Miami, FL – Top 8 Things To See & DO
When you’re in a big city like Miami it’s always hard to come up with a “top visits” list, mostly because there are so many different ways to experience the place. There’s the artsy side, the historical side, the party side, the relaxing side, the boozy side. Each one, in and of itself, could easily have a top 10 list ‘coz there really is that much choice!
But as with all things on the blog I have to go with my heart. Having my family here was the perfect excuse to act like a complete tourist for 10 days, and because I was in charge of the sightseeing I could pretty much just take them anywhere I wanted bwahahahaha. Of course it helps that my fam and I are cut from the same mold and that we all love food, history and the outdoors.
So with that as my basis, we mixed Paul’s extensive knowledge of the area with input from his family and came up with the Wheelingit top 8 things to see and do. These are the outings we enjoyed the most in Miami and if you’re anything like us, I think you will too 🙂 Here goes…
1/ Wynwood Art District -> Beer & Street Art Galore
This used to be a really run-down part of town, but it’s seen an AMAZING renewal over the past years and despite its modern-looking art, it actually has some historical roots too.
Wynwood was originally the south end of what was known as the “garment district” of Miami. Its boom-time started as far back as the 20’s and continued in that vein for many years. The modern-day art trend started in 1986 when a non-profit organization bought an old bakery and opened Florida’s largest working artist’s space (the Bakehouse). That was the beginning of a new age and it’s attracted artists ever since.
Today Wynwood is the absolute center of graffiti and street art in Miami. It boasts hundreds of amazing painted murals, including a permanent (rotating) exhibition called “Wynwood Walls” and no end of guided (and self-guided) Art Walks. As if that wasn’t enough it’s also emerged as the new core of the Miami Craft Beer Scene. No less than three awesome breweries are in this area, all of which are excellent. Free Art and good beer….seriously, who wouldn’t love it here?
For this outing we took Polly with us, parked downtown and just walked around admiring all the amazing art. For refreshment we stopped at J Wakefield Brewing (where Polly was allowed inside the bar) and had a superb flight of beers. We liked literally everything we tried here, but top pics were the Big Show Imperial IPA (Paul’s fav), Boulevard X, a barrel-aged collaboration with Firestone (my fav) and Great Scott Scotch Ale (my dad’s fav). We also stopped for food at one of the local street spots. It was a fabulous outing!
PAW NOTES/ All the street art is dog-friendly and every restaurant/bar in the district that has an outdoor patio allows dogs. Also J Wakewood allows dogs inside the brewery too. The only place you cannot take doggie is inside the exhibition space of “Wynwood Walls”.
2/ Villa Vizcaya -> Old-Time Florida Elegance
If you can picture an Italian Renaissance villa with a formal European gardens in the middle of Miami, you’ve just imagined Villa Vizcaya. Built in 1916 as the winter residence of industrialist James Deering, it’s one of the most opulent and elaborate estates you’ll ever see outside of Europe. Lots of ornate rooms with exquisite carvings, 15th century furniture, tapestries, gold and extravagance. It’s bursting with fine treasures, the views of the bay are fabulous and literally everything about it is outrageously luxurious and unashamedly over-the-top. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported away from modern life to another place and time.
Although the property is much smaller now than its original size of 180 acres, it’s still a great place to walk around and experience one of Miami’s most iconic estates. Also it’s right next to Coconut Grove, so it’s an easy visit if you stay there. My father and I went on a hot afternoon and we had a thoroughly pleasant few hours of exploration. A definite recommend!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ The Estate is open 9:30AM-4:30PM everyday and costs $18 for adults (with cheaper rates for seniors & kids). Unfortunately NO dogs allowed except for service animals.
3/ Deering Estate -> More Old-Time Florida
The “lesser known” of the two Deering mansions in Miami, Deering Estate was built by James’s brother Charles. It’s located ~20 mins south of town and covers a massive 444-acres, making it one of the largest estates in the area. There are several buildings here, including a three-story wooden house built in 1900, and a stone cottage with 18-inch thick, reinforced concrete walls covered in limestone veneer. Plus there’s a lovely picnic area and some nice grounds to walk around.
This place is not nearly as oppulent as Villa Vizcaya and is a much more relaxed spot to visit (= less people), but it’s still got a ton of interesting history. There’s an old Tequesta burial mound on site, some fun little secrets (check out the wine cellar underneath the house) and it’s rumored to be haunted too (ooooOOOOoooo). This is a beautiful place and definitely worth the trip!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ The Estate is open 10AM-5PM daily and costs $12 to visit. Visits can be self-guided, but tours are also offered at specific times during the day. Unfortunately NO dogs allowed except for service animals.
4/ Cape Florida Lighthouse & Bill Baggs State Park -> Lighthouse & White Sand beaches
When you’re tired of the crowds & traffic downtown and just want to escape it all, it’s time to roll your butt out to Key Biscayne. Located just 20 mins from downtown, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is an oasis of green with some of the best white sand beaches in the country. Plus there’s a lighthouse!
As much as I love a good beach, you all know the big draw for us was Cape Florida Lighthouse. As an extra bonus my father had never been in one! So, Christmas Eve we took a father/daughter outing to climb the 95-foot high white structure and admire the view. Originally built in 1825 and reconstructed in 1846, she is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County. Plus she was completely restored in the mid-90’s so she is in beautiful condition. No glass Fresnel lens here unfortunately (it’s been replaced by a regular plastic version), but she’s still a working lighthouse and you can go outside the walk the (very) narrow gallery (outdoor walkway) at the top. It’s quite a view and quite a rush!
Once we were done with the light, we hiked the short trail along the Mangrove Wetlands on the western side of the park. At the end of this trail you can just see the “Stiltsville“, a set of stilt houses built ~1 mile off-shore that were infamous as a party & illegal gambling spot back in the 1940s and 1950s. These days only 7 structures remain and no-one lives there anymore, but they’re still fun to see.
VISIT NOTES/ Bill Baggs State Park is open 8AM to sunset and charges an entry fee of $8 per vehicle (free with FL Annual Park Pass). Lighthouse grounds are open from 8AM-5PM and tours are offered at 10AM and 1PM. Hours may vary depending on volunteers so check the website for exact times ahead of your visit.
PAW NOTES/ Dogs are allowed all over the grounds and trails of the State Park, but are NOT allowed on the beach/water or into the historical structures (lighthouse, keepers house). For a beach/water romp w/ doggie stop on your way back at Hobie Beach (right by Key Biscayne bridge).
5/ Coconut Grove -> WaterFront Walks, Shops, Parks & Downtown Charm
Our rented house was in Coconut Grove so we spent tons of time in this area. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods of Miami so it has lots of charm as well as a neat little “downtown” area that’s just a great little place to hang. You’ll find a lovely waterfront walkway, one of the nicest dog parks in all of Miami and plenty of really good downtown restaurants, bars and shops.
We walked Polly everyday in David T Kennedy Park, had several meals at Monty’s (tiki-inspired waterfront) and Grove Bay Grill (laid-back, waterfront), enjoyed an awesome Peruvian meal at Jaguar and cooled down with some great refreshments at Greenstreet Cafe (great beer list here BTW).
On the history side we tracked down the original Pan Am Terminal Building (now the Miami City Hall) and saw the site of one of the oldest homesteads in the area at Barnacle Historical State Park. Mostly we just walked around here, but whenever it got too hot we just hopped on the free Miami Trolley home. Even if you don’t stay here, definitely come to visit & wander around.
PAW NOTES/ Coconut Grove is massively dog-friendly. There’s an awesome off-leash park at David T Kennedy Park, lots of waterfront walks and every restaurant we visited had an outdoor area that allowed dogs. The only thing that isn’t 100% dog-friendly is the Miami Trolley -> they allow smaller dogs in carriers, but not larger dogs.
6/ Little Havana -> Cuban Heritage, Cigars & Guayaberas
There is nowhere I know (outside of Cuba) that speaks to old-time Cuban culture like the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. Originally a Jewish neighborhood in the 30’s, it became the first home of many Cuban immigrants as they fled Castro in the late 50’s/early 60’s and although many other Latin Americans have since moved in, the roots they planted here have stuck. If you want to sip a classic Cuban espresso, see the old-timers playing Dominos at Domino Park, eat some good Cuban food**, or buy some cigars or a sharp-looking Cuban Guayabera this is your place. Sure, a lot of it is rather touristy these days, but it’s still got soul and I always enjoy visiting here.
We took my family for a stroll on a warm afternoon and enjoyed ALL of the above including some lovely Mojitos and a very tasty meal at Old Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina. Paul and my dad even bought themselves some classic Guayabera’s….they looked handsome! Yes, it’s definitely worth the visit!
PAW NOTES/ Doggie can stroll around everywhere here and there are a few spots with outdoor patios where you can eat and drink, so feel free to take pooch along.
**CUBAN FOOD NOTE/ In deference to Paul’s family I must say that the best Cuban food in Miami is actually not in Little Havana. Versailles is rather famous and not bad (they DO have a great bakery there), but if you want the most authentic experience most locals will tell you to go to La Caretta on Bird Road. So if you want to go where the Cubans go, that’s your spot.
8/ South Beach -> Art Deco, Beach & Parties
Yes, South Beach is party central and yes it’ll be crowded no matter which time of day you go, but it’s also an iconic place that you simply cannot miss. Many of the buildings here were built between 1923 and 1943 and although the area went through a pretty serious downturn in the 70/80’s (it was a run-down and bad part of town back then), it revived & re-created itself as one of the hippest, go-to places in the city.
Today it’s stands as the first 20th-century neighborhood to be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. There are over 800 wonderfully preserved historic buildings, representing the largest collection of Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture in the world! If you love Art Deco and the classic lines of the 30’s you will simply go gaga over this place. Take the walking tour to see them all.
And of course there are also the bars, and the dance clubs, and the bikini babes and the folks in their fancy Ferrari’s cruising the streets for looks. This is a place to see and be seen, and even if you don’t usually hang with that kind of crowd it’s still an experience to be there and people watch.
We went on Christmas Day with the fam and Polly in tow. It was packed but it was also lots of fun to just stroll the main drag, photograph the architecture and pop into a bar for a tall frozen cocktail. It’s not a place we go often, but I definitely recommend everyone go at least once.
PAW NOTES/ Pooch is welcome along the main drag and in the patio area of any of the bars/restaurants that have outdoor space. The only place you cannot take doggie is on the beach. So bring paws for a stroll and food, but don’t plan any beach time.
7/ Everglades National Park -> Wild Alligators & Nature
If you’ve ever looked at a map of South Florida you might have noticed a ridiculously large green area called the “Everglades” that seems to cover literally the entire southern tip of the state. It is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the United States and it is definitely worth a visit.
It’s so big it doesn’t seem real and just 20% of this green space (a mere 1,509,000 acres (6,110 km2) is protected as part of the Everglades National Park. You won’t find mountains or vistas here, but what you will find is an extensive network of wetlands and forests with over 350 bird species, a slew of reptiles, amphibians & insects and one of the most endangered animals in the USA, the Florida panther. Plus if you want to see alligators in the wild, there is literally no place like it.
But it can also be hard to plan a visit here. The Everglades is SO big that you’ve got to plan which part of it you want to see (the Shark Valley & Flamingo Visitor centers are ~90 miles apart!) Plus, although there are a few decent hikes if you really want to experience the Everglades you’ve got to get ON the water and OUT there, either by kayak or on one of the many airboat rides.
For those staying in Miami the closest place to go is ~1 hour directly West of town to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, and that’s where I chose to take my family for their wild alligator fix. We started with a 1-hour airboat ride with Airboat in the Everglades (there are TONS of operators in the area, we just chose this at random from Yelp reviews) and followed that with a walk along the hiking trail by Shark Valley Visitor Center. The Airboat ride was a blast and 1 hour was just about the right time (for us) to be on the water. And the hiking trail, although it was PACKED with people (literally jam packed) was an amazing place to see alligators. I think we saw 30 monsters just hanging right by the path. Lots of people being idiots and taking selfies with them of course, but it was amazing nonetheless.
For those that have extra time I’ve heard the Southern Visitor Center (Flamingo) is way more relaxed and remote. So, if you don’t fancy sharing the trail, head on over there for your nature fix. No matter which way you do it, don’t miss this amazing place!
VISIT NOTES/ The 4 Everglades Visitor Centers are massively separated so plan for several days if you want to visit them all. Entry fee is $25 or Free with National Parks Pass. Airboat rides require a separate reservation & fee. You can book ahead of time online (recommended) or stop and book a ride on-site with one of the many operators on your way into the park. At Shark Valley you can also take a guided tram tour or rent bicycles on-site.
PAW NOTES/ Unfortunately dogs are NOT allowed on airboats or any of the trails in Everglades National Park. You can have them in the campground and a few of the public areas, but you won’t be able to see any of the interesting nature in the park if you bring pooch along. This is one place where we chose to leave Polly at home and I suggest you do the same.
That wraps up our 10 days of sightseeing in Miami. Hopefully it’ll give you aspiring travelers some tips if/when you ever come to this area. If you’ve got any favs that we missed DO feel free to post in the comments below.
We’ll get back to some regular programming in my next post, including some rather exciting installations/upgrades & prep work for our drive outta here. It’s hard to believe, but our winter time in FL is aaalmost at an end. The road and the West are calling….