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South Beach: Deco delights on a South Florida stroll

As Miami Beach prepares to host Art Basel, James Litston explores this city of distinct design

The eyes of the art world turn to South Florida this week for Art Basel Miami Beach (6-9 December), America's most prominent and influential contemporary art show. Now in its 11th year, this four-day event showcases works from over 2,000 artists along with a varied and lively programme of cultural and social events. More than 260 international art galleries will be exhibiting at the Miami Beach Convention Center (1901 Convention Center Drive), an enormous building with a streamlined exterior that nods to South Beach's favourite design style, Art Deco.

From here, cross 17th Street and head across the landscaped park. This open space (formerly a car park) is part of the New World Center cultural complex and attracts legions of music-lovers for the concerts projected live on to the huge, white walls of the avant-garde building along its western flank. On reaching the park's far corner, cross the busy street and head left down Lincoln Road. At the intersection with Collins Avenue, look left. Miami's biggest attraction is its impressive architectural heritage and there, reaching skywards above the palm trees on the other side of the street, stand three iconic buildings that together comprise the most breathtaking slice of the entire South Beach skyline.

This strikingly individual trio of hotels – the sail-topped Delano, silver-domed National and superbly symmetrical DiLido – are the embodiment of the city's endemic "MiMo" (or Miami Modern) architectural style.

For a closer look, cross over the road to what was the DiLido (now the Ritz-Carlton South Beach) for a nose around the elegant lobby. Designed in 1953 by Morris Lapidus, the godfather of Miami Modernism, this double-height space is dominated by stately, rounded columns and the original, dramatically curved feature wall studded with backlit, chrome sconces.

Back outside, head inland along Lincoln Road, which becomes traffic free beyond Washington Avenue. This pedestrianised thoroughfare is lined with restaurants, bars and boutiques and is the social hub of South Beach. A central strip of tropical gardens, tinkling fountains and playfully stylised, concrete sunshades runs the length of the street and is another Lapidus legacy. (He oversaw its layout in 1961.)

Much of this strip has been overtaken by restaurants keen to maximise the demand for al fresco dining. Competition is fierce, so expect to be bombarded by touts as you wander past. Resist their advances and continue to The Café at Books & Books at 927 Lincoln Road (001 305 695 8898; booksandbooks.com) to sample "Jewban" cuisine (a mix of Jewish and Cuban influences: think hummus blended with black beans) and super-strong Cuban coffee.

From here, head back down Lincoln Road and turn right along Pennsylvania Avenue, a quiet, residential street of Art Deco apartment buildings. Mediterranean Revival, another popular style, dominates as you turn left into leafy Española Way. This picture-perfect street of characterful restaurants has a distinctly Spanish feel, with charming, terracotta-tiled buildings painted in delicate shades of peaches and cream.

Next, turn right on to Washington Avenue. This is the epicentre of Miami's nightlife, but during the daytime, the appeal lies in its iconic buildings. Don't miss the grand, drum-shaped Post Office at No 1300 or the streamlined sexiness of the 11th Street Diner at No 1065 (001 305 534 6373; eleventhstreetdiner.com), located within an original 1948 dining car. Continue one more block to The Wolfsonian design museum (see Fresh Cuts panel) and then turn left on to 10th Street.

This brings you down to the beachfront, where it's worth popping into the Art Deco Welcome Center (001 305 672 2014; artdecowelcomecenter.com) to browse through books, prints and kitsch colourful homewares. Then head south along the broad, green strip of Lummus Park, where the Atlantic on one side competes for your attention with Ocean Drive's Art Deco architecture on the other.

From here, it's a pleasant 10-block stroll along the Beach Walk to South Pointe Park, the southernmost point of South Beach. Rest your legs and watch the procession of enormous cruise ships passing almost within touching distance. In the late afternoon rush hour, you'll fully appreciate that Miami's nearby cruise port is the busiest in the world.

By now, you'll be ready to refuel. Head up 1st Street, turn into Washington and bag a table at Red, the Steakhouse (001 305 534 3688; redthesteakhouse.com). This upmarket eatery is a pioneer in the renaissance of the SoFi (south of Fifth Street) district and has helped to turn this area into a fashionable hot spot. Hunger sated, it's now just a question of ambling all the way back along Ocean Drive, admiring the neon-lit buildings as you go.

Fresh Cuts

Design lovers will get lost in The Wolfsonian (001 305 531 1001; wolfsonian.org), a cornucopia of classic furniture, artworks, posters and everyday household items from yesteryear. There's a permanent, rotating display entitled "Art & Design in the Modern Age", plus a roster of temporary, themed exhibitions (the big one for this winter being "Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte"). Admission $7 (£4.50).

New this year from Roam (001 888 760 7626; roamrides.com) is a street art tour by Vespa through up-and-coming Wynwood. Follow local artists around an open-air gallery of stencils, graffiti and bold, bright murals. $125 (£78), including lunch.

Travel essentials

Getting there

James Litston travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/miami), which operates three daily flights to Miami from Heathrow, from £619.99 return. It also offers a three-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach (001 786 276 4000; ritzcarlton.com) from £949pp, including flights.

Miami is also served from Heathrow by BA's partner American Airlines (0844 499 7300; american airlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com).

Go guided

Miami Food Tours (001 212 209 3370; miamifoodtours.com) offers a Tour des Forks walking tour, with tasting stops in six eateries and an introduction to the architecture, history and culture of South Beach. $53 (£33).

More information

Miami Tourism: miamiandbeaches.com