Miami is not red, white, and blue through and through. Miami has more colors—and not just the aqua waves or pink- and green-painted buildings silhouetted against purple and orange sunsets. Though it has all of that too. Miami's skin has more shades. Hispanic residents make up 66 percent of the city and 18 percent of Miamians are black. It has the particular smells, flavors, and sounds of Haiti, Trinidad, Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil.
Miami can be lawless and unsafe. It's underdeveloped, but making up for that with every passing minute. It's silly and ridiculous, helpless against swarming developers and rising ocean levels. It's a dramatic slab of land. Isolated by swamp and sea, it's wild like Mowgli or an experiment left too long in a petri dish. It's proud and free and stubborn and loyal. It's like nowhere else in the world.
Arriving in Miami Beach is like stepping on set for a movie about Miami. Imagine The Birdcage meets Ride Along 2. Cigarette boats fly down Biscayne Bay, bags of cocaine cramming their guts. Big brown butts bounce to Calvin Harris in the flashing lights of LIV. Drag queens do splits on the sidewalk around noon while you cheer them along over your omelet. Corrupt politicians lurk behind every palm tree.
Miami Beach is weird and dirty, but it's also otherworldly and glamorous. It has some of the best preserved examples of Art Deco architecture in the world. If you want an Ibiza day party, Nikki Beach has overpriced mojito pitchers with sugar cane stirrers and white beds with curtains on the sand. If comfort is more your thing, the Delano has a somehow flawless Alice in Wonderland meets the 1990s backyard and pool area that must be visited and worshiped. A few doors down at the 50s throwback Raleigh Hotel, you'll spend a fortune on a cocktail and physically drool over its iconic, 70-year-old, baroque pool where Esther Williams once did laps.
But back to trashy. Grab a foolishly strong, freezing Call a Cab from Wet Willie's while wearing only your bikini or Speedo, because SoBe has probably the best swimming beach in the country and everything feels better drunk. The water is never not warm, and there are relatively not repulsive bathrooms where you can change your clothes and mindset from day to night drinking.
As of last year, the Wynwood Arts District has become a place where dads from Brazil in sneakers that cost more than you have in your savings account take iPhone photos of their tanned teens modeling in front of a Shepard Fairey mural. That would be at the Wynwood Walls, a public space that celebrates street art with murals by artists like Ron English and Kenny Scharf. What was once an area that had a spattering of quality, local galleries is now an all-out graffitied tourist trap.
You'll probably have to wait in line for 30 minutes for a worthy cold brew at Panther Coffee. There will be a faster line and a (this isn't overstating) perfect lunch at Zak the Baker down the street. In an effort to fit in with the rest of the bearded nation, new breweries are popping up like weeds in this old warehouse district (more on that in the Where to Drink section).
Downtown/ Midtown/ Overtown
Walking distance from Wynwood in two different directions are Midtown and Overtown. Now, Midtown is bougie. But if you're hungry for something authentic, hit up Salumeria 104 where the cured meats are treated better than a show cat. Overtown, on the other hand, is a bit sketch. But 14th Street has long been a place where dance clubs and bars come and go. If it's heroin you're looking for, head just west on that block. If it's musical theater you're addicted to, walk east to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. But if it's delicious Persian food and a cocktail bar that stays open till the sun rises, head south toward Fooq's.
Little Haiti/ Little River
All the galleries flocked like seagulls up to Little Haiti when Wynwood property became more valuable than healthy babies. This is a neighborhood where Caribbean families live and chickens roam the streets like feral cats. Soon, this genuine area will be the place you get "Caribbean" food and see "local" artists who actually live in L.A. But it's not like the neighborhood couldn't do with a little facelift. Make sure to wander into a botanica where Santeria and Vodou supplies are sold. You will likely leave wondering if you now have spirits tagging along for your vacay and if you got overcharged (you did).
Upper East Side
If you're not all architectured out on Art Deco, a trip to the Upper East Side to see all the weird old motels from the '50s is in order. Some are fully renovated, like the polished Vagabond Hotel with its posh poolside bar, while others remain seedy spots for afternoon encounters. The classic Coppertone Girl sign—the one with the dog pulling down a little girl's bathing suit bottom—is hanging around Biscayne and 73 Street.
Coral Gables is simply one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the U.S. The streets are like a maze with names of Spanish cities located curbside on white hunks of cement. If you live there and want to paint your house, you have to get the color approved first. But so fucking what? It's gorgeous with the long hanging roots of banyan trees and Florida oaks shading the quiet roads lined with Spanish-style and ranch houses. Get deep in there and eat brunch at the ridiculously luxurious Biltmore Hotel. Built in the 1920s, it defines class and is likely haunted (it was a hospital during WWII, after all, and gangster Thomas "Fatty" Walsh was murdered there). Tastefully caged tropical birds flutter in the lobby and oversized iguanas lay around on the 18-hole golf course. This is living.
Coconut Grove is Coral Gables' stoned cousin. It has equally majestic residences but the lawns grow more freely. Down Grand Avenue, though, are tiny houses and tenements where the first Caribbeans lived (still do, in fact) when they arrived in Miami. Keep Coconut Grove Weird is something the tight-knit natives actually say. And yeah, there are still elements of its hippy past, like the boat people and the Bookstore in the Grove. But its anchor is Cocowalk, which is kind of like an Orlando mall, but even there, you can get totally shitfaced in a giant, reclining chair in the intimate VIP movie theaters. Check out the massive Italian-villa Vizcaya, a mansion on Biscayne Bay with Renaissance gardens and plenty of things too valuable for you to touch.
You're going to want to get Cuban coffee and a media noche sangwish (as they say locally) at the tacky tourist mecca in Little Havana, Versailles. Avocado or plantain ice cream sabores are for sale on Calle Ocho at Azucar, which is easy to find, because there is a seriously massive sculpture of a cone and scoops of the sweet stuff on its exterior. If you want to feel shame, go get whooped at dominoes by a Cuban abelo at Domino Park. Also, there's a good chance that if you drive closer to the airport, you'll find Elian Gonzalez's house which may very well be a museum now.
Hialeah/ Miami Gardens/ Opa Locka City Hall
West of Dade County is the Everglades, but if you head out that way and stop just short of the alligators, you'll see a new arts scene budding in Hialeah. Formerly the least cool neighborhood, ridiculous rents in more central areas have pushed artmakers and young scenesters into this Cubano enclave. While you're visiting the "Leah Arts District," head over to be confused by the Ali Baba-themed Opa Locka City Hall.
Homestead is far. Like really far from everywhere else in Miami. But the thing is, you drive through on your way to the Keys, so you might as well stop because it's really the only place to get good Mexican food in South Florida. And there's Robert Is Here, a tropical fruit stand with fenced in tortoises at its petting zoo and shakes people drive hours to simply suck down in seconds.