Miami’s South Beach is funky, funny and fun
Miami’s South Beach — a 10-mile stretch of fine, white sand and sparkling, turquoise water along Ocean Drive — is the setting of seemingly endless happy hours, a bohemian playground for all ages, nationalities and ethnicities.
SoBe, as locals call it, has attracted celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di and Michael Jackson. Desi Arnaz got his musical start here pounding bongo drums. Clark Gable passed through as a World War II captain when troops took over Miami.
Bars open at 10 a.m. and are rockin’ into the wee hours. Sidewalk diners sip pink and aquamarine drinks with names like Kamikaze, Sex on the Beach and SoBe Vice in goblets the size of soup bowls.
An eclectic human parade streams by: seniors, hipsters, millennials, sun worshippers, fit cyclists, bronzed joggers, gender benders, eccentrics and curiosity seekers.
While individuality is celebrated, there’s more to South Beach than kooky characters, revelry and bar hopping. Beyond the bars and beach shops, there’s a rich culture and history, enticing dining choices and cooling ocean breezes.
The Art Deco capital
Unlike Miami Beach’s skyscraper communities, South Beach has a warm and thriving Art Deco District — the largest concentration of such architecture in the U.S. — much of which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The Art Deco Museum and Welcome Center at Ocean Drive and 10th Street offers an informative introduction to SoBe’s three main architectural styles: Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern (MiMo).
The Art Deco buildings of the 1920s and 1930s have soft lines, hints of the ocean and sky, and bright pastels, like peach, mint, periwinkle, aqua and lavender.
The primary form in SoBe is a vertically-oriented rectangle, divided into three parts, both horizontally and vertically. Facades are often symmetrical.
Some windows have concrete “eyebrows” for shade and painted architectural details. Many are decorated with flora and fauna. Some have porthole windows to suggest ocean-going travel.
During Prohibition, rum runners from the Bahama Islands flourished as people found ways to drink, dance and gamble. Today some of the tilework around town still includes symbols from Prohibition days: a circle for alcohol, a rectangle for dancing, and a triangle pointing to a gambling site.
In the 1950s, when the skyscrapers went up in Miami Beach, SoBe historic preservation activists launched a campaign to save its colorful buildings from being replaced by modern structures. Thanks to them, today you can take an Art Deco walking tour and see these well-preserved treasures:
— The Beach Patrol Headquarters, still in use, looks like a ship with its 1950s nautical décor.
— The Essex House, by Henry Holhauser, the architect who designed 70 SoBe buildings, rises above the street, giving the impression of a ship. Its circles resemble portholes and ocean waves.
— The Tides Hotel, one of Marilyn Monroe’s favorites, has a wave-inspired decor and tortoise shells over the bar. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis sang here. During Prohibition, it was probably a clandestine gambling parlor.
Miami Beach’s museum scene
One eye-catching structure, a 1927 Mediterranean Revival building that was once a storage warehouse for snowbirds’ furniture, is the Wolfsonian Museum. Its collection of more than 180,000 objects includes items of 19th and 20th century design that tell the story of “modernization.”
Scattered among the vintage stoves and Bauhaus furniture are World War II posters, or “propaganda art.” The museum offers a Deco film series, free Friday night tours and sketching instructions.
The Jewish Museum of Florida is situated in two former synagogues, built adjacent to each other in Art Deco style in 1936. It has beautiful chandeliers, 80 stained glass windows, and a permanent exhibit on 250 years of Jewish life in Florida that may have begun with Ponce de León.
The 100,000-item collection includes oral histories gathered over 25 years. Among other things, visitors learn that club and pool ads with warnings like “restricted clientele” meant no Jews or African Americans were admitted, and that in the 1960s, about 12,000 Cuban Jews came to Florida, immigrants some called “Jubans.”
Bess Myerson, the first and only Jewish Miss America, who was crowned in 1945, founded a café, Bessie’s Bistro, that connects the two buildings.
For a glimpse of the city’s funky side, the 20-room World Erotic Art Museum offers a titillating experience in all things sensual.
It all started when Naomi Wilzig’s son wanted a piece of erotic art for his new bachelor pad. So she began collecting risqué pieces, and couldn’t stop. By the time she was 80, she had amassed 4,000 objects from all over the world.
The museum’s collection (“From Pompeii to Picasso to Pinups!”) covers 2,000 years of sex in fine art, folk art and pop culture objects, including a frisky Snow White and her playful dwarfs by Frank Follmer, who worked at Disney Studios.
In a video, Wilzig describes her collection, covering topics like wooden and porcelain boxes with erotica hidden inside. Some visitors may tire of the many exaggerated phalluses on totem poles and figurines, made of soapstone, obsidian, bronze, ceramic and even Swarovski crystals. The oldest object is a Roman phallus-shaped amulet from 500 B.C.E.
Shopping and dining
As for shoppers in South Beach, they will find everything from tacky souvenir shops and bikini bazaars to haute couture fashion and luxury goods. The Official Art Deco Shop, run by the Miami Design Preservation League, sells jewelry, posters and knickknacks — and offers area tours by its historians and architects.
There are many dining options, including Turkish, Italian, Japanese and Cuban, from white-tablecloth eateries to holes-in-the-wall. Lario’s Cuban Restaurant has a molded avocado salad to die for, black bean hummus, slow-roasted pork sandwiches, plantain chips, empanadas (pork, beef, chicken) and paella, all enhanced by margaritas.
Fresh seafood is abundant — even crispy alligator pops up on menus.
From cocktail lounges to dance clubs to dive bars, there’s vibrant nightlife galore (pick up the New Times for the latest). The Betsy Hotel’s intimate setting has Latin jazz. Tapas y Tintos has live flamenco. Mango’s Tropical Café, with reggae music and Latin dance, is a version of the 1920s Tropicana Club in Havana. The Palace offers drag shows.
Tired of the fun and funky? Leisurely beach walks along the twinkling ocean always beckon.
If you go
Check visitsouthbeachonline.com and visitflorida.com for info and lodging choices. Tip: To get a good night’s sleep, choose a hotel located away from the central party scene but within walking distance of the beach and major sites.
Daytime temperatures in the summer are in the upper 80s. If you prefer cooler temps, wait until fall, when daytime temperatures are typically in the 70s. South Beach is also less crowded in autumn when young students and college kids are back in school. Whatever time of year you go, you’ll find hotel, restaurant and entertainment discounts at miamiandbeaches.com/offers/temptations.
Take a 90-minute walking tour offered by Miami Design Preservation League, mdpl.org, which meets at the Art Deco Visitors Center. The league offers a Mediterranean Architecture Tour, a South Beach Scandals Tour, a Jewish Miami Beach Tour and a Gay and Lesbian Walking Tour.
For year-round events, go to visitsouthbeachonline.com/events.htm. Festivities include dance and music concerts, South Beach Seafood Week (October), jazz all year and more.
The Art Deco Weekend — with a vintage swing celebration, classic car shows and a Deco dance-a-thon — is held in January. Festival promoters advise making lodging reservations well in advance.
Getting around: South Beach is walkable and navigable without a car. The South Beach Local Minibus costs 25 cents per trip.
The lowest round-trip flight from D.C.-area airports to Miami in June costs $266 on American Airlines. Amtrak’s lowest fare from Washington’s Union Station to Miami is $153 one way in coach and $380 for a roomette, which you might want for the 24-hour trip from D.C. to Miami.