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The Hidden Gems You Haven’t Explored

When the temperature is balmy and the warm coastal winds sweep through, it’s clear why Miami became the ideal vacation spot for the leisure-seeking elite as far back as the late 1800s. On one of those perfect days recently, a trio of culture-seekers came to Miami to find the heartbeat of this city that few of today’s travelers ever get to see.

Go beyond the sun-dappled coastline, and the bustling metropolis stretches into a network of neighborhoods that represent the rich, diverse mix of people who have settled here. Cubans congregated in Little Havana, West Indians converged in Little Haiti, and developers and artists together created the Wynwood arts district — all throughout the city, such micro-regions popped up. Recently, Miami has come into its own with a community that realizes its strength lies in that diversity, and a fresh energy that permeates everything from the food to the architecture to the arts.

As you move from one neighborhood to the next, familiar scents follow you: the distinct smell of baked sand, salty air, orange blossom and smoky tobacco (which a master perfumer attempted to bottle in the early 2000s). These are the untouchable souvenirs that remind you of Miami long after you’re gone. Come along to discover Miami through the eyes of three vacationers — experts in food, design and architecture.


Jane Ko
Jane Ko (@atasteofkoko) – Jane is the blogger behind A Taste of Koko, Austin’s top food and travel blog. Jane relishes Miami’s dining scene – a flavorful mix of authentic cuisine, mom-and-pop eateries and high-low restaurants helmed by award-winning chefs. – New York Times

“When people migrate, they often have to adapt and lose their own culture, but in Miami you can hold on to your traditions – the community flourishes around diversity.”

A Food Blogger’s Miami Journey


Savor The Cuisine

Like any true food lover, Jane Ko was hungry to learn more about the homegrown institutions, farmers behind the menus and locally owned joints that predate the buzzy food trends.

She ventured to historic Overtown for a hearty breakfast at Jackson Soul Food, where passed-down recipes are kept alive in dishes like fried catfish, grilled sausage and barbecue ribs. “The split sausage was my favorite,” Ko says. “It is grilled to be perfectly crispy on both sides.” Ko says she appreciates the restaurant’s focus on simple and flavorful dishes that she says are “just good food made with love.”

As she left the restaurant, Ko stopped to study seven decades of history mounted on the walls, including a few unassuming portraits with celeb guests, like the crooners and blues singers who played in Overtown in the ’40s, when the neighborhood’s rich music scene earned it the name “Little Broadway.” “You can tell this is a family business from the moment you walk in,” she says. “Even if they are not blood-related, they are all family, and they treat guests the same way.”

Keenly aware that Miami’s tropical climate makes it a paradise not only for humans but also for hard-to-find star fruit, lychee and sugar apples, Ko wandered farther out from the city in search of these edible treasures.

About 45 minutes southwest of downtown in Redland, an area affectionately named for its iron-rich soil, there’s more produce than there are people. One of its guardians is Robert Moehling of Robert Is Here Fruit Stand and Farm, a 40-acre farm and open-air market that started in 1959 when Moehling was a young child selling cucumbers from a crate off the side of the road.

Ko picked up a 12-pound guanábana (called soursop in English). The handwritten description promises to lower blood pressure, fight infections and maybe even cure cancer. “This place is a gem,” Ko says. “All of the labels tell you where things come from, and Robert grows a lot of (produce) on the farm.”

As she settled down at a picnic table with one of Moehling’s legendary milkshakes made from creamy mamey fruit, a sprightly older woman, wearing a floppy tweed hat, turquoise trousers and a dainty string of pearls, approaches. “I just want you to know you won’t find better fruits anywhere,” the woman assures Ko.

Down the road, at family-owned Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery, the bounty is translated into beers and fruit wines (the avocado wine is a rare treat and tastes dry, like sauvignon blanc, while house-made CocoVino carries the sweetness of the coconut). “They are taking fruits that would otherwise go to waste because they are bruised or ‘imperfect,’ and turning them into the most incredible wines,” Ko says.

Back in the city, Ko learns how chefs reimagine the wealth of global influences in their creative dishes, like the tempura shrimp with aji amarillo and mango marmalade at Panorama Restaurant & Sky Lounge on the eighth floor of the Sonesta Coconut Grove Hotel. She goes for the food and can’t help but linger for the view — an awe-inspiring vista overlooking sailboat-dotted Biscayne Bay.

As Ko watches the sunset over the Atlantic, dessert arrives — deep-fried arroz con leche, a Latin American take on fried ice cream. She is most impressed by the range of foods in the city: “The chefs have access to the ingredients they are used to in their countries because of the climate here, and the city is also so accepting,” she says. “When people migrate, they often have to adapt and lose their own culture, but in Miami, you can hold on to your traditions — the community flourishes around diversity.”



Justina Blakeney (@justinablakeney) – Justina Blakeney is a designer, artist and author of the New York Times best-selling book, The New Bohemians. With a passion for color, pattern and plants, Justina and her blog, The Jungalow, have quickly become the go-to source for bohemian design inspiration. – New York Times.

“The Afro-Cuban-Latin flavor speaks to my aesthetic. I am multiracial, so I gravitate toward art, objects and furniture that are a mix of different influences. I see that echoed in Miami.”

A Designer’s Miami Journey


Get Inspired by Design

Art is a prevailing theme throughout Miami, and designer Justina Blakeney’s appreciation for mid-century modern furniture and tropical plants leads her to some of the city’s art-inspired gems.

The Standard Spa Hotel in Miami Beach is one of her first stops. Design-history buffs geek out over this blissful enclave adorned with thoughtful details like rocking chairs made by Danish furniture genius Hans Wagner. “He’s the grandfather of modernity,” Blakeney says, surprised to learn that unlike most rare vintage furniture found in hotels, these pristine curios are originals. Out in the spa’s maze-like garden, she stops to admire the elephant ears, fiddle-leaf figs and palm leaves that build on each other to create “green” rooms, where overworked creative types go to disconnect.

Blakeney often incorporates plants into her work, so she seeks more natural inspiration for her future textile designs at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

The 83-acre Coral Gables oasis, built in 1938, has a highly regarded butterfly conservatory and greenhouse rain forest filled with rare epiphytes, bromeliads and ferns. “I love seeing how the plants interact here,” she says, admiring their tendency to grow around and on top of each other. “There is this camaraderie that I don’t see in other places.”

The designer walked up to a rainbow eucalyptus tree. “I’ve never seen one in real life,” she says, while admiring the Australian beauty whose Technicolor trunk is created as the bark sheds layers every year. “This is how I get a lot of my ideas, just seeing what happens in nature. The colors out here are so vivid.”

She then took a walking tour of South Beach’s Art Deco District, one of the largest concentrations of this 20th-century style of architecture in the world. Miami didn’t invent art deco, but some of the style’s most vibrant and artistically re-created elements shine brightest here: the utilitarian nautical motifs, like portholes (a favorite for Blakeney), the whimsical shapes and the sweeping balconies.

Standing in the district’s Lummus Park across the street from the 1930s Casa Casuarina (formerly fashion mogul Gianni Versace’s opulent mansion), Blakeney’s attention is diverted from the fashion mogul’s storied rise and fall to Miami’s natural charms: A cluster of nearby sea grape trees and their tan, heart-shaped leaves that were strewn across the lawn caught her eye. “We call them ‘postcard leaves,’” the tour guide explained. The oversize leaves can be stamped and sent as snail mail. “You can literally send a piece of the beach home.” Blakeney took her time selecting the biggest and smoothest ones. “My daughter is going to flip when she gets this.”

Blakeney continued on to Plant the Future, in Wynwood, where the owner and artist, Paloma Teppa, leads the national conversation on modern horticulture and urban greenscaping with her whimsical take on planters and arrangements. “It’s like she’s painting with plants,” Blakeney says, awed by the air plant chandelier that’s equal parts sleek and ethereal, painted matte white and draped in moss.

Like Ko, Blakeney appreciates how cultures blend to create a unique look and feel in the city: “The Afro-Cuban-Latin flavor speaks to my aesthetic. I am multiracial, so I gravitate toward art, objects and furniture that are a mix of different influences. I see that echoed in Miami.”



Paul Octavious (@pauloctavious) – Paul Octavious is a photographer, designer, and storyteller with a unique point of view and talent for using ordinary objects to create something new and interesting. As an architecture aficionado, Paul was drawn to Miami’s bright, open layouts, sharp geometric lines and plenty of glass to mirror the sky and water, reflecting boundless possibilities – New York Times

“Locals seem to have a deep appreciation for design and art, and the city satisfies that with spaces that make you think or dream.”

A Photographer’s Miami Journey


Discover Great Architecture

Miami’s skyline is rapidly evolving, each building seemingly more impressive than the last. Photographer Paul Octavious notices immediately. “Unlike other cities’, Miami’s architecture has a voice,” he says. “The buildings serve functions of both purpose and beauty.”

He saw it first in SLS Brickell, a new hybrid hotel-condo outfitted by Philippe Starck, a design hero known for his industrial approach, that features an impressive art collection (including a sculpture from Colombian maestro Fernando Botero that stands publicly in front of the hotel) and two restaurants helmed by James Beard Award–winning chefs.

Though individuality is king, there are a few parallels in Miami’s contemporary landscape: Newer projects are designed with bright, open layouts, sharp geometric lines and plenty of glass to mirror the sky and water, reflecting boundless possibilities. “Locals seem to have a deep appreciation for design and art, and the city satisfies that with spaces that make you think or dream,” Octavious says.

Like many architecture lovers, Octavious has been looking forward to the opening of the downtown Frost Museum of Science, a $305 million beauty that stands out for its lofty design. The science center, which is paving the way for creative museum design, takes advantage of Miami’s coastal, blue-skied setting with an indoor-outdoor layout that allows people to move seamlessly between the spaces.

“Just look at this place — museums aren’t supposed to look like this. Well, they are, but they mostly don’t. I certainly didn’t grow up with anything like this,” he says, referring to the three-level aquarium, a planetarium equipped with high-definition projection only found on a handful of screens around the world, and a laser show. “I’m obsessed with prisms and rainbows,” he says.

The Frost Museum of Science makes up part of a new entertainment district that’s reinvigorating Downtown Miami. Across the street, the late Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid’s portrait hangs from the bones of what will be her last gift to the world: an exoskeleton-style residential tower soaring 62 stories, named 1000 Museum. “Female architects are so underrepresented,” Octavious says. “And here, her photo is displayed like she’s a rock star, which she was.” When it’s completed in 2018, 1000 Museum will also be Hadid’s only skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.

The Miami Design District paved the way for this art-focused development. The perfectly engineered hamlet blends luxury retail with design to create a community hub where access to high art is democratized through two public installations and two contemporary museums that are free to the public.

Later this year, the district will welcome a new Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA Miami), a project two years in the making that’s being built completely by donations. “People think contemporary art is only for rich people or that it’s all really expensive, but it doesn’t have to be like that,” says Tommy Pace, associate director at ICA Miami, as he walked Octavious through the construction site. “We want everyone in Miami to feel like this museum is theirs.”

Preservation is also important: Locals aim to protect icons like the landmark Stiltsville. To get a taste of this part of Old Florida, Octavious took a sunset yacht tour toward the cluster of clapboard houses perched on stilts one mile off Biscayne National Park’s shore. The overwater houses come into view as Octavious followed the historian, Dr. Paul George, while he pointed out distinguishing features and legends. “That’s the one where Teddy Roosevelt had his bachelor party — his second one,” he says to Octavious.

Legend has it, the first shack was built by a fisherman who started selling chowder and bait from a beached boat off the coast in the 1930s. Others followed, and by the ’60s, there were 27 bungalows making up a weekender community with its own unofficial mayor. Most of them have been wiped away by hurricanes, but the site is still dreamy. “I thought it was an art installation at first,” says Octavious. “I didn’t think it was real.”

The story above was written and produced by The New York Times’ TBrandStudio and may be viewed in its original format here.