In 2021 Miami’s mayor Dan Gelber announced plans to transform South Beach – AKA Miami’s party district – into an Art Deco cultural district, swapping cocktails for culture by cracking down on bad behaviour and restricting alcohol sales. His plan hasn’t been plain sailing; in 2022 Miami’s courts overturned a recently introduced ban on alcohol sales after 2am, allowing the city’s beachfront bars to continue to quench the thirst of Miami’s party animals until 5am.

However, after a week in Miami, I’m confident there’s hope on the horizon. Wynwood Walls might well be the city’s most famous spot for an urban art fix, and the average visitor to South Beach is still more likely to pass their time at a champagne-soaked pool party at the Baia Beach Club rather than the nearby Bass Museum of Art, but there’s also a sense that the owners of Miami’s hotels, bars and listed buildings have come to the collective conclusion that a dose of culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Art, for example, is now everywhere. Take the W South Beach hotel. Visitors who can’t quite face slogging it over to the Pérez Art Museum Miami, where Yayoi Kusama’s Insta-friendly Love is Calling exhibition will be in place until early 2024, can instead opt to pose next to the bronze Hello Kitty sculpture which was created by American artist Tom Sachs and stands outside the hotel. Inside the foyer, I spot a stack of Andy Warhol’s soup cans. The W South Beach’s art collection, which includes 21 Andy Warhol pieces, is thought to be the most expensive art collection on display at any hotel (it’s valued at £16m).

Art is everywhere in Miami’s South Beach

(Tamara Hinson)

Art cropping up in unusual places seems to be a theme in South Beach. In the Walgreens pharmacy near my hotel, the windows have been filled with a 93-foot-long art installation by Philip Lique, who’s used a range of items – from cacti to Walgreens products – to explore relationships between materials and production processes. It’s part of the Windows Project, a collaboration between the Bakehouse Art Complex, a Miami-based not-for-profit incubator for artists, and the aforementioned Bass Museum of Art – a museum which is, without a doubt, at the forefront of the much-needed art attack on South Beach. The Walgreens exhibit is a reminder that in South Beach, art is no longer just confined to its galleries.

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If fact, Bass Museum of Art curator James Voorhies says his favourite piece of art isn’t one inside the museum, but in a nearby park. “Miami Mountain by Ugo Rondinone is from The Bass’s permanent collection, and it’s been installed in Collins Park,” says Voorhies. “It comprises enormous boulders stacked atop one another, reaching a towering height of 12 metres.” Another of his favourite artworks – albeit not one owned by the Bass Museum of Art, but part of the city’s Art in Public Spaces scheme – can found on the side of the Miami Beach Convention Center. “Every week I cycle past Sarah Morris’ Morris Lapidus, a gorgeous porcelain-tiled wall mural installed on the northeast corner of the conference centre,” says Voorhies. “It’s an homage to the famous architect Morris Lapidus, whose design has left such an indelible impact on Miami.”

Take a tour of the distinctive architecture of the South Beach

(Tamara Hinson )

I learn more about Miami’s distinct architecture styles at the Miami Design Preservation League, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 1976 to promote and protect Miami’s architecture. Don’t know your proscenium from your porte-cochère? You’re in luck – this is the place to learn not only about Miami’s most architecturally significant buildings, but the defining features of the various styles, whether it’s post-war, post-modern or art deco. Visitors come here for guided tours of the museum, which provides a fascinating insight into the history of South Beach’s most famous landmarks and breaks down its various architectural styles, which include not only art deco but genres such as American streamline, which emerged in the 1930s and was inspired by nautical elements.

Mark Gordon, a Miami Design Preservation League director, says one of his favourite buildings is the nearby Beach Patrol Headquarters at 1001 Ocean Drive. “It was designed by Robert Taylor in 1934,” says Gordon. “It’s a prime example of tropical deco – a style which mimics the lines of ocean liners from the 1920s.”

At times, South Beach’s main artery, Ocean Drive, feels like a linear, seafront museum

At times, South Beach’s main artery, Ocean Drive, feels like a linear, seafront museum – my favourite buildings include the former Versace mansion, a Mediterranean revivalist building which was once Gianni Versace’s home and is now home to Gianni’s Italian restaurant, and the Carlyle Hotel, an art deco gem built in 1941 and used as a backdrop for The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman. But there are plenty of cultural spaces in South Beach for traditionalists, too. In addition to the Bass Museum of Art, there’s the Jewish Museum of Florida and the Wolfsonia-FIU, an eclectic museum where 200,000 items explore the power of art and design between the Industrial Revolution and the end of World War II. You’ll find it in one of Miami’s finest art deco buildings – which, by the way, aren’t just found in South Beach.

Learn more at Miami’s Art Deco museum

(Tamara Hinson)

Miami’s North Beach, for example, is famous for its so-called MiMo (Miami modern) architecture, and highlights of the North Beach Resort Historic District include the Casablanca and Sherry Frontenac hotels, two of Miami’s finest examples of post-war architecture, while the Morris Lapidus Historic District (also known as the Mid 20-Century Historic District) on Collins Avenue has some of the city’s most beautiful mid-century modern buildings.

Miami mayor Dan Gelber might have failed to stop South Beach bars serving alcohol beyond 2am, but I suspect, thanks largely to the presence of people like architecture buff Mark Gordon, the Bass Museum of Art’s James Voorhies and other guardians of South Beach’s culture, architecture and history, the future’s looking bright.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Return flights from London Heathrow to Miami with Virgin Atlantic Virgin Atlantic from £447.

Staying there

The all-suite Hilton Bentley Miami South Beach offers views of the Atlantic Ocean and South Beach’s Art Deco district.

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