Since the 1920s, Miami Beach has been synonymous with glamor, glitz and non-stop sun. The epicenter of the beach is really on the barrier island's south end, which is why South Beach is really what people mean when they refer to Miami Beach. At 17 blocks long and 12 blocks wide, South Beach is a perfect place for a walk.
This article provides a written walking tour of South Beach. If you'd prefer an audio tour that you can download to your iPod, MP3 player or burn to a CD, you can download Audible.com's Miami Beach Audissey: An Audio Walking Tour through the Capital of Sexy.
With boutiques, restaurants, bars, clubs, museums and, of course, sandy beaches, you'll never be bored. The following is a perfect walking tour for an afternoon or can be split up over a day or two.
We will begin our tour at Lummus Park, at Ocean Drive and Seventh Street. (This is also a great place to start because there is a parking garage on Seventh, between Washington and Collins). This park stretches from Fifth to Fifteenth Streets and hugs a beautiful, sugar-sand beach. The park features a winding path perfect for strolling.
While in the park, walk east a few steps east, over a dune, and you're on the beach. Look to your west and you will see the stunning Art Deco architecture Miami Beach is famous for. If you need a cold drink -- or a scrumptious seafood dinner -- cross Ocean Drive and pick a sidewalk restaurant.
The view of Ocean Drive from Lummus Park is an especially beautiful view at night when the Art Deco hotels turn on their antique neon signs. Don't worry about strolling in the park in the early evening hours -- the park is heavily patrolled by police. Another nighttime bonus: there are usually groups of musically inclined folks playing bongos and singing.
This park is also home to the SoBe Wine and Food Festival each February.
Art Deco History
Walk along the park on Ocean Drive three blocks north, toward Tenth Street. On your left will be the Art Deco Welcome Center. This is the home of the Miami Design Preservation League, the group that formed in 1976 to preserve and restore the beach's historical, Art Deco buildings.
In those days, the beach experienced a rough patch. It had been a popular playground for the rich in the 1920s (hence the Art Deco architecture) and was a Mafia hangout in the 50s. By 1979, however, it was a Mecca for the elderly and the poor, and many of the once-swanky hotels had become retirement homes. Old-time beach residents remember when octogenarians in rocking chairs were a common sight on Ocean Drive.
The Beach Preservation League was concerned that many of the historical hotels were being razed by developers. So they brought together architects, businessmen, politicians and residents to help revitalize the area and garnered headlines in 1980 when artist Andy Warhol asked the group for a guided tour of the area. In 1984, the entire world was introduced to Miami Beach when the hit TV show "Miami Vice" used many of the neighborhood's buildings as a backdrop.
The Art Deco Welcome Center has books, brochures and even tours of South Beach if you want more information on the history of the area. In January, it is the epicenter for the Art Deco Weekend, a festival devoted to the unique architecture. There is also an extensive gift shop at the center, which is located at 1001 Ocean Drive.
From the Art Deco Welcome Center, cross Ocean Drive and walk north one block, to 1116 Ocean. Stop at a large, white mansion, where lots of tourists will be snapping photos of the ornate iron gate and the tall hedges.
This is Ocean Drive's most infamous residence. In 1992, as the Art Deco preservationists worked to clean up a hardscrabble beach area, Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace visited South Beach, saw the home, and fell in love with it. He lovingly restored the home to its original glory and brought international celebrities to party there. (Think Madonna and Elton John). But Versace's party ended in July of 1997 when he was shot on the steps of the mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who later committed suicide on a houseboat in Miami Beach.
The home was bought in 2000 by a telecommunications mogul and has since been turned into a private, members-only party mansion. This may be why some tourists linger near the front gate, hoping to catch a glimpse of a star or two, but others like to capture a photo of the macabre location where Versace was shot.
The mansion's legacy was part of South beach legend long before Versace, however. It was built in 1930 by architect and philanthropist Alden Freeman, who designed it as an homage to the oldest house in the Western Hemisphere, which is in Santo Domingo. The Spanish-style structure, known as Casa Casuarina, has an inner courtyard.
Of course, only a lucky few are able to view the inside (word has it that Versace's pool of 10,000 mosaics is untouched), but one can still admire the mansion from the sidewalk.
From the Versace mansion, walk west on 11th Street two blocks, then take a left on Washington Avenue. Walk one block, and at the corner of Washington and 10th Street, you will see the Wolfsonian Museum.
The Wolfsonian was founded in 1986 to document, preserve and show the collection of Mitchell Wolfson Jr., who owned an impressive array of furniture, paintings, books, industrial art and ephemera. Wolfson donated his collection and the museum to Florida International University in 1997.
The museum's collection is mostly comprised of objects from North America and Europe dating from 1885 to 1945, with an emphasis on design history. Included in the collection are items from the British Arts and Crafts movement, Political Propaganda and Italian Art Nouveau. Recent exhibitions include "The Art of the Political Poster," and "Art and Design in the Modern Age."
For hours and admission information, read the Wolfsonian Art Museum Visitors Guide.
Stroll north along Washington Avenue and people-watch. This is one of South Beach's most colorful thoroughfares, with sunburned tourists mixing with the diverse locals. If your energy is flagging stop at any of the small Cuban markets and grab a café con leche or cortadito - a tiny shot of powerful espresso and keep walking. When you hit Espanola Way (just after 14th Street), cross Washington and enter into a four-block, pedestrian-only street.
After being surrounded by Art Deco buildings, you will feel as though you have been transported to a small village in Spain; the architecture here is decidedly Mediterranean, down to the barrel-backed tile and pink stucco. Make sure to gaze at the large peach-colored building on the corner of Washington and Espanola. It is called the Clay Hotel, and it is part youth hostel, part hotel, with a Mexican restaurant on the ground floor. It was originally built in 1925 as a haven for artists and bohemians. You may recognize this building from TV; it was the site of the first and last episodes of Miami Vice.
Strolling down Espanola Way, you will come across art galleries, clothing boutiques, and other unique stores. At least two yoga studios are tucked in between restaurants. On the weekends, a farmer's market and outdoor shopping bazaar add to the foreign feel.
The perfect place to end your walking tour is at the very end of the street, at the Spanish restaurant Tapas y Tintos, at 448 Espanola Way. This tiny tapas bar offers real Spanish fare (the owner is from Spain), including tiny plates of delicious fish, olives, and Spanish tortillas. Make your way to one of the bar's outdoor sidewalk tables nestled under a stucco archway and order a glass (or a pitcher) of Sangria. Chances are, there will be some sort of Latin jazz coming from inside. Soak in the South Beach vibe, and enjoy.