Miami can feel at times like a never-ending feast for the senses. Glamour is part of everyday life here – celebrities, mansions, and public displays of consumption and wealth are the order of the day – and nowhere is this exhibited more than in South Beach, the most iconic neighborhood of the Greater Miami area.
From the classic swooping facades and meticulous neon of the city’s signature deco designs to its nonstop beach life and vibrant party scenes, South Beach exemplifies a unique brand of Floridian oceanside chic. What’s more, the best of this nook of Miami can be enjoyed without a car – to get around quickly, utilize the excellent DecoBike sharing program, or your own two feet.
A pastel history preserved
South Beach, also known as ‘SoBe,’ is perhaps known best for its sunny take on art deco architecture. Only in South Beach does this smooth Modernist style take on a particular hybrid of pastel palettes and sleek curves, buttresses and contours, meant to evoke early 20th century train and ocean travel.
A good starting point for anyone interested in this style is the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), whose excellent walking tours are a must on any Miami itinerary. The MDPL was created in 1976, when the area was in decline. Many of these classic buildings would have been paved over if not for the efforts of South Beach resident and MDPL founder Barbara Baer Capitman, a child of German Jewish parents and socialist activist with a degree in art history and unquenchably feisty spirit. As of late 2014, the group also operates the Art Deco Museum.
To learn more about the area’s architectural history, visit the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, dedicated to the design and aesthetic movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. When you're done learning about the early Modernists, have a meal in a restaurant housed behind a Modernist facade: the 24-hour Eleventh Street Diner is our favorite spot for 3am pancakes and coffee.
Art Deco in action: south of 15th
The area below 15th St is where the majority of South Beach's classic hotels and deco structures can be found. 728 Ocean Drive is a great start, notable as former location of Irene Marie Models, the first full service model agency in Florida. It was this agency that brought the beautiful people (and the celebrity culture that floats around them) to South Beach. Prior to that, these were known as rough streets – 728 Ocean was the location of the Sun Ray Apartments, site of Al Pacino’s infamous chainsaw scene in the 1983 film Scarface.
Framing this building are the Colony and Beacon Hotels, both classic examples of South Beach deco design. The Colony is particularly noteworthy for being the oldest deco hotel in South Beach. See the enormous neon sign? We take it for granted that businesses use neon to attract customers, but the Colony was one of the earliest buildings to use this tactic, incorporating neon into its exterior design.
Walk north along Ocean Drive (on the beach side of the road so you can see the buildings) and you'll be treated to a parade of deco's greatest hits, including the retro-futuristic facade of the Carlyle (1250 Ocean Dr), where much of The Birdcage was filmed, and the simply beautiful Crescent (1420 Ocean Dr) and Congress (1052 Ocean Dr) hotels. Explore in the evening, when neon throws these buildings into beautiful multi-hued relief.
If you want a break from the deco scene, venture south of 5th St (conveniently referred to as ‘SoFi). Stuff yourself at Tap Tap, which whips up creative takes on Haitian cuisine, and wander the landscaped lanes around South Pointe Park, where you'll often see models on photo shoots. In the evening, if you're looking for quintessential South Beach sexiness, you'll find it at the ridiculously over the top Nikki Beach restaurant and nightclub. Those desiring a chill night and craft beer would do well to sample from the excellent menu at the intimate little bar in The Room.
Parties to crash, book spines to crack: north of 15th
For a different scene, head back up shore. South Beach gets noticeably fancy(er) once you cross north of 15th Street. Newer hotels are built with towering skylines and could have pride of place in an MTV advertisement. If you want to see South Beach at her most opulent, wander into the lobby and pool areas of the Delano and the Shore Club. These spots are open to the public, but you should be a polite visitor and buy a drink at one the bars peppered throughout both hotels. Or wet your whistle at Kill Your Idol, a punk-chic South Beach bar with graffiti art, rough edges and a crowd full of Europeans, fashion models and the painfully hip.
Lincoln Road is the great pedestrian thoroughfare of Miami Beach. It's lined chock-a-block with high end boutiques, bars and restaurants where people watching (and strutting for the crowds) is elevated to a sport. There's plenty of lovely architecture as well, including the stunning apartment/commercial/parking complex that is 1111 Lincoln Road. For all that, our favorite spots on this strip are cerebral: two excellent bookstores, Books & Books and Taschen.