Miami Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Any trip to Florida is not complete without a peek at Miami’s grand array of attractions. When most people think of Miami, the first thing that comes to mind is the spectacular beaches. But there’s a lot more to Florida’s party city than its amazing white sand and crystal blue waters. A vibrant, energetic city all year round, Miami boasts beautiful parks, gardens, spots to unwind and places to rave it up.
Miami Travel Guide
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Recognized as the gateway to Latin America, Miami has a large Latin American population that adds to its vibrancy. Whether it’s your first visit or you just want to see it with new eyes, or whether you are going for the day in Domino Park or attending the Calle Ocho Festival, there’s always something new to experience in Little Havana, the hub around which Miami’s Latin American population congregates.

A visit to Vizcaya Museum & Gardens will take you back to a beautiful time when Miami was full of trees and natural splendor. The massiveness of Villa Vizcaya, its attachments and gardens are straight out of a European travelogue. Fountains, greenery, flowers, turrets, statues, shrubs, stairs and much more create a landscape fit for romance, exploration, imagination, contemplation and day-dreaming.

Visit the Coral Castle museum to explore this enchanting sculpture garden in stone. Coral Castle is a fantasy world built by one man, Edward Leedskalnin, over a period of close to 30 years. Leedskalnin secretly and single-handedly carved more than 1,100 tons of coral rock in an unknown process that has created one of the most mysterious accomplishments in the western world.

Chock full of artists, restaurant and nightclubs, Miami’s Art Deco Historic District welcomes all into its mesmerizing embrace in the surroundings of the mighty Atlantic. The compact neighborhood offers unmatched tropical Art Deco architecture, set in a perfect scenario of 1930s elegance. The Art Deco Historic District houses over 800 buildings from an era when Ancient Egypt influenced the design world.

South Beach is the ideal spot for vacationers who wish to stroll on golden sands or dip into the waters of a turquoise ocean. Frequented by locals and travelers from all around the world, South Beach is home to numerous hangout spots, sidewalk cafes, lounge bars and dusk-till-dawn clubs. Known to locals as SoBe, this is the place to see and be seen in Miami, always with a lively atmosphere and lots to do.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is home to a broad diversity of exceptional tropical plants including vines, palms, cycads and flowering trees. Spread over 83 acres, the gardens are home to more than 700 plant species which it works to protect from extinction. A scintillating jewel, the gardens are also the place to find the best orchids in the United States.

Miami has a lot to offer tourists. Whether you love to party all night or explore day-time attractions, Miami, the south-eastern coastal city of Florida on the Atlantic offers plenty of interesting activities for visitors. Home to world-renowned beaches, museums and nightclubs, Miami ensures that its visitors experience moments they will carry with them for a lifetime.

1. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden offers visitors a uniquely South Florida garden experience. Dedicated to preserving the diversity of tropical plants, Fairchild houses some of the best collections of cycads, palms, vine, fruit and flowering trees, in addition to other tropical plants. The garden comprises a 2-acre tropical rainforest, fruit pavilion, among other exhibits.

Since 1938, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens have hosted over 85 acres of floral displays with a mixture of art and science. The lush gardens are full of plants that are valuable to both scientists and educators, while the tropical landscape designs are like ever-evolving canvases that bloom and fade with the changing seasons.

With its lakes, sunken gardens, a vine pergola, orchids, bougainvillea, rare palms, coral trees, bellflowers and flowering trees, Fairchild is the largest tropical botanical garden in the continental United States. Most of the cycads, palms, vines and flowering trees were collected from the wild, although the grounds also house endangered plant species.

Situated in Coral Gables, Fairchild Tropical Gardens is a lovely spot to spend your day. Walking tours in specific sections of the gardens are available, although you may also explore the displays at your leisure.

Wander through the two-level Tropical Plant Conservatory exhibit that blooms with rare palms, fruit trees and orchids. Admire diverse plant life and reflect on the global threat of rapidly vanishing rainforests, as you pass by cascading waterfalls that punctuate the stream flowing through the rainforest.

In the Wings of the Tropics exhibit, visitors can admire thousands of exotic butterflies, along with rare plant life and tropical fish. The water gardens offer a combination of waterfalls and tranquility pools, lily pads and sculptures that evoke a sense of calm.

After the initial tram tour which highlights the very best of south Floridian and exotic flora, you may set off to do some exploring of your own. The Simons Rainforest is a showcase of tropical plants from all around the world, complete with a stream and waterfall, while the conservatory is home to rare tropical plants. The Keys Coastal Habitat offers food and shelter to resident and migratory birds.

Visit the gardens for a casual stroll, or attend one of the many fantastic events held there regularly. The gardens host a variety of concerts, festivals and outdoor activities throughout the year, such as the International Chocolate, Mango and Orchid festivals, along with an annual art exhibition.

One of their best events is Afternoon Tea which is held one Sunday per month from January to June. During the event, guests can enjoy various teas, along with scones and desserts.

A leading center of conservation, horticulture and palm research, Fairchild has built a diverse and large collection of living palms, a library of images and data, and a herbarium of dried palm specimens and a bank of palm DNA. They have a wealth of information on the growing and conservation of palms.

Dedicated to the exploration, education and conservation of tropical plants, Fairchild is the premier education-based conservation garden in the world and a recognized leader in both Florida and international conservation.

2. Wynwood Art District

One of the hippest neighborhoods in the United States, Miami’s Wynwood Art District offers an eclectic vision of vibrant wall art, trendy eats and real estate that is fast transforming the area from a Mecca of creative types to one of the hottest live-work neighborhoods – and a must visit for international travelers. The Art District is rapidly becoming one of America’s most exhilarating destinations to visit.

Wynwood Art District eclipses all other South Florida attractions when it comes to searching for the next big thing. Firmly positioned at the forefront of the art and urban revitalization movement, Wynwood is home to more than 70 art galleries, bars, restaurants, retail stores, and a maze of wall murals, along with residential properties.

Originally dubbed ‘El Barrio’, Wynwood Art District is one of the two distinct areas in the Wynwood Neighborhood. There are more than 70 art galleries here, and one of the world’s largest collections of street art. The area also features a permanent exhibit of outdoor graffiti which is spread across the Wynwood Walls and features some of the most highly acclaimed international artists in the niche.

Situated 5 miles from Miami Beach, Wynwood Art District is within easy reach of visitors to the sunny, palm tree lined paradise. An artistic neighborhood with beautiful events that offer impressive adventures, weeks of discovery await art lovers, antique collectors, beach bums, party crowds and foodies who visit the neighborhood.

One of the neighborhood’s most popular regular events is the Wynwood ‘Art Walk’ which is hosted every Second Saturday of the month. This is when the creative hub’s ‘Art and Soul’ is open for visitors to experience walking art and culinary tours, open art galleries, live music, innovative food truck eats and complimentary drinks.

That said Wynwood Art District is fast moving beyond just an event and spot on the tour circuit, with new residential developments. Innovative design is bringing the very best in urban architecture to life within new, New York-style live-work lofts. The aim is to bring mixed use property to life, by blending real estate with art and everyday living within this exciting new epicenter of urban Miami living.

3. Little Havana

While Miami is a fairly young city, you can stroll downtown past all its art deco high rises, right into old-time Cuba. On Calle Ocho or 8th Street, you will find a time warp into a different reality. Right in the heart of Miami is Little Havana, an area straight out of a Cuban storybook. At Little Havana, you will find fruiterias, herbal stores, meat markets, hand-rolled cigars and windows with cafecitos.

As with anywhere else in Miami, a good place to begin your sight-seeing in Little Havana is with your taste buds. Calle Ocho is home to numerous Cuban restaurants.

At El Pescador, you can indulge in fish croqetas and shrimp tortillas which are rare but excellent. El Pub lets you sample traditional Cuban dishes in a wonderful atmosphere that enables you to while the afternoon away browsing Cuban memorabilia on the restaurant walls.

Next, head over to the Maximo Gomez Park popularly known by locals as Domino Park as this is where the older Cubans meet to play chess or dominoes every day. On the wall is a big mural which depicts the 1993 Summit of the Americas.

Around the corner is the Little Havana Paseo de las Estrellas or “Walk of Stars”. This is similar to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, only that its stars are dedicated to Latin American actors, artists, writers and musicians.

At the corner of 13th Avenue is a memorial park with monuments dedicated to Cuban heroes. This makes for a peaceful spot and a pleasant place to relax. Here you will find memorials to Cuban poets, revolutionaries and war heroes, among others.

But don’t touch the huge tree that has items around it! These are offerings left by patrons to the souls there. It is therefore considered bad luck to touch or remove the offerings.

For the best Cuban evening experience, plan your visit towards the end of the month. The last Friday of every month is called Viernes Culturales or “Cultural Friday”. On this day, a big Latin street party complete with street performers, music, dancing, local artist wares, food and theater takes place, offering good fun for both locals and tourists.

If you’re in Miami at the time of El Festival de la Ocho, do yourself a favor and go! This is one of Miami’s “don’t miss” events which closes off 24 blocks to host music, dance, food, drink and 30 stages of live entertainment in one heck of a party!

Every March, Calle Ocho becomes home to El Festival de la Ocho, the country’s biggest street party. Over 1 million people from across the globe come to attend the single-day event. Back in 1998 nearly 120,000 people joined the world’s longest conga line thereby earning the festival a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

What happens at Calle Ocho? What doesn’t! The Domino Tournament is one of the most interesting traditional events here, which is held at Domino Park and features some intense competition as the domino giants of Miami compete for cash prizes.

This traditional Latin street festival is the scene of carnival as spectators gather to celebrate the largest annual party in the city. You can eat, dance, party and watch street performers in costumes, as well as performances by the biggest Latin stars. And you will enjoy all this among Cubans from all over the country who return to celebrate their roots.

4. Art Deco Historic District

The Art Deco District at Miami Beach is a historically significant area situated in the trendy neighborhood of South Beach.

While art deco appears ultra-modern, it in fact dates back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians. Specifically, the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in the 1920’s flung the doors wide open to this enticing design style. Bold colors, stark lines and zigzag architectural features were added to the objects that were placed inside the tomb to enlighten and entertain the sleeping kings.

The style appealed greatly to Americans who were at the time experiencing the Roaring 20s and who loved the eclectic look. They saw it as a symbol of all the qualities embraced by their generation. The art, fashion, jewelry and architecture of the time was thereafter heavily influenced by the sharp lines and bold colors of the Art Deco style movement.

There’s no better place to experience Art Deco in America than in Miami’s Art Deco Historic District. Take a stroll past interesting buildings in bright pastel colors. Or even better, visit the Historic District during Art Deco Weekend, a celebration of all things Art Deco. Here you can enjoy a colorful parade, music, dance, film screenings, performances, classic car fest, street fair, tours, food and drink.

5. Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

A national historic landmark, the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens comprise a serene and stunningly beautiful estate built in the 1910s. The extraordinary European-inspired estate features a Main House full of art and furnishings, 10 acres of gardens on Biscayne Bay, a hardwood hammock or native forest, and a historic village.

Situated within the lively neighborhood of Coconut Grove, Vizcaya has always served as a cultural hub in Miami. A stunningly beautiful retreat from the hustle and bustle of modern Miami, a visit to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens will arouse your senses. The Vizcaya gardens and grounds, including both the native and designed landscapes, are central to the character and experience of the estate.

Named after one of the most captivating shorelines of the Spanish coast, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is a display of jaw-dropping European extravagance within an enchanting American setting. The style is Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean Revival. It resembles a typical Italian villa, with beautiful gardens.

With its phenomenal natural and man-made resources, Vizcaya offers an introduction to America’s Gilded Age, and Miami’s place in this history – a time when the wealthiest industrialists built lavish homes, while drawing inspiration from the palaces of Europe. It offers insights into how the wealthy in America lived during the early 20th century.

Visitors can go on audio tour to learn about the native vegetation and history of Vizcaya. They could also go on the Moonlight Garden Tours to witness the mystical gardens in another light. Don’t miss the informative Inside Vizcaya series which offers an exclusive look at the archives of Vizcaya and pieces not on public display.

The museum and formal gardens offer a great spot to learn a lot about art, horticulture, architecture and landscape design all of which were inspired by the Gilded Age. Vizcaya is also one of the most sought-after locations for weddings, photo shoots and coming-of-age celebrations.

Stroll past the lush subtropical forest as you approach the Main House along a walkway lined with foliage and fountains. The inside of the house is full of art treasures from across the globe. Outside, you can enjoy spectacular views of Biscayne Bay, as well as the serene, thought-provoking gardens and the statues that inhabit them. Also marvel at the orchid gallery in the Orchidarium.

Villa Vizcaya transports visitors to a different place and time entirely. The villa houses a museum which is the main house which consists of more than 70 rooms of distinct architectural interiors decorated with many antiques. The beautifully maintained mansion was built from 1914-1922, with emphasis on the 15th to the early 19th century European decorative arts and furnishings.

Visitors can approach this hidden architectural treasure by turning onto a winding driveway through a forest of native trees and brush known as Rockland Hammock. This spate of dense tropical woods conceals the grandeur of Vizcaya from the view of the public.

Vizcaya was built by James Deering who was captivated by the extraordinary European splendor of the 15th through the early 19th centuries. He invested in the acquisition of period artifacts from all over Europe and Asia, and then built his dream residence with rooms designed around his extensive collection of furnishings, rather than the other way around.

The house is structured around a center courtyard with an entrance loggia and ground level arcades to the right and left decorated with fine pieces of Renaissance furnishings. The gazebo creates a scenic doorway to the bay, with poles rising up out of the water to depict Venetian moors. The walkways around the gardens are laced with tropical flowers.

The house was also designed to take advantage of its Biscayne Bay location. Deering wanted the villa to be seen and approached from the sea. Its eastern façade on the bay is the most striking and the only one that is symmetrical, which opens onto a wide terrace descending into the water.

Vizcaya’s signature architectural statement is the amazing Stone Barge situated to the east of the house. The barge functions as a breakwater in the cover of the estate, between the Tea House and the boat landing.

The stone barge remains a lasting testament to Deering’s love of the sea. Deering maintained 2 yachts at Vizcaya and wanted to ensure that the water entry to his estate would not be forgotten by his guests, hence the elaborate stone barge.

The other parts of the house feature unique surrounding grounds. The northern façade which greets visitors is simple in contrast to the elaborate interiors of Vizcaya. This northern façade houses one of the most delightful inventions of Vizcaya, a swimming pool that emerges from vaulted arches at the house’s lower level.

The first floor houses a number of reception rooms, the Music room, the Dining Room and the Library surrounding the Courtyard. The second floor houses Deering’s personal suite of rooms and the guest bedrooms, along with the Kitchen and Breakfast Room. Just as in old European villas, most of the sleeping rooms and kitchen are located off a gallery on the second floor.

The southern façade of the house is one of the most popular as it features the gardens. These grounds alone are worthy of 5 stars. Get up close and personal to see the impressive stonework that features delicate masonry.

Despite its Baroque appearance, Vizcaya is a very modern house built with the latest technology of its period. The reference to the past at Vizcaya is coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of comfort, modernity and technology. Visitors may need 2-3 hours to see everything, although you can easily spend a day here.

6. South Beach

Since the 1920s, Miami Beach has been synonymous with non-stop sun. The beach’s epicenter is in fact on the barrier island’s southern end, which is why South Beach is what people actually mean when referring to Miami Beach. At 17 blocks long and 12 blocks wide, South Beach is perfect for a stroll and plays host to lots of activities.

There’s so much to do in Miami’s South Beach, you can never run out of options. Travelers from across the globe visit South Beach primarily to enjoy the clear blue waters and unique art deco landscape. If you’re interested in Art Deco, you can visit the Art Deco Welcome Center. Art Deco tours are also guided from here by native historians or you could take the self-guided audio art deco tour.

Also tour Lincoln Road which is full of boutiques, museums, art galleries and stores in a unique atmosphere full of interesting people. There’s a Farmer’s Market on Sunday morning at Lincoln Mall Road which features fresh produce, jam and juice, homemade bread and fresh flowers. This is also a great spot to meet locals. Alternatively, take a quiet stroll on the beach on the boardwalk on 23rd Street.

There are many great restaurants up and down Ocean Drive at which you can enjoy some lunch or dinner. There’s also no shortage of places to hang out: cafés, bars and clubs are available for every taste, so you can party the night away and sleep in the next day. You can’t really go wrong with the live blues music, great food and tropical setting.

On a short drive on the way out of town, you’ll get to Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House where you can have lunch. A diner, bakery and deli all-in-one, Rascal House offers desserts and sandwiches that are to die for so enjoy a piece of pie or some corned beef on rye.

Naturally, you came to South Beach for its white sandy beaches and crystal blue waters, so what are you waiting for. Hit the miles of beach and enjoy this little patch of paradise for the day. Lay back in your lounge chair, sip a frozen margarita and enjoy the view. However, if you’d prefer to miss the crowds at South Beach, simply head over to the equally beautiful beaches at Key Biscayne.

7. Coral Castle

Originally called Rock Gate Park, Coral Castle was built in the 1950s by Ed Leedskalnin. It took Leedskalnin almost 30 years to build the site with his own two hands. An engineering marvel, Coral Castle comprises more than 1,100 tons of carved coral rock quarried and sculpted into various shapes including chairs, tables, slab walls, a sundial, water fountain and crescent moon.

A visit to the castle makes for a wonderful experience. It is impossible to grasp the wonder of this engineering accomplishment until you see the massive chunks of coral rock with you own two eyes. Key attractions of the Coral Castle Museum include its nine ton gate, which moves with just a touch of the finger, the Polaris telescope and functioning rocking chairs that are made entirely out of stone.

For decades visitors were amazed by the perfectly balanced stone gate which despite its weight could easily swing open with a push of the finger or a strong breeze. Its inner workings remained a mystery until 1986 when it stopped moving. Upon removal, it was revealed that the gate rotated on a metal shaft, resting on a truck bearing.

Legend has it that Edward Leedskalnin was inspired to build the structure following abandonment by his 16-year old sweetheart on what was to be their wedding day. Spurned by his rejection, he set out to prove to her and the world that he was capable of doing something remarkable, and make something of himself, despite his poverty and 4th-grade education. And he succeeded.

Ed’s refusal to let anyone watch him work led to the speculation that he was constructing the castle using paranormal powers. As such, many wild theories and stories emerged over the decades about how he built the castle. Some say he sung to the stones and levitated the blocks using psychic powers. Others suggest that he possessed an arcane knowledge of magnetism and so-called “earth energies”.

As tempting as it is to view the amazing park through a veil of mystery, there is a simple explanation as to how the park was built. Leedskalnin himself said completed it by sheer hard work and the principles of leverage.

The tools he used to quarry the rock are on display at Coral Castle, along with a number of old photos depicting the large tripods, winches and pulleys he used to move the blocks. Although the quarried stone slabs are massive, they are in fact lighter than they appear because the rock is porous.

An everlasting mystery to those who explore it, Coral Castle is a world-famous structure. Although not really a castle and not really made of coral, it is nevertheless an amazing achievement. Situated in Homestead, Coral Castle is easily accessible and worth stopping over at if you are traveling from Miami down to the Keys.

8. World Erotic Art Museum

If you’re looking for something truly titillating and sensual – yet bizarre, look no further than the World Erotic Art Museum.

Situated close to the sands of the seductive South Beach, the museum is a beacon of art, sexuality, eroticism and imaginative cultural collections from bedrooms around the world. From explorations of the sexual side of famous artists, to cultural objects that incite curiosity about how various cultures approach sexuality, the World Erotic Art Museum truly has it all to tempt.

Step into this fascinating, educational oasis of eroticism, sexuality and art. While many may initially find the museum risqué, the shock factor will quickly give way to the discovery that the museum is dedicated to exploring the hidden side of sexuality and sensuality from around the world.

African Treasures is one of the hallmark exhibits of the World Erotic Art Museum. Here, fertility worship in Africa is explored via objects and practice found both inside and outside the bedroom, which is regarded as an important cornerstone of both familial and communal relations.

History buffs will also enjoy Rembrandt’s Erotic Secrets, an exhibit of 20 erotic etchings by the infamous artist. Three of his etchings have now found a permanent home in the collection of this museum. There are also permanent exhibits and activities.

Stroll through the museum center and discover Biblical mythology, antiquities, Ancient Egyptian and Greek exhibits. You may then venture into the outer edges of the museum to discover the darker side of human sexuality with exhibits on masturbation and fetishes.

Once done head over to the museum gift shop where you can purchase various toys and oddities that evoke the sensual and fun side of this unique museum. An open mind is crucial to enjoying this one-of-a-kind museum’s exhibits and activities, so bring one. The museum also has fantastic hours of operation which make it a perfect venue to spend a weekend night.

9. Ancient Spanish Monastery

The Ancient Spanish Monastery is an interesting historical site to add to your Miami Beach itinerary. One of North America’s most important monasteries and the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere, the Ancient Spanish Monastery was actually not built in Miami. In fact, its Cloisters were originally built in Spain between 1133 and 1144.

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For more than 700 years, the Ancient Spanish Monastery enjoyed peace until the early 19th century when Spain underwent a social revolution. The monastery was then captured and converted into a granary to assist in feeding the troops fighting for the revolution. In the century after it was captured, the monastery remained abandoned and ran the risk of falling into permanent disarray.

But in 1925 William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate bought the monastery, dismantled its every stone and had them shipped over to America where they remained in storage for almost three decades.

In 1952, the monastery components were bought by some wealthy historians and rebuilt at North Miami Beach. The process of rebuilding the monastery took almost 2 years, resulting in a worldwide effort to bring a culturally significant and beautiful monastery back to life.

A very unique sight in a city as young as Miami, the Ancient Spanish Monastery boasts extraordinary beauty. Take a stroll through the gardens; sit in the chapel of St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church. Brush your palms against the ancient stones and imagine yourself transported back in time to 12th century Spain.

The monastery museum hosts a permanent exhibit on the fascinating history of this important religious and cultural landmark. Situated at North Miami Beach, the Ancient Spanish Monastery is also popular for hosting wedding ceremonies.

10. Stiltsville

Seemingly floating above the shallow sea grass beds of Biscayne Bay, Stiltsville has a colorful history that dates back to the 1930s when the first shack was built on stilts above the water. More buildings were constructed over the years, causing the area to take on an aura of mystery. Accessible by water only, the area was the place to see and be seen during visits to the winter resorts on the nearby Miami Beach.

At its peak, Stiltsville was home to 27 structures on the flats, but fires, hurricanes and the ravages of being situated in such an exposed place made the buildings’ existence fairly short-lived. Today, this collection of 7 houses that are perched on sand flats, situated a mile off the coast of Florida, comprise pastel buildings that appear to hover above the greenish water, from a distance appearing as boats.

From the shore, the shacks seem less like 4-walled houses, and more like spindly-legged, brightly-colored wading birds, temporary and tiny in the vast blue-green expanse of the bay and the sky. As you approach the stilt houses go through a curious combination of stages, as if a mirage one minute, then a child’s drawing of a house, and all triangles and boxes the next.

The houses are far enough from each other to appear completely isolated, yet far enough from anything else to merge into a community. The cluster of wooden shacks on pilings stand today as a testament of the faded glamour of Stiltsville’s bohemian past.

Legend has it that in addition to beer, bait and crawfish chowder, the first shack at Stiltsville also offered gambling and illegal alcohol which apparently was legal if situated at least one mile offshore. By the early 1940s, a handful of social clubs joined the first shack and took advantage of the legal leeway from being situated far from the mainland.

The Quarterdeck was an invitation-only private gentleman’s club built on a collection of barges and pilings, which welcomed the well-connected and wealthy in Miami for drinks and more. It was a $100,000 play-palace equipped with a lounge, bar, dining room, bridge deck, and dock slips for yachts.

During the Sixties, the Bikini Club made an appearance as a grounded yacht operating without a liquor license, which only added to the reputation of Stiltsville as a hard-partying renegade. Bikini Club was eventually busted and closed down by the vice squad.

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