Editor’s note: Travel writer and editor Thomas Swick has been around the world, but his journey this issue is around our neighborhood. Come with him on a tour of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county discoveries in our annual travel issue, Explore Florida & the Caribbean.
By Thomas Swick
There are cities that reassure you with buildings that have stood for centuries and others, like Miami, that keep you on your toes with an ongoing onslaught of the new.
When I started giving friends my tour of the city, back in the early ’90s, I included four areas: Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Little Havana and Miami Beach. (The first and last are separate cities, but they’re part of the greater metropolitan area.)
In the Gables I stopped, and still do, at the Biltmore Hotel, driving, on my approach, through the sun-dappled, ficus-branched splendor of Columbus Boulevard, a street that seems to have been plucked from a storybook. After admiring the elegant lobby and the enormous pool (two rare stalwarts) I head over to the Venetian Pool, one of the world’s most picturesque (man-made) swimming holes.
Downtown there’s an obligatory stop at Books & Books on Aragon, with its Spanish-style courtyard, and at Chocolate Fashion on Andalusia for a flourless chocolate cookie that can feed four.
From downtown it’s a quick drive up Ponce de Leon to Calle Ocho, where, after taking a right, one of the first things you see is the sign for Versailles. The world’s most famous Cuban restaurant (according to the sign) is a good place for lunch (if the line’s not too long) or a cafecito outside at the ventanita.
From here head east down Calle Ocho and park (for free) on one of the side streets behind the Tower Theater, an Art Deco movie house that shows foreign films. Here the draw was always Domino (officially, Maximo Gomez) Park, where men – and now some women – pass the day in a spasmodic racket. But it’s been joined by Ball & Chain across the street, a reborn bar with music day and night. (Check out the charming Pineapple Stage in the courtyard out back.) If it’s hot, stop at Azucar for a tropical fruit flavored ice cream.
Continuing east you’ll pass Michelle Bernstein’s new restaurant, Café La Trova, which evokes Old Havana through food, cocktails and décor. For excellent Spanish food – tapas and paellas – there’s Xixón a little to the south on Coral Way.
As Calle Ocho leads into Brickell, you’ll feel as if you’ve left the barrio and entered Gotham. Tall glass towers rise around Brickell City Centre, an elevated, open-air mall containing restaurants, cafes, two food halls, eclectic shops (Le Roy René calissons) and a cinema – all under a partial roof (“climate ribbon”) that’s as purposeful as it is artful (it channels breezes from Biscayne Bay).
Nowadays I skip the Grove, perhaps heading there for dinner – since it’s become a dining destination – and I bypass the Beach, because there’s just too much on the mainland.
Just across the Miami River – worth taking a stroll along, there by Icon Brickell with its Easter Island-like pillars – downtown is one of the emerging neighborhoods.
It’s long been the home of the main campus of Miami Dade College, which has enlivened it with young people and some impressive contemporary architecture (see Building 8). But the students mostly headed home after class. They still do, but new apartments and condos have gone up to house a young urban population, and interesting businesses have opened to serve it.
Lost Boy on E. Flagler Street is a bar outfitted like a high-country lodge, with a pool table in the front and soccer on the TVs. The 777 International Mall next door is now home to Mana Contemporary Miami, an arts center that includes Bookleggers (facing NE First Street), a non-profit community library, open the third Saturday of every month, where every patron gets to leave with one book. No need to return it.
Driving north on Biscayne Boulevard, you’ll pass the graceful Freedom Tower on your left and the American Airlines Arena on your right, followed by the Frost Museum of Science, a state-of-the art, interactive, indoor-outdoor facility. On late Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the cruise ships leaving PortMiami almost seem to be part of the show. Behind the Frost sits the Pérez Art Museum Miami, with interesting exhibits, hanging gardens and stunning views.
Past the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, hang a left and head over to Wynwood to see all the walls, not just the famous ones, transformed by art. The success of this neighborhood has pushed many artists out, and the ones who remain are far from starving; people come here now as much for food as for art, everything from the award-winning Alter to the Asian food hall 1-800-Lucky. And let’s not forget beer, J. Wakefield and Concrete Beach being just two of the excellent breweries.
Head north on NW Second Avenue and, after passing under the 195 overpass, make a right into the Design District. Here, in Miami’s version of Rodeo Drive, you’ll find all the top designer stores but also the beloved Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (spilling into its passageway) and the beautiful Palm Court, with its own food hall, St. Roch Market, on the second floor. Follow the colorful pedestrian way north out of the court and an alley on your right opens into a courtyard containing an ice cream shop, Aubi & Ramsa, where all the flavors are laced with alcohol (enough that you must be 21 to purchase them). A few blocks away is the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami and the dreamlike Museum Garage. In Miami, even the parking garages are eyefuls.
From here it’s a short drive up through Buena Vista, some of the streets lined with Royal Poincianas, to Upper Buena Vista, a cozy collection of boutiques and restaurants built around two mammoth trees.
Now you’re on NE Second Avenue (not to be confused with NW Second Avenue). Follow it north and you’ll pass by Churchill’s Pub, the venerable music venue, and into Little Haiti, with its Caribbean Marketplace and Libreri Mapou, carrying books in Haitian Creole and French. After a stop here, drive up through Little River (touted as the “next Wynwood”) and visit, at 83rd Street, The Citadel food hall.
Yes, you’ve missed the MiMo (Miami Modern) District. Return to 79th Street and go east until you get to Biscayne Boulevard. Here make a right and drive south past the old motels, some beautifully restored, that for decades welcomed tourists to the Magic City. The city, as you’ve just seen, hasn’t lost its magic. In fact, it’s adding to it all the time.
Tours of my hometown have also, happily, gotten longer. I begin with the circumference, because that’s where the city is experiencing its most interesting and creative growth.
Though even here you find some classics, especially if you start, as I do, on 17th Street – perhaps with a chowder at Finster Murphy’s. Crossing the bridge, I tell everyone to look to the right and take in the fleet of cruise ships fattening Port Everglades. (I usually do my tours on weekends.) On the other side of the Intracoastal stands the city’s signature building, Pier Sixty-Six, which becomes more impressive with each passing year. Just before the street turns into A1A I point out the B Ocean Resort (formerly the Yankee Clipper) and tell my guests about the weekend mermaid shows (and Aquamen on Thursdays) – viewed through the windows of the Wreck Bar.
The name of that bar suggests that we’re entering legendary Fort Lauderdale beach-town territory, an idea that’s deepened by the Jungle Queen sometimes taking on passengers off to the left and the vast ocean eternally on the right. Soon we pass the Elbo Room, where Spring Break lives year-round.
Several blocks up I make a left and drive behind the big luxury hotels to enter North Beach Village, the tidy collection of refurbished motels and eclectic boutiques and outdoor cafes that has given tourists, and residents, a civilized alternative to the strip. The lush grounds of the Bonnet House abut its northern end.
Continuing north on A1A I pass Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and then, a few blocks before Oakland Park Boulevard, I make a right to get a closer look at one of the region’s finest examples of Midcentury Modern architecture – Sea Tower – where I always imagine the residents, whatever the hour, sipping martinis and listening to Sinatra.
Next I drive west into Oakland Park (unfortunately, it’s too early for cocktails at the Mai-Kai), which has turned the street along its tracks into an attractive place to eat and drink – starting, at the top, with Funky Buddha Brewery. From here it’s a quick drive south to The Yard (formerly Eucalyptus Gardens), where we eat buckwheat crêpes al fresco at Voo La Voo Café followed by a coffee at The Alchemist. Then it’s into downtown Wilton Manors, which the town’s gay population has turned into an attractive, and thriving, business district. One of the stores, To The Moon, sells candies from your childhood – pretty much whenever or wherever it was.
After a quick drive down the artfully landscaped NE 13th Street, home of Gulf Stream Brewing Company, I backtrack before continuing south past Progresso Plaza and Laser Wolf (“Yes Beer, No Jerks”), one of the first of the city’s craft beer bars. In FAT Village I always walk my guests into BREW Next Door (it’s BREW Urban Café next door to the creative and community-minded C&I Studios) to experience the chill vibe, the book-lined bar and the passing Brightline trains. If any of the galleries are open we get a small glimpse of what happens during the ArtWalk the last Saturday of every month.
Downtown I show off the Brutalist Broward County Main Library – still, according to many architects, the city’s most outstanding structure – and then cross the tracks to Himmarshee Village to gaze at the historic buildings and fantasize about booking a room at the New River Inn. On the beautiful Riverwalk, I explain that it’s wonderful for bikes but won’t attract crowds until the condos lining it fill their ground floors with cafes and restaurants, a la San Antonio.
After a drive through the cultural corridor – the Museum of Discovery and Science and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts (on its well-thought-out hill overlooking the New River) – I head into Sailboat Bend and the swing bridge, which is like a magic carpet transporting us into Old Florida. Now in Riverside Park, we park and walk into the dim, cool, welcoming recesses of The Riverside Market and choose from one of hundreds of beers.
Backtracking again, I make my way to SW Sixth Street, where the popular Grind Coffee Project sits across the street from Tarpon River Brewing. A few steps away, across the FEC tracks, is the NYSW Jazz Lounge, hosting live jazz four nights a week and karaoke on Sundays.
One block south stands the excellent Hardy Park Bistro. A juice bar will be the next attraction in this out-of-nowhere hood. The city that was founded on a river and became famous for its beaches now is blossoming along its tracks.
As the sun sets, we head to Las Olas, perhaps stopping on the way – because we like small, intimate restaurants (and delicious spaghetti with clams) – at Sapido on SE Eighth Avenue. From here it’s a pleasant walk along the Himmarshee Canal – keep your eye out for the stuffed gorilla in its tree – and down a side street to Las Olas, where we grab a seat outside at Ann’s Florist and Coffee Bar. The desserts are excellent, and you can talk without shouting; recently I saw a couple playing chess.
Back in my Honda, I head down the boulevard to the Isles – another signature feature of the city – and perhaps stop for a nightcap under a banyan in the courtyard of Chima. Of course, if there are any traditionalists in the car, I’ll drive straight to the Elbo Room.
Okeechobee Boulevard takes you through West Palm Beach to Royal Park Bridge, which drops you onto Royal Palm Way. Both the bridge and the street live up to their names and confirm the impression that you have entered a rarefied place.
Almost immediately on your left is The Society of the Four Arts, a graceful complex devoted to the propagation of art, drama, music and literature. A quick stop at the gardens, designed in 1938, will set the tone for your tour of the island.
Back on Royal Palm Way, make a right onto S. County Road, which takes you past the Memorial Fountain, designed by Addison Mizner and dedicated to the memory of Henry Flagler and Elisha Dimick. At Worth Avenue, take another right and park along the fabled street lined with stylish clothing stores as well as a rare book shop, an elegant stationery shop (Il Papiro), a venerable restaurant (Ta-boo) and narrow via’s that lead to bougainvillea-draped courtyards. Take Via Mizner to Piazza Torlonia and you’ll see the tombstone of Johnnie Brown, Mizner’s pet monkey.
Back in the car, heading north on S. County Road, you’ll pass the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, a beautiful example of Gothic Revival architecture in the land of Mediterranean Revival. Your next stop is The Breakers, one of a handful of grand hotels that are to Florida what castles are to Europe: The most historic and emblematic buildings. Inside, stroll the vaulted-ceilinged lobby and the adjoining loggias.
As S. County Road turns into N. County Road, the Palm Beach Synagogue appears, followed shortly by St. Edward Roman Catholic Church – both consolidating the idea that, in Palm Beach, even the houses of worship are handsome. Royal Poinciana Way leads to Cocoanut Row where, going south, you’ll come to Whitehall, the Gilded Age mansion Flagler built as a wedding present for his wife.
Today it is the Flagler Museum. If you don’t have time for a tour, take a walk around the south side to the Lake Trail and gaze in awe at the giant kapok tree, which a friend of mine calls the “Tree of God.”
It’s getting near lunchtime, so drive back across the bridge to West Palm Beach and turn south onto S. Dixie Highway. On the left you’ll see the newly expanded Norton Museum of Art, its overhanging metal roof curving gently around a massive banyan tree.
Head west (you’ll return another day for the art) through Grandview Heights, a leafy neighborhood of old Florida houses. Outside the Armory Art Center you may find people in hats painting at easels. Cross the canal into a less leafy, but transforming warehouse district and stop for lunch at Grandview Public Market, the first of South Florida’s now numerous food halls. Here take your ramen or tacos or Cuban sandwich and join the lunch crowd out on the roomy deck.
Fortified, make your way back to downtown and take S. Quadrille Blvd. north – past the repeated V’s of the Brightline station – to the intersection with N. Dixie Highway. Continuing north on Dixie you’ll come into Northwood Village. Northwood Road is rich with galleries, antique shops, juice bars, cafes and restaurants. Two blocks north, the excellent Malakor Thai Café features on one wall – fittingly, in this arts district – two murals created by Phil Brinkman when it was the Hurricane Bar and Grill. Brinkman was famous for the nose art he had painted on fighter planes during World War II.
Coming back south on N. Dixie Highway, you’ll pass the old Palm Beach County Courthouse. The combination of Corinthian columns and striped awnings gives the building a cozy stateliness that seems quintessentially Southern. Now it’s home to the county’s historical society and, visiting the museum, you can stand in a replica of the voting booths that produced the hanging chads.
A left on Clematis will bring you onto the city’s main street, which, like most in South Florida, is now more popular for its restaurants than for its shops. If you’re thinking about dinner, Avocado Grill, on nearby Datura Street, is a fine choice – as is, if you want to get back on the bridge, būccan in Palm Beach.
First, though, you might want an espresso and a pastry at Johan’s JÖe Swedish Coffee Shop & Café on S. Dixie Highway, followed by a look at what’s happening at CityPlace. The nearly two-decades-old mixed-use development has had its ups and downs – at the time of this writing, its streets were being repaved – but it’s picturesque and pedestrian-friendly, with arcades that shade you from the sun. Perhaps all it needs is the addition of a food hall.