By Janet K. Keeler
There’s more than nightlife that’s wild in Miami Beach. It’s also wild that Miami Beach has the world’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings in one place. Wilder still in the modern age of tearing down old and building new, is that the buildings have been preserved.
The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. So if you thought Miami Beach was just a place to show off your bathing suit body or stalk Beyonce and Jay Z, think again. The curvy Art Deco structures, mostly built between the two world wars, are sexy in their own right and are worthy of a few hours of your time.
Checking them out on foot is the best way to see how the former boarding houses and resident hotels have been preserved and renovated, and mostly transformed into hotels that draw partiers and travelers to the area.
Grab Your Smartphone and Go
If ever your smartphone would be the best traveling companion, it’s on the Art Deco trail in Miami Beach.
The Miami Design Preservation League’s self-guided tour takes you by 14 of the architectural jewels of South Beach. The 15th stop is the league’s museum and gift shop. For the hearing impaired, the tour comes with text translation of the audio tour.
If you’re an architecture buff you’ll likely know that Art Deco is different from Mediterranean Revival and that they are both different from MiMo or Miami Modern. All are represented in Miami Beach. Luckily, the self-guided tour app includes a glossary so you will know an eyebrow architectural feature when you see one.
The self-guided walk provides an overview of the history of this unique area and also an idea of where you might want to go later for cocktails and celebrity-spotting.
Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive between stops 14 and 15 has been a pumping nightclub for 30 years and it’s a draw for many of Miami’s longtime celebrities looking to cut loose for the night. Keep your eyes peeled for Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Alicia Keys and maybe even Jennifer Lopez. Clubbing not your thing? Dine on Floribbean fare at the restaurant before dark.
Or keep in mind that the Havana Vieja South Beach at the Chelsea Hotel (built in 1936) is between stops 7 and 8. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner so plan accordingly for your cup of cafe con leche, samples of empanadas or a clever tostones rellenos appetizer.
Plan Your Walking Tour
The MDPL self-guided tour is available on the Apple App store or Google Play. It costs $25 and is delivered in English, Spanish, French and German. Text accompanies the tour in each language. Tickets for various guided tours are $30 plus tip so the app will save you some money. There is no sign language offering on the guided tours but this could still be an option for hearing impaired travelers who travel with a companion who knows sign language and can interpret for them.
Another option is to use an AI sound-to-text app such as AVA which captures and captions conversations in real time. If the tour guide is willing to download the app for free for short-term use it could be synced with the traveler’s phone. It’s best to ask ahead of time about this.
Some of the guided walking tours offered by MDPL besides the regularly scheduled Art Deco tour are South Beach Scandals, Jewish Miami Beach, and Gay & Lesbian Walking Tour. These tours are offered on request and private tours can be booked.
The free GPS My City app also includes a self-paced guided walking tour of the iconic Art Deco buildings. With the information provided, users can create their own experience or follow a prescribed route. More than 1,000 city walks can be accessed including 15 cities in Florida.
Art Deco Tour Highlights
With 14 stops, there’s plenty to enlighten and entertain but here are four stops that show the flavor of the tour.
Stop 1: Amsterdam Palace/Casa Casuarina
The narration on the app doesn't make a big deal about this — nor does it even mention — that this was the home of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. He was murdered on the steps of the mansion on July 1997. It does detail its history, built in the Mediterranean style in 1930, and that the Preservation League had an ongoing legal feud with Versace about renovations. When you stop here, you will likely see plenty of people taking selfies on the steps. It is now a luxury boutique hotel called The Villa Casa Casuarina.
Stop 2. Leslie Hotel
Considered one of the gems of Ocean Drive, along with the Carlyle and Cardozo hotels, the Leslie Hotel is classic Art Deco. The “eyebrows” over the windows are horizontal planes over the windows that keep out the sun. You will stop at the Cardozo on the tour and get more information about how the hotels were named. To see the Carlyle, now condo vacation rentals, you’ll need to strike out on your own and walk farther north on Ocean Drive.
Stop 6: Post Office
The 1930s post office had fallen into disrepair by 1977. Federal government preservationists agreed that the historic building was worth saving and it was the first building in the district to be given historic designation. There are murals depicting Florida history inside that were painted by Charles Hardman, a Depression-era artist funded by the WPA. The design is considered stripped deco for its spare outside, but inside it’s an example of “majestic” Art Deco. There is a bank of brass post office boxes used back in the day by snowbirds from December through April, or whenever they would head back north.
Stop 10. Coral Rock House
The rock house was built in 1918 when there were just a few buildings in Miami Beach, which was only three years old at the time. It was built from local limestone and while there used to be hundreds of homes built in the area from this material, there are only a few left. Its modern history has been rocky and there have been efforts to repair leaks and structural issues. It will be different from anything else you see on the tour.
More Adventures and Attractions...