A Captivating Miami Beach Art Deco Walking Tour

Around 1915, a few blocks of buildings on a barrier island in Florida’s 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 world-renowned Miami Beach Art Deco walking tour. Although, at almost 9-square-miles, being in shape wouldn’t hurt. But don’t worry – we won’t walk that far!

Miami Beach’s Art Deco Beginnings

Fun fact: Miami Beach started as a failed coconut plantation. Once a hotel was built, its fortunes changed. With easy access to sandy beaches and ocean swells, the small city became 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. Chic resorts and hotels quickly followed.

After World War I and the Great Depression, Art Deco’s popularity soared all over the world. The style represented luxury and glamour, and captured the world’s new found faith in social and technological progress. Though born in France, American architects embraced the form, which dominated Manhattan’s building boom of the 1920s and ’30s.

Miami Beach personified that exuberance in its resorts and beaches. Architects fused the city’s lean Industrial style with Art Deco designs and American glamour. Suddenly, the smaller hotels and office buildings had an enduring style unique to the island.

So how does Miami Beach become the Art Deco capital of the world?

By World War II, the rest of the world had moved past Art Deco, but Miami Beach kept right on going. In the Post War years, Mid-Century Modern took hold in Palm Springs. Across the country, famed architect Morris Lapidus pioneered the lavish, over-the-top Miami Modern, or MiMo. According to Lapidus, it was made for Americans just getting accustomed to luxury. In describing the overflowing style of the Fontainebleau in North Beach, Lapidus explained that when guests walked in, they felt like they had arrived.

“This is what we’ve dreamed of. This is what we saw in the movies, and this is 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! The Miami Beach Architectural District spreads across the southern end of the city, starting at Dade Boulevard. In 1979, it became the first entire historic district to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fun Fact: there are nearly 1,000 buildings in the district! Don’t worry, we’ll just hit the highlights, plus a few stops to keep things interesting for everyone – Art Deco devotee or not. So let’s get going on our Miami Beach Art Deco District Walking Tour!

Iconic Ocean Drive – Miami Beach’s Art Deco Epicenter

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.

But first, coffee!

We started in the morning at Starbucks (of course!) on Ocean Drive at 14th Place, right on the corner by Lummus Park. It’s the perfect place and plan to start our Miami Beach Art Deco walking tour! With coffee and camera in hand, we will stroll all the way down Ocean Drive to 5th Street, enjoying the cool ocean breeze and gawking at the pastel colored buildings. Our first photo stop is a personal favorite: the McAlpin Hotel. This building is more than just one of the city’s top selfie spots; it’s one of the city’s finest examples of Art Deco architecture. L. Murray Dixon, one of the giants in Art Deco, designed the hotel in 1940, along with many more of Miami’s most iconic buildings.

See also  Miami Beach Art Deco Walking Tour, Part Two

Although just about every building is photo-worthy, a few more 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.

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, this block is the “money shot” of Miami Beach!

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.

Miami Beach Party Palaces: Casa Casaurina and The Clevelander

Between 12th and 11th Streets, you’ll see one of the most famous homes in South Beach, Casa Casaurina. Better known as the Versace Mansion, the Mediterranean Revival estate was built in the 1930s, and is a private party club today. Not only did Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace live here, it’s where he was shockingly gunned down by a serial killer on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Decades later, the motive for the killing is still unknown.

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, the infamous Miami Beach party scene begins in earnest at the Clevelander. Built in 1938, the colorful hotel is known for its poolside bar and street-side stage. No matter when you go, it’s worth exploring the oasis that is the Clevelander.

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. You can also find information on events in the area, and sign up for tours ($20 to $25).

Art Deco Darlings in the Heart of South Beach

In the next few blocks, you’ll see more famous “SoBe” venues. The popular Hotel Breakwater is here, plus the Estefan’s restaurant, Lario’s on the Beach. The musical stars opened Lario’s in 1992. It quickly became THE place in Miami for authentic Cuban cuisine – and killer mojitos! It has been closed for renovations since mid-2020, though.

Strolling further, you’ll pass the Colony Hotel, the Beacon, and the Avalon. Even if you don’t know the names, you’ve certainly seen their faces.

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.

Eventually, we come to 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 at the nearby Port of Miami. In the 1940s and ’50s, it’s where a Hollywood clientele defined South Beach as a glamorous playground for the rich and famous.

About the Pastel Paradise

Ocean Avenue stretches out like a fashion runway for buildings swathed in warm, summery pastel colors. It’s a hallmark of the Art Deco District, but some have been critical of the paint jobs, complaining that before the TV show Miami Vice, Miami Beach did not wear pastels. (Nor loafers without socks, but I digress.) But the pastels actually pre-date Miami Vice.

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The Art Deco movement itself did not have a defined palette, concerning itself more with form and materials. At other Art Deco icons around the globe, black and chrome, lavish gold, and pearly whites are dominant colors. In the Miami Beach of the mid-70s, there was no color theme (aside from mostly white), and the buildings were aging. That’s where preservationist Leonard Horowitz entered the picture.

Horowitz, and his partner in Art Deco, Barbara Capitman, set up the Miami Design Preservation League and got funding to revitalize the Art Deco District. Horowitz pulled together 40 colors for the Miami Color Palette, representing the tropical flair of the seaside community. It came to be known as the Pastel Paradise and, while it may have been representative of the community, it was not well received. Even Horowitz had doubts at times but, over time, the Art Deco District’s new paint job came to be a defining feature that drew attention and tourists from around the world. And, of course, and the producers of Miami Vice.

You can watch the 1989 documentary A Pastel Paradise on You Tube. It details Leonard Horowitz and the Miami Design Preservation League’s work to make Miami Beach the iconic beauty we know today. It was their work that resulted in the Art Deco District being added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

The (Re)Birthplace of Miami Beach Art Deco

With that bit of history, there is one more highly recommended stop to pay homage to the genius of Leonard Horowitz. At the corner of Washington and 7th is an iconic building that was once the stark white Friedman’s Bakery. It is the first building that got a Horowitz makeover. His genius and impact were validated when this building graced the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine in November 1982.

A photo of Friedman's Bakery on the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine in 1982, and in a 2023 photograph.

The former Friedman’s Bakery on the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine in 1982, and in a 2023 photograph.

SoFi and Other Options

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 explore the South of Fifth (SoFi) neighborhood. You can wave to the cruise ships leaving for and returning from the Bahamas and Caribbean at South Pointe Park. If you turn west on 3rd Street, you can visit the Jewish Museum of Florida at Washington Avenue, just two streets west of Ocean Drive.

The walk from our start at Starbucks down to South Pointe Park is just 1.5 miles. Making it a round trip up the shore and along Lummus Park is a nice walk with stunning scenery. It’s a popular part of South Beach, thanks to the mile-plus of Atlantic shoreline. After all, without that beach, this entire area would just be another barrier island.

Repositioning for Part Two

We’ll pick up Part Two a little less than 1.5 miles north on Washington Avenue at Lincoln Road. The walk back up Washington is not non-stop eye candy, but it has its moments! Or, you can pick up a CitiBike across the street from the Jewish Museum and pedal to Lincoln Park, where you can return the bike.

The acclaimed restaurant HaSalon has an eye-popping building at Washington and 5th. You might want that South Beach selfie with the SoBe statue at Washington and 6th. And then there is the former Friedman’s Bakery at 7th. Miami Beach’s beautiful Old City Call is at 11th Street and, for the daring, the World Erotic Art Museum is at Washington and 12th. It’s not much to see from the outside, but we imagine it’s another story inside. Española Way is just a few blocks away, and Lincoln Road shortly after 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 “A Captivating 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!!

    • 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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