Going Native in Miami: 3 Perfect Days

Travel writer and Miami native Dara Bramson takes us behind the scenes (and to the beach) for three amazing days in South Florida

You know you’re in Miami when you catch a whiff of tostones and arroz con frijoles—and you haven’t even left Concourse D yet. The scent of goodness is coming from La Carreta, and the realization that you can find authentic Cuban cuisine in an airport—not just soggy plastic-wrapped deli sandwiches—is a sure sign that you’re in a city defined by its native cultures. And for the next three days, that’s the theme: Going native in Miami.

Miami is often pegged as South Beach, and you could easily plant yourself there amid the glamour for days as so many do, but this ambitious and whirlwind Miami itinerary will route you across the city, down hidden streets and into small shops and restaurants where the heart of Miami dances. And not to worry, you’ll still go home with a tan.

Art deco hotel architecture in Miami

Day 1: (South) Beach Bumming

Before you even leave the airport, the Miami culture will awaken your senses. You’ll find yourself eavesdropping on Spanish conversations, admiring low-cut tops and high-heeled pumps, and salivating at the thought of a Cuban feast to come. A wall of humidity will interrupt this daydreaming the moment you step out of the air-conditioned terminal, so take a deep breath and embrace it, and while you’re at it, grab your rental car—make it a convertible if they have one.

Even with 1,200 square miles and so many vibrant neighborhoods to choose from (hence the rental car), you can’t go wrong with a beach-based hotel. After checking in, head to Miami Beach (if you’re not already there).

#GoNative tip: Hotel parking can be pricey; nearby parking garages and lots often provide good alternatives to valet service.

In Miami Beach, ditch the car and get around like a local with DecoBike, the area’s bike-sharing program. Rent for as little as an hour or a day, and enjoy an easy pick-up/drop-off scheme at various locations, which can be found on the iPhone app.

Take a leisurely ride, weaving in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods, admiring the contrast of ultra-modern architecture mixing with the nearly 1,000 historic art-deco buildings around South Beach—including iconic hotels like the Delano, National and Sagamore hotels.

This mix of modern and historic echoes the local population, which is just as diverse. In addition to the well-known Latin flavor throughout the city, on Miami Beach expect snowbirds, beach bums, an ultra-fashionable crowd and everything in between.

Afternoon

If you’re feeling ambitious on your townie cruiser, you can ride north to Bal Harbour or Haulover beaches; natives know these as water-sports havens—and for Bal Harbour’s luxury shopping. Otherwise, drop off your bike along Ocean Drive and grab a spot on the beach, Lummus Beach, which runs from around 6th to 14th streets. This is a beach for locals and tourists alike, and the spread of humanity—supermodels, families and even topless tanners—make this a go-to spot for people-watching.

Evening

Kick off your evening on Miami Beach at an offbeat local favorite: The Wolfsonian, an eclectic art, design and history museum. Admire the striking white facade, formerly the 1930s Washington Storage Company, before joining a free Friday tour starting at 6 pm.

Afterwards head to Lincoln Road, a pedestrian mall, which is a must-do Miami Beach hangout destination. The street is a shopping and dining paradise, dotted with local favorites and recognizable chains, and the dress code is whatever you make it. The beach supermodels and families still walk side-by-side, dressed accordingly. Everything and anything goes—from sandals to six-inch heels.

For an erudite check-in, head to Books & Books, which hosts signings and talks from authors throughout the year. Whatever food you’re craving, you’ll find it here at Lincoln Road: Mexican, Italian, Japanese and Latin-inspired anything. Diners flock to the outdoor dining at Nexxt Cafe, which has been serving American-fusion fare since 1999; the menu is enormous. To slip away from the throngs of Lincoln Road for a more intimate, upscale experience, reserve a table at Italian favorite Casa Tua; it’s located nearby on a quiet side street.

#GoNative tip: A gratuity is automatically added to most bills in popular Miami Beach restaurants.

Into the Night

SET is the kind of nightclub where celebrity-spotting is totally normal and where the dance floor stays packed until dawn (and getting in the door is no guarantee). This is South Beach; there are dozens of upscale, red carpet-esque nightclubs where you can go all out with bottle service, but there are also plenty of low-key bars and lounges. Fortunately, some of the hottest nightlife is within walking distance from home at those historic beach hotels. Stroll through the lobby and to the back, outdoor pool of the Shore Club, or the historic Bleau Bar at The Fontainebleau, where you can get the same, ever-cool SoBe experience that Sinatra and Elvis had back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Day 2: In Pursuit of Exotic Flavor

Traditional rolling of a cigar

Morning

Most people watching the sunrise on the beach are on their way to bed, but on any given day, roughly a dozen yogis are doing their first downward dog at 7 am. Those early-risers (they didn’t come directly from the land of velvet ropes and DJ booths) are enjoying 3rd Street Beach Yoga, which offers donation-based classes 365 days a year at 7 am (and then again at 6 pm if you were up too late for the dawn session). The setting also draws the local runners, out to take advantage of the boardwalk and the firm, not sandy, surfaces from Fifth Street to 46th Street, a four-mile stretch with a view.

For breakfast, it’s The Big Pink. This iconic South Beach diner opens daily at 8 am. The pink building, tables, chairs and even the magenta, delivery Beetle are much daintier than the portions; sharing is strongly suggested.

Mid-Day Into Afternoon

Put some miles on your car; Little Havana calls. Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) is another world, and you’ll know it immediately by the language of the street signs. Salsa music pours out from storefronts onto the streets. The scent of fresh guava pastries is never far.

Cuban flavor dominates this neighborhood, which flourished during the 1960s immigration influx. Coffee counter El Pub, the kind of place that’s so local it doesn’t even have a proper website, is famous for its café con leche and Cuban specialties. Sit among politicians negotiating and friends gossiping while you enjoy coffee and a pastry before heading to lunch down the road. Cuban favorite Versailles opened in 1971 and stands as a beacon to both culinary and historical triumph. What was once the “unofficial town square” for Cuban exiles is still a meeting place for prominent local business people and friends. Order like a local and get the Cuban sandwich.

You’re a savvy traveler, so rather than returning with kitschy key chains and fridge magnets, you’re headed to one of the Cuban cigar shops in Little Havana. Master rollers (including women) are the centerpiece of El Titan de Bronze, where customers can shop for humidors and cigars while admiring the art of rolling that starts with bare tobacco leaves. The mom-and-pop business, like many in the neighborhood, is unpretentious and true to its roots. Several other reputable local cigar shops are nearby, including Padilla Cigar Factory and Calle 8 Cigars.

#GoNative tip: Before you leave the ’hood, at least stroll by “Domino Park,” where old-timers join to play frequently and the clatter of dominoes can be heard down the street.

Evening

Move on before the sun sets. Without traffic, the drive from Little Havana to Wynwood will only take 15 minutes. You may have caught a glimpse of colorful, large-scale murals while driving on I-95, but nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking art that overwhelms the Wynwood Art District just north of Downtown Miami.

Find a parking spot anywhere near NW 2nd Avenue in the 20s; you want to be on foot in this fantastic neighborhood as you wander, photograph and admire the impressive collections of public art. Local galleries are scattered throughout, as well as funky bars and restaurants that have a distinctly Brooklyn-hipster feel. Wander the 5,000-square-foot David Castillo Gallery, a neighborhood favorite featuring local and international emerging artists. At Bakehouse Art Complex, which houses more than 50 studios and 70 galleries, you’ll get a glimpse of the creative process and the product.

Feed the meter and stay parked. There are too many gems in the neighborhood to pass up for the evening. Stroll along North Miami Avenue for dozens of hip bars, many of which even have weekend happy hour, including culinary favorite Oak Tavern and the laid-back, crepe-and-coffee joint Moloko. The same goes for dinner: Each corner you turn will yield a unique culinary persona. Natives who know will point you to Bloom, which delivers glorified Latin American and Asian street food, chock-full of local seafood and spices. End the evening at Lagniappe, a New Orleans-inspired watering hole with live music nightly. The vintage interior is home to an impressive wine selection (though beer drinkers will also be pleased) but on the outside, the Christmas-light-lit patio is where the magic happens.

Day 3: Seafood and Secrets

Snorkeling

Morning

Hop back on a DecoBike and stop by South Beach Dive and Surf en route to the beach to rent a snorkel, mask and fins for $12 per day. You’ll be snorkeling (or diving) on the Jose Cuervo Reef south of Second Street. The massive margarita bar was sunk over a decade ago in less than 20 feet of water, and today it’s home to a spectrum of sober sea creatures.

Dry off and keep heading south to South Pointe Park, where you’ll find plenty of picnic tables and Frisbee space. Ring local staple Joe’s Stone Crab for a takeout lunch just down the street; Miami natives know the side dishes are the best things on the menu. Order a few claws, but focus on hashed brown potatoes, famous coleslaw, sweet potato fries, creamed spinach and a slice of Key lime pie if you have room. Dine outside at your picnic tables and enjoy the view.

Afternoon

Grab the car and spend the afternoon in Coconut Grove strolling through the Tuscan-style pedestrian mall CocoWalk, which includes hundreds of shops, restaurants and bars. A hidden favorite down the road, Monty’s, is ideal for waterfront afternoon drinking and the occasional local band. Walk along the dock to admire boats of all shapes and sizes.

#GoNative tip: The local fisherman can arrange rentals if you give them advance notice.

Evening

Head back to the beach to Española Way, a side street hidden away among the hustle and bustle of the nearby tourist zone, and a perfect way to end a trip to Miami. The street has a distinctly Latin flavor, and music flows in and out of local shops on this city-that-never-sleeps kind of street.

(While this content is sponsored by our friends at the Greater Miami and the Beaches, the editorial is pure Where®, guiding you to the best destinations, hand-picked by our local experts.)