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A multimedia performance by the New World Symphony.

South Beach will always be something of a mixed blessing. Its art deco hotel rooms, perpetually in a state of renovation, are often barely larger than the beds they contain. Its restaurants are staffed by beautiful people who will never, ever get your order right, and its streets packed with unpredictable, noisome crowds born of heat, humidity and aquarium-sized cocktails.

But thankfully there is another Miami, a growing mecca for art and culture such as you won’t find anywhere else in the state, indeed anywhere else in the hemisphere. If Florida’s largest urban center still conjures up images of fashionistas and vapidity (or, for that matter, God’s waiting room and The Golden Girls), you obviously haven’t visited in a while. Art Basel Miami Beach, a December event since 2002, has become much more than the continent’s largest contemporary art fair. It and the artists it attracts have quite literally changed the definition of Miami. Massive murals—explosions of color and wit—line street after street of the city’s Wynwood Walls area, a once dilapidated warehouse neighborhood that’s become one of the most exciting outdoor museums in the world.

And just a stone’s throw away sit some of the most exciting indoor museums around. Miami’s Design District, as it’s now known, is a place where a room lined with thousands of cans of Budweiser can start you meditating in earnest on the American dream’s decline (at the Rubell Family Collection), where dozens of headless torsos wrapped in burlap can suggest the tyranny of the crowd (at the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse), and fluorescent-tubed sunbeams project a powerfully electric dawn (Pérez Art Museum Miami).

Art Basel’s legacy includes dozens of galleries, many interspersed with new high-end boutiques. And the art fair has helped revive numerous entities besides, not least the Sagamore Hotel, just steps from South Beach. “The Art Basel brunch here has become legendary,” says Susan Delconte, one of the hotel’s docents, walking us through the lobby, “but anyone can come take a look anytime they want.” And the Sagamore lobby isn’t the only place they’ll find great pieces. They’re in the bar and pool areas, even the stairwells, where each floor has been spectacularly transformed by a different student at Miami’s New World School of the Arts.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” asks Delconte, as we huff and puff our way to the fifth-floor landing. Indeed.

Speaking of lodging, travelers desiring an up close and personal Design District experience should consider the ’50s-era lodging options just across the causeway on Biscayne Boulevard. Some have been marvelously restored in the past few years, like the Vagabond Hotel, a triumph of midcentury kitsch that reeks of Rat Pack chic. (As well it should. According to the hotel’s website, the Vagabond was no less than “a fabled hangout” for Frank, Dean and Sammy, who “would frequently hobnob with showgirls and perform impromptu renditions on the lounge stage.”)

Miami’s buildings—from its lowliest motor lodge to loftiest city hall (the latter recently reborn as the Miami Beach Cinematheque, a film lover’s paradise)—have always been serious about capturing the city’s reputation for fun and frivolity. Miami’s New World Symphony can’t help but draw energy from its Frank Gehry-designed home, while Cesar Pelli’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts brings balletic grace and operatic opulence to the Miami skyline even as its stages bring them to audiences.

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Dreamy design and cuisine at Bianca inside the Delano Hotel.

In fact, Miami has a genius for blurring the boundaries between inner and outer beauty. An evening stroll through the lobby of one of the Sagamore Hotel’s neighbors, the Delano, is positively dreamlike, particularly when it ends at Bianca, a fine indoor-outdoor eatery that will leave no connoisseur of the culinary arts disappointed. Not unlike the city’s other aesthetic charms, it somehow manages to offer an experience both exciting (octopus cooked over charcoal), satisfying (pappardelle Bolognese) and jaw-dropping (I’m talking to you, tomahawk ribeye). 

“Rats, rabbits and mangroves—that’s all that used to be here,” says guide Candice Richard, staring out at the legendary strip of art deco hotels from across Ocean Drive.

We are on one of the Miami Design Preservation League’s fun, fast, utterly unmissable art deco walking tours of Ocean Drive. “Now, it’s a street of one masterpiece after another,” she says. Not unlike much of Miami, thanks to the curatorial efforts of Richard’s group and others, that is.

MORE ART TRIPS

For an arts adventure closer to home, head across the Skyway to St. Petersburg and keep it surreal by dropping into The Dalí Museum. Through June, the museum is exploring the surprising friendship between Salvador and Walt Disney, with paintings, sketches, correspondence and more. For a more contemporary experience, scoot over to the Warehouse Arts District, home to galleries and great vintage and antique shops. Wash it all down with a Bimini Twist IPA at 3 Daughters Brewing, one of the city’s many hopping hops purveyors.

Sample a taste of the Gilded Age in Palm Beach by touring the Flagler Museum, hosted inside a 75-room, 100,000-square-foot palace built in 1902 by Standard Oil cofounder and legendary Florida developer Henry Flagler. Appropriately enough, through April, the museum is hosting an exhibition of Gilded Age portraits by artists like James Carroll Beckwith and John Singer Sargent. After getting some high culture, gawk at representatives of our own Gilded Age by visiting Worth Avenue, loaded with designer shops.

Architecture nuts will go nuts in Lakeland, home to Florida Southern College, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the world. No wonder the campus is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful in the country. And don’t miss the free Polk Museum of Art, home to more than 2,500 pieces that range from Rembrandt to Damien Hirst. If you brought the kids, stop by the Florida Air Museum for a fun display of historical and contemporary aircraft, including the real star of Top Gun, the F-14. (Sorry, Tom.)