November 23, 2011
If ever a city was made for admiring, it’s Miami. Much of it is so outrageously attractive, so fanciful and so in awe of itself that it really is possible to fill a few days of sightseeing by doing nothing other than marvelling at its beaches, buildings and bronzed bodies.
Add to this a fantastic winter climate, endless blue skies and a see-and-be-seen streetlife, and it’s no surprise that most of our picks for free ways to experience Miami involve taking in the sights and sounds and exploring the city on foot…
Miami’s South Beach is one of the best preserved Art Deco districts in the world and is easily navigable on foot, or local bus if you’re pushed for time. The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District, to give it its proper name, extends from 5th St up to Dade Boulevard and from the ocean to Biscayne Bay, and comprises more than 800 examples of Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and MiMo (Miami Modern) architecture, lending the whole area an effortlessly glamorous feel.
The most famous – and most photographed – is the stretch of Ocean Drive between 5th and 14th streets, where a string of hotels in various pastel and sorbet hues show off their curves, angles and neon lights to the world. Highlights include the pale green Carlyle Hotel, the Park Central and the newly-restored Breakwater. The Miami Design Preservation League‘s Welcome Center (1001 Ocean Drive, between 9th and 10th streest) have detailed maps.
Miami’s Design District is approximately 18 blocks of old, low-rise warehouses and factories that fell victim to large-scale neglect and decay throughout the 1980s and 90s. Towards the end of the century and throughout the 2000s, the area underwent an intensive period of renovation and investment, and now houses a range of art galleries, design emporiums, furniture showrooms, luxury brand stores, excellent restaurants and a thriving pavement cafe scene. If you’re there on the second Saturday of the month, check out the regular Art + Design night for a popular gallery walk featuring inspiring artists, local musicians and fine dining.
The driver-less Metromover has been transporting people between Miami’s downtown, Brickell and Omni neighbourhoods since 1986 and is completely free. Easy to use, with an inner and outer loop, it’s a quick and convenient way of getting around the area between Bayfront Park (for the Bayside Marketplace) and other points downtown, but best of all for tourists, it offers the most fabulous views of Biscayne Bay and the city’s skyscraper-filled skyline. Grab your camera and ride it as the sun goes down for the ultimate twinkling Miami-at-night shot.
The lovely and diminutive 4.5 acre Miami Beach Botanical Garden has just undergone a $1.2 million transformation and now features an expanded water garden and a mangrove wetland along with its diverse collection of tropical plants, flowers, palms and sculptures. Lounge on the spacious lawn, admire the vertical ‘living wall’ or zone out in the Japanese serenity garden – entrance to the garden is always free. If you’re visiting Miami in early December, the garden will be hosting an al fresco ‘Garden Cafe’ for the duration of Art Basel Miami Beach, the best known and most prestigious art event in America.
Head to Miami’s (mainly) Cuban district – it’s also home to many Nicaraguans, Hondurans and other Latinos – for a real insight into Hispanic culture, food and people. What the area lacks in aesthetic charm, it makes up for in memorable moments and one-off experiences: sipping a sweet cafe Cubano in a local bakery, watching an intense game of dominos in Maximo Gomez Park, checking out the hottest Cuban grooves at Casino Records, learning how to hand-roll a Cuban cigar at the El Credito cigar factory or dining on ropa vieja (Cuban beef stew) at legendary diner Versailles.
Cultural Fridays, or Viernes Culturales, take place on the last Friday of every month, where main drag Calle Ocho comes alive with street performers, salsa dancing, Uruguayan drumming, tango classes, open artist studios and free walking tours of Little Havana.