A Laid Back Guide to Miami Beach

I have a bucket list a mile long of places to go in Florida and things I want to see and do and I’ll be honest…Miami was never on it. I guess I’ve always had preconceived notions about the “vibe” or what it was like and it never seemed for me. BUT as a full time travel blogger, I ended up taking one for the team and booked a trip to Miami. 

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Here’s the deal…I think whether or not you like Miami probably has a lot to do with your mindset going in. 

What I REALLY Thought about Miami Beach

Here’s what Miami is: a big city that just happens to be on the beach. Here’s what Miami is not: a relaxing beach getaway. Maybe that’s just my take, but hey…this is my blog ; ) 

Let me give you a few more details: 

A lot of big cities are just cities…you feel like you could be anywhere. But Miami is pretty unique. Someone I know said they like to go to Miami because it’s cheaper than going to Europe, and while I probably wouldn’t have made the comparison myself…it is an incredibly international city. It’s got to be one of the biggest “foodie” cities in the country and the number of world class restaurants is a little overwhelming. Throw in a large number of luxury and historic hotels, epic people watching, the unique ecosystem of south Florida, glorious weather and a large metropolitan city packed with attractions and it’s easy to see why so many people flock to Miami. 

What I don’t think Miami does particularly well is a beach getaway. Overall, I wasn’t super impressed with the beach. The part in front of where I stayed (around Mid Beach) and most other parts I saw were pretty much covered in seaweed although when we ventured down to SouthPointe Park the water was some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen in Florida! 

But mostly why I don’t love Miami for a getaway is just the vibe of the city….it feels like a city. Miami Beach has kind of a frantic energy that doesn’t make for the most relaxing getaway. 

Also, while there are nice places to stay along Miami Beach, I wouldn’t say they’re up to par with destination resorts. They feel more like nice city hotels, where the amenities of the hotel or resort are really nice but as soon as you walk out the front door the city kind of smacks you in the face. The place I stayed (more on that later) was really nice (but not what I would call a full service resort) but every time we left, the surroundings felt a little bit jarring. [Note: this observation only applies to hotels/resorts on Miami Beach. I think there are some really great resort/vacation spots in the Miami area but outside of Miami Beach-more on the differences below]. 

All of this being said, I think Miami is a nice place for a vacation, especially if you’re the go, go, go type. And there are definitely places in the area that I would recommend over others.

On that note, I’ve put together a pretty comprehensive guide to Miami and Miami Beach. I’m calling it:

A Laid Back Guide to Miami Beach or How to Do Miami Beach without the Party Scene

The list of things I’m not interested in is like this: partying, night clubs, pool parties with bottle service, barely there swimwear, trendy dinner reservations made months in advance with stiff cancellation policies.

If our lists are similar, this post is for you ; )

So stick around for a great list of things to do in Miami and Miami Beach (including one of my favorite things I’ve done in a long time) plus a little roundup of fun places to eat AND my best tip for how to get around. 

And if you need recommendations for where to stay, check out this post.

Things to Do in Miami & Miami Beach 

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find a million and one posts with basically the same list of “things to do in Miami.” This is my version, but instead of just rounding up all the usual suspects and ploping them in a list, I’m dividing this one up into four categories: things I LOVED, things that were just okay (either skippable or just something you need to see to say you’ve seen it), things that I plan to do next time I’m in Miami, and areas/neighborhoods of the city that I want to check out.

Things That I LOVED

Art Deco Walking Tour: This is hands down at the very top of my “things to do in Miami” list. It’s actually one of my favorite things I’ve done anywhere. 

Miami Beach is famous for its heavy concentration of art deco style architecture (a style super popular during the 20s and 30s). There are 800+ buildings in its historic district in South Beach! But seeing them on your own just doesn’t cut it. I did a 2-hour walking tour with James Cubby from Art Deco Walking Tours and IT WAS INCREDIBLE. Read my full post about the Miami Art Deco walking tour here.

He covered the Miami night scene as a reporter in the 90s and in addition to being recognized as a leading expert on Miami Beach’s art deco history, he knows ALL the juicy stories of Miami Beach’s past. I’m talking the Mob days (he showed us the clues for how to find hidden illegal casinos during the depression and prohibition), Sinatra and the Rat Pack, the cocaine cowboys of the 70s and 80s, the party scene from the 90s, Versace’s famous manion (he actually went to a party there), Miami Vice, and everything that happened BEFORE Miami Beach became the international tourist destination that it is today. 

What does all of that have to do with the art deco architecture in Miami Beach? Well, it turns out…a lot. I won’t give away all of the secrets, but safe to say this is a definite must do. I recommend the 10AM tour because it gets HOT, but there’s also an evening version that includes a cocktail tour that sounds fun fun fun. 

The Beach: In most beach towns/destinations, the beach is the main event, but in Miami it kind of seems like a sideshow. But I have to say…the actual beach in Miami was a lot prettier than I expected it to be! There was quite a bit of seaweed when I was there and not really many shells, but overall the sand and the water were lovely. 

But besides all of that, my two favorite parts of the beach ended up being with iconic lifeguard towers and the beachwalk. 

The paved beach path runs all the way from Southpointe park at the very tip of the island up to Bal Harbor on the north end which is roughly 10 miles. As someone who loves to walk, I loved being able to use the beach walk to go north and south instead of being out on the city sidewalk. Also, even if you’re staying at a hotel on the beach, you’ll have to cross the beach walk to get to the beach so always be careful when you’re stepping out onto the pathway because bicycles can come flying out of nowhere. 

Also, the lifeguard shacks!!! Seeing all of the different ones quickly became one of my favorite things to do. There’s a shack every few blocks and pretty much every single one is unique (there seemed to be 4-6 different architectural styles and then a lot of color variations). The hours are posted 9:30AM-6:30PM so if you want to climb the steps and get a picture in one, you’ve got plenty of time before or after the crew shows up. 

South Pointe Park: I LOVED South Pointe Park. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen water so blue in Florida. It’s 17 acres of family-friendly outdoor fun. The giant playground, splash pad, and 20-foot wide promenade offer panoramic views of South Beach. There’s an off-leash dog park, barbecue and picnic areas, as well as all the space you could imagine to run, bike and rollerblade to keep you completely occupied while there. If you’d rather just relax, plant yourself on a shady park bench and chill out under the gorgeous palm trees. 

Joe’s Stone Crab: If there’s only one “must eat” restaurant in the Miami area then this is surely it. Joe’s has been in business (and owned by the same family) for well over 100 years making it a Miami institution. Famous for their stone crab, this place serves up good food without a lot of pretense. In a city where so much is “trendy” “hot” and “of the moment,” this place is old school. They don’t take reservations and during the winter the wait can be 2-4 hours. They seat 300-600 people at a time depending on the season so the key is to go early. Their special includes the famous stone crab claws, three sides, and a slice of key lime pie. We also had the lobster mac and cheese and it was PHENOMENAL. And next time I go back, I’m definitely trying the fried chicken. 

RELATED: Miami Art Deco Walking Tour

Where to Stay in Miami Beach

Wynwood: This trendy neighborhood in mainland Miami is famous for its “walls.” The Wynwood Walls is an outdoor “urban graffiti art museum.” I actually only figured this out after I arrived. If you read any number of “things to do in Miami” articles or posts, they all mention the Wynwood Walls, but I don’t feel like many say exactly what it is. I (inaccurately) assumed it was a part of the city with a high concentration of street art that you could walk around and look at. While it is outdoors, it’s actually a walled off exhibit that requires a ticket for entry. 

I’m certainly not opposed to supporting artists (and I do consider this an art), but since I was just passing through Wynwood after another activity nearby, I didn’t end up actually buying a ticket and going through the museum. And I’d be curious to know how many people end up doing the same thing. It’s a little odd because the “museum” is in the middle of the neighborhood of Wynwood which is COVERED with street art. Literally every building within blocks is covered with murals. There is something to see absolutely everywhere you look. 

So while a lot of people say come to wee the Wynwood Walls, I say come to see just the neighborhood in general. There are a lot of shops and restaurants. Don’t miss Zak the Baker (I had a DIVINE salmon bacon egg and cheese sandwich) and Fireman Derek’s Bake Shop (the red velvet nutella cake was AMAZING). Also, because I practically live in beach coverups, I think a stop at Pitusa is a must. 

Everglades National Park: ALLIGATORS! Okay, I technically didn’t do Everglades National Park from the Miami side (I went to Everglades City on the west side when I was in Marco Island), but this has got to be one of the most unique National Parks. Spread out over 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is definitely a gem in the National Park system. This uniquely Florida ecosystem is an adventure seeker’s paradise…canoeing, hiking, kayaking, biking, camping – you name it and you can do it in the Everglades! Hike the Anhinga Trail to spot birds, alligators and turtles. Stop at the ponds along the way to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive flamingo! If you want less action but still want the full nature experience, try the 2-hour Shark Valley Tram ride led by a knowledgeable naturalist.

Things That Were Just “Okay”

South Beach & Ocean Drive: South Beach is a beach, sure, but it’s also ground zero for the party scene in Miami. Running roughly from 5th street to 23rd street, the main hub of activity is from 5th to 5th along Ocean Drive. There are no buildings on the beach side of Ocean Drive along this stretch (this is where Lummus Park is) so all of the hotels and restaurants have great views. They’ve also eliminated vehicle traffic along Ocean Drive along this stretch post-COVID so it’s a nice place to stroll. The street is lined with beautiful historic art deco buildings and if you’re a Miami Vice fan, you’ll recognize this area as one of the show’s main sets. 

Lincoln Road Mall: I have mixed feelings about this one. Dubbed the oldest and “most magnificent mall in all of the Americas,” Lincoln Road Mall really is one of the only shopping/dining hang out places in Miami Beach. 200+ shops, boutiques, art galleries plus a ton of sidewalk cafes and great art deco architecture (check out the restored 1935-era Art Deco Colony Theatre) is nothing to sneeze at, but I don’t know…I wasn’t overly impressed. If you’re in the area, check it out but I wouldn’t go out of my way or say it’s a “must do.”

Things at the TOP of My List for Next Time

Little Havana: I didn’t make it to Little Havana on this trip, but I’m going to come back just to see it and I’m definitely planning to book a walking/food tour. Home to so many Cuban immigrants that it feels like a little piece of Cuba in Miami. Calle Ocho is the main strip where you can see master cigar rollers at their age old craft, brightly painted roosters all about, art galleries and the Walk of Fame honoring famous Cubans. Drop by Domino Park to have an authentic Cuban experience complete with coffee, neighbourhood gossip and playing dominoes with older generation Cubans. Explore Versailles Restaurant for some scrumptious food, Ventinita for some legendary Cuban coffee, then pay a visit to Cubaocho for a live concert and Hoy Como Ayer for a night full of dancing!

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens: Built in the 1910s by businessman James Deering, this Italian-inspired villa turned museum is a window into Miami’s past. Expertly preserved and brimming with antiques and artwork, this luxurious villa is really something to see. While the museum is great, the picturesque grounds with the fabulous gardens and fountains just might be the star of the show. 

Venetian Pool: Originally a rock quarry in the 1920s, the Venetian Pool is the only swimming pool to be included in the National Register of Historic Places. With waterfalls, cave-like grottos, bridges and freshwater that comes from an underground aquifer, it’s a pretty cool spot! Bring the whole family to experience this fun one-of-a-kind spot. Take some food and water with you because although there is a snack bar on site, they tend to run out around midday. 

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science: How many museums can boast having both an aquarium and a planetarium in the lineup? Not many, but the Frost Museum of Science does. If you’ve got the kids in tow, this is probably the top place you’ve got to take them. With six levels of science to explore, you’ll need an entire day to experience it all. Interactive exhibits, touch pools with manta rays, and a state-of-the-art planetarium with an 8K visual system – this place has it all.

Biscayne National Park: With 95% of Biscayne National Park being underwater, the best way to get around this National Park is by boat. Charter one or bring your own, but out in the water is where you want to be to explore this park to the fullest. Go snorkelling, scuba diving if you’re certified, swimming and of course, fish for some lobster. Visit Boca Chita Key island and it’s historic lighthouse, or Elliott Key for some picnic and camping spots. If you’re a National Park enthusiast, don’t forget to get your National Park Passport stamped at the visitor’s center. 

Miami Open: This is on my bucket list for sure. The pro tennis tournament (Masters 1000 Level for both the ATP and WTA tours) is one of the biggest in the world, and it’s held at the Hard Rock Stadium (where the Miami Dolphins play) mid to late March. 

Deering Estate: Built during the same time as his famous brother’s Villa Vizcaya, Charles Deering’s Estate is a more understated show of grandeur, but a show of grandeur all the same. The main building on the premises is called the Stone House and it boasts architectural elements derived from Charles’ properties in Spain. The Deering Estate offers visitors marvellous, sweeping views of the Biscayne Bay; a chance to explore its famous grounds which house an ancient fossil pit containing decades old animal and human bones; as well as fun nature activities like walking the mangrove boardwalk, and pre-booked canoe and kayak trips. 

Zoo Miami: Ever dreamed about feeding a giraffe? What about a one-horned Indian rhino, camel or giant tortoise? At Zoo Miami, you can do all that and more! Take a walk around or catch the monorail to see as many of the upwards of 3000 animals at the zoo. You’ll see Komodo dragons, meerkats, lions, kangaroos, gorillas and clouded leopards, just to name a few. Take the kids for some hands-on fun at the rainforest-themed, air-conditioned Dr. Wilde’s World; visit the petting zoo and don’t even think about missing the splash pad! Miami Zoo is one of the best family friendly spots in the Miami area. 

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: Whether you’ve got a green thumb or you’re just looking for the best backdrops for your Instagram photos, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is where you need to be! Walk and explore the gardens, exhibits, museum, laboratory and learning Center yourself or catch a free, narrated tram tour. It’s lush and tropical and between the butterflies, exotic birds, palms, and fruit trees, you’ll probably feel like you’ve entered another world. 

Perez Art Museum: Take a day trip to the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County to immerse yourself in its collection of modern and contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries. With so many vistas scattered through the premises, you’ll find the architecture of the museum to be as much of an attraction as the art itself. Great views out across Biscayne Bay from the property. 

Places I Want to Check Out Next Time

Coconut Grove: With a history that goes back three centuries, Coconut Grove is Miami’s oldest neighborhood. Today it’s one of the hippest and most vibrant communities in Miami. Spots to check out include: CocoWalk, the shopping complex, the Vizcaya estate, the 5-acre Barnacle State Park, and Peacock Park.. For food visit the popular Cuban-fusion restaurant, Ariete, and the classic oldie but goodie Greenstreet Cafe. 

Coral Gables: Developed in the 1920s in Mediterranean Revival style, the pedestrian-friendly historic downtown area in Coral Gables is known for its gorgeous boulevards and historic locations. Must visit destinations are the Venetian Pool and the world-famous Biltmore Hotel. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Caffè Italiano are also worth a stop. Catch the vintage-style trolley to make getting around more fun! 

Key Biscayne: Key Biscayne looks so dreamy that I’ve already booked a trip for later this year. I love that it seems to have a “Florida Keys” vibe but is actually just south of Miami Beach and only about 20 minutes from the airport. 

Miami Design District: If you’re one with a flair for art, design and the finer things in life, Miami Design District will be a must-visit for you. Spread out over 18 square blocks, this international destination for edgy art, architecture, trendy fashion and fine dining seems like the place to be in Miami. 

Brickell: Located in the heart of downtown Miami, Brickell is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city.  Everything you’d expect from a large city’s downtown, but of course with some Miami flair. 

Restaurants in Miami and Miami Beach

Miami has got to be one of the top foodie destinations in the country (probably the world actually). Unfortunately, while I love to eat, I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a foodie. So while there’s a whole “scene” in terms of restaurants, bars, and clubs…I wouldn’t know it. BUT here’s a few places that I tried and liked (all on the more laid back end of the spectrum):

Places I tried and would go back to: 

Joe’s Stonecrab: I mentioned this place above. THE place you have to eat in Miami. No reservations so go early and be prepared to wait. In South Beach (technically just south of South Beach). 

Fireman Derek’s: AMAZING pies and cakes. Absolutely loved the red velvet nutella cake and also the guava cheesecake. Their key lime pie was top notch too. In Wynwood. 

Zak the Baker: Had the best salmon bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. Everything looked amazing. In Wynwood. 

The Ocean Grill at the Setai: One of the best spots we found for outdoor/open air dinner with a beach view. In Mid Beach. 

Places that were recommended (haven’t tried yet) but seem like places I would like:

In Miami Beach…

Le Sandwicherie: Grab and go only. Several locations throughout Miami. 

Pane & Vino: Known for their homemade pasta! In South Beach

Mister 01: Try the “star pizza”

Burgers and Shakes: I gather it’s a local Shake Shack. A couple of locations. Also there’s an actual Shake Shack on Lincoln Road. 

In Coconut Grove…

Green Street Cafe: for brunch

Harry’s Pizzeria

Lokal: for burgers and key lime pie

In Wynwood…

Coyo Taco

Salty Donut

Le Chick Miami

In Little Havana…

Azucar: for ice cream

Churromania: for dulce de leche churros

El Pub: for classic Cuban food. Try the chori pan, Cuban sandwich and vaca frita. 

In Coral Gables…

Havana Harry’s: for Cuban food

Another spot to check out: Giralda Ave between Galiano and Ponce de Leon Blvd is an area that they’ve closed off to traffic to make way for outdoor restaurant seating. There’s a ton of (quickish-casual) restaurants in this area so everyone can grab what they choose and meet at the tables to eat. 

How to Get Around Miami & Miami Beach

If you fly into Miami International Airport (MIA) and you’re staying in Miami Beach, it’s easy enough to get a Lyft or an Uber to your hotel. It was also super easy getting rides in the downtown/mainland area (as you’d expect in a big city), but it was TOUGH getting rides in Miami Beach. Trying to go from our hotel just two miles away would take 30-45 minutes and several cancelled drivers. 

Thankfully we found out about the Miami Beach Trolley! It runs 7 days a week and it’s completely free to use. Download the app and you can see the schedules, pick up spots, and even track the trolleys in real time. There are three different loops (South Beach Loop, Middle Beach Loop, and North Beach Loop) but we ended up mostly just using the Collins Express which runs up and down Collins Avenue (the main drag) from 17th St/Lincoln Road all the way to 88th St (almost to Surfside). 

There were stops pretty much every couple of blocks and it was easy to figure out. The city bus also makes a lot of stops along the same routes so if you wanted to go further north or take it to the mainland you could, but it’s not free. 

I definitely would not recommend renting a car if you’re staying in Miami Beach (not just because parking is pretty expensive at every hotel), because parking is pretty limited and you’ll end up struggling with where to park if you’re just going from place to place on the island. The only time you might want a car is if you’ll be exploring the entire Miami area (Everglades, etc.).