Miami Beach Art Deco Walking Tour

Around about 1915, a few blocks of buildings established on a barrier island in Biscayne Bay were incorporated as the City of Miami Beach. The rest, as they say, is history. Glamorous Art Deco history, to be exact. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a history geek or art major to enjoy a walking tour of the Art Deco Distict. Although, at almost 9-square-miles, being in shape wouldn’t hurt. But don’t worry – we won’t walk that far!

So how did Miami Beach come to be the Art Deco Capital of the World?

With easy access to sandy beaches and ocean swells, Miami Beach was an instant hit with the well to do. Captains of industry, stars of stage and screen, and wealthy socialites were drawn to its sunny shores, and chic resorts and hotels quickly followed. After World War I and the Great Depression, Art Deco was popular around the world. American architects fused the lean Industrial style with Art Deco designs and American glamour in the buildings of Miami Beach.

By World War II, the rest of the world had move past Art Deco, but Miami Beach kept right on going. In the Post War years, Mid-Century Modern was taking hold in Palm Springs, while something called Miami Modern, or MiMo was pioneered by Morris Lapidus. It was more lavish and “over the top” and, according to Lapidus, was for Americans just getting accustomed to luxury. In describing the overflowing style of the Fontainebleau in North Beach, Lapidus explained that when guests walk in “they do feel, ‘This is what we’ve dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies, this what we imagined it might be.’ ”

Today, that small sliver of Florida real estate is home to the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, spread across the city from Dade Boulevard south to Sixth Street. In 1979, the Art Deco District (officially the Miami Beach Architectural District) became the first Historic District to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. While there are nearly 1,000 buildings in the District, we hit just the highlights, plus a few stops to keep things interesting for everyone – Art Deco devotee or not.

But first, coffee!

Photo: Starbucks, McAlpin and Leslie Buildings on Ocean Drive

Starbucks on Ocean Drive? Yes! Plus two perfect examples of Art Deco design – The McAlpin and Leslie buildings.

We started in the morning at Starbucks on Ocean Drive at 14th, right on the corner by Lummus Park. Some would say this area is even better looking all lit up at night, so you could make this a twilight tour ending at Starbucks or the nightclubs down the street. Either way, we stroll down Ocean Drive gawking at the pastel colored buildings, starting with a personal favorite, the McAlpin Hotel. This building is special as it was designed by L. Murray Dixon, the architect responsible for many of the city’s iconic structures. Although just about every building is photo-worthy, a few highlights in the next few blocks include the Cardozo, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan (who own several properties in the area), the sleek Carlyle, and the lemon-yellow Leslie. The Carlyle may seem familiar: It was the setting for The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Photo: The Carlyle building on Ocean Drive and as seen in The Birdcage

Star of Street & Screen – The Carlyle, made up for its starring role as The Birdcage.

Between 12th and 11th Streets, you’ll see one of the most famous homes in South Beach, Casa Casaurina, the Versace Mansion. The Mediterranean Revival mansion built in the 1930s is a private party club today. Not only did Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace live here, it’s where he was shot and killed in 1997. While Miami Beach is definitely known for more modern architectural styles, the Mediterranean Revival theme was popular on the island, although more so on in communities like Coral Gables on the mainland.

Miami Beach Modern Art Deco Walking Tour via @TravelLatte.net

Miami Beach in contrast: The opulent Versace Mansion sits down the street from the understated Art Deco Welcome Center.

Further down Ocean Drive is where the serious party scene begins at the Clevelander. The colorful hotel was built in 1938 and is known for its poolside bar and street-side stage. Across the street at 10th is the Art Deco Welcome Center. Although it’s the home of the Miami Design Preservation League, it’s a surprisingly plain building. Inside you can learn more about the design styles prominent in Miami Beach through the years, get information on events in the area, and sign up for tours ($20 to $25). In the next block, you’ll see more famous South Beach venues including the Breakwater, Mango’s Tropical Café, and the Estefan’s restaurant Lario’s on the Beach.

Miami Beach Modern Art Deco Walking Tour via @TravelLatte.net

A trio of Miami Beach beauties (L-to-R) The Park Central Hotel, Breakwater Hotel, and The Clevelander.

In the last few blocks of Ocean Drive, you’ll pass the Colony Hotel, the Beacon, the Avalon, and eventually the Park Central Hotel. Built in 1937, it was the first of the Miami Beach hotels to be restored to its full Art Deco glory in 1987. The “portholes,” metal rails and tall façade are meant to resemble the ocean liners that called at nearby Port of Miami in the 1930s. In the 1940s and ‘50s, a Hollywood clientele at the helped define South Beach as a glamorous playground for the rich and famous.

Strictly speaking, the Art Deco District ends at 5th Street and this is where Part One of our tour concludes. However, you could continue a few blocks further on Ocean Drive to the very nice South Pointe Park where you might catch cruise ships leaving for/returning from the Bahamas and Caribbean. Or you can turn west on 3rd Street and visit the Jewish Museum of Florida at Washington Avenue. We’ll pick up Part Two a little less than 1.5 miles north on Washington at Lincoln Road. There is not much to see between here and there, so we totally would not blame you for taking Uber or renting a CitiBike at Washington and 3rd. (You can drop it off right at Lincoln Road.)

If you like to keep track, the stroll down Ocean Drive from Starbucks to South Pointe Park is about 1.5 miles. (A complete map of the route is in Part Two.) Making the round trip up the shore and along Lummus Park is a nice walk with stunning scenery AND the opportunity to get your feet wet! Does it get any better than that?

Ready for Part Two? See more historic buildings on Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue, plus a map of our route.

Pin it for Later: Miami Beach Art Deco Art Tour on TravelLatte.net

No time to finish? Want to keep it handy? You can Pin it for later, or continue to Part Two!

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38 comments on “Miami Beach Art Deco Walking Tour

    • They really do! And there is so much of it in Miami Beach. A little further up the beach, it’s more MiMO – the look of the original big, modern Miami resort hotels like the Fontainebleau. Stunning! Gosh…now we want to go back! 🙂 Thanks for your comment, Sally!

  1. We’re hoping to go sometime soon so this post is great to read. I’d be interested in Ocean Beach and definitely walking the streets to see the art deco around the city. #theweeklypostcard

    • You guys will love it! If you’re like us, the Cuban food will be a real taste treat, with a lot of similarities to other Latin dishes. (There’s more to see and eat over on Lincoln Road & Espanola Way, too!) Plus, on Ocean Drive, you’ve got that great beach right across from the hotels and clubs – great scene night and day! We hope you go sometime soon, too! 🙂

    • Hi Staci – The McAlpin is one of our favorites! (Okay, yes, we say that about almost every other building…but we mean it at this one!) For sheer style, it’s a winner! Also big fans of the Leslie’s bright yellow. With all of the style and color, you can’t help but feel happy! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  2. How interesting! I did not know that! It’s pretty cool how despite the fashion trend fading, Miami kept on going with it! Nothing like forging your own identity instead of conforming to everyone else! Pinned! #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    • Right? Even today, our impression of Miami Beach is that it’s less concerned with what the rest of the world is doing, and more concerned with being Miami Beach. That’s perfect with us! 🙂 Now that you know, you’ve got to go!!

  3. I love Art Deco architecture and I’m sure it must have been interesting to go on such a tour. As far as I am concerned, I wasn’t quite taken by Miami. It might have been the humidity and the crowds that made me feel that way. Miami Beach was fun to walk around and look at some of the Art Deco buildings, but other than that Miami is one of those places where I would probably not return if I don’t have to. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • You know, Anda, we really enjoy Miami Beach, but find ourselves spending very little time in Miami itself. The humidity, coupled with some big crowds, is definitely an OFF switch for us, too, so we get it. We do tend to go in spring and fall, though, so we don’t get that blast furnace effect. 😉 Thanks for reading!

  4. OMG!! I love art deco and I had no idea that this was such a thing in Miami! Ooooh, I really have to put this on my to-see list, it looks awesome!!
    #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • Hi Esther – To be precise, it’s a big thing in Miami Beach, though Miami proper does have some fine examples. Not many places with such a high concentration of cool architecture, though! We love it! Thanks for your comment.

    • Thanks for visiting, Malinda. Some great looking buildings, for sure. They’ve definitely become iconic of Miami Beach. Glad to have found #WednesdayWanderlust – so many more great bloggers to follow!

  5. I had no idea about this whole story. That’s very interesting! I’ve in Miami Beach before, but didnt really pay attention to these buildings, probably because I was too young 😀

    Happy to have you on #MondayEscapes

  6. I have read about the art deco walking tour at Miami Beach and would really enjoy this, as I love art and the art deco period.

    • Hi Paula – Thanks for visiting! I’m a fan of Art Deco as well, and Miami Beach is sort of like an open air museum where you can admire the artwork while strolling along with a cup of coffee. That’s our kind of museum! 😉

  7. I did this tour the first time I was in Miami, and it’s just amazing – I love love Art Deco and the building in the sun are just stunning. It’s a great way to learn more about the city’s history too.

    • Hi Cathy – Thanks for stopping by! I’m not sure which I think is prettier – the buildings lit up by the sunshine or by the neon! Either way, I love the post-war optimism and Hollywood glamour the buildings convey. Even today, when you visit you do get that feeling that this IS what we saw in the movies! Or, at least on Miami Vice and CSI: Miami! 😉

    • Ha! You’ll be happy to know we did not see a single crocodile or alligator. We did see a guy walking down Ocean Drive with a big yellow snake though… 😉

  8. I would love to tour the high concentration Art Deco areas of Miami. I have visited before but my companions were not interested in architecture like me. Did you used a guide to see specific buildings or you just walked around?

    • Hi Ruth! That’s what’s so great – you can literally walk down almost any major street and see lots of great buildings. We did not take a guided tour, but there are several available. We did do some research first, so we’d know which buildings we should look for and which streets or neighborhoods are the best. Along the way, we also used our Smartphones to Google some buildings, like the Leslie and the Carlyle. That fun-filled research led to the buildings we included here!

  9. I love Art Deco architecture! This is on my too do list if I ever visit Miami. I’ve driven through/transited through Miami several times but never actually been to the city itself. #wkndtravelinspiration

    • Hi Shobha – Thanks for stopping by! You will love Miami Beach – and across the bay in Miami proper, there’s even more great architecture. Plus, it’s a great city for food and fashion, and the people are great. Definitely worth taking some time to see!

    • Yay! Always fun to explore the cities on the road ahead. Glad you liked the tour, and thanks for leaving a comment – much appreciated! Spring in Miami is great – not too hot and not super crowded, but be sure you’re not there when local universities are on Spring Break – that gets a little crazy! Have fun – I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it!

    • Hi Sally – Remember Miami Vice? That TV show is part of the reason Miami Beach is so colorful! As the story goes, the producers wanted more color when they were filming in Miami Beach, and convinced owners to paint their beautiful Art Deco buildings in the bright colors you see today. Now, when people think of Art Deco, it’s not just the symmetry and design, but rainbow of pastels that comes to mind. Hope you get to cross it off your Bucket List soon!

    • Hi Amila – thanks for visiting the blog! Like a lot of people, our mental images of Miami Beach were from vintage movies, TV shows, and magazines about architecture and lifestyle. Visiting really brings those images to life. It’s like a giant in situ art museum, with a vibrant cultural life, great food, and wonderful people.

  10. Miami Beach is a fun place to walk around and see all the historical Art Deco buildings. It’s especially nice in the evening when they light them up with neon lights. We really enjoy heading walking around on Ocean Drive and people watching.

    • Hi Carmen – Thanks so much for stopping by the blog! You are so right, People Watching on Ocean Drive is great fun. On the way home, I was reading an article about Miami Beach from a few years ago, and there was a photo of “the snake guy” – who we had seen just the day before. So many characters! We also happened to catch them filming La Banda, so there was lots of music and energy that night. As usual, Ocean Drive was a party!

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