MIAMI IS PROBABLY NOT WHAT YOU THINK
A Brief Introduction
When you tell someone that you’re from Miami, they usually light up: Surely your closet was full of bathing suits, your tan was eternal, and your evenings were spent parading down Ocean Drive, bathed in art deco neon.
While the permasummer piece is accurate, I’d edit this slightly: Beyond the beach veneer, Miami is also a city of strip malls and suburbs where two-story houses with terracotta roofs crowd each other like crooked teeth and teenagers hang out in Barnes & Noble parking lots. It’s also a car-centric, traffic-snarled place where your identity is tied up with your automobile—are you a dropped Honda Civic? A retooled Corvette Stingray? Important decisions. It’s also a Latin American city, which I think sometimes gets lost in the South Beach shuffle.
But both Miami and I have certainly changed in the last two decades. “Downtown” is now a destination, not the land of municipal buildings where you pay parking tickets. Wynwood, that storied Instagram playground, has exploded to serve a new set of tourists. And all of the ridesharing apps have taken hold, which is revolutionary in a city where parking is its own pyramid scheme and drunk driving is tacitly accepted. I, in turn, have less teenage angst.
Today, there’s quite a bit to recommend Miami, and I’ve been enjoying discovering the new corners of the city as it grows into a more culturally interesting place (although the jury’s still out on Wynwood). Below, a few tips on the new and noteworthy, along with the old standbys, which thankfully don’t seem to be going anywhere.
When to go and how to get around
The Time of Year
It is really never not warm here. People have absolute meltdowns when the temperature hits 50 degrees. If you live in a place with seasons, by all means visit in February where you can shed your scarf and dive into the ocean while Miamians look on in horror. Avoid August, when it’s 90something and humid and every day brings a 4 p.m. thunderstorm to relieve all of that tropical pressure.
Miami International Airport is a madhouse. If you’re going to rent a car anyway, Fort Lauderdale is usually a cheaper, quieter option but does require a bit of a drive.
With the exception of a few spots, the city is pretty pedestrian-unfriendly. The easiest way to get around is by car — which gives you the freedom to escape to Key West as needed once you’re over cruising up and down Ocean Drive. That said, Uber and Lyft are ubiquitous at this point and generally reasonably priced.
The Public Transportation
This is limited but improving — the Metro rail downtown is helpful if you want to tool around Bayside or the Perez Museum, and the free trolley in Coral Gables can get you…some places.
Not specifically related but if you are driving you should listen to the University of Miami’s station, WVUM (90.5), which is staffed by high-sounding college kids and introduced me to the likes of Wesley Willis as a teenager. If you’re in a party mood, Power 96 (96.5) all the way.
What to do
Let’s get this out of the way. Go here to window shop at pricey boutiques and get the full South Beachy experience: plastic body parts, men in Speedos rollerblading, spinning rims on Hummers, and Italian sidewalk cafes. Note this is not filed under Shopping for a reason.
Is on the water, includes a historic site with the oldest house in Miami-Dade County, and hosts a truly massive annual art fair that I grew up loving. It also has its share of dive bars, head shops, condom emporia, and other tourist favorites.
Perez Art Museum
Latin American art, a solid gift shop, and an amazing terrace with lots of seating where you can take in the view of Biscayne Bay from the most twee of patio swings.
Gorgeous Spanish architecture meets swimming hole at this Coral Gables spot, where you’ll see waterfalls, caves, and if you’re lucky, the occasional dummy thrown into the water for lifeguard training. One word of warning: this water comes from artesian wells and is seriously cold, but it’s hands down the most beautiful pool I’ve ever been in. Entrance fee for out-of-towners is $20. Pro tip: Go when it opens to get in line before the tourists.
If you’re willing to part with your flip flops and towel for a day, visit the Everglades, which feels like another country entirely. There’s an airboat ride operator on every corner, but i like to go the NPS route and visit Shark Valley, where you can either take a tram or bike a 5-mile loop alongside cormorants and alligators. Go in spring for maximum baby gator action.
Wynwood is a place where people go to take photos that they put on Instagram. If you find yourself there, Zak the Baker makes great bread and Gramps offers prime cool-kid-watching and concerts. See also Alter, under food.
We used to leave high school in the middle of the day to try on Slash-inspired top hats and vintage leopard print coats that had no business being in Miami. These days they have a whole steampunk section but the core bonkers-fashion ethos endures. They also have costume rentals for the folks that want to win Halloween.
Books and Books
The Coral Gables location of this excellent independent bookshop is the original (check out the patio cafe and massive room full of art books), but the Lincoln Road one is also great.
Thrift store lovers will find this Hialeah strip mall to be a trashy trashy treasure trove if you’re in the mood to dig.
For the electronic music aficionado. (March)
For the art person. And everyone else I guess. (December)
Miami Book Fair
In which Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson campus explodes in a riot of book stalls and readings that often culminate in a performance by Dave Barry’s band. (November)
Coconut Grove Art Fair
Apparently they started charging admission, this got so insane. (February)
Miami-Dade County Youth Fair
This was second only to Christmas for me as a child. They haven’t changed the logo in 30 years and I hope they never will. (March-April)
What to Eat and Drink
Cuban Cafeterias/Cuban Coffee
Screw restaurants—this is the most important dining option in miami. There’s a tiny cafeteria with a window in nearly every strip mall in miami where you can grab a cuban coffee and a pastelito (the king of cuban sweets) for next to nothing. Ask for a colada, which comes in a small Styrofoam container with a few medicine-size cups for sharing with friends. Caution: Cuban coffee is NOT regular espresso. There’s more sugar than you’d care to know in it, so tread carefully. In terms of pastelitos: guava is good but coconut is the best. Please have at least two per day.
Sergios / Versailles / La Carreta
If you want a step up from counter life, a slew of Cuban restaurants with actual seating abound. My pick of the many is Sergio’s, a consistently delicious chain where you can easily order a slab of bistec empanizado (breaded steak) that will flop over either side of your plate, with sides of yuca and maduros, all for roughly $10. Anyone who tells you that Cuban food should be expensive is lying. Alternatives to Sergio’s include La Carreta (another chain) or Versailles on Calle Ocho, which, while it is a tourist spot, also has a window that is frequented by locals. Don’t be deterred by the line — the place is huge and they turn tables over in no time.
Publix is the ne plus ultra of grocery stores, period. Marvel at its terrazzo floors and soaring ceilings! Gawk at its clever branded packaging, where aluminum foil becomes swans and Nilla wafers turn into tiny round monsters! That done, order yourself a custom sub sandwich from their deli and eat it on the beach.
Palacio de los Jugos
Drink all of the juice at Palacio de los Jugos (that’s Juice Palace, but you probably got that). This is a chain that proffers the best mango juice of my life. Runners-up include coconut, pineapple, and mamey.
If you’re looking for something high-end, Alter is the best meal I’ve ever had in Miami (Cuban food notwithstanding). They do a thing with an egg that is inexplicable and amazing—it’s the white thing on the left in that photo. Option 2 (cheaper) is to enjoy a cocktail at their exceedingly tropical bar and gaze out at the hordes of Wynwoodgoers on the sidewalk.
At long last, Miami has gotten on the craft beer train — this spot in Coral Gables has outdoor seating on the now-closed-off Giralda Avenue, which is slowly becoming a destination.
Come for the Abuela Maria ice cream, stay for a colada, walk out with one of their genius t-shirts, which trade in typical Cuban sayings.
The Broken Shaker
People freak out about this bar. The Freehand folks have extended their empire to various cities including New York, where the line to get into the Broken Shaker wraps around Lexington Avenue, which is dumb considering there is no pool. In Miami, there is a pool. Sip your cocktail beside it. Don’t actually stay at the Freehand.
How to make cuban coffee