Miami Beach Travel Guide
Miami Beach is the stuff of legends, stretching from the tip of South Beach to Sunny Isles Beach, more than 15 miles of white sand, considered one of the nation’s top ten beaches. While many visitors come to Greater Miami for its world-renowned hotels, restaurants, and nightlife – and, of course, its spectacular beaches – you’ll discover that this beautiful destination has all of this as well as a variety of other exciting activities.
While it may be easy to find the best Miami beaches or the best Miami Beach hotels, it is much more difficult to find fun things to do in Miami Beach. It’s not easy out there. There are numerous tourist traps and underwhelming attractions in the area. Fortunately, there are also plenty of high-quality options. All you have to do is know where to look. And we’ve already done the legwork.
Miami Beach, the actual beach, really manages to live up to its famous reputation. Even without the lively cultural mix and neon lights, it’s still a nearly picture-perfect strip of (largely man-made) beach. It’s one of the best stretches on the Atlantic Ocean.
Since it’s such a long island, there’s a space for every type of beachgoer. You’ll find locals and families to the north and bougie hotels in the middle. And just about everyone congregates on South Beach at some point, making it the party spot.
As for drinking, well: Bars close at 5 a.m. in Miami Beach (it’s 2 a.m. for the rest of the state) and liquor stores can stay open 24 hours in Miami-Dade County.
The law says drinking is prohibited on the beaches and streets, full stop.
In practice, however, the laws don’t appear to be enforced too often, except for the one about no glass containers. Bars and restaurants routinely allow patrons to walk away with alcoholic beverages, which is technically a no-no. Folks around these parts say the only time the government truly cracks down is on holidays.
Use your best judgment, because there are penalties on the books.
If you’re looking for greenspace, there are a lot for such a packed island. We’ll mention a few, but the city offers a directory here.
A couple of other things for visitors to note: This is an international destination, full of every kind of nationality, language, sexual orientation and preference you can imagine. That’s part of what makes it great for people-watching! The bottom line is, don’t come to Miami Beach if you don’t appreciate such a rich tapestry.
South Beach, especially, has a reputation as a meat market, so you may get attention you don’t want when you’re out. Men here are known for catcalling women (or men, to be honest), at any time of day. Combined with a fairly high crime rate in parts of the city, and the best bet (especially for ladies) is to always travel with a friend and stick to busier streets. The kids should probably be home at a reasonable hour, too.
A note to travelers: Even longtime Floridians sometimes get confused when talking about the difference between Miami and Miami Beach, not realizing they are separate cities. Similarly, many often don’t realize that South Beach is actually a part of the city of Miami Beach, and not a separate entity. Remember that when talking to people about these locations, in case there’s a fine distinction involved with directions or recommendations.
With that in mind, let’s work actually work from the top down, so we can devote a special section to South Beach all on its own.
North Beach is the local’s beach. It’s a great choice for families who want something quieter, away from the hustle and bustle. Extending from 87th Street to 63rd Street, it isn’t as long as Mid-Beach, but it’s a haven just south of the town of Surfside.
It’s more like a small town up here, with a lot of park space fronting the beach. Like Mid-Beach, North Beach’s landscape consists of fancy condos, hotels and homes.
While the Miami Beach Boardwalk (see the Mid-Beach section) ends at 46th Street, Atlantic Way fronts North Beach in a similar fashion. This walkway runs north from about 63rd Street all the way through Surfside and Bal Harbor.
North Shore Open Space Park is huge, running from 79th Street to 87th, and is a family must-do. Not only is it covered in trees, it has a dog park, pavilions with grills, a playground, a beach — and best of all, it’s entirely free.
Ocean Terrace is a small loop east of Collins Avenue, from 73rd to 75th streets, although it doesn’t offer much more than some hotel frontage and street parking. It’s just north of the North Beach Bandshell, a public space next to a community center and volleyball courts. There’s a sizable parking lot across from the bandshell, which schedules concerts, yoga, opera performances and more.
There’s also Allison Park, sometimes referred to as 64th Street Park, which was recently renovated. It has a large parking lot, a playground and a handicapped exercise area.Restaurants and stores line Collins Avenue, but for the most part it’s Anytown USA here compared to the southern part of the city. You’ll find more grocery stores and pharmacies than t-shirt shops and bars.
Sandwiched between North Beach and South Beach is, appropriately enough, Mid-Beach. This is the middle of Miami Beach, from 63rd Street to 23rd Street.
Mid-Beach is better known for its upscale resorts and condos than its party scene. It’s close enough to the action to get around easily, but far enough away from SoBe to offer some real relaxation.
A notable feature connecting Mid-Beach to North and South Beach is the Miami Beach Boardwalk. Extending from 5th Street north to 46th Street, the walkway is wooden in some areas and concrete in others. The path runs behind the hotels on Mid-Beach, providing access to the water. The best part is that many areas along the boardwalk feature shaded seating.
If you’re staying at one of the hotels, Mid-Beach is the ideal place to relax in a cabana on the beach or at the hotel’s bar. But for those of you who are just visiting the beach for a day, be aware it’s common for hotel pools and bars to be off limits unless you’re a guest.
Mid-Beach does have a few beachside parks for visitors, though. One is Indian Beach Park, equipped with a playground, showers, a snack bar and restrooms. Oh, and a giant parking lot. There’s also the 36th Street Park, which is a bit smaller, but still has a bathroom, shower, parking and a beautiful strip of beach.
South Beach is not just a major tourist destination, it’s arguably the cultural and commercial center of South Florida. Most of the big-draw restaurants, beautiful people and popular clubs are on this part of the island, so be prepared to battle the crowds.
South Beach, often referred to as simply SoBe, starts at South Pointe Park at the southern tip of the island and ends at about 23rd Street.
The park is home to a beautiful view of cruise ships, great art sculptures and a pretty good fishing pier running along the jetty. If you’ve got the time to spare, you must come here to watch the sun set over Miami at least once.
The only off-leash dog park in the city is here, and for humans there’s a path for walking or biking, plus a small waterpark for the little ones to enjoy. A snack shop and bathrooms are here, and a Smith & Wollensky chophouse is right in the center of the park.
As you’ve probably guessed, parking is limited and hard to find. The self-pay lot is only so big, so get there early, especially if you plan to head north for the day.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas Ocean Beach Park, on the southern end of Ocean Drive between 2nd and 3rd streets, is a green oasis with a playground.
The popular part of South Beach, meanwhile, starts at 5th and Ocean Drive and ends around 14th Place.
When you’re crossing the street onto the beach in that strip, you’ll end up in Lummus Park, a must-visit for sporty types. There are volleyball courts, paved paths for biking, blading, skating and more, plus Muscle Beach, featuring an outdoor calisthenics gym.
The beach is man-made, but the sand is fine and full of swimmers and sun-worshippers — a lot of them. If you are traveling with children, it may be smarter to head to the northern beaches: The partying here is pretty hard, with revelers routinely flouting laws concerning alcohol and public nudity. Topless sunbathers are a common sight, even though this is not a clothing-optional beach.
Turn away from the Atlantic and these few blocks showcase everything the brochures promise: Neon-lit hotels, salsa music and the smell of churrasco.
The hotels along this stretch of Ocean Drive are a highlight of what’s often called the Art Deco Historic District, a notable neighborhood filled with pastel architecture dating from the 1920s. (Read more in the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District section below.)
Along those lines, if you’re not looking for a tourist trap hotel or a big resort, Collins Avenue (A1A) is a couple of blocks west of Ocean Drive and has plenty of hotels that are priced a bit lower. The big-money shopping is along here, and you’ll still be in the heart of the action, but it avoids a lot of the Ocean Drive tourist traps.
Taking Collins Avenue to 21st or 22nd streets brings you to Collins Park, which serves as the grounds for the Bass Museum of Art. There’s also a major league city parking lot on the east side of Collins Avenue.
When night falls, a wild South Beach emerges and the party is on. Just make sure you bring your fanciest outfit to go out, because the bar is high for club dress codes here. The action doesn’t really pick up until after 11 p.m. at the earliest, so plan accordingly. You can eat first!
If you’re planning to dine in South Beach, the restaurants along Ocean Drive deservedly have a reputation for food that is often overpriced and under-cooked. The drinks will also break your bank; Stop by during happy hour to cushion the blow.
On South Beach, wander over to Ocean Drive for a cool drink and people-watch at an outdoor café, or head to quieter North Shore Park in the heart of Miami’s rapidly transforming MiMo North Beach neighborhood.
South Beach glistens with nightlife – all day. It’s hip and quirky, and – hey, watch out for that guy on roller skates – it’s just a good time. South Beach attracts the wealthy, famous, and young, but it is now recognized around the world as a destination worthy of everyone’s stay or visit.
Most visitors, and rightly so, head straight for Lincoln Road. The mile-long pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with brand-name stores and independent boutiques, as well as a variety of restaurants, street entertainment, and excellent people-watching opportunities. Similar distractions can be found a few blocks south on charming Espaola Way, another pedestrian-only street.
Art Deco District
Located at the southern end of Miami Beach, South Beach’s Art Deco District is a whimsical collection of more than 800 architecturally protected buildings from the 1930s and 1940. It has been anointed the “American Riviera” in a nod to the unmistakable air of casual chic that permeates the district. The transformation of South Beach from a downtrodden slum into a pastel wonderland of painstakingly renovated architectural treasures has brought global fame for the historically protected Art Deco District and its glorious beaches and fabled nightlife.
The Art Deco Historic District has the highest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the country, with over 800 historic buildings. The Miami Design Preservation League offers guided walking tours through this area, between 5th and 23rd Streets, as well as along Collins Ave, Ocean Drive, and Washington Ave, to provide interesting and historical architectural insight.
Period hotels like the Beacon or the Colony are lit up at night to emphasize the bright colors, strong lines and geometric features of the Art Deco movement. Many of the houses in the area and the Amsterdam Hotel illustrate the tile roofs and stucco walls of the Mediterranean Revival movement.
At one time, much of this history was in danger of being lost. A lot of these building were slated for demolition during Miami Beach’s downturn, before the Miami Design Preservation League formed in 1976. They successfully lobbied for saving much of the area, which now is part of the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’d like to tour the area, the Miami Design Preservation League offers several on a regular basis, focusing on the crowd-pleasing Art Deco portion and the social fabric of the region. The Mediterranean Revival tour is offered by request.
Even if you don’t take a tour, stop by the group’s Art Deco Welcome Center in Lummus Park. There’s an Art Deco Museum and a pretty boss gift shop that sells distinctive Miami Beach gifts people would actually keep.
An international symbol for Miami, this popular visitor destination is home to a wondrous mix of luxury resorts, boutique hotels, inexpensive hostels and moderately priced national chain hotels. Ocean Drive is known worldwide for its see-and-be-seen cafes, bikini-clad in-line skaters and beaches packed with beautiful young sun seekers, while trendy Lincoln Road has emerged as a lively magnet for culture, entertainment and shopping.
The rest of Miami Beach continues to thrive, reaping the benefits of its proximity to the Art Deco District’s plentiful entertainment and dining offerings. Neighborhoods like funky Surfside and a revitalized North Beach draw many with unpretentious charms, great local restaurants and easy beach access.
North Beach’s Ocean Terrace – a five-block stretch just south of expansive North Shore Park – is fast becoming a smaller version of South Beach with its inviting oceanfront cafes. Hotels, restaurants, quaint shops, and an uninterrupted concentration of MiMo (Miami Modern) 50s and 60s era apartment buildings give the entire neighborhood a unique character, as does a recent influx of Brazilian and Argentine immigrants who have added character and flavor to the neighborhood with numerous shops and eateries.
History of Miami Beach
Say “Florida” to just about anyone in the world, and the first city they’ll probably think of is “Miami Beach.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean “Miami,” mind you. This nine-mile-long barrier island town is actually separate from the mainland city. Miami Beach is a resort city of about 90,000, and is a favorite destination for tourists, snowbirds and celebrities alike.
Long before Art Deco hotels and South Beach, the city had humble beginnings, when the island was but a sandbar covered in mangroves and swamps. Miami Beach’s modern history more or less begins in the 1880s, when investors attempted to build a coconut plantation in what was previously an all-but-uninhabited island off the coast.
Two Quakers from New Jersey, John Collins and son-in-law Thomas Pancoast bought the land around the turn of the last century. They first switched from coconuts to avocados, but then decided developing the island was the best bet. Collins struck a deal with automobile magnate (and Indianapolis 500 founder) Carl Fisher to help finish a wooden bridge to the mainland, where the Venetian Causeway is now.
By the time the town was incorporated in 1915, dredging and filling operations had almost doubled the size of the land, which was largely cleared and criss-crossed by canals. The island was dotted with estates, a golf course and hotels — the first of which, Browns Hotel at 112 Ocean Drive, is still standing and taking guests (although the steakhouse on the first floor is the popular draw).
The Roaring ‘20s roared loudest in Miami Beach, which rode the boom to dizzying heights through Prohibition, the Great Depression and two World Wars. It wasn’t until the 1960s that “the Beach” hit a decline, when the tourists left and the town’s population began to gray significantly, even as a wave of Cuban refugees moved to the area.
The area became cool again in the 1980s, after an influx of gay and lesbian residents preserved or rebuilt homes, and made Miami Beach a center of art and culture.
In subsequent years, Miami Beach has become one of the hottest resort spots in the world, with a unique mix of cultures, and exceptional weather, turquoise waters and manicured sand — most of which has been dredged up from elsewhere and brought here.
The Hispanic influence can’t be understated. Half the residents of Miami Beach are of Hispanic ancestry, and one in five people are of Cuban descent. This mix of cultures is apparent everywhere: Crossing Biscayne Bay is like entering a separate universe of fritas, bachata and Art Deco.
Just as eclectic is the mix of celebrities who frequent the streets. If star-spotting is your thing, this is probably your best bet outside of Hollywood.
That star power surely helps South Beach’s famed nightlife, notable for its club atmospheres, mysterious speakeasies and 5 a.m. closing times. If you’re planning on going out, don’t expect it to get crowded until near midnight.