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On a UM football weekend, South Beach's nightlife and restaurants beckon

You've landed in Miami and are feeling a little overwhelmed.

You're in town for a University of Miami Hurricanes football game, but this place feels like the United Nations.

Those are the sounds of the people and cultures that make Miami. We hail from Cuba, Haiti, Latin America – and plenty of U.S. cities, too.

To fully appreciate the flavor of this place, you must embrace alligators, cigars, very strong coffee and, of course, beaches.

You've got a weekend, and you're probably hungry, so let's start at Calle Ocho in Little Havana.

Expect no Gucci shops or blonde models. This is the authentic Cuban Miami, the cigar-rolling, coffee-drinking, domino-playing variety. If you address someone in English, and they answer you with a puzzled look and a Spanish response, don't take it personally. It's a Miami thing.

Start with lunch at La Carreta, 3632 SW Eighth St., where you can have a Cuban sandwich or pulled pork. You can't leave without stopping at Versailles Restaurant, 3555 SW Eighth St., the unofficial Cuban exile headquarters, for cafe con leche. But do it our way: on your feet at the outdoor window, where you can get the pulse of the neighborhood.

Watch cigars being made at Credito Cigar Factory, 1105 SW Eighth Street, then stroll past Maximo Gomez Park, 801 SW 15th Avenue, where the old-timers play their favorite game: dominoes.

If you've worked up a thirst and are truly brave, drive to Palacio de los Jugos (Juice Palace), 5721 W Flagler St., where you can find fresh tropical juice smoothies and a freshly roasted pig in a chaotic outdoor setting. Don't worry about the animated exchanges; they're not screaming at you.

On the month's last Friday, take a guided walking tour and enjoy the "Cultural Fridays" festival.

And while a taste of Havana is one option, native Florida is another.

Since you're so close, you can spend your first day in the Everglades. How many other places in the United States offer alligator-filled swamps? At the Miccosukee Village, you can watch alligator-wrestling. No children with you? The casino is open 24 hours.

The Shark Valley Trams offer tours guided by naturalists, or you can rent a bike for $7.50 an hour for a self-guided ride. Bring insect repellent.

For the kids, Miami has other nature- and animal-related options closer to town.

Jungle Island has the advantage of being close to downtown and the beach. And it's right by the Miami Children's Museum, 980 MacArthur Causeway.

Miami Seaquarium, 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway, has otters and orcas and a dolphin interaction program.

When the sun goes down, and music is on the menu, here are a couple of choices:

In Little Havana, go to Hoy Como Ayer (Today Like Yesterday), 2212 SW Eighth St., a neighborhood lounge with live jazzy Cuban music.

Downtown Miami's Transit Lounge, 29 SW First Ave., offers live rock and funk music without the velvet rope. There's a plethora of options on South Beach, like Jazid, where you can catch reggae, jazz or even salsa in a laid-back atmosphere.

If you're looking for an over-the-top Miami experience and don't mind tourists along with your show dancers, head to Mango's Tropical Café in South Beach. This Ocean Drive institution offers such authentic samba shows, you'll think you're in Rio. Or stop for a drink at the über-cool Delano Hotel, 1685 Collins Ave., where the scene is the point. The glamour helps you forget how much that drink just cost.

On your second day, hit the beach. The Front Porch Cafe, 1458 Ocean Drive, is known for its ample breakfast. Then rent a chair and an umbrella on the sand.

For lunch, there's upscale (Lario's Restaurant) or affordable (Puerto Sagua), a block off the beach on Seventh Street.

South Beach, or SoBe, is a mecca for Art Deco architecture. A guided walking tour is $20, and in 90 minutes, you get an insider's look at the buildings and interiors that make SoBe special. For more information, go to the Miami Design Preservation League website, or just come early to 1001 Ocean Drive, where tours depart at 10:30 a.m. every day but Thursday, when they begin at 6:30 p.m.

For the must-have set, we do shopping here, too.

Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave., has designers such as Giorgio Armani and Carolina Herrera.

No South Beach trip is complete without shopping, strolling and dining along Lincoln Road Mall. Don't let the name fool you. It's a pedestrian mall designed by Carl Fisher to rival Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. It runs east-west on Miami Beach, and makes a nice alternative to the more hectic tourist attraction that is Ocean Drive. Here you can shop, have dinner or a drink or catch a movie.

The nearest outlet shopping is at Dolphin Mall, in western Miami-Dade, the area's largest retail mall and home to Last Call, Nieman Marcus' outlet shop, as well as the Gap, Coach and Polo Ralph Lauren Factory stores.

If you have time for window shopping, here's another cultural option: Miami's burgeoning gallery scene, largely located at the newly revamped Miami Design District.

Choices include the 30,000-square-foot de la Cruz Contemporary Art Space, the Haitian Heritage Museum or the Ricart Gallery.

On the second Saturday night of the month, there is a gallery walk; otherwise, call first. Many galleries keep funky hours.

So much to do, but you came for football, right? In Coral Gables, home of the University of Miami, stroll along Miracle Mile for a place to eat, take a dip at the Venetian Pool or visit our favorite independent bookstore, Books and Books, 265 Aragon Aven., where there's live jazz and a regular stream of top authors.

By now, you've had a shot of coffee, bought a cigar and played dominoes. You've danced, shopped and hopefully tasted the many flavors that make Miami.

Frances Robles is a South Florida journalist who has written about Miami and Latin America since 1993. She lives in Coral Gables.

Editor's note: This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.

On a UM football weekend, South Beach's nightlife and restaurants beckon 08/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 2:48pm]

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