Far and away the most exciting city in Florida, Miami is a stunning and often intoxicatingly beautiful place. Awash with sunlight-intensified natural colors, there are moments – when the neon-flashed South Beach skyline glows in the warm night and the palm trees sway in the breeze – when a better-looking city is hard to imagine. Even so, people, not climate or landscape, are what make Miami unique. Half of the two million population is Hispanic, the vast majority Cubans. Spanish is the predominant language almost everywhere – in many places it's the only language you'll hear, and you'll be expected to speak at least a few words – and news from Havana, Caracas or Managua frequently gets more attention than the latest word from Washington, DC.
Just a century ago Miami was a swampy outpost of mosquito-tormented settlers. The arrival of the railroad in 1896 gave the city its first fixed land-link with the rest of the continent, and cleared the way for the Twenties property boom. In the Fifties, Miami Beach became a celebrity-filled resort area, just as thousands of Cubans fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro began arriving in mainland Miami. The Sixties and Seventies brought decline, and Miami's reputation in the Eighties as the vice capital of the USA was at least partly deserved. As the cop show Miami Vice so glamorously underlined, drug smuggling was endemic; as well, in 1980 the city had the highest murder rate in America. Since then, though, much has changed for two very different reasons. First, the gentrification of South Beach helped make tourism the lifeblood of the local economy again in the early Nineties. Second, the city's determined wooing of Latin America brought rapid investment, both domestic and international: many US corporations run their South American operations from Miami and certain neighborhoods, such as Key Biscayne, are now home to thriving communities of expat Peruvians, Colombians and Venezuelans.
Each person you ask to d fashion center and a retirement community. The city's astounding cultural diversity is apparent from the moment you set foot in it and hear the rise and fall of a dozen different languages being spoken simescribe Miami will give you a different answer. It is at once a vacation spot and a refugee camp, a 24-hour party and a secluded desert island, aultaneously. It becomes more apparent as you wander through the many different districts which make up Greater Miami.
Miami Beach When talking about Miami, the Beach is the best place to start. In the 1940s, when vacationers began to arrive, Miami Beach was the center of action. Although years have passed and times have changed, the Beach remains a perennial hot spot. Enormous luxury resorts such as the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc rise majestically against the skyline. Shops and restaurants line the streets. And who could forget the miles of white sand beach?
South Beach Once the home of retired citizens and starving artists, South Beach has risen in the last 10 years to international fame as a vacation destination. Every block is packed with restaurants, bars, shops, and—of course—dance clubs, each more glamorous, trendy and cutting-edge than the last. One could spend days soaking in the sights and sounds of South Beach. Take a walking tour along Ocean Drive or down Lincoln Road, where the beautiful people come out to play. Whether it's three in the morning or three in the afternoon, there is bound to be plenty to do.
Bal Harbour Located on the northern end of Miami Beach, Bal Harbour is the most exclusive neighborhood in Greater Miami. Luxury resorts sit serenely amid the lush foliage and palatial homes. No visit to this district is complete—or even begun—without a visit to the Bal Harbour Shops. Versace, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Prada are just a few of the fashion houses that have retail outlets in this shopping center. Plenty of fine dining can be found in Bal Harbour—you will have a harder time finding fast food.
Downtown Miami Although primarily a business district, there's lots to see and do downtown. Tour the design district between Northeast 36th and 41st streets, or check out the museums in the Metro-Dade Cultural Center. Shoppers will delight in the Bayside Marketplace, with its retail shops, an open-air crafts market, a half dozen restaurants and a pier. The Port of Miami is just next to Bayside, where you can easily find a boat to take you on a tour around the bay.
Coral Gables Coral Gables is a gated enclave crisscrossed by canals, just a few minutes' drive from Downtown Miami. This small, tree-lined village is home to many of Miami's most famous attractions, including the Biltmore Hotel, The Venetian Pool and the Miracle Mile. Excellent shopping and dining can be found on the Miracle Mile as well as on the side streets surrounding it.
Coconut Grove Although this bustling district is one of the oldest in Miami, it seems to just be hitting its prime. Full of energy and creativity, the Grove is as busy as South Beach, but in a different way. Instead of attracting models and body builders, it draws in artists, writers, and patrons of the arts. There are hundreds of fabulous shops and restaurants crammed within this small area, most of them located on the CocoWalk or on the Streets of Mayfair. The Coconut Grove Playhouse is one of the best live theater venues in the southeastern United States.
Key Biscayne It is located just over the Rickenbacker Causeway, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. Things are different on this peaceful tropical island. The pace slows down. People are friendly and matter of fact. If the marvelous white sand beaches and varied leisure sports aren't enough reason to go, consider the prospect of kissing a dolphin at the Miami Seaquarium.
Little Havana This area is located west of Brickell Avenue, and runs along the thoroughfare known as Calle Ocho (Southwest Eighth Street). Many refugees from Cuba have settled here, along with natives of Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries. It is in this district that you can hear authentic salsa music, enjoy a full Cuban meal for under $5, or try a steaming cup of shockingly strong cafe cubano in an outdoor cafe.
West Miami West Miami is a quieter, more residential area. It is very spread out and almost impossible to sightsee without a car. Hialeah and Miami Lakes, two residential communities, are located in this area. Major tourist destinations include the Miami International Airport and the race tracks at Hialeah Park.
North Miami/Aventura While it may be slightly out of the way, Aventura is easy to reach even without a car, thanks to the shuttle buses that run regularly from the major downtown hotels to the Aventura Mall. The mall is well worth a day trip, as it boasts over 250 shops, restaurants and attractions. This district is also home to dozens of excellent restaurants, many of them specializing in "Floribbean" cuisine.
Broward County While Broward County is not officially a part of Miami, it might as well be—it's less than a half hour away. The thriving art community of Hollywood, the outlets at Sawgrass Mills and, last but not least, the decadent little town of Fort Lauderdale—official Spring Break destination of a million college students—are a few possible destinations in Broward. The pace is slightly more relaxed than in Miami, but people are here to have fun, make no mistake about it. Enjoy the shops on Las Olas, or dine in a restaurant that has its own private boat dock for guests traveling by water.