Miami has a very sleek and sexy image, one that has been carefully honed over the decades. In fact, like New York and London, people often have a preconceived idea about the city and what it has to offer, which has largely been created through imagery from films, TV, photo-shoots and music videos. It is a pleasant city, deservedly famous for its sandy beaches, streets lined with palm trees, art deco architecture and an über modern skyline of impossibly tall skyscrapers. Yet few visitors get a glimpse of the fascinating city that lies behind its perfectly groomed image. This is a shame because it is a diverse city and the variety it has to offer is quite astounding. As well as the beaches there are the ocean resorts, the highly urbanised business centre, canals and waterways, riverside walks, historic villages shaped by the culture and traditions of the original settler and immigrant communities, rural land, state parks and mangroves, as well as a whole host of museums and visitor attractions. Its population is as diverse as its landscape with over two-thirds being Hispanic and the influences of Latin America are everywhere. The biggest group has a Cuban heritage, although communities from all the Americas and the Caribbean islands have made their home here. It is this diverse tapestry of cultures and landscapes that makes it such a fascinating place to visit, offering so much more than the superficial image of the beach served-up by the media and the glitzy ocean fronted hotels.
Miami is actually two separate cities, Miami Beach and Greater Miami, the two are separated by the Biscayne Bay and joined by a series of bridges that link the islands and the mainland. Greater Miami is the older of the two, officially incorporated in 1896, whilst Miami Beach was incorporated a little later in 1915 and celebrates its centennial year next year (2015). Miami Beach is the face of Miami and typified by the fame of South Beach with its long beaches, warm blue waters and pretty Art Deco District. In fact Miami Beach has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world and some of the most famous buildings can be found along Ocean Drive. The beach itself is made up of a series of islands located between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, joined together by bridges. Some islands are natural, others man-made and some are made up of salt-sucking mangroves which makes them utterly uninhabitable but beautiful to look at.
Over the MacArthur Causeway onto the mainland is the über modern cityscape of Downtown Miami and Brickell, this area is the city’s business centre and home to the regional headquarters of US and international companies who use Miami as the base for their Latin American business. Towards the north of this urban business centre is the city’s artistic hub. Wynwood and the Design District have gradually been establishing themselves as the go to areas for modern art and design thanks to their galleries, showrooms and street art.
Miami also plays host to the internationally famous Art Basel, which is an annual event that takes place in Miami (usually in December) and Hong Kong (in March). Dealers and private collectors flock to Art Basel from all over the world to see the latest collections from leading international galleries who come together at the fair to show and sell work from modern and contemporary art masters, and the latest pieces from the world’s new art talents and emerging stars.
South West of downtown and rubbing shoulders with the glitz of Brickell is Little Havana. This is the area the original Cuban immigrants made home and it continues to be the heart of the Cuban community and a thriving business district. Spreading out along SW 8th Street, or Calle Ocho, it is famous for its hand rolled cigars, Cuban food, bars, clothes, music and generally all things Cubano.
Going South on the mainland the architecture gradually changes becoming more low rise and gentile until one arrives at Coral Gables. This area is characterised by spacious boulevards and the large ornate public buildings that were constructed in the 1920s. Continuing a little further south the landscape changes again, it becomes noticeably greener signalling one’s arrival in Coconut Grove. This is the oldest part of the city, originally colonised in the 1800s, and is characterised by lush green hammock vegetation and is home to the beautiful Villa Vizcaya.
Across the Rickenbacker Cause, just a short hop off the mainland, is the beautiful island of Key Biscayne. This island enclave has a more laid-back feel than its glamorous and often rowdy neighbour, Miami Beach. It is a lovely island, refreshingly green with some of the best beaches in Florida to its name. In fact the Cape Florida State Park, which is located at the southern tip of Key Biscayne, is regularly listed as one of the 10 best beaches in America.
Finally, about 40 miles south from Miami, towards the Florida peninsula is the Everglades National Park. It is the largest park in the Southern USA and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The Everglades are a network of wetlands and forests fed by a river that flows out of Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay. It is an incredibly fragile ecosystem and within the park boundaries are: freshwater sloughs and marl prairies; tropical hardwood hammocks; pineland; cypress and mangrove; and low coastland composed of wet prairies and salt water marshes, as well as marine and estuarine ecosystems. It is famous for its huge variety of birdlife and provides essential breeding grounds for many threatened species; particularly wading and water birds. The park is also home to around 36 protected species, including the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee.
If you are only in Miami for a few days or hours its best to choose one area and stick to it, otherwise you are likely to spend most of your time stuck in traffic or searching for a parking spot. If you’re around for a bit longer it’s fun exploring the different neighbourhoods as well as hanging out on the beach. Over the next month or so we will be posting short briefings about the different areas as we explore, click where you see a link if you are interested to know more about a particular neighbourhood:
i) South Beach. Click here to open the post on South Beach.
ii) Key Biscayne click here to open full feature.
iii) Click here to access the article about Miami’s Wynwood neighbourhood. Wynwood is famous for its street art and off-the-beaten-track bars and restaurants.
iv) Coral Gables & Coconut Grove. Click here to open the full post
v) Click here to open the full feature about Brickell, Downtown and Little Havana
vi) The Everglades National Park – click here to read the full article on the Everglades.