Where we’re at: I’m recapping my summer of 2018, which included this trip to Florida in July. Want to explore Florida with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Key Largo: A Sustainability Dive + Yoga Retreat rescheduled for July 15-18, 2021.
From the moment I stepped into South Beach on my very first trip to Miami, I fell in love with its famed Art Deco architecture — the city has the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world. Who wouldn’t swoon?
But I didn’t know much about it, other than what I managed to remember from my college art history classes. (Which, let’s face it, was competing with a lot of other pertinent information at the time, such as how many bottles of $3 Trader Joes wine I could carry on the Subway in one trip, and whether that cute guy in my dorm had winked at me or just like, had something in his eye.)
I was curious how South Beach developed such an iconic look, but also just eager to get out and photograph not just the landmark buildings but the out-of-the-way gems, too, and so I signed up for the South Beach Art Deco Walking Tour. I know a walking tour might not sound like the most thrilling thing to do in Miami, but stick with me — it was a serious sleeper hit. Not to mention that for just $35, it was a steal for two hours of Miami entertainment.
We convened at the Essex House Hotel, where our guide James Cubby was holding court on the patio. (On days it’s open, the tour departs from The Wolfsonian Museum, instead.) Walking tours are kind of make or break based on the passion and knowledge of the guide, and it only took a few moments to realize we were in for a treat with James, a former nightlife writer turned novelist turned tour guide who had a front row seat to some of Miami’s most decadent decades.
The man has literally partied with Madonna at the Versace mansion — and knows how to tell a story so well you’ll feel like you too, were vogue-ing with Madge on Ocean Drive.
But the story of ladies crushing it in Miami started back much further than the 1990’s. In fact, we rewound about a hundred years. Did you know Miami is the first and only American city founded by a woman?
The tale James weaved of Julia Tuttle, the so-called “Mother of Miami” and her journey to found the city in 1896, was captivating. An Ohio Native, she convinced the railroads to expand to Southern Florida — some say, by sending a package of fragrant orange blossoms — after buying large parcels of land there. She was a true visionary, and Miami was soon incorporated as a city of just over three hundred.
The city would go on to reinvent itself over and over again. After the “Great Hurricane of 1926,” the city rebuilt in the now iconic Art Deco style. Businessmen hoped to make the city into the next great fashionable destination by copying architectural trends in Europe — and it worked. Plus, it was the Great Depression, and art deco was an economical method of construction — it was based in simple shapes, and used cheap local materials like limestone and coral, which James noted and showed us classic examples of as we strolled.
Miami’s reputation was already budding — it became a major port for alcohol from Cuba during Prohibition. Hidden shapes in a hotel design indicated which vice you could find there — circles for speakeasies, rectangles for dancing, and triangles for casinos. James pointed them out to us as we walked, quizzing us on which hotels we’d be sneaking into back in the day.
In World War II, many of the most stunning art deco hotels were converted to barracks, and by the 1950’s, the Art Deco buildings that had once been the playground of the country’s elite suddenly felt dated, and were left to slip into decay. It’s hard to imagine now, but the late 1970’s more than half of the art deco buildings had been lost to decades of drugs and danger and disrepair.
Then came along The Miami Design Preservation League, founded in 1977, and a little show called Miami Vice. The following is an excerpt from an incredible Miami Herald article on how the show shaped the city, and is a must read for anyone who loves Miami or travel or great TV:
At a time when city fathers wanted nothing more than to tear it all down for condos, Miami Vice practically invented the idea of South Beach.
Producers and art designers created decadently luxurious dance clubs, bars and restaurants in the bare lobbies and basements of Deco hotels where none of that existed. Obeying producer Michael Mann’s famous edict — “no earth tones” — they painted over the beige-and-brown that dulled some Art Deco trophies, revealing splendid facades. They decorated beaches and hotel pools that hadn’t seen anyone under 70 in two decades with crowds of attractive young extras in abbreviated swimsuits.
Suddenly, South Beach’s art deco architecture, gussied up with a fresh coat of pastel paint from Vice producers, was back in vogue. And clearly, as the art deco tours and festivals and Instagram posts that are so popular today suggest, that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The two hours of our tour flew by, and as fun as it was wandering around South Beach and learning about the roots of art deco and going into and around some of its iconic hotels, the real thrill was in hearing the salacious history of how Miami went from swamps to skyscrapers — only a tiny portion of which I’ve touched on here. It felt like we were being told whispered secrets and scandals from an insider, and we got access to rooftops and other places we wouldn’t have been able to go on our own!
I always have loved Miami — my own affair with the city started not with Miami Vice but, hilariously, with another show set there — and hearing its absolutely bonkers history made me love it even more.
This is the perfect tour to take at the beginning of a trip to Miami to get orientated to the neighborhood — we primarily walked outside between 10th and 15th streets — and stock up on local recommendations for where to eat and drink throughout your trip. We moved a little fast for photography — that’s definitely not the main focus, and James keeps a quick clip — but you can definitely star your favorite buildings on Google Maps and come back to them later.
Needless to say, I can’t recommend this tour more highly to anyone who loves history, architecture, or salacious storytelling. It was the sleeper hit of the trip!
Read next: How to Spend the Perfect Weekend in Miami
And that’s all from Miami! Any tips for my next trip?
I took this tour as part of a compensated photography assignment with Viator. I was not asked to write a review on my blog but had a great time and wanted to share it with you! Many photos in this post are courtesy of my friend Heather Holt of Heather Holt Photography. Thanks, Heather!