Things to Do
For a glimpse into Miami Beach life in the 1930s, stroll the streets of the Art Deco District, eighty square blocks, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Lenox Court, and Sixth and Twenty-third streets, overflowing with more than 800 historic buildings. As the most concentrated historic district in the United States, it brings to life the nostalgic era of the 1930s and 1940s. Originally, these buildings glowed a gleaming white, but the updates done to them have used a palette of cake-icing pastels more influenced by Miami Vice than the 1930s. Today, this area of chic hotels and breezy alfresco cafés has become known as South Beach, or as the locals fondly call it, SoBe. Here, you can sip an espresso or eat a frozen yogurt while watching the passing parade of sexy models and musclemen while the sea breeze carries calypso and reggae melodies from Lummus Park across Ocean Drive.
Take the $20-per-adult, ninety-minute guided walking tour through the Art Deco District, sponsored by the Miami Design and Preservation League, departing at 10:30 A.M. on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and 6:30 P.M. on Thursdays, from the Art Deco Welcome Center at Ocean Drive and Tenth Street. Or take the self-guided audio tour for $15 per adult, $10 per child. (305-672-2014)
Miami Beach architects first began to employ Streamline Moderne design features in their designs in 1930s. Their new style, Tropical Art Deco, featured streamlined curves, porthole windows, balconies stretched to look like luxury liner sundecks, and ship's funnels on rooftops to make the buildings resemble the ocean liners people wanted to travel on but couldn't afford. Window “eyebrows” shaded rooms from the sun, and neon lights brightened up the night. They also used Florida motifs — herons, pelicans, blooming flowers, and blazing sunsets — to decorate the facades and porches, and incorporated abstracted patterns from Aztec, Mayan, Babylonian, and Egyptian designs. Their buildings became a symbol of progress for a resort emerging from the Great Depression.
To best absorb Miami Beach's deco atmosphere, stroll south along Ocean Drive for fourteen blocks beginning at the Hotel Cardozo at Thirteenth Street where the art deco revitalization movement itself began. Named after 1930s Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, the hotel features symmetrical cantilevers and strokes of cream paint, emphasizing its streamlined shape. Hollywood featured it in the 1959 film A Hole in the Head, starring Frank Sinatra.
Take a stroll along the beach side of Ocean Drive after dark. This gives you a clear view of the art deco hotels' neon illuminations, casting shimmering lines and circles of bright blues, pinks, and greens around the contours of the buildings, away from the crowded cafés.
In the middle of the next block, the Carlyle Hotel, built in 1941, has a pink and peach succession of curves, vertical columns, and eyebrowed windows to keep out the sun. And across the street in Lummus Park, a grassy area that separates the beach from Ocean Drive, stands the classic deco-inspired boat-shaped Beach Patrol Station, with its vintage oversized date and temperature sign. Two blocks down, you'll see what look like flying saucers at the Cleve-lander Hotel.
In addition to the deco buildings, you'll see Mediterranean-style buildings scattered throughout the district. These feature archways, bell towers, balconies, rough stucco walls, and red clay–tile roofs. The majestic Amsterdam Palace is modeled after the Alcazar de Colón, the home of Christopher Columbus's son in the Dominican Republic. Nearby, an ornamental lighthouse sits atop the Waldorf Towers.
RAINY DAY FUN
If it's a rainy day, you might stop into the streamlined Bass Museum of Art, which contains a limited collection of old master paintings, objets d'art, sculptures, and period furniture, plus temporary exhibits of contemporary European and American art. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for children. (Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday 11 A.M.–5 P.M., (www.bassmuseum.org)
Three blocks farther along, you'll come to the 1936 Beacon Hotel, with parapets climbing its facade and thin racing stripes wrapping around its sides. The four-story, powder-blue-and-white 1937 Park Central Hotel is a geometric wonder with dramatic vertical columns, fluted eaves, and octagonal windows. For a look at what South Beach life was like in the 1930s, climb the wrought-iron stairway to the mezzanine level to see a display of old black-and-white photographs.
Swing over two blocks to Washington Avenue to see one of Miami Beach's grandest art deco buildings, the 1928 Main Post Office, crowned by a marble and stained-glass lantern. As you enter, note the streams of sunlight filtering through the glass, reflecting on murals and bronze grillwork that sweep around a rotunda.
Movie producers also love Española Way, a small street completed in 1925 as a Spanish-styled artist colony, which lies between Washington and Drexel avenues. Here, vintage clothing shops, alfresco cafés, and artists' studios and galleries fill the peach-colored Mediterranean buildings, with their colorful striped canopies, arched windows, and narrow overhanging wrought-iron balconies, all framed by palm trees and gas lamps. Unfortunately, the artists' colony idea went bust, but Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz is supposed to have started the rumba craze here.
In the 1950s, Hollywood celebrities stayed in the glitzy hotels along Central Miami Beach, north of Twenty-third Street. Here, the trendy scene of South Beach's Ocean Drive gives way to Collins Avenue as it follows a 5-mile route through the area. International jet setters came for the luxurious accommodations and exclusive bars, restaurants, and lounges where celebrities cavorted with other celebrities, as the rest of America watched them enviously on newsreels in movie theaters.
The Fontainebleau and its neighbor hotel, the Eden Roc, began a new style of architecture called Miami Modernism, MiMo for short. Frank Sinatra, a Fontainebleau regular, started a scrambled-egg fight in the coffee shop and also shot scenes for the 1960s movie Tony Rome here. Drop in for a look around the curving lobby, overhung by weighty chandeliers, and venture through the tree-coated grounds to the swimming pool, complete with rock grottoes and waterfalls to match.
For a truly bizarre nighttime experience, stand on Collins Avenue around Forty-second Street and behold the ten-story, 13,000-square-foot trompe l'oeil mural of the Fontainebleau Hilton, painted by Richard Hass. Unveiled in 1986, it creates the illusion of a great hole in the wall exposing the hotel directly behind.
Miami Beach blossoms with tropical flowers throughout the year. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden Center and Conservatory, just west of the Miami Beach Convention Center. It's a showcase for rare orchids in a tropical cloud forest setting, plus one of the largest collections of bromeliads in the country along with many species of ferns, anthuriums, a manicured Japanese garden, over a dozen varieties of subtropical palms, and exotic plants from central and northern South America. (305-673-7256, www.miamibeachbotanicalgarden.org)
For the Kids
Other than the beach, there aren't many attractions for kids in Miami Beach. About the only major one is the 35-acre Miami Seaquarium, on the Rickenbacker Causeway on Virginia Key. Here, your little ones can look at killer whales and other local marine and bird life in a 235,000-gallon aquarium. Spend three to four hours watching the sharks being fed, getting hugs from performing sea lions, feeding tide pool creatures, and watching dolphins perform clever tricks. Admission is $13.95 per person. (Open daily 9:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M., 305-361-5705, www.miamiseaquarium.com)
Festivals and Seasonal Events
Thanks to Miami Beach's cultural diversity, you'll find some sort of festival going on at just about any time of year. The following are the three biggest:
Art Deco Weekend: One of the top events of the year, this street fair, held in January and featuring eighty-five events along Ocean Drive, focuses on art deco architecture and collectibles, with food and dealer booths and live entertainment. (www.mdpl.org)
The Miami Beach Festival of the Arts: Held in mid-February at Ocean Terrace, this cultural event showcases the artwork of 150 artists from across the nation, with paintings, sculpture, glass, ceramics, jewelry, and photographs in a juried exhibition.
Annual Taste of the Beach: Some of the finest restaurants in Miami offer an array of food and wine tasting along Lincoln Road, accompanied by sidewalk fashion shows, comedy acts, and musical performances. You can also attend chef demonstrations and lectures. (305-672- 1270)