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How to have a great first visit to Miami

Scott Hartbeck | TravelPulse (TNS)

Even if you’ve never been to Miami, you’ve sort of already been to Miami.

This South Florida city has starred countless times on the silver screen and television and is always coming up in popular music, too, with many of these Miami-centric works becoming downright iconic.

All of this has painted such a vibrant picture of the city, that whether or not you’ve ever crossed over the city limits, you have years of stored-up visions of what this city will be like when you finally get there.

Considering all of this, when you visit for the first time, there’s a bit of pressure to find the Miami you have always envisioned. I recently visited the city for the very first time and the following is an account of how I tried to capture the essence of the city that I had dreamed of while also trying to see a couple of surprises along the way.

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Sunrise start

I know you’re on vacation, but you simply have to wake up before dawn and take in a sunrise during your trip to Miami, preferably on your first morning. Darkness gives away to soft light as the sun slowly rises above the Atlantic Ocean, streaking the sky in hues of pink, gold and blue, casting a soft glow over the water and the sand below.

If you’re standing on South Beach like I was, odds are you’ll be surrounded by a mix of early risers and up-laters all with different motivations for visiting Miami and all pinching themselves that they’re taking in this special sight with their own eyes. On your way back from the beach, make sure to grab a photo with one of the iconic neon lifeguard towers—it is the golden hour after all.

News break

Famed for its prime role in revitalizing South Beach during the heady hedonistic days of the ’90s, News Cafe is open 24/7 and located at the heart of South Beach (8th & Ocean Avenue). You’re probably going to pass it anyway so you might as well pull up a chair outside and chill for a bit.

Back in the day, this cafe was frequented by the glamorous, the fabulous and everyone in between as it served up one of the first slices of European cafe culture on South Beach—and today the pulse of the neighborhood still beats strong here.

Enjoy a Cuban Club and a Paper Boy (their take on the bloody mary) as I did, or a frosty, citrusy Frozzie Rossie cocktail as the sidewalk in front of you becomes a runway full of locals on bicycles or rollerblades, wide-eyed tourists, wanna-be influencers and drivers showing off their shiny cars.

Art Deco up close

If you’re anything like me, you may know that Art Deco is synonymous with South Beach, but do you know the stories behind the style and the facades? That’s where the Miami Design Preservation League’s expert guides come in as they take travelers on daily jaunts through the Art Deco District each morning at 10:30 AM. The guides tell the stories behind each building (you’ll see Art Deco, Miami Modern and Mediterranean Revival on the tour), endearing you to their efforts to preserve these special buildings.

Eat old school

For more than a century, Joe’s Stone Crab has been drawing in crowds from far and wide for its famed crustaceans and no trip to Miami is complete without a stop here. Located in the vibrant heart of South Beach, Joe’s is famed for its succulent stone crab claws plucked from nearby waters, alongside an array of other mouthwatering dishes. Think of it this way: everybody is going to ask you if you went to Joe’s, so you might as well!

… and new

Sushi may not be the first thing that pops into your head when thinking of Miami, but why wouldn’t it be great here? Enter Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill, which is an oasis of Japanese cuisine situated within the historic Plymouth Hotel South Beach (just past the retro-cool lobby and beside the beautiful pool). The menu is overseen by sushi master Toshi Ueki and chefs Bruce and Eric Bromberg and boasts a tantalizing selection of traditional sushi and sashimi, expertly crafted to perfection. Oh, and there’s also a much-loved version of fried chicken. You’ll feel cool slinking into one of their booths, but not intimidatingly so.

Say adios to South Beach

Wynwood. Little Havana. Downtown. Little Haiti. Key Biscayne. Coconut Grove. Coral Gables. It doesn’t matter where you go, but you have to get outside of South Beach during your time in Miami because it’s only a small—albeit shiny—part of this spectacular city.

My time in South Beach was punctuated with spells in Wynwood and Little Havana, where I was able to get a taste (literally) of two entirely different sections of the city and sip (literally) up slices of its unique story.

Get out on the water

If you’re wondering when this piece is going to leave dry land, the time is, well, now. I hooked up with Watersports Paradise—known for boat tours, yacht charters and boat rentals in addition to any other active water pursuit you can think of—for an unforgettable adventure through Miami’s waterways.

We saw opulent Millionaire’s Row and plied the waters across Biscayne Bay to marvel at the splendor of Star, Palm, Hibiscus and Venetian Islands with the occasional burst of speed to get the heart racing. The stories of fun times on Monument Island had me dreaming about the weekends I would spend there if I lived in Miami. And okay, I’ll admit it: I set the highlights of this excursion to the “Miami Vice” theme song when I posted it on social media.

Where to stay in Miami on a first trip

Before you even touch down in Miami, there’s the little decision of where to lay your head. And as one of my previous points makes clear: Miami isn’t all beaches. South Beach is just one section of Miami (Miami Beach to be precise) and the city is home to a dizzying array of diverse neighborhoods, all perfect for getting a true feel of the city and almost all could make a great base.

On your first trip, you almost certainly have to stay in South Beach. This neighborhood has captured the world’s imagination and so since you’re going to want to see what all the buzz is about, you might as well stay there.

When it comes time to start thinking about where and what type of South Beach hotel you’d like to stay in during your first trip to Miami, among the factors that loom large, two words stand head and shoulders above the rest: Art Deco.

I mean, you can’t come to Miami for the very first time and not stay in a historic hotel with the flourishes of Art Deco design, can you? And the hotel certainly has to have a fantastic pool, right?

I couldn’t imagine it any other way and so that’s why I’m glad I posted up at The Plymouth Hotel South Beach.

Located a stone’s throw from the Miami Beach Convention Center and opposite Collins Park and its superb Bass Museum, The Plymouth has over 100 rooms splashed with sophisticated touches and is a true poster child for Art Deco. So much so that Barbara Baer Capitman used a photograph of the corner exterior of The Plymouth on the cover of her 1988 book Deco Delights.

Stepping inside, you’re immediately enchanted by the seamless blend of historic Art Deco charm and contemporary luxury, with the overall atmosphere being a blend of boutique and beach-adjacent vibes.

Speaking of the beach, guests get exclusive access to The Plymouth’s private stretch, just a block away between The W and The Setai. Like many great hotels, the lobby is perfect for lingering and I loved hanging out among the lush leaves and a stirring mural by the acclaimed Ramon Chatov while watching the happenings at the bar or the aforementioned Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Then there’s the 1940s Art Moderne pool area, one of the most perfectly formed bodies of water in the city. With its distinctive harlequin tiles and inviting peach and brown colors, it’s a quintessential Miami backdrop. (Go on, strike a pose.) Like many first-time visitors to Miami, I left knowing this certainly wouldn’t be my last visit and The Plymouth’s pool was a big reason why.

In summary, to live up to the level of hype that has been thrust upon Miami is almost impossible, but this city made it look like a breeze.

©2024 Northstar Travel Media, LLC. Visit at travelpulse.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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