I have a love/hate relationship with Miami. There are things I LOVE about Miami and things I’m…not so crazy about.
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. Unfortunately (for me), that’s a lot of Miami. Especially Miami Beach.
But there’s more to Miami than just the party scene. And every time I go back to Miami I find places and parts of the city that I REALLY like. But they’re not always the headliners in all the “XYZ things to do in Miami” lists you see on the internet.
So if you’re like me and you’re not into the party scene, here’s a list I’ve put together of things to do in Miami BESIDES party:
Things to Do in Miami Besides Party
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.
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.
Read my full review of the art deco tour here.
You can’t go to Miami and not visit Little Havana. Over 1 million people of Cuban descent live in the Miami area so Cuban culture is everywhere, but it’s preserved and celebrated like no other in Little Havana. I recently did a walking tour with Little Havana Tours and I 100% recommend it, but even if you’re not up for a full organized tour, you’ve got to at least come and walk down the street. Unlike some cultural neighborhoods where it feels like there’s not much to see beyond restaurants if you don’t have connections (Chinatowns, Little Italys, etc.), Little Havana is super accessible for visitors.
Calle Ocho is the main strip and it’s packed with things to see. The area is pretty safe and you shouldn’t feel out of place as a tourist. Actually, I recommend going earlier in the day as it gets pretty crowded in the afternoons (especially on the weekends).
Don’t miss food: Lunch at Old’s Havana, ice cream at Azucar, churros at Churromania, cafecito (tiny coffee) at Versailles,
Don’t miss cultural sites & experiences: Watch a master cigar roller, listen to live music at Ball and Chain, visit Domino Park, see the art deco Tower Theater, spot the brightly painted roosters around town.
Here is the tour I booked.
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Built in 1915 by James Deering (of the International Harvester fame), this Italian-inspired villa turned museum is a primetime example of the “American Renaissance” when wealthy American businessmen built grand “country estates” in the European tradition. Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Hearst may be the first ones you think of, but Deering’s Vizcaya is STUNNING. I have a thing for poking around old houses (palaces, museums, estate sales haha), but even the most neutral visitor can’t help but be impressed by this place.
It’s called a museum, but they haven’t turned the rooms into art galleries…the house, the rooms, the furnishings, the decorations…they’re the main attraction. It’s like Downton Abbey meets Marie Antoinette meets…I don’t know, something fabulous. The rooms are all done in different styles and time periods but it’s pretty spectacular. There’s an audio tour you can play from your phone with a QR code.
While the house is phenomenal, most people are even more drawn to the gardens. The grounds of the estate are easy to get lost in and feel so luxurious. My best tip is to go on a weekday or at least early in the day or you’ll be dodging influencers staging photo shoots everywhere (mostly in the gardens).
Buy your tickets in advance here.
Miami Beach & Lifeguard Towers
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 nice. By far the prettiest stretch of beach I saw was at South Pointe Park. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen water so blue in Florida. Don’t miss walking the pier out over the water and you can even see the cruise ships in the distance.
I will admit…I had very low expectations about the beach because I’m used to the beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast and panhandle and the Atlantic certainly doesn’t compare, but Miami Beach does have its charms…
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 South Pointe 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, 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.
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.
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.
Bike to the Cape Florida Lighthouse
Key Biscayne, an island just south of Miami Beach is often called Miami’s “secret island” because it’s lesser known. It’s an upscale, family friendly community and everything is pretty picturesque. Even if you don’t stay on Key Biscayne, you’ll definitely want to see the Cape Florida Lighthouse at the southern end of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. You can rent bikes inside the state park, but the whole island is very bike friendly. While you’re on the island, you should also stop by Crandon Beach Park. It’s an old coconut plantation so there are palm trees absolutely everywhere and it’s divine.
Everglades National Park
ALLIGATORS! 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Neighborhoods to Explore
My favorite parts of Miami are it’s neighborhoods. Some are big tourism destinations like South Beach and Little Havana, and others are a little more quiet. But you never really know a city, until you spend some time in its neighborhoods.
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. Whenever I ask locals where the best places to go are, they always say “The Grove.” 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. It’s a millennial paradise…everyone has a dog, no one has a kid.
Wynwood: Famous for its “walls,” Wynwood is best known for its murals and street art, but the restaurant and shopping scene is noteworthy too. It’s kind of hipster and artsy, but pretty laid back. It’s got a different vibe than a lot of Miami.
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