Top 8 sights in and around Miami
It was only in 1896 that visionary Henry Flagler brought the railroad south in search of warmer climes, and Miami really started to emerge as the popular tropical haven it is today.
With sweeping white sand beaches and balmy waters, it is easy to see what first so enticed Flagler. The 1930s saw a golden age for Miami when outlandish art deco architectural gems sprouted up all over Miami Beach's strip, especially in the southern corner that was to become world famous South Beach.
Today, this quarter is alive by day and night with a host of Hollywood stars owning clubs and hotels, as well as competing for space on Ocean Drive.
Pop on your shades and coolest designer clobber, and join me in my convertible as we cruise through the best things to see and do in the sexiest and steamiest of America's southern dames - you're in for a fun ride.
Miami is delightfully sunny all year round and especially good in the spring. If you fancy escaping for some late winter/pre-summer sun, check out fares with Virgin Atlantic*, which flies direct and daily from London Heathrow.
1. A night out in Miami Beach
You simply don't come to Miami without visiting Miami Beach. Ocean Drive is the epicentre of Miami Beach life, with one flank of the street crammed full of buzzing bars, sleek cafés, and art deco architecture, while the other side of the boulevard opens up into a wide beach and offers sweeping ocean views.
When the sun slips down, Ocean Drive bursts into life with a splash of neon and the street itself becomes an endless procession of stylish cars cruising by to soak up the action.
Just take a seat in one of the bars like the Clevelander, an art deco wonder that today attracts a lively crowd, and join in the pool party. Once you've danced yourself to a standstill head for the legendary News Café, which bustles on 24/7.
2. Miami Beach by day
I recommend coming back during the day to chill on the famous sands and to take the pulse of local life. On any given morning a stroll along the fringe of the Atlantic Ocean brings with it a flurry of photo shoots and models posing for the fashion magazines.
Photographers, film and TV producers (from Miami Vice to Dexter) just keep coming back for the glitz and seductive light of this idyllic slice of southern Florida.
Make sure you check out the glorious historical buildings that are now protected by the Miami Beach Design Preservation League. Many have been spruced up in a range of striking pastel colours that are strictly regulated by the local authorities.
3. Head Downtown & visit Little Havana
Away from the beach, the city of Miami itself has much to offer. The Downtown area has sprouted gleaming skyscrapers and ocean-side walkways over the last few decades. Along the waterfront, there are also many bars and restaurants that serve up fresh seafood.
For a totally different vibe head for the mellow ambience of Little Havana, which is more Cuban in feel than American thanks to the large and lively population of émigré Cubans. It is partly this collage of cultures that makes Miami such a fascinating and rewarding city to visit.
4. Shop until you drop
There are lots of exclusive boutiques and some more esoteric independent shops dotted around Miami Beach.
Then there are the shopping malls with their massive bargains, good value even when the pound is less strong against the dollar. One of the best malls is Aventura Mall, where you can pick up some real luxury bargains.
You can kit yourself out in this three-storey oasis with some decent gear without breaking the bank, and head back for a pose down on South Beach.
5. Zoo Miami
Florida overflows with glitzy theme parks, but this - the largest zoo in the state and America's only tropical zoo - is a bit more traditional with the focus very much on the animals. Its story dates back as far as the 1940s.
Today, its massive collection stretches to over 3,000 animals, which are housed in over 100 exhibition areas so you'd better get your best walking shoes on for this one!
As well as the usual suspects like lions and giraffes you can also walk in an underwater tunnel under alligators. I recommend going along to one of their night visits as many animals really come into their own after dusk.
6. Be a culture vulture
It's not just all about having a party in Miami. The city houses a sprinkling of first-rate cultural attractions.
Chiefs among them are the Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in an award-winning building in downtown Miami, the Wolfsonian-FIU, which sits right in the heart of the action in South Beach (you can visit for free on Friday nights).
Not to mention fellow Miami Beach charmer, the Bass Museum of Art, and the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables.
7. Discover the Everglades
The breathtaking green lung of the Everglades National Park spreads its tentacles across vast swathes of Florida's south and is an easy drive from Miami.
There are various access points into what is the second largest national park in the US. There are countless islands to explore, endless tracts of mangrove swamp and, yes, plenty of alligators.
The park authorities advise against feeding these snappy predators - you would do well to heed their advice! Other wildlife includes manatees, ospreys, eagles, and the endangered leatherback turtle.
You can take a boat trip through the national park, and walking or cycling are both brilliant ways of exploring it too.
8. Escape to the Florida Keys
Florida is a pretty chilled state, but in the Florida Keys the lotus-eating reaches new levels.
This glorious holiday playground has been loved by movers and shakers for years and was, of course, a particular favourite of hard drinking writer and wildman Ernest Hemingway.
This sultry archipelago sits only 90 miles north of Cuba and is a world away from the other east coast US cities.
Come here to sip on a cocktail, savour proper Key Lime Pie and discover why Key West is one of the most enjoyable and laidback holiday-escapes in North America.
From the lively hub of Miami Beach to the natural beauties in the Everglades and the beach vibes of the Keys, Miami is a destination with a little bit of everything.
You can fly direct to the vibrant city of Miami from London Heathrow in around 10 hours. Check out the latest deals on fares across the pond with Virgin Atlantic today, and get booking to experience Florida in 2019 or 2020.
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