and hotels
Miami’s club culture is as strong as its beach one. Pretty much anywhere there’s a coastline you’ll find upmarket hotels, private pool clubs and bars that offer all kinds of fun. A lot of them are only open to members or to hotel guests, but lobby bars are still for anyone to try. It’s fun to explore what’s around and have a snoop around the expensive hotels too.
We pop into one of the many hotels along the boardwalk along Surfside. You can’t get into the beach clubs unless you’re staying in the hotel, but you can drink in the hotel bars, which hare beautiful.
The Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue has a stunning bar called the Bleau Bar, which you should check out.
I love ordering local beer from wherever I am. You can’t get much closer to Miami than the Biscayne Bay Brewing Co, and their beer is superb. It’s not just at Bleau Bar that you can find it, but it’s not a bad place to spend a few dollars and a couple of hours.
The designer hotels all along this strip are crazy and beautiful. It feels a bit like Vegas, but on the beach and without the casinos.
Miami’s Española Way and burger scene
Miami’s food scene has really worked hard to get things here. We’re so impressed with most of the food you can find here. Service, however, is not as good as some other parts of the country (West Coast, I’m looking at you). It’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly good either.
Just an expectation manager, not a complaint by the way. We had some amazing service in some places (a guy in a burger joint actually poured us an extra beer and brought it to us free of charge and wouldn’t accept a tip) but others even getting a smile or your food can take a bit of effort – from all parties!
If you’re looking for the food hub of South Beach, Miami, Española Way is your go-to. There are so many places to try, you could eat here every night for a week and famously still only find your favourite on your last night.
By day, things look pretty calm, but by lunch, things have ramped up and you fee. like you’re about to get into trouble.
By night, Española Way becomes a thriving hotspot for laneway al fresco dining. You can find anything from Italian cuisine to earthy cigar bars here. Plus, if you’re staying at the El Paseo Hotel also in the street, you get a 15% discount off your bill in this food precinct.
Our first meal here in Miami is in Española Way. We’ve stopped in at an Italian seafood place called Mercato della Pescaria. The wait staff are funny, talkative and keen to lay on the Italian charm thick.
The food comes out and it’s delicious. Octopus, squid, double fried potatoes… you get the impression early on in this city that you’ll eat well.
We’re also eager to test out the burger situation here. Let’s see what we can find…
Being on the East Coast means access to Shake Shack – one of the more predominant burger chains. On the West Coast, you can’t find this chain. Instead you have In ‘n’ Out Burger.
We haven’t had a Shake Shack burger since we were in New York about 4 years ago. It’s still as good as we remember (especially the fries) but the question still remains: what’s better – Shake Shack or In ‘n’ Out?
We also pop into more of a national burger joint: Burger Fi. These guys are everywhere in the States and they really mean business. The burgers are big and full with some epic options for your sandwich, but most impressive are these mega onion rings. I could definitely find one of these places again.
Wynwood Walls – Miami’s street art
The street art scene in Miami is fascinating – especially when you come to its heartland: Wynwood. This old industrial suburb north of the city used to be a real blackspot for crime to the point where cops would do their best to avoid it at night.
Now, it’s a thriving hipster community with some awesome art installations.
Everywhere you go in the Wynwood Walls area you see enormous wall murals of street art. Some of the work is absolutely incredible and you can book tours to take you round in little buggies.
There’s also a formal Wynwood Walls museum you can visit. It’s a city block of the best work, which is updated regularly.
You can also find some great bars and places to grab a bite to eat here, so the opportunity to spend the day (and most of the night if you want) here is open to you.
If you’re looking for the best bar in this part of town, we highly recommend Gramps. It’s a fun bar able to turn out some excellent cocktails. Dark enough inside to give you that old-school divebar feel, but with an expansive beer garden out the back well worth checking out.
We’ve enjoyed our time in Miami, though it took us a little while to settle in and find our particular groove in this peculiar town. Arriving in South Beach on a busy Saturday night almost put us off, plus expecting the same kind of vibe as California set us off on the wrong foot.
Miami is much grittier, pushier and gruffer than places like San Diego and San Francisco, but don’t let that put you off. Dig a little deeper beyond the usual tourist trail and past the party people cutting loose and you’ll find a city with an expressive, arty heart.
The strong Spanish influence over Miami decorates this beachy, slick, irreverent city with a flourish that adds an intriguing dimension. There’s so much to Miami, it’s a place that will always tempt you back for a return trip. It’s not a case of if; it’s a case of when.
Have you been to Miami? Do you have any tips to add to our snapshot guide to Miami? Tell us in the comments below!