Miami travel guide

Miami has outgrown its kitsch beach-town short pants to become a showcase for art and architecture, with high-end hotels and a rich dining scene, writes George Epaminondas.

By George Epaminondas
Like a hothouse orchid, Miami is a city in full bloom. Once known for its pastel-hued buildings, blue-rinse residents and Margarita-fuelled revellers, Florida's kitsch beach town has grown up. Its new sophistication has much to do with Art Basel Miami. The annual event, launched in 2002 and held this year on 4-7 December, draws 250 of the world's leading galleries and more than 70,000 visitors in a celebration of art, commerce and party-hopping. At the same time, as foreign investment fuels a real-estate boom, Miami has become a showcase of avant-garde architecture, perhaps more so than any American city. Rising from the Blade Runner-esque skyline are dazzling towers by starchitects including Zaha Hadid, Piero Lissoni and Rem Koolhaas, as well as new hotels, each more showy than the next. Opening next year is the Faena Saxony Hotel, with Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin as creative directors. "It's like it's a movie, but it's real," Luhrmann has said of the flamboyant property.
Miami has always possessed a cinematic exuberance, with swaying palm trees, colourful Art Deco edifices and a polyglot mix of photogenic residents. Most visitors gravitate to Miami Beach, a barrier island connected to the mainland by causeways, but Miami's centre is shifting away from the beach and towards the mainland. Downtown Miami is an international financial enclave, the Design District has morphed from a collection of warehouses into a high-end shopping precinct, and the Wynwood Arts District is an open-air gallery with spectacular street art and flourishing exhibition spaces. Little Havana is a Cuban hub on the mainland where locals clad in guayabera shirts converse in Spanish, and Little Haiti is the centre of the Haitian diaspora. This rich ethnic diversity is reflected in the city's Latin and Caribbean food scenes, and its new wealth in the high-end kitchens run by leading chefs.
The city's warm winters are widely regarded as the best time to visit, rather than the hot, humid and occasionally wet summers. But, as I found on my visit, Miami has become a year-round destination. You will need a car to explore the city, or sign up for an Uber app account; the ride-sharing service makes zipping from a South Beach hotel to a Wynwood gallery a breeze. If you're exploring South Beach attractions, such as Lincoln Road Mall, Ocean Drive and Española Way, rent a DecoBike from 100 lock-and-leave stations. Avoid rollerblades, Segways, or any contraption that resembles a motorised skateboard with handles, which I spied. They're all so old Miami.
Metropolitan by Como
In a city where style can trump substance, the Metropolitan by Como strikes a far more meaningful pose. It's the latest in the growing portfolio of Singapore-based Como Hotels and Resorts, with hotels in London and Bangkok and resorts in Bali, Bhutan, Phuket, Turks & Caicos and the Maldives. This recent arrival in Miami is a seductive interplay of the holistic and the hedonistic. The 74-room retreat is in a renovated Art Deco building from the 1930s, updated by Italian designer Paola Navone in a calming palette of sea-foam green, dusky grey, sparkling white and chrome. The group's spa and wellness program, Shambhala, takes its name from the Buddhist term for "a place of bliss", and I found myself repeating it like a mantra: when I applied the aromatic bathroom products, drank a vegetable juice by the pool, or ordered a kale and mushroom omelette at breakfast. Australian-born Amanda Gale, the Como group's executive chef, devised the Shambhala menu. Naturally, the hotel has a top-notch spa with a roster of nurturing, detoxifying and fragrant treatments, as well as daily yoga and Pilates classes, and a rooftop hydrotherapy pool. But the only aquatic treatment I required was a plunge in the Atlantic at the hotel's beach club. As a respite from Miami's bacchanalian energy, the Metropolitan is the perfect base. Rooms from $410. 2445 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 695 3600 
The James Royal Palm
No stone was left unpolished in the restoration of this ocean-front gem that dates back to 1939. Designer Lauren Rottet embellished the hotel entry with a topiary garden, kitted out the expansive lobby with contemporary art and prismatic furniture, and ensured each of the 393 rooms has a homey warmth, lent by reclaimed wooden chests, banquettes and swirly carpets. It's a Mad Men meets magpie vibe that's appealing at the beach. Vestiges of the original Royal Palm include the compass rose on the terrazzo lobby floor, the emerald glass reception desk repurposed as a café, and porthole windows in the bar. Among the hotel's amenities are three pools, a restaurant, a full-service spa, child-friendly activities, and free WiFi. The slate-tile bathrooms are equipped with organic Intelligent Nutrients products. It would be tempting not to leave one's poolside chaise longue, but the hotel's central location means Miami's star attractions are at the doorstep. To counter the inevitable morning hangover, book in for one of the spa's enlivening salt-infused treatments. Or embrace the hair of the dog, as I did, and order a frozen Daiquiri at the beach club before taking an ocean dip. The service is exceptional; the waiter whistled from the water's edge to signal that my drink was up. Miami nice. Rooms from $285. 1545 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 604 5700 
St Regis Bal Harbour Resort
In an affluent residential neighbourhood 20 minutes north of South Beach, this resort is arrayed with objets de luxe. The sumptuous tone set by design firm Yabu Pushelberg is conveyed instantly in the lobby, which sparkles with crystal chandeliers, faceted mirrors and onyx marble floors. The 243 rooms are more neutral but no less unusual in their splendour, with bedside control panels, 400-thread-count bed linen, oversized marble tubs, and mirrors that artfully become TV screens. There are ocean views from spacious glass-enclosed balconies, furnished with rattan lounges. Guests can relax beside two infinity pools or on the 300-metre beachfront, which is far less traversed than beaches to the south, or hire a private cabana or a marble-walled day villa with butler service and spa treatments. The Remède Spa offers OTT treatments such as a 24-carat facial, with an infusion of gold and copper, and a coral gemstone massage. There's also a popular wellness program with in-house trainers who take circuit, yoga and Pilates classes on the beach. The hotel aims for "anticipatory service", which sounds like an unlikely blend of telepathy and telekinesis. But, sure enough, I had barely settled on my pool chaise when I was offered sunscreen, fresh fruit, Evian spray, and a glass of rosé sangria. Directly across the road from the hotel are the Bal Harbour Shops, arguably the most exquisite mall in America. And no visit would be complete without dining at J&G Grill. Rooms from $788. 9703 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour, +1 305 993 3300 
The Cypress Room
Pioneering chef Michael Schwartz is behind several estimable restaurants in the Design District, and this is his newest project. In a dining room ornamented with mismatched china, wall-mounted taxidermy and a mint-hued banquette, he and chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia serve food as ambitious as it is delicious. An appetiser of royal red shrimp with coconut, lime and puffed rice is particularly pretty. The restaurant is known for exceptional apéritifs. 3620 NE 2nd Ave, Miami, +1 305 520 5197
Gallic fare with a smart-alec twist. The likes of foie gras and Nutella toast, hamachi crudo and tarte de jambon won't appeal to traditionalists but "it's our version of a French brasserie and everything is meant to be shared family-style", says chef Jose Mendin, one of Miami's leading lights. The beguiling brasserie is the latest venture from the Pubbelly Boys group, which manages three other stellar restaurants in town. 6261 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 786 483 1611
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar
It seems almost blasphemous to dish up fried green tomatoes, buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken in body-conscious Miami, yet perhaps that's why Yardbird has cult appeal. Fried chicken with chilled spiced watermelon and cheddar waffles is one of its signature dishes; it sounds dubious, but I would order it again in a heartbeat. In short, Yardbird is calorific but terrific. 1600 Lenox Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 538 5220
Wynwood Kitchen & Bar
This sprawling eatery in the Wynwood Art District is an ideal spot to refuel while gallery-hopping, and features dramatic murals by legendary street artist Shepard Fairey. Expect casual Latin-inflected dishes such as shrimp ceviche, chicken empanadas and chorizo hash. Pair the meal with the one of 40 craft beers. 2550 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, +1 305 722 8959
J&G Grill
This polished restaurant in the St Regis Bal Harbour Resort makes a suitable setting for the cuisine of New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Several of his signatures, including black truffle pizza, are on the menu. Vongerichten is ably represented by chef de cuisine Bradley Kilgore, pastry chef Antonio Bachour, and sommelier Luis Mejia, who provides fascinating backstories on every drop in his cellar. For the full experience, order the prix-fixe menu with wine pairings. 9703 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour, +1 305 993 3300
Restaurant Michael Schwartz
Designer Tommy Hilfiger bought The Raleigh recently, one of Miami's landmark hotels, and it's being fully updated early next year. Its new restaurant makes a sensational lunch spot, not least because you can feast on fish tacos, shrimp toast and crab salad by the hotel's breathtakingly ornate pool, which has been immortalised in a thousand photo shoots. There's even a lifeguard on duty should you imbibe too many Tequila Mockingbirds, a potent literary-inspired cocktail. 1775 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 534 6333
Cavalli Miami
What to make of the riotous clash of animal prints, tropical colours and gilt trimmings deployed at this restaurant and lounge? Enjoy it - this is Roberto Cavalli land, after all. Chef Stefano Mazzi turns out Tuscan-influenced dishes such as octopus carpaccio and chestnut pappardelle, while the bar is known for high-wattage drinks such as Purple Glamour, a vodka and violet cocktail. 150 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach, +1 305 695 4191
Like the outposts in London and Los Angeles, this Miami hotspot delivers fine Venetian food in a divine setting. Located on the ground floor of the members' club, Soho Beach House, it's attractively bedecked with green-tile floors, Silver Buttonwood trees and fairy lights - a majestic garden setting for alfresco dining. 4385 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 786 507 7902
Bar Centro
Celebrated Spanish-American chef and molecular gastronomist José Andrés turns his attention to cocktails at this fashionable lounge in the SLS Hotel. Expect out-there concoctions such as liquid nitrogen Caipirinhas and Salt-Air Margaritas, in which a salt rim is substituted with a cloud of sea foam. 1701 Collins Ave, +1 305 674 1701
MO Bar + Lounge
For spectacular views of the Miami skyline, head to this glamorous bar in the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Brickell Key, a man-made island east of downtown. Order a refreshing Ramos Gin Fizz, take in the live Latin-infused jazz band, and marvel at the views through floor-to-ceiling windows. 500 Brickell Key Dr, Miami, +1 305 913 8288
The Broken Shaker
With its tropical garden, bohemian vibe and innovative mixology, it's no wonder this pool-side bar in a hip hostel is a drawcard for locals. "We're relaxed but we take our drinks very seriously," says affable co-founder Gabe Orta. Of the many handcrafted cocktails, with ingredients plucked from their own garden, we liked the Marjoram Bees Knees, with lemon, marjoram, honey and gin. 2727 Indian Creek Dr, Miami Beach, +1 305 531 2727
The Regent Cocktail Club
This buttoned-up bar at the Gale South Beach hotel - an escape from the bikinis and stilettos scene - features tuxedo-clad mixologists, wood-panelled interiors and impeccably prepared classic cocktails from a list that changes daily. The Hemingway Daiquiri, for example, with rum, maraschino liqueur, lime and grapefruit juices, is served in an antique crystal coupe. 1690 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 673 0199
FDR at Delano
If you're fortunate enough to make it through the two sets of velvet ropes, you can kick up your heels at this subterranean club in the Delano hotel. It draws a spirited bunch - the types who dance on banquettes to booming hip-hop and electro - every night of the week. I was a little baffled by a twerking competition, but it's that sort of place. 1685 Collins Ave, South Beach, +1 305 924 4071
Panther Coffee
The best beans in Miami can be found at Panther, specialists in small-batch, in-house roasting, and their coffee turns up on menus around town. Husband-and-wife team Joel and Leticia Pollock source their rarefied beans from small farms in Latin America. They have several locations and their Wynwood Arts District site attracts a boho arts crowd, who inhabit the outside deck. 2390 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, +1 305 677 3952
The Webster
Housed in an Art Deco building, and catering to local and visiting shoppers, this retailer stocks au courant fashion. "We carry the most adventurous pieces from a collection," a salesperson said. "Our clients expect it." Heavyweights include Dior, Chloé and Balenciaga, but also lesser-known talents, such as Belgian Cedric Charlier. His superb painterly coats have Art Basel written all over them. 1220 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, +1 305 674 7899
A boutique in a Herzog & de Meuron-designed car park? Only in Miami. There are two stores: the ground floor focuses on street-wear; the fifth shows forward-thinking, off-kilter confections from Rick Owens and his ilk. Head to the fifth, if only to admire the striking interiors with mirrored walls, high ceiling and cement beams. 1109 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, +1 305 531 4653
C. Madeleine's
Vintage wares are meticulously arranged by decade and style. Discover collectibles by everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Zandra Rhodes. An orange and turquoise tiered wrap dress by Giorgio di Sant' Angelo from the '70s brought to mind Paloma Piccaso at Studio 54. There's also a dedicated Chanel section. 13702 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; +1 305 845 7770 
Del Toro
An exceptional local shoe brand famous for its adventurous sneakers. Founder and creative director Matthew Chevallard launched the brand offering velvet slippers for men, but now produces a vivid array of printed sneakers, suede wingtips and perforated Oxfords for modern dandies. Emboldened by its clients, the Wynwood store is expanding with styles for women and children. 2750 NW 3rd Ave, #22, Miami, 305 571 8253
When you need a break from viewing conceptual art and feel like scooping up an appealing piece of your own, stop by this Wynwood store. It contains a vivacious collection of home accessories, jewellery, T-shirts and curious gewgaws from around the globe. Behold beaded animal sculptures from South Africa, repainted vintage china from England, and birch trays from Scandinavia. 2516 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, +1 305 573 1480
Bal Harbour Shops
Do refrain from calling this exquisite repository of luxury brands a mall (as I did earlier). With its whitewashed architecture, tropical vegetation, koi ponds and open-air design, it's one of the most extravagant shopping destinations in the country. Anchored by Neiman Marcus and Saks, this retail wonderland spans high-end brands, including Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Charlotte Olympia, whose whimsical shoes deserve their own exhibition. 9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour, +1 305 866 0311
  • undefined: George Epaminondas