Miami is commonly thought of as being just a beach. But in reality, Miami is a huge sprawling city with many neighborhoods, some which are very touristy and some of which are local areas that you probably want to avoid.
The Miami you see in movies with people rollerblading in bikinis in front of all the art deco buildings is actually South Beach, which is just one of the many neighborhoods that are part of the beautiful city of Miami. South Beach is made up of the southernmost ten miles of beach which are always full of people day and night. You will find many clubs, bars, beachfront hotels, and restaurants and cafes as far as the eye can see. However many of these restaurants lure tourists in with their location and then end up grossly overcharging you for mediocre food and drink. As a general rule, if someone is trying to hard to get you to eat at their restaurant, it’s probably not very good. That being said, the convenience can’t be beat if you’re enjoying the sun and sand of the beach. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a trashy South Beach bar like Wet Willie’s with giant drinks and a loud DJ music by the pool.
But there’s more to South Beach than that. There are plenty of popular commercial avenues where you can find shopping, dining, art, and more. Lincoln Road, a large open-air mall, is lined with restaurants where you can sit outside and enjoy people watching and 85 degree heat. Major annual events are celebrated here by locals and tourists alike, like Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. These kinds of events on Lincoln Road are part of the reason why traffic on South Beach is so heinous. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxed, you can stroll down some of other major streets of the beach like Espanola Way, which is a little more quaint and European-looking than the rest of South Beach. On Washington Ave., home of the Miami Ink tattoo studio, you can also find plenty of places to eat and go out. Depending on your intentions, you can keep it casual with a quick slice of pizza, or you can get dressed to the nines and stand in line to get into clubs like Mansion. Emphasis on dressed to the nines; these are the kind of clubs that won’t let you in if you’re wearing flats instead of heels.
If you travel farther north, you will find there is much more of Miami Beach than just South Beach. The restaurants and hot spots become less frequent than the beach’s southern neighbor the higher north you go, but the beach itself is less crowded. There are tons of hotels in this part of the beach and the more north you go, the cheaper they become. Many well-known spots, like The Broken Shaker, a cocktail bar located at the Freehand Hotel, are scattered throughout the beach. Here you’ll also find Liv, one of the most hyped clubs in Miami that no one I know has ever been to.
While you drive on the MacArthur Causeway to and from the beach you can see the beautiful Miami downtown. Unlike most cities, the Miami downtown area is great to look at from afar but nowhere you really want to go. Apart from the great skyscrapers that form the Miami skyline and light up the city, there isn’t a lot there to enjoy. Unless you really love confusing one-way streets. After 5 pm, Downtown Miami becomes empty and can be quite scary. You’ll likely only go to Downtown Miami to catch a basketball game or a show at the American Airlines Arena (commonly referred to as Triple A), the Arsht Center, or the Olympia Theater. There’s also Bayfront Park and Bayside. Though these can be popular locations for events like Ultra music festival, Bayside is outdated and unpopular. You’ll find overpriced mojitos and the kinds of restaurants you see in Downtown Disney, but not kept up as well. There may or may not be a Spanish music band playing in the outdoor bandshell. But there probably will be.
South of Downtown, you’ll find yourself in Brickell. This is the area where people who like to work, drink, and go to the gym can be found in their natural habitat. Happy Hour there is serious business, as the young businesspeople of Miami descend on Mary Brickell Village to have drinks at Blue Martini. There are many places to eat and drink. There is also a gym with giant glass windows so when you stumble out of Fado you can look at the people with better bodies and priorities and feel bad about yourself. Far and away, the best thing about Brickell, is Blackbird Ordinary, a nice cocktail bar without the holier-than-thou attitude you’ll find at the Beach.
Midtown and Wynwood
North of Brickell and Downtown, there is Midtown and Wynwood. I still remember a time when these neighborhoods didn’t exist. But gentrification occurs very quickly and now they’re the life of the party. At the center of Midtown are the Midtown Shops which offers a nice mix of high and low end restaurants and shops. You can spend $100 on a meal at Sugarcane, but you can also grab some toilet paper at Target down the street. Two blocks west of North Miami Ave. is Wynwood, Miami’s hipster oasis. In Wynwood, everything is art, everything is up-and-coming, and everything is way more relaxed than anywhere else in Miami. Wynwood doesn’t care what you look like on the outside, only that you’re kind of a cool person. So you’ll find frazzled students getting their caffeine fix at Panther Coffee and sweaty bikers enjoying a beer at Wood Tavern after their Critical Mass bike ride. This neighborhood reached peak popularity partly because of events like Art Walk, which brought everyone in once a month to enjoy the free galleries in the area. There’s always something interesting going on and even when there’s not, there are a ton of places to drink, eat, and take in the graffiti art outside.
Coral Gables is another one of the city’s nicer areas. Though it’s another major business hub, it has a more quaint feel to it. The streets are kept clean and the hedges neatly trimmed. Along Miracle Mile and the surrounding streets, there are great restaurants and landmark hotels. There are also a lot of salons. You can get your hair done every two feet if you’re so inclined. It’s an earlier part of the city than say, Brickell, where you can find bars open until 5 am. People in the Gables go out to dinner and Happy Hour and they’re on their merry way home in time to catch the evening news. Of all the neighborhoods in Miami, this is one where you’re most likely to get lost if you’re looking for an address, since this is the only part of the city that has no street numbers. All the streets have names and they have no particular order, rhyme or reason. Coral Gables is also closest to the University of Miami campus, so some places will skew younger in age.
Somewhere between Coral Gables and Brickell, is Coconut Grove. For anyone older than 25, the Grove is a long-forgotten relic of a neighborhood. There are good restaurants and ridiculously cheap bars filled with college students. However, as time has passed, some of the most popular spots in the Grove have shuttered, like Mr. Moe’s, or been Bar Rescued into obscurity, like Sandbar. Locals were outraged when they heard that Sandbar with their memorable penny beer nights, had transformed into a Korean BBQ joint. But there was a reason that place needed to be Bar Rescued. No one had been to Sandbar in about 10 years. Still, Coconut Grove is not a bad place to get together for brunch or to go to the movies. Just don’t stray too far from CocoWalk, because the neighborhoods surrounding the Grove are less than idyllic.
Of course, outside of these larger neighborhoods, Miami has its share of residential neighborhoods. These are the places that visitors either don’t know exist or completely ignore. This ranges from the sketchy neighborhoods that you want to avoid at all costs to middle class neighborhoods that you also want to avoid at all costs for completely different reasons.
Hialeah and Little Havana
Hialeah and Little Havana are examples of these neighborhoods. If you couldn’t figure out from the name, Little Havana is like a tiny version of Cuba. You are likely to see old men playing dominoes and smoking cigars at any of the parks in this part of town. A lot of immigrants live here because it’s cheaper. Going to Hialeah and Little Havana is a lot like venturing into a third world country. The drivers are terrible, the food is amazing and served by someone who doesn’t speak English, and every store feels like a flea market.
The suburban communities in western and southern parts of Miami include Kendall, Westchester, Perrine, Cutler Ridge, and Homestead. There are a lot of malls and chain restaurants in these areas, as you would expect. If you live here, you probably do spend some time at Town & Country shopping or going to the movies. If you’re visiting, you probably want to check out the more interesting places described above. The more south you go toward Homestead, the more farmland you will see. This is even less populated since these are relatively new neighborhoods. You are even more unlikely to go in this area if you’re visiting Miami, unless you are on your way to the Keys or the Everglades.
But of course, Miami is a city that is constantly changing. By the time the sun sets on the day, any one of these places might be old hat while another area is all the rage. That’s the blessing and curse of living here. There’s always something new around the corner.
Get the GPS-guided version of this article on GPSmyCity here.