Unpredictable, unpretentious, unbelievable: in many ways, Miami is the un-Florida, a city with a state of mind so completely unbounded that it has become a magnet for the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses that used to flock to Ellis Island.
Once known colloquially as the capital of Latin America, owing to its longstanding influx of immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Central America and points south, Miami has expanded its reach in recent decades to welcome a growing number of newcomers from Africa, India, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. Despite its proximity to Mexico, you’re still far more likely to find ropa vieja, Jamaican jerk pork, or falafel on the menu than a respectable taco or burrito.
The minute you deplane at MIA, you feel the buzz of cultures in love; not always with each other, but with this magical spot of opportunity, so far removed from the “Mouse House” and pedestrian theme parks that dominate the central portion of the state. Locals tend to shrug off all things Disney, as if to say, “Why on earth would you settle for ersatz when you’re surrounded by these glorious beaches, Art Deco masterpieces, and friendly, engaging dreamers?”
Miami is a whirlwind of memorable experiences. Let’s all pile in the rental and savor these 10 unforgettable Miami experiences, shall we?
Breakfast in Little Havana: The neighborhood along Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street) has been the Plymouth Rock of Miami’s Cuban descendants since they fled by the hundreds of thousands from Fidel Castro’s revolution in the 1950s and ’60s. This is one of the best places in this country to immerse yourself in the culture they brought with them.
Miami Beach: A short drive across Biscayne Bay via the Julia Tuttle Causeway, Miami Beach feels instantly familiar to fans of TV’s Miami Vice and such Miami-set films as There’s Something About Mary and The Birdcage. Kick back for a “Floriday” and enjoy the parade of eclectic, exotic characters on the beach and boardwalk.
The Art Deco District: You have to taser me away from Ocean Drive, possibly the greatest collection of Art Deco hotels on earth. Built between 1923 and 1943, these 400 or so revived pastel apparitions, their enchanting porthole windows, ship railings and fabulous terrazzo floors gleaming in the sun, are endlessly rewarding to explore. My favorites: The Delano and The Tides. Stay in one if you can.
Miami Design District: What was once North Miami’s Decorators Row in the 1920s has blossomed into a high-end international design destination, thanks to stylish showrooms by Holly Hunt, Rose Tarlow, Christian Liaigre and Wendell Castle.
Miami Jai-Alai: The world’s fastest game is a sight to behold, with players hurling a ball at blinding speed with a scoop called a cesta on a court called a fronton that’s 58 yards long! Bettors wager and watch through the transparent full-court fourth wall. Unforgettable!
Coconut Grove: This charming bohemian village south of downtown near the University of Miami describes itself as “a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” So go already!
Everglades National Park: Florida’s famous “river of grass” offers an opportunity to observe in the wild a veritable bucket list of endangered wildlife, from alligators and crocodiles to panthers and manatees. Ranger-guided full moon bike tours are available through the Shark Valley Visitor Center.
Miami Exotic Auto Racing: Unless you’re Justin Bieber or happen to have one stashed in the garage, this is your best chance to take a few high-speed laps in a Ferrari, Audi R8 or Lamborghini.
Vizcaya: Step back in time at this 34-room Italianate mansion, built in 1910 by industrialist James Deering of John Deere tractor fame. Perched on Biscayne Bay amid acres of European-style gardens, the mansion’s top sunset photo op features a breathtaking ornamental breakwater carved out of Florida limestone in the shape of a Venetian barge.
South Beach nightlife: This eclectic mélange of Miami Vice retro bars, clubs and eateries boasts some of the best cuisine in town. First timers should make a beeline to the southern tip of SoBe for a twilight dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab. Joe’s dress code: “Please choose an outfit in which we’ll both be comfortable.” The key lime pie alone is worth the trip!
Photo credits: Shutterstock.