Miami is a wonderful collision of sun, sea, sand and seediness, a uniquely multicultural city perched on the southern coast of Florida. As a tourist destination it excels, despite an image that one would think might put visitors off.
Miami has depth. Jump in.
A Short History of Miami
Miami's modern history is short even by American standards, though the area was inhabited by the Tequesta Indians before the white man came along to spoil the fun. Before Florida joined the Union on 1821 it had been fought over by the Spanish, British and the French, but the settlement of Miami didn't appear until the latter portion of the 19th Century.
In 1875 a woman from Cleveland called Julia Tuttle arrived on the north bank of the Miami River, where she began to plan a city. Her big break came when she persuaded Henry Morrison Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad from Palm Beach down to Miami, but this didn't happen without some considerable effort on her part. Initially Flagler wasn't interested, but a record freeze in 1895 struck Florida, killing off citrus crops everywhere except for in Miami, and Tuttle reportedly sent some orange blossoms to Flagler, who came down to Miami to see for himself. By 1896 passenger trains had started rolling down to Miami, and in the same year the city was incorporated.
The railroad was extended to Key West in 1912, and people started to flock to the new city and its pleasant climate. The Roaring Twenties brought further prosperity - a lot of which was based around the illegal alcohol and gambling trades that flourished during Prohibition (spawning places like Tobacco Road) - but halfway through the decade property prices started to slump, and a hurricane struck in 1926, wiping out houses and killing more than 100 people. The Great Depression swept across the whole country, but in the 1930s tourism slowly began to pick up again, and lots of Art Deco buildings sprang up behind Miami Beach.
World War II saw Miami turn into a military base, and after the war thousands of former soldiers returned to set up their homes, nudging the population up to the one million mark by the end of the 1950s. However in 1959 things started to change: in Cuba Fidel Castro seized power, and thousands of refugees poured into Miami. Overnight whole neighbourhoods started speaking Spanish, and so began the transformation of Miami into one of the most multicultural cities in the USA.
In the 1960s and 1970s a large number of Jewish immigrants headed south to retire, and by 1975 300,000 Jews were living in Greater Miami, making it second only to New York in the size of its Jewish community. By the same time there were also 300,000 Cubans in the city.
The 1970s saw Miami become an increasingly important port for illegal drug smuggling. Race riots began to spark off in the early 1980s, and Castro's Mariel Boatlift, in which he allowed huge numbers of Cubans to leave Cuba freely (including plenty of undesirables) only served to swell the ranks of immigrants. Haitian 'boat people' were arriving every day, and the drug dealers and gun runners continued to increase their operations. In 1981, 621 people died violent deaths in Dade County (the county containing the city of Miami), and Miami had become the murder capital of the USA.
Then in 1984 came Miami Vice, the TV show that portrayed a city with lush tropical weather, a pumping night life and all the glamour of expensive yachts, designer clothes and convertible cars. Miami began to clean up its act, and Miami Beach changed from being a pretty run-down area of town to being the place to be seen. The modern Miami - an international destination, a jet-set venue - was born, and to this day the city is associated as much with glamour as it is with the seedier side of life. Even the hugely destructive Hurricane Andrew that hit southern Florida in 1992 didn't dent the economic revival (though it hurt it pretty badly), and despite the publicity surrounding a number of tourist murders in the early 1990s, Miami has changed considerably.
Where to Visit
Here's a selection of some interesting places to check out when you're in Miami.
Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant on South Beach is excellent, but they don't take reservations and the place is usually packed on weekend nights (there's normally a two-hour wait); we recommend you either go during the week or for lunch on the weekend. It's a little pricey but it's worth it.
There is a lot going on in South Beach. There are tons of restaurants (very good ones too), tons of bars (catering for all types) and tons of fun people to watch. South Beach is the place to be seen. It has become very arty-farty, and the beach is as beautiful as the people.
Bayside is a fun, touristy place to go. It's right on the bay in Downtown Miami and is not unlike South Beach in its spread of restaurants and beaches. You can take boat rides from here to see Star Island, Fisher Island (to see how the other half lives) and the beautiful skyline by water. You can also take a water taxi from Bayside to South Beach or to Coconut Grove, the latter being a cool spot in its own right.
Fort Lauderdale (a kind of suburb of Miami, just north of the city in Broward County, about a 30 minute drive up US 1) has a canal system and water taxis. You can take tours through the system and see the Port of Fort Lauderdale which is one of the busiest in the world. You can also see some of the homes of the really, really rich, and the tour guides have lots of gossip about who is currently doing what to whom...
You can drive up A1A along the beach from Miami and go through all the really posh suburbs and ocean-front communities of southern Florida. It's an eye-opener.
For reasons best left alone, a Latvian immigrant called Edward Leedskalnin (who died in 1951) built a huge number of coral monuments, by hand, as a testament to his love for the sweet 16 year-old fiancee who jilted him. The resulting Coral Castle is pretty amazing considering he was working with primitive tools and no one saw him work: the neighbours would wake up and there would be something new in place. He might have been an eccentric, but he created a lasting work of folk art.
Sports fans should check out Miami Jai-Alai, the fastest sport in the world. Trust us. It's totally awesome.
General Travel Tips
Here are some handy tips for would-be visitors to Miami.
It's good to have up-to-date maps and advice on how to get where you want to go. You don't want to be driving or walking around unknown areas of town waving a map - this is asking for trouble. Miami might be better than it used to be, but there's no need to tempt fate.
Exercise the caution often reserved for much larger cities: don't announce yourself as a tourist, don't use a rental car that is plainly marked as such, stick to recommended areas, especially after dark, don't go anywhere without being certain of your directions, and, if someone hits your car, don't roll down the window...
Try to learn some Spanish. As soon as you get off the major arteries, everybody speaks Spanish - and we mean everybody (see, for example, the entry on Versailles Restaurant). You might think that, if you were lost, you could drive up to the nearest petrol station and get directions, but you'd be wrong, unless in fact you do speak Spanish.
If you're going to rent a car, get a convertible. If you're from cooler climes, then the sheer delight of the wind whistling through your hair at 50mph is worth the thatched-roof look when you finally step out. Glorious!
Watch out for the Spring Breakers. All the high school and college kids get their spring break starting in March and going through to the first part of April, and lots and lots of 'em still head for the Florida beaches from Fort Lauderdale to Daytona Beach.
And now, to round things off, some Miami trivia.
A very important in vitro fertilization technique was pioneered at a clinic on Miami Beach. Back in 1998, the first successful implant using eggs grown for five days instead of 24 hours was conducted by a friend of one h2g2's Researchers (and who is apparently both a sperm doctor and a heck of a bluegrass guitar player). This new technique requires fewer eggs to be implanted and has a much better success rate then the traditional 24-hour growth technique.
Miami is the only place in the United States where deadly force is acceptable for the protection of property. So, if you look like you're going to break in to someone's house, and they blow your head off, they are within their rights. This is not at all put up with in the rest of the United States where deadly force is only allowed when there is deadly risk. Housebreakers beware.