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Insider Guide: Best of Miami
By Melissa Cantor, for CNN
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Party City, U.S.A. Unofficial capital of Latin America. Home of the world's best basketball player. High bikinis per capita rating. Which is your Miami?
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)It's not that the best of Miami's days as a party town are over.
It's that there's a lot more going on these days than sun, sex and sand.
In the best of Miami, visual arts are thriving, world-renowned architects are reshaping the skyline and an almost unfair share of award-winning chefs have brought about a dynamic foodie scene.
That said, you'll still find a cocktail menu everywhere from the pool to the ballpark. In this city, happy hour is an ethos.
A note: restaurants and nightclubs in the best of Miami open and close with alarming frequency. We apologize if some of the newcomers on our list turn out to lack staying power that defines the of-the-moment best of Miami.
Soho Beach House
Everyone must still be recovering from last night.
A 50-room hotel tower annexed to the grounds of a members-only club, Soho Beach House offers a quiet, intimate take on the best of Miami experience.
With the exception of the courtyard restaurant Cecconi's, on-site amenities here are off-limits to the general public.
Fellow guests and a not-quite-representative group of chic locals dominate the scene in the dining hall, spa and rooftop beach club.
In the evenings, a roving bartender visits the six Beachside suites to offer guests "One While Changing" -- complimentary cocktails prepared in-room.
For $14, guests in other rooms can summon the art deco bar cart to their doors.
Fontainebleau Miami Beach
Decades after its heyday as a Rat Pack playground, the party is still going strong at the Fontainebleau, a best of Miami landmark.
A billion-dollar renovation completed in 2008 added more than a dozen restaurants, bars and lounges to the massive resort, where celebrities and year-round Spring Breakers sip drinks poolside before hitting the two in-house nightclubs, Arkadia and LIV.
The crowds can feel more Snooki than Sinatra at times, but the 3,700-square-meter spa and more subdued Sorrento and Tresor pools provide a respite.
The views at the three-story Hotel Urbano can't match the ones you find at its skyscraping, bayfront competitors on Brickell Avenue.
But for the price, Urbano is a vast improvement on the former chain motel that was in its place.
Contemporary works by local artists add pop to the decor, Wi-Fi is free for all guests and a poolside bar makes for a lively cabana scene.
The hotel restaurant, Bistro Urbano, is the best and most surprising feature, attracting locals with moderate prices and a vibe that could almost pass for South Beach.
Saturday morning brings a deservedly popular unlimited-mimosa brunch.
Joe's Stone Crab
This former lunch counter is credited with discovering Florida stone crab claws.
Nearly a century later, it's reportedly one of the three highest-grossing restaurants in the United States.
This should tell you something about the local delicacy -- a meaty treat that can be harvested only six months out of the year.
Joe's doesn't accept reservations, so you'll probably wait a long time for your table. (Consider it part of the quintessential best of Miami Beach experience.)
But if you decide to make a repeat visit, a takeout window conveniently sells claws to-go, while the nearby beach and lawns of South Pointe Park are ideal picnic spots.
Joe's Stone Crab is closed from August through mid-October each year.
Stone crab season runs from October 15 through May 15.
Thanks to digital age snoops and virtual broadsheeters, the "mystery" ice cream that rounds out meals at Naoe is no longer much of a mystery -- that's the delicious tang of soy sauce you'll taste in the signature dessert.
But a host of other bygone formalities remain firmly in place: reservations are required, dinners last between two and three hours and deference to the chef is absolute -- all meals are "chef's choice."
The chef is owner Kevin Cory, who prepares kaiseki-style bento boxes followed by elegant courses of nigiri. Detail-oriented to a fault, Cory pairs his pescatarian delights with sake from his family brewery in Japan.
At Versailles, "local flavor" doesn't necessarily refer to the food.
A casual Cuban restaurant inspired by a glitzy French palace?
Wrap your mind around this best of Miami concept, and you'll begin to understand why you're sitting under a massive chandelier and digging into a dish called ropa vieja, which means "old clothes" in Spanish. (The shredded flank steak is said to resemble worn rags.)
In fact, you may understand a lot about the community of Cuban exiles that congregates here, consuming -- alongside tourists and other locals -- more than 1,000 potent cafecitos daily at the walk-up coffee counter, and enjoying medianoche sandwiches atop white tablecloths until late into the night.
The draw isn't the food. As you'll glean from the long list of politicians and celebrities who frequently visit, this kitschy establishment is unmatched in its local flavor.
Every corner gets attention.
Countless clubs pose as the most exclusive in the best of Miami. In the case of Wall, a jewel box lounge at the W South Beach, the claim may be true.
Unless you've booked a table or have an upward-trending profile on IMDB.com, don't count on bypassing the exasperatingly tight velvet rope.
Once inside, though, you may be persuaded that entry was worth the hassle.
Limited space -- just 325 square meters -- means attention has been given to every piece of the experience.
(The interior was redesigned 14 months after the club's opening when the initial layout proved cumbersome.)
The result is a fun, not-overwhelming atmosphere that will make you forget everything you vowed to say to the bouncer on your way out.
Bigger the size, larger the fun.
The first thing to say about the Fontainebleau hotel's famous nightclub is that it's enormous.
The second is that this best of Miami bar reportedly rakes in $35-$45 million per year.
It's not easy to consistently pack a club this size, and much less so in a fickle, fiercely competitive nightlife juggernaut like Miami.
But a varied, accessible lineup of DJs and live acts helps LIV remain consistently fresh.
If mass appeal isn't testament enough, Nightclub & Bar Magazine ranked LIV the No. 5 nightclub in the country for 2012 -- the only Miami spot to crack the top 10.
It's not just a bay that separates mainland Miami from South Beach.
There's hardly a trace of the models-and-bottles philosophy at downtown's indie clubs.
Of these, the Vagabond is particularly emphatic about inclusivity, billing itself as "a place for all wanderers to call home."
Said wanderers bounce around with a crowd that skews younger that SoBe's.
Drinks are cheaper, and there's less attitude at the door.
On most nights, though, the lines are just as long as those on the other side of the causeway.
Shopping / Attractions
Wynwood Arts District
When Switzerland-based fair Art Basel launched its stateside counterpart in the best of Miami in 2002, it cemented the city's unlikely place as a contemporary arts capital.
The hub of the local scene is the Wynwood Arts District, a once-gritty industrial neighborhood that's now home to a long list of galleries and artist studios.
The Rubell Family Collection on N.W. 29th Street was one of the first exhibition spaces to move to the area.
Founders Don and Mera Rubell continue to nurture local talent such as Hernan Bas, while expanding an impressive collection that also includes works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst.
Free daily tours of the RFC's current exhibit take place at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
A few blocks south of the RFC, N.W. 23rd Street is primarily the domain of young local gallerists.
Two standouts, Gallery Diet and Spinello Projects, almost exclusively showcase experimental works by the best of Miami-based artists.
Art Basel Miami Beach is held annually during the first week in December.
The Rubell Family Collection is closed from August through November.
The Clevelander at Marlins Park
Pack two best of Miami institutions into a single outing with a visit to the new Marlins Park, where an outpost of an iconic Ocean Drive hotel bar stands just a short way from left field.
The stadium's Clevelander has many elements in common with the original: oversized drinks, a DJ deck, even a pool.
It's also been known for benched Miami Marlins players to sling cocktails here during games.
Lincoln Road Mall
With flourishes like art deco fountains, pools and black-and-white striped pavement, Lincoln Road Mall has always stood out for its design.
A recent addition to the pedestrian-only stretch of shops and cafes is a parking garage designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
The futuristic structure has become a destination in itself; we recommend parking on the sixth floor, home to the trendy glass-wall boutique Alchemist.
One block north of the mall on 17th Street is the New World Center, a striking campus designed by Frank Gehry as an extension of the New World Symphony's Lincoln Road headquarters.
Miami has been dubbed by wags the capital of Latin America. No matter its status -- unofficial or otherwise -- the best of Miami has historically been a magnet for immigrants from Latin America, all of whom have contributed to uniquely Miami culture that's as varied as it is colorful.
Here's where to find the best of Miami's Latin collage.
Dominoes at Maximo Gomez Domino park in Little Havana.
The influence of the best of Miami's Cuban community can be felt throughout the city, but its historic heart is Little Havana, where cigar shops dot the streets and octogenarian exiles from Castro's Cuba while away the days at Domino Park.
Miami Culinary Tours offers guided neighborhood walkthroughs that include stops at a handful of typical restaurants.
You'll leave fully versed on both the food and the culture.
Vegetarians should make prior arrangements or be prepared to sit out a few courses -- traditional Cuban cuisine includes dishes like vaca frita (it translates to fried cow) and mofongo (mashed plantains stuffed with pork).
The ascendance of Lima's culinary star is evident in the best of Miami, where a Peruvian food craze -- coupled with an ample supply of seafood -- keeps residents awash in ceviches, tiraditos and pisco sours.
Newcomers include Juvia, an extravagant venture where diners feast on raw fish in the shadow of a towering vertical garden; and My Ceviche, buzzy young chef Sam Gorenstein's restaurant in Miami Beach's South of Fifth neighborhood.
On the mainland, the streets in and around Coral Gables have long been known for their Peruvian eateries.
Parrillas, churrascarias and more
For those who prefer heartier meals, there's no shortage of Latin steakhouses in the best of Miami.
Argentinean grills (parrillas) abound, serving tender cuts from grass-fed cows in La Pampa.
Where most American steakhouses allow diners to select the degree to which their meat is cooked, parrillas place more emphasis on the process.
Local restaurant group Graziano's prepares certain dishes in a vividly named oven called an infiernillo or "small inferno."
Brazilian steakhouses -- all-you-can-eat propositions where meat is carved tableside -- are also well represented.
Grimpa in Brickell is a notable example, while churrascaria chains like Texas de Brazil and Fogo de Chão both have locations on Miami Beach.
If you like your steak Central American-style, the best of Miami has three Los Ranchos locations.
The menus at the Nicaraguan restaurants pair parrilla-style cuts with antojitos, small plates like plantains, tamales and fried pork rinds that are typical of the region.