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48 hours: Miami Beach

Golden beaches, blue skies, and no shortage of neon lights – Florida's glamour district is at its vibrant best during next weekend's celebration of art deco architecture. Harriet O'Brien reports

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

"Snowbirds" from the northern US flock to Miami in January with good reason: right now the skies are dazzlingly blue, temperatures are pleasantly warm (average high 24C), and you won't wade through the sapping humidity of later months.

Florida's most colourful city also offers plenty of culture and entertainment – particularly next weekend when Miami's South Beach district swings into party mode. Art Deco Weekend (14-16 January; artdecoweekend.org) is a celebration of this neighbourhood's fabulous 1920s and 30s architecture.

Touch down

Three airlines fly non-stop from Heathrow to Miami. The writer travelled with Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), while British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) "code-share" on the route – you can fly out on one and back on the other.

Miami International Airport is 10 miles north-west of South Beach. A taxi costs around $32 (£20), while from 6am to 11.10pm the Airport Flyer bus, route 150 (miami dade.gov.transit; $2.35/ £1.55 one-way), runs roughly every half hour (less frequently at weekends) between the airport and Lincoln Road.

Get your bearings

East of the cosmopolitan city of Miami that sprawls along Florida's southern coast is Miami Beach, a barrier island between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic. It is to these golden shores that most visitors are drawn.

This playground par excellence is made all the more attractive by its architecture. South Beach – or SoBe – is a living museum not only of art deco but also 1920s "Mediterranean Revival" and 1950s "MiMo" (Miami Modern) buildings. It is low-rise and very walkable, contained between 23rd Street to the north and South Point Park at the island's southern tip.

Information on the architecture and the area in general is available at the helpful Art Deco Center (1) (001 305 672 2014; mdpl.org), run by the Miami Design Preservation League, at 1001 Ocean Drive. It opens 10am-4pm daily.

Check in

For sublime style, book a room at The Setai (2) (001 305 520 6000; setai.com) where discreet glamour and pared-down Asian aesthetic is a world apart from much of the Miami Beach vibe. It occupies the old Dempsey Vanderbilt Hotel at 2001 Collins Avenue, a classic art deco property, with an additional high-rise tower. Large butler-serviced double rooms start at $621 (£414), including breakfast. Adjacent, at 150 20th Street, The Townhouse (3) (001 305 534 3800; townhousehotel.com) is a boutique outfit offering contemporary-chic style and – for Miami Beach – good value: the 65 elegantly white rooms start at $130 (£87), excluding breakfast. There's a rooftop lounge, a café and bikes to borrow.

To be right in the midst of what's happening in South Beach head to Ocean Drive. Of the many art deco hotels lining this strip, Beacon Hotel (4) at number 720 (001 305 674 8200; beaconsouthbeach.com) is a modest 1930s gem. Doubles are on the small side and cost from $160 (£107), room only.

Day one

Take a hike

Pick up a map of architectural walking routes (costing $3.25/£2.15) from the gift shop at the Art Deco Center (1). Take a short hike down Ocean Drive, then up Collins Avenue, which runs parallel, and then along Washington Avenue. Aside from people-watching, there are plenty of wonderful buildings to look at – some in need of rescuing, for the restoration of the South Beach district is ongoing.

Highlights include: Edison Hotel (5) at 960 Ocean Drive, a yellow-and-blue property from the 1930s currently boarded up; the pink 1920s Locust Apartments (6) at 918 Ocean Drive now housing the Fat Tuesday cocktail bar; and the pink, yellow and white Waldorf Towers (7) complete with lookout window, at 860 Ocean Drive.

Turn right along 9th Street and right again along Collins Avenue past the remaining walls of Coral Rock House (8) at number 900 – built in 1916 by Avery Smith, a pioneer of Miami's tourist industry. Continue past the striking Essex House Hotel (9), built in 1938 by Henry Hohauser, and turn left along 13th Street, opposite the art deco-style car park.

At the corner of Washington Avenue you'll see a US Post Office (10) occupying a circular building by Howard Cheney dating to 1937. Continue up Washington Avenue, past the Cameo Theatre (11) at number 1445, to Espanola Way, a pretty "Mediterranean Revival" Spanish-styled street awash with cafés and galleries.

Lunch on the run

Stop for Brazilian-style tapas (shrimp risotto, chicken croquettes and more) at Boteco Copacabana (12) (001 305 397 8824) at 437 Espanola Way. Dishes cost from $6.50 (£4.20).

Window shopping

Continue three blocks up Collins Avenue to Lincoln Road, the main shopping street of South Beach. Here you'll find everything from outlets of Crocs and Oakley to street stalls and art galleries. However, Miami Beach's most exclusive shopping area is Bal Harbour Mall (13), an open-air mall where you'll find Hermes, Chanel and more (balharbourflorida.com). It is located on Collins Avenue, about a 20-minute ride (on a free shuttle bus) north of South Beach. Buses leave from outside the Ritz-Carlton (14) at 1 Lincoln Road, from Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 7pm.

Take a ride

For a fresh view, rent a bike from the Miami Beach Bicycle Center (15), 601 5th Street (001 305 674 0150; bikemiamibeach. com); $8 (£5.30) an hour, or $15 (£10) for a tandem. The shop supplies maps and advises on routes around Miami Beach.

An aperitif

Stop for a "Tiki Martini", with mandarin vodka, peach schnapps, sour apple cordial and papaya juice ($9/£6) at the outdoor tables of laid-back Van Dyke Café (16) (001 305 534 3600; thevandykecafe.com) at 846 Lincoln Road.

Dining with the locals

Join the cool crowd at Cecconi's (17), inside Soho Beach House at 4385 Collins Avenue (on Collins Waterfront; 001 786 507 7902; cecconismiamibeach.com). A sister restaurant to Nick Jones' Soho House in London, Soho Beach House is a private members club and a boutique hotel with a sleek, courtyard eating area open to the public. This outfit was launched in October and its restaurant has swiftly become one of the hottest venues in Miami Beach. The menu is Venetian-inspired; dishes include seared black cod ($38/£26) and wild mushroom risotto ($28/£18.50).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Miami Beach Community Church (18) at 500 Lincoln Road (001 305 538 4511; mb-communitychurch.org) is an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of South Beach's retail heaven. This bright building holds vibrant Sunday morning services at 10.30am.

Alternatively head north to the Spanish Monastery (19) at 16711 West Dixie Highway, North Miami Beach (001 305 945 1461; spanishmonastery.com); a cab ride will run to about $35 (£24). This 12th-century Cistercian relic from Spain was bought in 1925 by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and imported to the US in 11,000 crates . Sunday mass is held in English at 10.15am, and in Spanish at 12.15pm.

Out to brunch

Take an outdoor table at News Café (20) at 800 Ocean Drive (001 305 538 6397; newscafe.com) and watch the wonderful world of South Beach go by. The café opened in 1988 and has since become the classic venue to chill out, read the papers and linger over coffee. The brunch menu includes eggs Benedict ($10.75/£7.15) and French toast ($7.75/£5.50). The News Café has been a favourite haunt of many celebrity residents, notably Gianni Versace who lived just down the road – and reputedly ate his last meal here before he was gunned down outside his Miami Beach home in 1997.

Cultural afternoon

Take a close-up look at the development of art deco and other styles from the 19th and 20th centuries. The Wolfsonian-FIU (21) at 1001 Washington Avenue (001 305 531 1001; wolfsonian.org) is a treasure trove of décor and design. This South Beach landmark displays the collection of the Miami businessman Mitchell "Micky" Wolfson, which was donated to Florida International University in 1997. The 80,000 or so objects from the period between 1885 and 1945 include priceless furniture, ceramics and paintings. The museum opens noon-6pm (until 9pm on Fridays) daily except Wednesday; adults $7 (£4.75).

Take a view

Head to the rooftop lounge bar at the glitzy Gansevoort Miami Beach hotel (22) at 2377 Collins Avenue (001 305 604 1000; gansevoortmiamibeach.com). For most of the crowd here the focus is the pool and other people, but from this vantage point, 18 floors up, you also get a good view over the sea to the east and across to the towers of downtown Miami to the west.

A walk by the beach

Stroll – or jog – with the locals along the Miami Beach boardwalk, a two-mile beachside stretch running between 21st and 49th Streets and offering prime Collins Waterfront viewing. The decking path is lined with lush vegetation and has been raised so that you can look over golden shores in one direction and peek into otherwise hidden hotel gardens in the other.

The icing on the cake

However many times you walk along Ocean Drive during the day, make tracks here after 6pm. In the evening the road is transformed into a neon wonderland, its palm trees and art deco buildings lit up in fabulously lurid colours.