Far and away the most exciting city in Florida, Miami is an often intoxicatingly beautiful place, with palm trees swaying in the breeze and South Beach's famous Art Deco buildings stunning in the warm sunlight. Away from the beaches and the tourists, the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown herald Miami's proud status as the headquarters of many US corporations' Latin American operations. Even so, it's the people, not the climate, the landscape, or the cash, that makes Miami so noteworthy. Two-thirds of the two-million-plus population is Hispanic, the majority of which are Cuban, and Spanish is the predominant language almost everywhere.
Just over a hundred years ago Miami was a swampy outpost of mosquito-tormented settlers. The arrival of Henry Flagler's railroad in 1896 gave the city its first fixed land-link with the rest of the continent, and cleared the way for the Twenties property boom. In the Fifties, Miami Beach became a celebrity-filled resort area, just as thousands of Cubans fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro began arriving here as well. The Sixties and Seventies brought decline, and Miami's dangerous reputation in the Eighties was well deserved – in 1980 the city had the highest murder rate in America.
Since then, with the strengthening of Latin American economic links and the gentrification of South Beach – which helped make tourism the lifeblood of the local economy again in the early Nineties – Miami is enjoying a surge of affluence and optimism.
Miami's cultural diversity is apparent from the moment you set foot on its soil and hear the rise and fall of a dozen different languages being spoken. It is an easygoing beach town, a refugee camp, and a 24-hour party all at once.
When talking about Miami, the beach is the best place to start. In the 1940s, when vacationers began to arrive, Miami Beach was the center of the action. Although years have passed and times have changed, the beach remains a perennial hot spot. Enormous luxury resorts such as Fontainebleau and Eden Roc rise majestically against the skyline. Shops and restaurants line the streets, and who could forget the miles of white sand beach?
Once home to a number of retired citizens and starving artists, South Beach has now risen to international fame as a popular vacation destination. Every block is packed with restaurants, bars, shops, and - of course - dance clubs, each trendier, more glamorous and cutting-edge than the last. One could spend days soaking in the sights and sounds of South Beach . Take a walking tour along Ocean Drive or down Lincoln Road, where the beautiful people come out to play. Whether it's three in the morning or three in the afternoon, there is bound to be plenty to do.
Located on the northern end of Miami Beach, Bal Harbour is the most exclusive neighborhood in Greater Miami. Luxury resorts sit serenely amid the lush foliage and palatial homes. No visit to this district is complete — or even begun — without a visit to the Bal Harbour Shops . Versace , Louis Vuitton , Fendi and Prada are just a few of the fashion houses that have retail outlets in this shopping center. Plenty of fine dining can be found in Bal Harbour. (If you're on a budget, this isn't the place to dine or shop!)
Although primarily a business district, there's a lot to see and do downtown. Tour the design district between Northeast 36th and 41st Streets, or check out the museums in the Metro-Dade Cultural Center . Shoppers will delight in the Bayside Marketplace with its retail shops, open-air crafts market, half-dozen restaurants and pier. The Port of Miami is next to Bayside, where you can easily find a boat to take you on a tour around the bay.
Coral Gables is a gated enclave crisscrossed by canals, just a few minutes' drive from Downtown Miami. This small, tree-lined village is home to many of Miami's most famous attractions, including the Biltmore Hotel , Venetian Pool and Miracle Mile . Excellent shopping and dining can be found on the Miracle Mile as well as on the side streets surrounding it.
Although this bustling district is one of the oldest in Miami, it seems to just be hitting its prime. Full of energy and creativity, the Grove is as busy as South Beach, but in a different way. Instead of attracting models and body builders, it draws in artists, writers and patrons of the arts. There are hundreds of fabulous shops and restaurants crammed within this small area, most of them located on the CocoWalk or on the Streets of Mayfair. The Coconut Grove Playhouse is one of the best live theater venues in the southeastern United States.
Though located just over the Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne might as well be 1000 miles away. Things are different on this peaceful tropical island: the pace slows down, people are friendly and matter-of-fact. If the marvelous white sand beaches and varied leisure sports aren't enough reason to go, consider the prospect of kissing a dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium !
This area is located west of Brickell Avenue and runs along the thoroughfare known as Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street). Many immigrants and refugees from Cuba have settled here, along with natives of Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. It is in this district that you can enjoy authentic salsa music, indulge in a complete Cuban meal that's light on your wallet, or try a steaming cup of shockingly strong cafe cubano in an outdoor cafe.
West Miami is a quieter, more residential area. It's spread out and almost impossible to sightsee without a car. Hialeah and Miami Lakes, two residential communities, are located in this area. Miami International Airport is also situated here along with Hialeah Park Racetrack .
While it may be slightly out of the way, Aventura is easy to reach even without a car, thanks to the shuttle buses that run regularly from the major downtown hotels to the Aventura Mall . The mall is well worth a day trip, as it boasts over 250 shops, restaurants and attractions. This district is also home to dozens of excellent restaurants, many of them specializing in "Floribbean" cuisine.
While Broward County is not officially a part of Miami, it might as well be — it's less than a half hour away. The thriving art community of Hollywood, the outlets at Sawgrass Mills and, last but not least, the decadent little city of Fort Lauderdale are a few possible destinations in Broward. The pace is slightly more relaxed than in Miami, but people are here to have fun, make no mistake about it. Enjoy the shops on Las Olas or dine in a restaurant that has its own private boat dock for guests traveling by water.
Miami takes its dining scene very seriously. People come from all over the world to drink and dine in this sunny city by the Atlantic Ocean. Restaurants range from South American to Continental to Caribbean, while the local fusion cuisine known as "Floribbean" borrows influences from all three regions.
Many of the city's restaurants specialize in fresh, local seafood. Swordfish, yellowtail, lobster and oysters have a place on most menus. In the autumn and winter, stone crab season takes over. At restaurants such as the legendary Joe's Stone Crab , people wait for hours to enjoy the delicious crustaceans.
Many of Miami's eateries represent countries and regions of Latin and South America. Brazilian rodizio, Argentine churrasco and Peruvian seafood are just a few of the ethnic specialties local restaurants dish out. Dozens of Cuban eateries serve filling, tasty meals at a considerably low price.
Whether you're looking for a cheap and filling meal, a gourmet Italian feast or a night among the stars, you can find it in one of the districts of this splendidly diverse city.
South Beach & Miami Beach
South Beach is the epicenter of excitement and glamor. It is here, at restaurants like the China Grill that you're most likely to spot a celebrity at the next table. Many flock to Club Tropigala for their top-notch entertainment and Caribbean cuisine. Although many of the restaurants are very pricey, places such as the ever-popular Blue Door offer a pleasant atmosphere, low prices and great food. Grab an outside table and enjoy wine and cheese as you ogle the SoBe street scene.
Although central Miami Beach is not as jam-packed with restaurants as its southern neighbor, there are plenty of excellent dining options, many of them located within the luxury hotels. At Bleau View, located in the famed Fontainebleau , patrons can savor the delicious American fare while enjoying the tranquil view of the ocean nearby.
Downtown Miami is popular with businesspeople and other locals. Nightlife is nonexistent, but there's a flourishing restaurant scene. The various steakhouses serve delicious food with a local twist. Monserrate has South American dishes on its menu, and specializes in steak, while Soyka has American classics like burgers and fries. For those looking for something out of the ordinary in Miami, try the German restaurant Edelweiss .
Coral Gables, a quaint village within Greater Miami, boasts a culturally rich entertainment and dining scene. Sample Jamaican gourmet cuisine at Ortanique on the Mile , or go to the French Brasserie Les Halles , which also has a full event calendar for its guests. Greek rustic is the focus at Mylo's , and for classic Italian look no further than Mozart Stube .
Coconut Grove, another small, trendy community within Central Miami, boasts a number of excellent casual and gourmet dining choices. You'll find the best seafood around at Chart House and Monty's Stone Crab & Seafood Restaurant . Mambo is an energetic Cuban cafe where you can get a great meal for a reasonable amount of money.
Key Biscayne's restaurants have a different feel from any other part of Miami - or any other part of the world. The dining establishments are characteristically laid-back and informal; most of the time, they open and close when they choose and menus can change daily. Grab fish and fries at a local spot and then venture over to Sundays on the Bay for a frozen drink. The Rusty Pelican has classic American cuisine and a brunch on Sundays. For Italian, stop at Stefano's where traditional Italian dishes such as Quail can be found.
Little Havana, located in Central Miami, has the greatest number of excellent Cuban and South American eateries. Versailles , while slightly more expensive than others, is famous for its food. Another excellent choice is Casa Juancho , where diners can enjoy authentic Spanish cuisine in a comfortable and elegant atmosphere with live flamenco music. The district can be somewhat unsafe after dark, so visitors are recommended to travel in groups.
Hialeah, a suburb of West Miami, caters to locals, and the prices tend to be more reasonable than in other parts of the city. Los Ranchos , a popular chain of South American steakhouses, is typical of the neighborhood's restaurants. The food is excellent, the decor is attractive, and social climbers are rarely in attendance.
Aventura, best known for the gargantuan Aventura Mall , can claim its fair share of fusion restaurants, from expensive to reasonably priced. For inventive cuisine that doesn't stretch the budget, check out Hanna's Gourmet Diner .
Whether you spend the day tanning on the beach or discovering the various shops and cultural attractions, there's plenty to do in Miami.
Ocean Drive is filled with shops, cafes, restaurants and views that epitomize Miami's beautiful natural surroundings. The Miami Beach Marina is a great place to spend the day. Dine at the nearby Balans . There are also many well-known museums in South Beach, such as the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM) , the R.J. Hohimer Signature Gallery and the Kennedy Gallery . The Holocaust Memorial is also located in South Beach.
The Bayside Marketplace begins to wake up around 10a, when the first sightseers depart for a two-hour breakfast cruise around Biscayne Bay and the Port of Miami . Grab a bite at the 11th Street Diner . Take a stroll in Bayfront Park , which is right next to the Marketplace. The Park also contains the Bayfront Park Amphitheater , where there are frequent concerts and other events.
Coral Gables is well-known for the Venetian Pool , which was formed from a coral rock quarry in 1923. Take a dip in the pool in the early afternoon, when the heat of the day is at its peak. Grab a bite to eat at the cafe, then dry off, clean up, and head over to the Biltmore Hotel . The Biltmore is both a designated national historic landmark and a five-star luxury hotel. Dine at La Palme d'Or .
Wander down the Miracle Mile , where there is always a big event taking place. Jazz lovers should stop by the Satchmo Blues Bar & Grill, while theater fans can see what's playing at the Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre . Ortanique is one of the most famous restaurants on this strip.
Just south of Miami are a string of islands called the Florida Keys, connected by one main highway. Waters are crystal clear and the sea life is amazing. Coral Castle is an incredible work of art that took 28 years to finish. Browse the different trees and buy some preserves at the nearby Fruit and Spice Park . Dine at the Main Street Cafe . Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park , located across the way on the mainland, are two of Florida's most unique. Not far from the Everglades is the Black Point Marina , popular among those that fish and sail.
There are many tour companies in Miami that offer a wide variety of options for seeing the city, from air boat tours to eco-adventure tours.
Go Car Tours ( +1 888 462 2755/ http://www.gocartours.com )
Island Queen Cruises ( +1 305 379 5119/ http://www.islandqueencruises.com )
Discovery Cruise Line ( +1 888 213 8253/ http://www.discoverycruise.com )
Boca Chica Key & Lighthouse Tour ( +1 305 230 1100 )
Blackbeard's Cruises ( +1 954 734 7111/ +1 800 327 9600/ http://www.blackbeard-cruises.com )
Urban Tour Host ( +1 305 416 6868/ http://www.miamiculturaltours.com/index.php )
Miami Duck Tours ( +1 786 276 8300/ http://www.ducktoursmiami.com )
Thriller Powerboat Tours ( +1 305 373 7001 )
Heritage Tours ( +1 305 442 9697/ http://www.heritageschooner.com/heritage.html )
Everglade Airboat Tours ( +1 305 221 9888 )
Air Boat USA ( +1 305 219 1200/ http://www.airboatusa.com )
Gator Park ( +1 800 559 2205/ +1 305 559 2255/ http://www.gatorpark.com )
Coopertown Airboat Tours ( +1 305 226 6048/ http://www.coopertownairboats.com )
Miami Dade Eco-Adventure Tours ( +1 305 365 3018/ http://www.miamidade.gov/parks/ecoadventures.asp )
Everglades Day Safari ( +1 239 472 1559/ http://www.ecosafari.com/boat.cfm )
Wild Dolphin Adventures ( +1 305 296 3737/ +1 866 296 3737/ http://www.wilddolphinadventures.com )
Miami River Historical Jungle Tours ( +1 305 755 9055 )
Urban Tour Host ( +1 305 416 6868/ http://www.miamiculturaltours.com/index.php )