Why Vacation In Miami?
Within an hour of landing at the airport in Miami, you’re going to see something supremely fucked up. Maybe it’s a teenager walking past baggage claim with a python. Maybe it’s a bright orange dude with arms the size of watermelons, walking hand-in-hand with his girlfriend whose chest matches his biceps. Maybe it’s a rented Lambo screeching past you on the MacArthur Causeway only to get cut off by a two-tone ‘91 Corolla that didn’t signal while going 30mph. No matter what you see during your time in sunny South Florida, you’ll find yourself repeating a mantra that follows life here like a bad-idea spring break tattoo: “Only in Miami.”
Miami is the end of the road. It’s a city caught in a vice grip of weird, where all the people who don’t really fit in the rest of America escape to reinvent themselves, and where people from Latin America arrive to start over in a different way. Here everyone has a hustle. Your server owns a line of custom T-shirts. A stripper can sell you a condo. No one is ever exactly who they say, and everyone is out to have more fun than anybody else, costs be damned. With that comes an unparalleled variety of food, drinks, and parties. And, yeah, there’s a pretty nice beach too. So whether you find yourself at a cockfight in Hialeah or a shady mansion on Hibiscus Island, whatever you get yourself into in Miami will be the stuff of tall tales when you get back home. Except here? It’s all true.
Every month this year, Thrillist will be rolling out in-depth, comprehensive guides to America’s best cities, curated and crafted by salty locals who know what visitors like you are looking for. After showcasing the best of New Orleans and San Diego, it’s Miami’s turn in the sun. We’ll tell you all the bars and restaurants to hit. We’ll give you a heads-up on some common mistakes to avoid, tell you the best places to visit, and show you some of the other great things to see around South Florida. And you wouldn’t see Miami right if you didn’t learn about our thriving gay culture, the best of the Cuban world, and, of course, our clothing-optional kinky side.
Miami was rated recently as the number one city for “foodies.” Which might seem odd, given our reputation as a city of people who look like they survive on a steady diet of soda water and white powder. Perhaps this is why we have more gyms than Portland has breweries, and run ads for liposuction during PAW Patrol.
But that rising culinary reputation isn’t inaccurate. If you want to experience our vaunted food scene, some neighborhoods have better options than others. Wynwood has Alter, R House, Kyu, and Coyo Taco, all of which have opened in the past few years and are foodie favorites. Coconut Grove has transformed itself from a collection of late-night bad decision bars to the city’s best new culinary destination with hits like the 33 Kitchen, Glass & Vine, and Spillover leading the way. And don’t sleep on the MiMo District on Biscayne Blvd, where you can get all your friends giggling by posting pics from Phuc Yea! Or dine al fresco at Mina’s Mediterraneo.
Of course, the real reason Miami is awash in boutique gyms isn’t vanity, it’s Cuban food. The gut-busting guilty pleasure of this city is stuff like ropa vieja, vaca frita, arroz imperial, and medianoches -- greasy, pork-based delicacies with lots of onions and cheese. The general rule with Cuban food: The divier the restaurant, the better it’ll be. Pastelitos and croquetas are best purchased from large Cuban women in semi-soiled white shirts, working a cafeteria window on Calle Ocho that smells alternately of coffee and frying lard. Or, for the full effect, head to Versailles -- the Little Havana landmark you’ll recognize as the standard backdrop for person-on-the-street interviews any time Cuban-related news breaks.
Beyond Cuban food, we have a city full of people from different countries who are eager to showcase their home cuisines. In Hialeah, they’ll literally walk up to you at stoplights and offer you a sample. On the Palmetto Expressway, you can buy it off the truck next to you. And that’s why food, much like every other experience you‘ll have in Miami, is unlike anything else in America.
Your first lesson in figuring out where to sleep tonight: Miami and Miami Beach are two completely different cities, separated by a big body of water. Figure out which city you want to spend more time in, then book there. Most locals avoid crawling across the causeways like we avoid getting real jobs. Checking out both cities is great, spending your vacation in traffic is not.
In the south, you’ve got your European models tanning topless on the sand. Up north, you’ve got your retirees born during the Harding Administration tanning nude. Everything in between is an eclectic mix along that spectrum. Always look closely at that hotel advertising itself as “minutes” from South Beach -- “minutes” could mean five, or it could mean 1,138, and your hotel is actually in Downtown Newark.
You haven’t been bragging to everyone at work saying, “I’m going to Miami,” have you? No. Even if your hotel is four blocks from the airport, you’re telling everyone “I’m going to South Beach!” Because, let’s be honest, Lil Wayne isn’t filming any videos in Sweetwater.
Staying north of Fifth St means lots of noise. Ground Zero for the party is the Clevelander, with a relaxed pool, rooftop bar, and decent rooms. To save a little, don’t overlook the Courtyard by Marriott on Washington Ave. Meanwhile, the Catalina, Chelsea, and Tradewinds hotels generally charge much less than other modern properties, and staying at any one of them gets you access to an open bar at the Catalina from 7-8pm every night, which sometimes turns into a much bigger party.
If you want a little quiet away from all the rented Corvettes and Champagne spraying, head south of Fifth, where you’ll find boutique gems like the Lord Balfour (done up in a tattoo theme) across from the moderately priced waterfront Savoy. The Hilton Bentley and Stanton are the big players in this ‘hood, both with fantastic new restaurants in Georgios and Lolo’s Cantina, respectively. If you want to go budget, the Jazz Hostel on Washington Ave has one of the best bars in the beach, a well-kept secret full of Euro travelers looking to let loose.
Mid-Beach is the hot new address, running from 24th St up to the Fontainebleau on 44th. Staying at that venerable landmark puts you smack upstairs from super club LIV and all the beautiful folks who line up desperately trying to get in. The Faena is the art world’s favorite new Miami hotel -- its weekend show, C’est Rouge, would put nearly any Vegas cabaret to shame. The Confidante has two great restaurants in Talde and Bird & Bone, and the 1 Hotel has a rooftop pool with views of the skyline and the ocean. To save a little, look at the Freehand Hostel, home to the world’s greatest hostel bar, Broken Shaker.
Here everyone is out to have more fun than anybody else, costs be damned.
Here everyone is out to have more fun than anybody else, costs be damned.
By day, Brickell is Miami’s financial center, with suited-up professionals from every bank in Latin America crowding the streets. At night, those same people hit the bars, packing Mary Brickell Village alongside long-haired beautiful people and newly transplanted real estate types. If you want to stay in the middle of it all, and money's no object, the Conrad has a sky bar with spectacular views. A couple blocks south, the Four Seasons has one of Miami’s best steakhouses at EDGE. The Hampton Inn has the best sports bar in Miami, and is literally less than a block from Mary Brickell Village and all its nightlife.
The Grove is the best place in the city to stroll through a lush subtropical forest and dine in the shadows of banyan trees while University of Miami students stroll to their college bars. Among Grove hotels, the jewel is Mayfair, done up in a Polynesian motif with in-room hot tubs. The Sonesta and Mutiny both have spectacular views of the water and sit right on Bayshore Dr. The Courtyard by Marriott and Residence Inn are the only cheaper options, but you can always try your luck with Airbnb here as well. Just make sure you’re within a few blocks of the water. The West Grove can get real suspect, real fast.
Bienvendios a Miami
ake no mistake, while Miami may technically be in the United States, it is fundamentally a Latin American city. The language, the culture, the food, and the rules are different. Spanish is spoken here like French is in Québec. It’s the language coming over the PA in the airport; it’s the table next to you at dinner ordering “pan con bistec, sin queso.”
That doesn’t mean you’re going to be lost here if you don’t speak Spanish — you just can’t expect Miami to function like your hometown, plus palm trees. Time is respected about as much as traffic laws; a 7pm dinner reservation means get in the shower at 7:30. Your Uber driver may well have arrived in Miami after you did. And the warm-weather spirit of the hustle runs deep, so never believe anything until you see it. Especially if it involves the word “VIP.”
There are upsides to being our own little country-within-a-country, of course. It’s the only city in America where you can spend an afternoon inhaling cigar smoke and Old Spice with the abuelitos in Domino Park, then stuff your face with conch in creole sauce to the tropical beats of Kreyol music at Big Night in Little Haiti. It’s where artists, chefs, and other artisans from all over the world set up outposts on nearly every corner. So despite being a veritable swamp of babel, we’ve got some truly fascinating stuff to see.