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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

36 hours in Miami


The strand of Art Deco hotels in Miami Beach on Feb. 12, 2023. The pandemic’s onset roused people to flock to Miami and Miami Beach for the sand, low taxes, limited public health restrictions and year-round warm weather.

By Christina Morales


The pandemic’s onset roused people to flock to Miami and Miami Beach for the sand, low taxes, limited public health restrictions and year-round warm weather. That resettling brought a business boom to the area, which included a flurry of restaurant openings and new public art displays. But some locals attribute rising rents to this new migration, and describe sudden changes to the cultural fabric as a “New Yorkification” of South Florida. This guide is designed to give you the best of the area’s new and old, with a focus on its Latin American and Caribbean cultures. Here you’ll find a salsa club in Little Havana, interactive art in Allapattah, a rooftop bar with striking views, and a remarkable meshing of Cuban and American cuisine that defines how this area eats.



ITINERARY



Friday


3 p.m. | Lie on the sand


South Beach, in Miami Beach, can feel tacky and chaotic. A better place to swim in the warm, turquoise ocean and sunbathe is at Surfside Beach in Surfside. There are miles of bike and running paths along the town’s beaches. Parking is much easier here, too, with lots across the street, including one on 95th Street ($4 an hour). The area is one of the most walkable in Miami-Dade County, attracting a tight-knit, religious Jewish community, whose members relax on the beach with their families, attend synagogue and walk to nearby kosher restaurants. The residents of this pristine place are still shocked by a deadly apartment building collapse in 2021.


7 p.m. | Taste Latin America


The Little Havana neighborhood of Miami has been the heart of the Cuban exile community since the 1960s. Its demographics have changed, but the area is still the hub for Cuban culture, food and political protests. The Cuban American restaurant Doce Provisions is a testament to those born in Miami who hold on to their Latino roots. Start with the lechon asado buns, roast pork in a soft bao bun ($10.50); then move on to the fresh Florida mahi-mahi with a creamy coconut sauce ($25). Another option a short drive away is El Carajo, a tiny Spanish tapas restaurant named after a crude phrase in the same language. Located in a gas station convenience store, the restaurant has an expansive stock of wines instead of long shelves filled with chips and candy.


8.30 p.m. | Sip drinks with a view


On the rooftop of a boutique hotel called Life House in Little Havana, bartenders at Terras serve drinks in which tropical fruits are the star, like the sandia fresca with vodka and watermelon, and another drink made with the creamy pink mamey fruit and rum (both $14). Herbs, fruit and spices for the drinks are pulled from the bar’s rooftop and courtyard gardens. Sit at the tables close to the entrance, which overlook the twinkling Miami skyline, a stunning view that you can get here without all the expensive drink minimums and dress codes at the bars across the way.


10 p.m. | Twirl to the salsa


Sway your hips and spin in circles to the live salsa music at Ball & Chain (free entry), a Miami dance club with a storied history nearly 90 years in the making (jazz musicians like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Chet Baker have performed here). The line outside moves quickly around this time, but the party really picks up at 11 p.m. Inside, there’s a DJ playing modern Latino hits by Bad Bunny and Pitbull as people drink mojitos ($15), confetti is shot from canisters and smoke sinks to the dance floor from machines rigged in the ceiling. A dancer and percussionist use the free-standing bar as their stage while people form a conga line around them.



Saturday


10 a.m. | Eat flaky pastelitos


A signature Cuban breakfast in this area is a decadent one. At Breadman Miami, it means boxes of flaky pastelitos (filled with guava and cheese, or meat); croquettes (or croquetas around here) with a gooey filling of ham, or sweet corn and cheese; toasted Cuban bread; and cafe con leche. The bakery is one of hundreds of examples of a diverse baking culture influenced by Latin America and the Caribbean. Hand-held pastries here start at $1.25 each. The shop’s owner was born and raised in Hialeah, where many Cubans live. If you didn’t try the ropa vieja, a stewed beef dish, at Doce Provisions, try it in an empanada here. It is more of a grab-and-go spot, but there’s some seating inside.


11 a.m. | Shop the arts district


Wynwood was once Miami’s garment district, then became home to many of the city’s Puerto Ricans. In the late 1970s, the area was gripped by drugs, violence and poverty. In the early 2000s, galleries opened up in its rundown buildings, revitalizing the area into a walkable contemporary arts district with walls of street art, galleries and dozens of boutiques. Make a stop at Wynwood Kollective, a co-op boutique that sells products from artists and designers in South Florida. If you’re looking for a more relaxing shopping experience, try the Upper Buena Vista mall, a green, bohemian oasis less than 2 miles northeast of Wynwood. Look for Clara 8A, a store that sells colorful outfits made by Clara Ochoa, a Colombian artist.


2 p.m. | Get playful with art


The Rubell Museum ($15 admission), which moved to the Allapattah neighborhood of Miami from Wynwood in 2019, houses the Rubell family’s private collection of contemporary art. The collection of 7,400 works includes household names including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Yayoi Kusama (entry to Kusama’s installations is an extra $10). The museum’s fine-dining Basque restaurant, Leku, is worth a stop. Across the street in a gray warehouse is Superblue Miami ($39 admission), an immersive art experience that opened in 2021. One interactive exhibit called “Pulse Topology,” by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, projects your heartbeat through a stream of light from 3,000 light bulbs. An additional $12 offers access to “Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life,” a sculpture work where people walk through and play with clouds made from soap bubbles.


7 p.m. | Pick a Caribbean cuisine


After 38 years in Wynwood, the original Jamaican restaurant Clive’s Cafe closed in 2013 when the area was redeveloped. Later that year, Clive’s reopened about 2 miles away in Little Haiti. The no-frills restaurant is known for dishes like curry goat ($12.50), jerk chicken ($11.99) and oxtail ($25). For a different take on the Caribbean, chef Niven Patel runs Mamey Miami, a restaurant in Coral Gables inspired by his travels throughout Asia, Polynesia and the Caribbean, as well as his Indian background. From the Key West shrimp tacos, which have shells made with malanga, a Caribbean root vegetable ($16); to the Jamaican short rib empanadas ($14); to a ceviche made with the creamiest coconut leche de tigre ($18), these are some of the most flavorful bites in Miami.


9 p.m. | Wind down with books


Since 1982, Books & Books has filled a gap in South Florida for an independent bookstore, eventually opening up locations throughout the county. In its flagship location in Coral Gables, in a 1927 building on the city’s list of historic places, you can grab a glass of wine on the patio or sit in the cafe with a dirty chai ($5) and a pile of books until 11 p.m. There are abundant titles here reflective of the regional culture with a large selection in Spanish, as well as books by local authors, on Florida history and immigrant communities, and cookbooks that represent the area’s wide range of cuisines.



Sunday


11 a.m. | Have a final Cuban bite


From a tiny space in Little Havana, Sanguich makes the city’s best Cuban sandwiches, for which practically each ingredient, including the roasted pork, brined ham, pickles, bread and mustard, is made in-house. The restaurant, which has limited indoor seating, serves the tastiest versions of the classics like the Cubano ($12.49), the pan con lechon with glistening shredded pork ($10.99) and the media noche, similar to a Cubano but on a sweet bread ($10.29). You can even order off the “secret menu”: Ask for the sweet and salty Elena Ruz sandwich (named after the Cuban socialite who invented it), made with sweet media noche bread, guava marmalade, cream cheese, turkey and bacon ($11.50).


Noon | See alligators at home


Can you really see Miami and the Everglades National Park all in one weekend? From Little Havana, it takes only 35 to 45 minutes at this time of day to reach the edge of the Florida swamp, where you can hop on a short boat tour and see alligators at home in the 1.5-million-acre wetlands, which are shrinking and facing an existential crisis. Coopertown: the Original Airboat Tour has been taking visitors out on the water for more than 60 years. During the 40-minute tour ($25.95), the guide will make occasional stops to talk about the park, warn people not to touch the sawgrass (you can get a gnarly cut), or point out alligators and great blue herons by the water. Bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.



KEY STOPS


Ball & Chain is a lively salsa club in Miami dating from the 1930s with bands and D.J.s.


The Rubell Museum in Miami showcases an extensive collection of contemporary art, featuring the works of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama and Nick Cave.


Surfside Beach, in Surfside, is north of all the fuss in Miami Beach, with quiet paths along the shoreline for running and biking.


Coopertown: the Original Airboat Tour offers thrilling and educational rides through Everglades National Park.



WHERE TO EAT


Breadman Miami serves flaky Cuban pastries made with classic fillings like guava and cream cheese, alongside more unexpected takes like pizza or Nutella.


Sanguich specializes in Cuban sandwiches and makes nearly every ingredient in-house.


Mamey Miami is a restaurant in Coral Gables with food influenced by the chef’s travels in Asia, Polynesia and the Caribbean.


Clive’s Cafe in Little Haiti serves Jamaican food like curry goat and jerk chicken.


Doce Provisions is a Cuban American restaurant with distinctive dishes in Little Havana.



WHERE TO STAY


If the beach is your top priority, the Grand Beach Hotel in Surfside has direct access. Several pools and hot tubs also have views of the Atlantic Ocean. Doubles start at around $400 a night.


The THesis Hotel Miami in Coral Gables offers some distance from the crowds in South Beach and downtown without being too far away. The hotel has a rooftop pool and an idyllic terrace. Doubles start at about $260.


The Freehand Miami Hotel in Miami Beach is less than a mile from the South Beach nightlife. The hotel’s private quad rooms, with four bunk beds, start at around $170 per room. Doubles start from $140.


If you’re looking for a short-term rental, consider Miami’s oldest neighborhood, Coconut Grove. Nearby attractions include the Matheson Hammock Park, where you can take in a sunset; the lush, 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; and the extravagant Vizcaya mansion and its gardens.


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