By Carlos Harrison
So you’re finally coming to Miami? Great!
Let me give you the Insider’s Tour – you know, the “must do’s” that will let you say you really saw Miami, along with some “we do’s” so you can say you know Miami like a native.
Insider Tip #1: “Miami” includes Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Homestead and a whole hunk of places that aren’t technically in the city. But they’re most definitely what we mean when we say “Miami.”
Insider Tip #2: You need a car. You can park when you want to walk or to ride the Gables Trolley or to hop on the Metromover to get a bird’s eye view of Brickell Avenue or Downtown. Otherwise, trust me, you won’t see much of Miami. Our definition (see Tip #1) sprawls over an area the size of Rhode Island, and includes everything from models and manatees to mangoes, mangroves and murals.
Classy, chic, trendy and historic all in one. The Gables (see, you’re already talking like a native) is one of the oldest neighborhoods – actually, a city all unto itself – where you can come for the architecture, enjoy the fine dining, and stay for a stroll through some of the finest art galleries in the area.Start early if you think you might want to do more than just ogle the outside of the Biltmore Hotel or the Venetian Pool. The Biltmore’s 93-foot copper-clad tower may be the Gables’ most recognizable point. It’s modeled after a 12th-century Moorish tower in Seville, Spain. Everyone from Judy Garland to Al Capone has stayed there, including “Tarzan,” Johnny Weissmuller. It’s got a spa, a 22,000-square-foot marble swimming pool and one of the most elegant and challenging – but not daunting – golf courses around.
Venetian Pool started as a quarry providing the rock to build the first Coral Gables homes. City founder George Merrick fancied it up as a “Venetian” lagoon with loggias and towers, added waterfalls, a cave and “cliffs” for the kids to jump off (you, too, if you want), and opened it as the “Venetian Casino” in 1924. The 820,000-gallon pool, fed by artesian wells, is drained and refilled nightly.
When you’re done, drive down just about any street to see some of the exquisitely maintained original Mediterranean Revival 1920’s homes with their Old World arches and columns. Merrick’s coral stone home (tours available) is on Coral Way. A statue of him stands next to City Hall, a limestone palace topped by a 90-foot clock tower and bronze belfry.
It sits at the head of Miracle Mile, the center of the shopping and fine eating district. It’s hard to go wrong here. There’s cuisine from around the world. Gallery night (first Friday) brings showings of fine contemporary and Latin art, including talented new artists and Cuban art you won’t find anywhere else. Take the trolley.
Insider stop: Books & Books. It’s kind of the unofficial epicenter of the South Florida literary scene, with frequent author readings and signings, as well as a weekend gathering place for good jazz and Latin fusion.
This used to be the starving artists’ district, and the site of some of the nicest old Miami houses overlooking the bay. Now, folks like billionaire developer Jorge Perez (the guy whose name is on the art museum downtown) call it home.
Some of the houses are newer, too, but still just as nice. You’ll see great examples heading along South Bayshore Drive. Or, you can cut in a block to Tigertail Avenue for more. Keep an eye out for the Grove peacocks. They wander into the road along narrow neighborhood roads, seemingly indifferent to the cars that have to stop while the birds meander. (Why did the peacock cross the road in the Grove? He didn’t. He just stood there with his peacock buds while the cars backed up.)
Then it’s time to park and wander. There are plenty of boutique-y shops, and lots of restaurants boasting Brazilian fusion, middle eastern inspired American, Key Westy seafood, and more.
Peacock Park looks out over a marina and allows an easy bayfront stroll to the Dinner Key Marina and Miami’s historic city hall. The Art Deco building once served as the “Air Gateway Between the Americas,” back when it was the biggest and most modern seaplane base in the world and the international flight terminal building for Pan American Airways, with its giant and luxurious “Clipper” flying boats lined up on the water outside. (An insider note to impress your friends: FDR flew there in 1943, the first time a U.S. president traveled by air while in office.) Inside, there’s a marvelous zodiac mural on the ceiling of the commission chambers and photos from the building’s heyday, including one of Charles Lindbergh in his leather aviator’s helmet, stepping into a seaplane cockpit.
The Grove is a great jumping off point. If you head south, you can take a magnificently scenic tree-lined drive along Old Cutler Road to Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The garden has a world-recognized collection of palms, orchids and tropical fruit trees. Locals come out in droves for the art exhibits and annual Chocolate, Orchid, Edible Garden and Mango Festivals. That last one has sparked more than one lifelong love-affair with the many flavors and feels of this international fruit.
Matheson is a unique man-made atoll, with a tranquil lagoon ringed by palm trees. It fronts Biscayne Bay at a favorite place for kite-boarders to zip along the water’s edge.If you head north from Dinner Key Marina, you’ll drift past joggers, walkers and roller-bladers at Kennedy Park, and soon reach Vizcaya, the bayfront winter home of International Harvester heir James Deering. Designed to look like a fully restored 400-year-old Italian estate, it’s now a museum with 34 rooms filled with sumptuous antique European art and furnishings, amid a lavishly landscaped labyrinth of gardens.
It’s next to the Ermita de la Caridad (there’s an English name, but no local would ever use it) the Catholic church that now holds the original statue of Cuba’s patron saint, smuggled here in 1961. Just past that is Alice Wainwright Park, a family-friendly gathering place with tremendous views of Key Biscayne, nestled on the quiet and exclusive street where both Madonna and Sylvester Stallone once had homes.
That puts you next to the Rickenbacker Causeway and the entrance to Key Biscayne. The drive goes over the water, with one of the best views of Miami’s skyline, past the public beaches, the Miami Seaquarium, the Crandon/Key Biscayne golf course (one of the most beautiful and challenging courses in the area), the site of the Sony Open tennis tournament and along the main street of the Village of Key Biscayne.
Turn down just about any of the side streets to spot some of the most stunning multimillion dollar homes around, or continue straight to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. That’s at the end of the island, with its bike trails, beach and the oldest structure in the county, the Cape Florida lighthouse. Look south to glimpse what’s left of Stiltsville. It was a community of 27 shacks mounted on pilings out on the shallows of Biscayne Bay, established in the 1930s. There are only seven left. It’s also a good spot for manatee-sighting.
Insider stop: If you’re feeling adventurous and have access to a boat, the Neptune Memorial Society Reef, just over three miles due east into the bay, is truly unique. It’s an underwater mausoleum for cremated remains, 40 feet below the surface, designed as an “artistic representation” of the Lost City of Atlantis. It’s also a living man-made reef eventually expected to spread over 16 acres.
Financial District and Downtown
The way back from the Key dumps you on Brickell Avenue for a drive through Miami's financial district, to the Christopher Columbus statue on the bridge at the mouth of the Miami River.
There’s another insider stop there: Rooftop soccer, with games played nearly a dozen stories up atop an office building where Brickell meets the river. It’s mostly lawyers and bankers shedding their wingtips on weeknights, but just about anyone is welcome to watch and yell, “Gooooooool!”
From there you can continue along the waterfront edge of Miami's downtown. That takes you past the Perez Art Museum Miami; Bayside Marketplace – a decidedly touristy outdoor mall, but with enough unique shops and such a great view that locals like it, too; the magnificently restored (and breathtakingly lit at night) Freedom Tower; and the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat.
A great side trip to one of the best restaurant zones in the area and to a storied bar that’s a favorite for locals is just a one-block jog west to Miami Avenue, starting at Coral Way. Miami Avenue is effectively 0 Street, the dividing point between East and West roads, and it takes you through Mary Brickell Village (Eat anywhere; you can’t go wrong.) That also puts you right by the east end of one of Miami’s best-known streets, Calle Ocho –Eighth Street, in English – in the center of Little Havana.
Access to Miami Beach is next to the arena. The MacArthur Causeway takes you past the striking Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami Children's Museum and Jungle Island, then drops down to water level for an incomparable view of cruise ship row on one side and the exclusive island houses of the stars that the likes of Al Capone, Shaquille O'Neal, and Gloria Estefan have all called home.
The road ends at South Beach, where movie stars, millionaires, models and regular folks like you and I can get a ground-level view of Ocean Drive, and the beach and the Art Deco hotels that have served as the iconic backdrop for ”Miami CSI,” “Miami Vice,” and just about every televised sporting event in a 25-mile radius.
Every north-south street has a distinctive flavor, and is packed with restaurants and shops. East-West spots not to miss are tiny Española Way with its Mediterranean flair, and Lincoln Road, a chic, pedestrian-only mall lined with shops and eateries, most of which offer shaded outdoor eating under clusters of umbrellas. The stunning Holocaust Memorial stands a few blocks north, behind the convention center.
Continuing north by car, Ocean Drive turns into Collins Drive and, just a few minutes later, to where it seems like you're going to smack into the back of the Fontainebleau hotel. You won't. Just follow the road for a drive between the hotels and the Intracoastal Waterway into the condo canyons of mid-beach.
Design District and Wynwood
Or follow the signs toward Arthur Godfrey Road. That'll take you back to the mainland to two of the hippest neighborhoods in the area, the Design District and Wynwood.
Wynwood is best known for casual eats, including clusters of food trucks, and as the heart of the new art scene. There are galleries galore, but no trip to South Florida is complete without a visit to the Wynwood Walls, a world-class display of graffiti by some of the top artists in the urban art field, such as Os Gemeos and Shepard Fairey (you know, the guy who did the famous Obama “Hope” poster). That’s just a few blocks from one of Miami’s most impressive structures, the Bacardi Buildings at 21st and Biscayne. They very deliberately merge art and innovative engineering, with massive murals of traditional Spanish blue and white tiles on one and walls made of one-inch thick hammered glass tapestries on the other.
Restaurants in the Design District are equally trendy, but more upscale, with fusion menus and fancier décor. There’s art here, too. A whole crowd of jury-selected resident artists work and show at the Bakehouse Art Complex, and Swampspace Gallery regularly presents innovative Miami art.
You can go back to the beach or take I-95 north to Bal Harbour Village and THE luxury shopping mall in the county, the Bal Harbour Shops; past an elevated look at the Sun Life Stadium where the Miami Dolphins play; amid the soaring condo-scrapers of Aventura and the Aventura Mall; and to the Oleta River State Park. It proudly pronounces itself Florida’s largest urban park, but we like it for its miles and miles of bike trails (novice to blistering expert paths) and its peaceful canoe and kayak river routes between the mangroves. You can rent what you need for a ride on land or water, and you can even spend the night in one of the rustic (but blissfully air-conditioned) cabins.
Homestead and Redland
One more area, at the opposite end of the county, has the exact opposite feel. Homestead and the neighboring Redland (which everybody calls The Redlands even if it’s wrong), is still largely rural, with a mix of Mexican and Old Florida. It’s got rodeo and narrow roads sided by plant and tree nurseries, mango groves and horse farms. El Taco Toro is probably the best authentic Mexican restaurant in the area, and Knaus Berry Farm (open only from November to mid-April) is a tradition. Folks gladly stand in line for a couple of hours or more for their oven-fresh pecan and cinnamon rolls.
Robert is Here has some of the fattest and freshest veggies and fruits you’ll ever find, including carambola, mamey, lychee, atemoya, papaya, and plump and juicy mangoes. There’s a petting zoo out back, and do not leave without trying one of his smoothies. (You’ll thank me for that one.)
Schnebly Redland’s Winery, just a little farther west, boasts of being the southernmost winery in the country and “crafters of the most exotic wines and beers in the world.” With flavors like lychee, mango, guava and avocado wine, it’s hard to argue with them.
Head west, and a little south, if you want to visit the “river of grass.” The Florida Everglades National Park offers walking and biking trails, as well as canoe and kayak routes. Or stop at the Everglades Alligator Farm, where you can get up close and personal with some 2,000 of the reptiles, or take an airboat tour into the swamp.
Two more stops, east of there. The Coral Castle is a quirky roadside attraction everybody ought to see at least once. That should leave you with enough questions to last a lifetime. Like, how did a skinny little guy barely five feet tall move slabs of coral rock weighing 58 tons each into place – using only hand tools? And how did a guy with a fourth grade education balance them so neatly that you can move a nine-ton coral gate with the push of a finger?
The other place to see is Black Point Marina and Key Biscayne National Park. Black Point is a popular weekend spot on the water for music and beer. It’s next to the national park, a mostly underwater expanse big enough to hold Detroit and Atlanta with room to spare and containing a pristine coral reef and some of the best shallow diving grounds in the state.
Too much to see in a single trip? Well, yeah! We know that. That’s why we live here. And why so many others know to find a fave or two, and explore others as they come back again and again.
Face it, we haven’t talked about the Keys yet.