MIAMI IS PROBABLY NOT WHAT YOU EXPECT
A Brief Introduction
When you tell someone that you’re from Miami, they usually light up: Surely your closet was full of swimsuits, 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: If you dig past the party veneer, Miami is also a city of strip malls and suburbs where terracotta-roofed houses crowd each other like crooked teeth, teenagers spend most of their time in Barnes & Noble parking lots, and your identity is inextricably linked to your automobile. It’s also very much a Latin American city (my family is Cuban), a fact that sometimes get lost in the South Beach shuffle.
But that’s largely my 17-year-old self talking. Both Miami and I have certainly evolved in the last two decades. “Downtown” is now a destination, not the land of municipal buildings where you go to pay parking tickets. Wynwood, never a draw before, has exploded to serve a new set of tourists in search of Instagram fodder. Craft beer, vegan restaurants, and ridesharing apps have all taken hold.
I, in turn, am no longer an angsty teenager yearning to leave my hometown, and am willing to admit that there’s quite a bit to recommend Miami lately. 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’s never not warm here, so residents 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 locals 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, Fort Lauderdale is usually a cheaper and quieter — albeit further — option.
With the exception of a few spots, the city is fairly inhospitable to pedestrians. The easiest way to get around is by car, which also gives you the freedom to escape to Key West as needed. That said, Uber and Lyft are ubiquitous at this point and generally reasonably priced.
On a related note, if you are driving, tune in to the University of Miami’s station, WVUM (90.5 FM), which is staffed by bored-sounding college kids and introduced me to the likes of Wesley Willis and countless other indie wonders as a teenager. If you’re in a party mood, Power 96 (96.5 FM) all the way.
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 to…the Metro Rail.
What to do
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, and other tourist magnets.
Perez Art Museum
Latin American art, a solid gift store, and an waterfront terrace 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 favorite, where you’ll spot waterfalls, caves, and if you’re lucky, the occasional dummy thrown into the pool for lifeguard training. A word of warning: this water comes from artesian wells and is seriously cold. Entrance fee for out-of-towners is $20. Arrive 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 continent 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 opt for a tram ride or bike a 5-mile loop alongside cormorants and alligators. Go in spring for maximum baby gator action.
Wynwood, as best I can tell, is a place where people go to take photos for social media. 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. I’m happy to report that their core fashion-for-weirdoes ethos endures, except now with an entire section dedicated to steampunk. They also offer costume rentals for the folks who 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 outpost is also worth a visit.
A treasure trove for thrift store lovers with time on their hands and a willingness to dig—this Hialeah strip mall doesn’t disappoint.
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. That’s a ringing endorsement. (February)
Miami-Dade County Youth Fair
This monthlong carnival was second only to Christmas for me as a child. They haven’t changed their logo in 30 years and I hope they never will. (March-April)
What to Eat and Drink
Cuban Cafeterias/Cuban Coffee
Forget restaurants—this is the most important dining option in Miami. There’s a tiny cafeteria with a window in nearly every strip mall 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—it’s jet fuel, so tread carefully. On the pastelito front: guava is good but coconut is best.
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 order a slab of bistec empanizado (breaded steak) that will flop over either side of your plate, with sides of yuca and platanos maduros, all for roughly $10. Alternatives to Sergio’s include La Carreta (another chain) or Versailles on Calle Ocho, which, while a major tourist spot, also has a cafeteria 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 morph into round monsters with the swish of a pen! That done, order yourself a custom sub sandwich from their deli and eat it on the beach.
Palacio de los Jugos
Drink everything at Palacio de los Jugos, a chain that proffers the best mango juice of my life. Runner-up flavors include coconut, pineapple, and mamey.
If you’re looking for something higher end, Alter in Wynwood is the best meal I’ve had in Miami (Cuban food notwithstanding). Their signature soft-cooked egg—shown above before I dipped pieces of that precious loaf of bread into it—is inexplicable and transcendent. A wallet-friendly alternative: Sip a cocktail at their tropical bar and gaze through the palm fronds at the hordes of gallery-goers 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 for the hops-inclined.
Come for the Abuela Maria ice cream, stay for a colada, walk out with one of their genius t-shirts, screenprinted with typical Cuban sayings.