NICHOLAS CHRISOSTOMOU by-passes South Beach to stay in Brickell, Miami’s new downtown heart, which has transformed the Florida city’s urban core into a buzzing hive
When visiting Miami and able to choose anywhere to stay, these days I almost always plump for Brickell over the beach. I completely understand why tourists visiting Florida’s party capital head directly to South Beach – micro bikinis, strappy sandals and tanning oil in hand. SoBe is undoubtedly Miami’s trendiest district, and is lashed with enough sun, sea, music and nightlife to keep even a partying pro entertained for days, if not weeks. But, as any seasoned Miamian will tell you, the beach can get a little overwhelming at times, not least due to the sheer number of tourists or incoming festival goers crowded onto Miami’s sands. And whilst fashion-led and art-centric Design District and Wynwood are uber-cool (especially the latter), sadly there aren’t yet any great places to stay in these neighbourhoods.
Nestled between Coral Gables and Miami Beach and just a quick drive north of the Design District and Wynwood, the construction of a massive new mixed-use complex of luxury condominium towers, premium office buildings, a five-star hotel and a sprawling open-air shopping centre has transformed Miami’s urban core from a dullish banking ghetto into a vibrant living, working, shopping and dining hive. In the past few years, this gleaming new neighbourhood has shone the light on the city’s downtown heart, and somewhat stolen the show from Miami’s beaches when it comes to shopping, culture and eating-out.
At the centre of Miami’s new downtown heart is the billion Dollar Brickell City Centre complex, covering more than five million square feet. The project was conceived and designed to re-imagine the central business district, elevate the downtown Miami pedestrian experience and breathe new life into this previously uneventful neighbourhood. It has achieved all this and much more. Compared to seven or eight years ago, Brickell is now virtually unrecognisable. Not least, the entire area is now positively overflowing with social electricity. And in light of developer Swire Group’s proven track record of success – both Stateside and in the parent company’s Hong Kong home – the odds are very much in Brickell’s long-term favour.
Outwardly Brickell might seem a tad sleepier than other downtown areas (and its residents would probably like to keep it that way), but Miami’s new city centre is actually home to a hugely vibrant cultural and restaurant scene, with more venues opening regularly to fuel the growing demand of an increasing number of residents moving into their swanky new apartments.
Whilst the neighbourhood’s original condo buildings have long lined the water, during the past decade, more and more residential skyscrapers have sprung-up a little inland. The first was Reach – a deluxe 43-storeycondo building of almost 400 units. This was soon followed by a second residential tower of the same size: Rise. A massive upscale office building was finished shortly after. In recent years the construction and unveiling of swanky new living accommodation and business premises has showed little sign of slowing-down. Of course, as Brickell’s resident numbers have swelled, so the area’s culinary and entertainment offerings have morphed along with them.
Residents of Reach and Rise need only head downstairs to be in the middle of a sprawling new half-million sq. ft. multi-level entertainment and retail area, spread over four levels. Anchored by a massive Saks Fifth Avenue and a VIP CMX cinema, this complex is very much the heart of new-look Brickell, from which everything else branches off (www.brickellcitycentre.com). Here, high-street and designer shopping, upscale food halls and world-class dining are interconnected over three city blocks and linked to the city’s main transportation network by Metromover. A 4.4-mile electrically-powered fully automated people mover system, Metromover is free to use and operates seven-days-a-week from 5am until midnight. In a city which is often log-jammed, the Metromover is a god-send for people who need to be whisked around Brickell and its surrounding areas.
Pretty much all of Brickell City Centre has been designed by Miami-based architecture, interior design and planning firm, Arquitectonica, founded in 1977 and winner of more than 200 awards for its iconic projects. Unifying the new shopping and entertainment heart of Brickell with adjacent city blocks, via platforms that allow pedestrians to stroll from one building to the next without crossing a street, is all Arquitectonica’s doing. Above all of it is a world first USD30million “climate ribbon” covering the shopping centre’s open concourses.
This 150,000 sq. ft. undulating canopy of insulating glass and steel was created via a collaboration between a Paris-based design firm and the universities of Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh (U.S.A.) and Cardiff in the U.K. Not only is the wonderfully artistic structure a passive cooling system that offers shade for pedestrian shoppers, but it also collects and stores rainwater that is re-used to irrigate Brickell City Centre’s green rooftops. The structure also doubles as an eye-catching architectural installation. Without this unique assembly – suspended above the open-air space – the retail element of the complex would feel just like another mall, which Arquitectonica obviously didn’t want. With the “climate ribbon” hovering above the center of Brickell, the space feels instinctively Miami esque and anchored in the middle of the city.
Slap bang in the middle of all this exciting metropolitan development is upscale 352-room multi award-winning hotel EAST. With its calming, contemporary-styled interior – accented with Asian influences carefully arranged by a feng shui master – EAST introduced a new style of lodgings into the Miami hospitality mix when it opened two years ago. In a city where so many of the resorts are overtly showy, and one can often worry about what to wear just to cross a hotel lobby, EAST is aimed at unconventional travellers looking for a fun and relaxed place to stay. As such, EAST doesn’t take itself too seriously, with street-level staff attired in shorts, polo shirts and sneakers, setting the laid-back tone as guests check-in. The views from EAST’s guest rooms towards Fisher Island, and south toward Brickell’s financial district, are nigh-on spectacular (www.east-miami.com).
EAST is Swire Hotels’ first venture in North America, following the openings of similarly branded properties in Hong Kong and Beijing. Unlike most hotels where top floors are reserved for pricey suites, EAST Miami features meeting spaces, lounges and restaurants on high floors so more people get to enjoy the killer views. Fine dining and drinking options abound within the hotel, including rooftop oasis Sugar (undoubtedly one of Brickell’s best bars) which serves an array of hand-crafted libations and Asian-inspired tapas. Here, lights twinkle, oversized chairs beg to be sat in and Brickell’s dazzling urban landscape sprawls out below (www.sugar-miami.com).
Also on the top floor of EAST, is contemporary 359-seat Uruguayan restaurant and bar Quinto La Huella, which was brought to Miami by the creators of Uruguay’s famed beachside eatery, Parador La Huella. Very much the Miami incarnation of its globally-acclaimed José Ignacio sister, Quinto La Huella serves a meat-heavy menu of charcoal-grilled and wood-fired fare, in a raw wood and tanned leather-clad dining room and terraces, accented by rough pottery and orange lamps. Whilst the food and service are superb throughout Quinto La Huella, the best place to eat is the restaurant’s grill room, where a dozen or so high seats are set around a stunning bar fashioned from a single tree trunk. Be sure to book well in advance (www.quintolahuella.com).
There are dozens of cool places to taste superb food and sip delectable cocktails in Brickell. The aforementioned Quinto La Huella at EAST is a must, as are Italian Fi’lia by Michael Schwartz at SLS Brickell, and Zuma Miami, situated in a cavernous beautifully-designed waterfront space at Epic hotel. Zuma chef-owner Rainer Becker’s internationally-acclaimed style of modern Japanese cuisine is as popular in Miami as it is around the world, so be sure to make reservations. For a more flamboyant affair, book a table at El Tucán, a Latin-American restaurant with a nightly Cuban-inspired cabaret show. A visit to El Tucán is always a lot of colourful fun.
Round off a night out in Brickell at Sugar. Or, if you’re well connected, the secret speakeasy-styled bar on the top floor of EAST, which is invitation-only and hidden behind a concealed door. It’s so secret that it doesn’t have a name and you will be escorted in, but once inside you’ll be surrounded by one hundred or so of Miami’s coolest creatures, all gently swaying to the funky beats. Because, whether downtown in Brickell or on the sands of South Beach, there’s no getting away from the fact that Miami is Florida’s most happening city.