Miami is a place of many guises. There is the hyperreal Miami of Miami Vice, of alligator attacks and Elián González. There are splashy art galleries and celebrity hotels. There are also lots and lots of strip malls. But this collective weirdness happens to sit on one terrific piece of real estate. Miami has turquoise waters and white-sand beaches. It also has gleaming Modernist architecture and impossibly beautiful people. Joan Didion once described the city as having a “kind of perilous attraction.” And it does. You can lose yourself here, among supermodels, nostalgic Cubans and the countless figures who live on the fringes — and remind us that until a few decades ago, this was all still frontier.
Visit Europe by way of Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Get blown away at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science
True to its mission, the new 250,000-square-foot museum connects people of all ages with science through a range of inspiring programming—some of which is even bilingual. The new Frost Science (an upgrade from its previous Coconut Grove location) occupies four buildings—the Aquarium, the Frost Planetarium and the North and West Wings—features year-round exhibits such as “Feathers to the Stars,” “River of Grass” and “MeLab,” an interactive exhibit that lets kids learn about health by using their own bodies to conduct experiments (think hands-on simulations). The “Aquarium” is a remarkable display across three levels, one of which includes the museum’s 500,000-gallon Gulf Stream aquarium that houses all sorts of sea creatures. Don’t skip a visit to the planetarium dome and the monthly rock ‘n’ roll laser light shows.
Stroll down Calle Ocho in Little Havana
Obama may have relaxed restrictions regarding travel to Cuba, but it’s still a lot easier to get a heady flavor of the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods in Miami’s Little Havana. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Miami and, while many moved to other areas of the city, their legacy survives on Calle Ocho (SW 8th St). Mediterranean-style houses with rocking chairs on the porch, fragrant tobacco scents wafting from cigar stores, the click of dominos in Máximo Gómez Park—better known as Domino Park—and the hum of Latin music from record shops all contribute to the neighborhood’s authentic Cuban vibe.
Salsa dance at Ball & Chain
Today’s Ball & Chain is a recreation of a 1930s hotspot that once occupied the same space and welcomed jazz superstars like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Chet Baker to its stage. Across from the historic Tower Theater, the Ball & Chain has its own storied past filled with Jewish and Cuban community influences. We recommend sampling a few Cuban-inspired cocktails: the Mojito Criollo (made the classic way with the mint leaves left intact for enhanced aroma, and more sugar), the Canita (white rum, lime, house-made honey syrup, guarapo or sugarcane juice, sugarcane stick) and the Pastelito Daiquiri (pastelito-infused aged rum, lime, simple syrup, and a side of pastelitos or guava pastries). Expect live jazz at 6pm sharp Thursday through Saturday. On Saturdays, a wild Cuban fiesta, La Pachanga, kicks off around 9pm when salsa dancers take to the bar.
Eat Cuban food at Versailles restaurant
Almost as famous locally as its palatial namesake is in France, Versailles is a kitschy Cuban diner with wall-to-wall mirrors, a constant buzz and an unabridged menu featuring every dish ever cataloged as Cuban. The Cubano might be the most popular thing on the menu: toasted, filled slices of ham, roasted pork and swiss cheese and cut perfectly in half. The Little Havana institution is also the unofficial meeting place for the city’s Cuban community during times of political unrest.
Indulge at Azucar Ice Cream Company
Azucar owner Suzy Batlle takes the best flavor combinations from her childhood and churns them into delicious “Cuban” ice cream, including the wildly popular Abuela Maria—vanilla ice cream, Maria crackers, guava and cream cheese. The dairy queen can often be found concocting new flavors from local ingredients, such as her recent creation with Knaus Berry Farm cinnamon buns soaked in bourbon.
Shop, sip and snack on Lincoln Road
Designed by iconic architectural guru Morris Lapidus in the 1950s, Lincoln Road Mall was once dubbed the “Fifth Avenue of the South,” though it’s now commonly referred to as “Lincoln.” Endless sidewalk coffee shops, lounges and cultural venues—such as the Colony Theatre—and stretch along its length from Washington Avenue to Alton Road. Got money to burn? The Herzog & de Meuron–designed 1111 Lincoln Road—quite possibly the world’s most glamorous parking garage—houses upscale retail on the ground level, including local luxury fashion boutique Alchemist and high-end novelty and gift shop Babalu Miami. Cap off an afternoon of shopping at the best stores and boutiques with a fancy cappuccino at the Nespresso Boutique next door, or a meal with a side of people-watching at Balans, one of the strip’s most popular eateries.
Like most modern American metropolises, greater Miami is composed of several smaller cities. Here the cookie-cutter developments all tend to blend into one indistinguishable mass of peach stucco and Spanish tile. For the purposes of navigation, however, the city is essentially divided in two: Miami, the mainland city, which is businesslike in demeanor, with offices, malls, arts districts and residential subdivisions; and, connected to the mainland by causeways to the east, Miami Beach (a.k.a. South Beach, a.k.a. SoBe), the slim, glamorous barrier island that is draped in Deco hotels and where life is lived as if it were one big party. If you have only a few hours to spare, choose one side of town and stick with it — or you may end up spending all your time sitting in traffic.