Miami's masterpiece of a makeover

Florida's most eye-catching city is redefining itself as a cultural polestar, with new museums, concert halls and world-class exhibitions

What's the attraction?

From swampland to tropical playground, Miami's rebirth as a tourism hotspot was a painful one. You'd hardly know it now on South Beach, where the beautiful people come to party in the shadow of the iconic Art Deco skyline. The city's latest ambition is to become a cultural polestar. First came multi-performance space the Adrienne Arsht Center (001 305 949 6722; arshtcenter.org), then the New World Center (001 305 673 3331; newworldcenter.com). Next autumn, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (001 305 375 3000; miamiartmuseum.org) will open, and, in 2015, a Museum of Science (001 305 646 4200; miamisci.org). But first, it's Art Basel, which opens tomorrow (see Art attack).

Cook's tour

The Miami dining scene is always evolving. Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (001 305 538 5220; runchickenrun.com) is already picking up awards for dishes such as Shrimp 'n' Grits, while rustic Greek cuisine is served up at Egg & Dart (001 786 431 1022; egganddart miami.com). Slow food as learnt in Italy is the mission of the Eating House (001 305 448 6524; eatinghousemiami.com) and at Gigi (001 305 573 1520; giginow.com), it calls its Asian-inspired fare "communal comfort food for the discerning palate". For Latin flavours, book a table at 660 Restaurant at The Angler's (001 305 534 9600; theanglersresort.com), under new Colombian chef Carlos Torres.

Building sights

It's a well-trodden path but don't miss the chance to take a closer look at the architecture of South Beach. The Miami Design Preservation League (001 305 672 2014; mdpl.org; price $20/£12.50) leads 90-minute walking tours that will help you appreciate the Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern styles found in the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District. Take a look, too, at Frank Gehry's New World Center, home of the New World Symphony (see introduction), the latest architectural star in the Miami firmament, which opened in January 2011. The city's new home for classical music is a sight in itself; a large white rectangular box with an 80ft-high glass atrium.

Insider Information

"One of the great pleasures of living in Miami is the beautiful weather, which among many things allows for playing tennis 365 days a year. Miami has many top-notch public tennis facilities including the newly renovated Flamingo Park Tennis Centre (001 305 673 7761) in Miami Beach. There you can play and take a private or a group class." Danielle Finnegan, director of marketing, The Biltmore Hotel, Miami (biltmorehotel.com)

Where to stay

Most holidaymakers head straight for South Beach for the cachet of staying at an Art Deco address on Ocean Drive or Collins Avenue. Highlights include the striking Delano (001 305 672 2000; delano-hotel.com), currently offering room-only from $399 (£249) per night, and The Raleigh (001 305 534 6300; raleighhotel.com), which offers vintage-styled rooms from $582 (£364) per night. Watch out for the B South Beach (001 954 389 1919; bhotelsandresorts.com), with its infinity pool edged with private cabanas, which is due to open in spring. And the Lord Balfour, which is due to open on Ocean Drive at the end of January (001 305 673 0401; lordbalfourmiami.com).

Back to nature

It's not all about the urban landscape. The subtropical wetlands of the Everglades National Park (001 305 242 7700; nps.gov) are just an hour's drive west of the city. Here, you can take an airboat ride across the sawgrass praries of this 1.5 million-acre wilderness. Or head for Biscayne National Park (001 305 230 7275; nps.gov), an hour to the south and the meeting point for the mangroves, Biscayne Bay, the Florida Keys and coral reef. Explore in a canoe, by snorkelling or on a glass-bottomed boat. Travel Trackers (001 305 205 0219; traveltrackers.net) organises trips from $95 (£59). EcoAdventures (001 305 365 3018; miamidade.gov/ecoadventures offers cycling tours of Key Biscayne from $28 (£17.50).

Getting there and around

American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Miami. Delta, United and US Airways offer connections from a range of UK airports via their hubs.

From Miami airport, the Miami Beach Airport Flyer costs just $2.35 (£1.50) and runs express; a taxi is around $32 (£20). If you're staying off the beach, hire a car or taxi or use the bus and rail systems (001 305 891 3131; miamidade.gov/transit). On the beach, it's easy to get about on foot, or you can hop on the South Beach Local shuttle bus (001 305 770 3131; 25 cents/15p).

Art attack

More than 260 of the world's top galleries will converge on the Miami Beach Convention Centre for Art Basel (00 41 58 200 2020; artbasel.com; one-day ticket $42/£26) for four days from tomorrow, to exhibit works by more than 2,000 artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. There are free events taking place across the city including Art Public, starting today until Sunday, which will transform Collins Park into an exhibition space for 22 works of art and performances. Art Video Nights, starting today, too, till 8 December, is a series of outdoor screenings at the New World Center's SoundScape Park. Art Basel Conversations, 6-9 December at the Miami Convention Center, hosts nightly discussions.

Who said that?

"Miami Beach is where neon goes to die." Lenny Bruce, comedian

"Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness." Frank Gehry, architect

"It was hard... to imagine that Miami Beach would stop its slide and overcome its problems. It took years, but it did." Alex Daoud, Miami Beach police commissioner, in Gerald Posner's Miami Babylon

Rev it up

Head off the beach to explore Wynwood, the latest Miami neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification. And see it from the seat of a Vespa on a tour of the district's street art led by local artists with Roam There (001 888 760 7626; roamthere.com; $125/£78 including lunch). It's a fun way to view the huge spray-painted murals that have been encouraging visitors to travel to this previously poor Puerto Rican district, now the heart of cutting-edge art in the city. Catch the work of some big street-art names, such as Shepard Fairey, the man who created the Hope poster of President Obama. (If you don't fancy the scooter, there are walking tours, too.)

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