As any true Miamian knows, there are countless things to do in the Magic City besides lounging on the sand—though it goes without saying that spending some time on the best Miami beaches is de rigueur. Of course, Miami is famous for its Art Deco architecture, and it’s not surprising that the U.S. host city of Art Basel Miami Beach has a vibrant cultural scene. In between sunbathing, swimming and sipping cocktails (or craft beer), check off these essential experiences.
Best things to do in Miami
Hang out in South Beach
There’s a reason South Beach is always mobbed with tourists. It’s actually pretty great, even if it does reinforce Miami stereotypes with young, swimsuit-clad crowds hanging poolside, models sauntering along golden sands and rollerbladers gliding down Ocean Drive. Start your morning with fresh croissants at Café Nikki, or, if it’s a weekend, the killer champagne brunch at parent beach club Nikki Beach. Head north on Ocean Drive and stroll past the hyper-tanned reality TV stars and scenesters in the sidewalk cafés, designer boutiques, lounge bars and dusk-till-dawn clubs. Get a dose of culture (apropos of the neighborhood) at the World Erotic Art Museum before dining at Joe’s Stone Crab or Prime 112. If you can snag a table that is—they’re known for being two of the toughest reservations in town.
Delight in Art Deco on Ocean Drive
Miami Beach is young by most city standards but its Art Deco District—containing more than 800 buildings dating from the 1920s to the ’40s—has made it onto the National Register of Historic Places. To gawk at the highest concentration of these streamlined, strikingly geometric structures in the U.S., take a walk along Ocean Drive north of 5th Street, and stop by the Art Deco District Welcome Center for self-guided audio tours. Fascinating fact: The seemingly iconic candy colors of some of Miami’s Deco buildings aren’t original but were introduced in the 1980s as a preservationist’s attention-grabbing tactic—the buildings were originally painted white with subtle pastel trim.
Browse in the Design District
The former Decorators’ Row has expanded into a hub for vanguard architecture, fashion and art. Among the numerous high-end interior showrooms is Holly Hunt, offering furnishings by the likes of Rose Tarlow, Christian Liaigre and Wendell Castle. In addition to the Institute of Contemporary Art, a growing number of galleries include not-for-profit artist space Locust Projects, popular for its artsy fundraisers and site-specific installations, and Opera Gallery (30 NE 39th St at NE Miami Ct, 305-868-3337), showcasing works by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, among other modern masters, and tipped to move to a permanent location in Palm Court in late 2015. Multilevel, open-air shopping complex Palm Court is also the place to shop for luxury fashion labels including Emilio Pucci and Giorgio Armani.
Experience Cuba in Little Havana
Obama may have relaxed restrictions regarding travel to Cuba, but it’s still a lot easier to get a heady flavor of the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods in Miami’s Little Havana. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Miami and, while many moved to other areas of the city, their legacy survives on Calle Ocho (SW 8th St). Mediterranean-style houses with rocking chairs on the porch, fragrant tobacco scents wafting from cigar stores, the click of dominos in Máximo Gómez Park—better known as Domino Park—and the hum of Latin music from record shops all contribute to the neighborhood’s authentic Cuban vibe. Stop by Azucar Ice Cream Company to get a taste of (reimagined) Cuban flavors, such as the Abuela Maria—vanilla blended with crumbled Maria cookies, chunks of guava and dollops of cream cheese.
Shop, sip and snack at Lincoln Road Mall
Designed by iconic architectural guru Morris Lapidus in the 1950s, Lincoln Road Mall was once dubbed the “Fifth Avenue of the South,” though it’s now commonly referred to as “Lincoln.” Endless sidewalk coffee shops, lounges and cultural venues—such as Britto Centra (818 Lincoln Rd, between Jefferson Ave and Meridian Ave), Miami-based artist Romero Britto’s art gallery, and the Colony Theatre—and stretch along its length from Washington Avenue to Alton Road; additional fountains and public areas are planned as part of Lincoln Road’s forthcoming $20 million facelift, slated to begin in late 2015. Got money to burn? The Herzog & de Meuron–designed 1111 Lincoln Road—quite possibly the world’s most glamorous parking garage—houses upscale retail on the ground level, including local luxury fashion boutique Alchemist and high-end novelty and gift shop Babalu Miami. Cap off an afternoon of shopping at the best stores and boutiques with a fancy cappuccino at the Nespresso Boutique next door, or a meal with a side of people-watching at Balans, one of the strip’s most popular eateries.
Visit Europe by way of Coconut Grove at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Once you get over the surreal sight of an Italian Renaissance-style villa in the hippie enclave that is Coconut Grove, visiting Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is like entering a wonderland. Built for Chicagoan industrialist and Europhile James Deering in the early 20th century, the extravagant architecture gives way to an opulent interior. Full of European antiques and decorative works from the 16th to 19th centuries and complete with original fittings, it will transport you to a golden age. No wonder it’s so popular when it comes to weddings and quinciañera portraits.
Dine like you’re in Dynasty at the Forge
One of the most fantastic dining experiences in the city, this deluxe steakhouse has hosted the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon. Behind the 19th-century Parisian facade is a glitzy interior that’s a rococo lover’s dream. The Forge still has an 1822 Château Lafite Rothschild worth $165,000 to prove its star quality and an enomatic wine system to dispense various-sized pours of some of the world’s most sought-after vintages. The decadent wines accompany steak and fish dishes such as the bone-in filet mignon with the signature Forge rub, and the local red snapper. The glam weekly dinner parties, complete with music and drink specials, evoke the over-the-top opulence of Dynasty.
Escape to tranquil Key Biscayne
Key Biscayne (locally known as “the Key”) may not have much in the way of nightlife or shopping, but what it lacks in consumer attractions, it makes up for in serenity and seclusion. The northernmost island in the Florida Keys offers pristine beaches, two waterfront parks, a cycling path and gorgeous views of Miami. Toward the east end of the Key, Crandon Park has barbecue and picnic areas, making it great for family trips, while the tip of the island offers excellent and (and safe) swimming in the 400-acre Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Spring brings the Miami Open tennis tournament, as popular for celebrity sightings as for the riveting matches.
Get a taste for South American cuisine
There’s more to Latin food than Cuban sandwiches and croquettes, as Miami’s varied—and delicious—South American and Caribbean cuisines prove. In the Brickell area, traditional Colombian fare gets the imaginative molecular-gastronomy treatment at elCielo, chef Juan Manuel Barrientos’ first U.S. restaurant. Dinner here is a palate-pleasing 10- or 15-course tasting menu inspired by Colombia’s geography, art and culture. If you prefer a lighter meal, Peruvian restaurant Coya, which has its own pisco bar, is the place to go for authentic ceviche paired with the country’s flagship cocktail, the Pisco Sour, made with house-infused spirits.
Join in the festivities
From the traditional to the tacky, Magic City is fast on its feet when it comes to celebrations. Each spring, Latino Miami struts its stuff at Carnaval Miami, 10 days of beauty pageants, culinary competitions, galas and an upscale Latin jazz festival. The grand finale is Little Havana’s 23-block street party, Calle Ocho, where more than a million people come to watch live entertainment on 30 stages featuring salsa, merengue and Caribbean music. Running almost simultaneously is the electronic music festival Ultra. For three consecutive days over two weekends in Downtown Miami you can catch performances by the world’s leading DJs and top musical talent (past performers include Madonna and Tiësto), pyrotechnic shows and swarms of scantily clad or costumed attendees of all ages.
Take a dip in the Venetian Pool
The Venetian Pool may just be the most beautiful in the world. The former quarry (read: the water is freezing!) was converted into a mock-Italian villa in the 1920s. The ornate results—all waterfalls and two loggias—may seem kitsch to those who’ve actually been to Venice, but there’s no denying the glamour of the place (except when it’s overrun by screaming toddlers and middle-aged aerobics enthusiasts—in which case, fear not! There’s no shortage of other stunning swimming pools in Miami). During its near-century of service to overheated Miamians, the pool has played host to orchestras, dance troupes and even Hollywood stars. Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller are among the famous bathing beauties who’ve made a splash here.
Stop and smell the flowers at a botanical garden
Established in 1962, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden offers free access to 2.6 acres of glorious horticulture and calm. But there’s more than plant life in the serene oasis: You can shop for local produce and Zak the Baker bread at the weekly farmers’ market, or find your Zen under a well-kept palm tree at a lunchtime express yoga class. Farther south, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has been open to the public since 1838. The landscape itself is a veritable horticultural wonder, with miles of manicured lawns, waterfalls, lakes and other topographic features.
Sample Miami-brewed suds
Swap the ubiquitous Miami martini for a pint at one of Wynwood Arts District’s craft breweries and biergartens. Feast on house-made sausages and a rotating selection of beers, from IPAs to porters and beyond, at The Butcher Shop, a spacious beer garden and restaurant. To sample more homegrown ales, head to one of several local breweries, all of which have tap rooms: Miami’s first craft brewery, Wynwood Brewing Company, which has a flavor-packed blonde ale called La Rubia (Spanish for, you guessed it, the blonde); J. Wakefield Brewing, the leading local brewer of sour beers (and a tasty Hop for Teacher IPA); or Concrete Beach Brewery with its massive 30-barrel brewing system and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating.
See amazing street art
Converted warehouses and decaying urban structures have become canvases for Miami street artists, whose masterpieces can be seen all over the Wynwood Arts District. It’s more than graffiti, with murals spanning multiple blocks and taking months to complete. Some of the neighborhood’s most lauded pieces are on view at the Wynwood Walls, an outdoor gallery created by the late real estate developer Tony Goldman. Some 50 artists from around the world have had murals inside the Walls, including Shepard Fairey, who’s responsible for the famous Obama “Hope” poster. Not sure you can cover enough ground on foot? Join the free Wynwood Mural Bike Tours, departing on Sundays from Panther Coffee.
Dance till dawn in the city’s swankiest clubs
Miami has a reputation for cookie-cutter nightclubs, but South Beach is also home to glamorous, over-the-top bar-clubs where you can live it up well into the night. Cameo is a renovated Art Deco movie theater that’s a premier venue for superstar DJs. It’s popular with a crowd of glamazons and scenesters, so dress the part. For endless flash, frequent celebrity sightings and world-renowned spinners, hit LIV (if you can get past the velvet rope, that is). Electric dance music, the kind of you’ll hear blaring through the city during Winter Music Conference and Ultra, has a place in the South of Fifth neighborhood at Story. While Basement, the underground lounge inside EDITION Miami Beach, is where you’ll ice skate and bowl between dance breaks.
Make an Ernest pilgrimage
His most famous works are set in Europe and Cuba, but the quirky town of Key West is where Ernest Hemingway chose to move—on a recommendation from fellow author John Dos Passos—after his wife became pregnant in Paris. Considering he only ended up staying for eight years, locals tend to overhype the connection somewhat, yet his former home-turned-museum makes for an interesting outing. Bizarrely, the main attraction isn’t the display of Hemingway artifacts—which includes his typewriter—or even the house itself, but the extended family of 40 to 50 six-toed cats roaming the grounds, many of them descended from Hemingway’s kitty, Snow White. When he wasn’t home writing Farewell to Arms, Hemingway could be found knocking back Rum Runners in Key West’s most popular watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s.
See and be scene on a movie-location tour
Since the 1920s, the movie industry has had a sweaty crush on the subtropical city. Miami’s nightlife has appeared in the likes of 1964 Bond outing Goldfinger, and the ’80s drug-fueled revelry in Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. A hair-raising scene from There’s Something About Mary is played out at the Cardozo hotel, and South Beach’s Carlyle Hotel starred as a gay club in The Birdcage. Sports and screen have collided in such films as Any Given Sunday, starring Al Pacino, the Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura and HBO’s breakout hit Ballers, starring former University of Miami football player and Hollywood actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Companies like Miami Movie Tours will pick you up at a designated location and take you on a guided tour of all the major sites, most of which are clustered in South Beach and Coral Gables.
Kid around at the Miami Children’s Museum
The Miami Children’s Museum isn’t just for kids—with a futuristic design by Miami-based architecture firm Arquitectonica, parents will appreciate it too. Among the interactive, educational exhibits are the colorful, mosaic-tiled Castle of Dreams, with its winding slide, a cruise ship that lets you take turns steering the make-believe vessel and a mock Bank of America that teaches kids about financial literacy and even lets them design their own currency. Under-fives can have an adventure in a beach-related play area, or “stock up” in a mini supermarket with shopping carts and checkout lanes, among other activities.
Party with the creative crowd at Art Basel Miami Beach
With its reputation for kitsch, Miami Beach didn’t seem the natural choice for the first American sortie of Switzerland’s sophisticated art extravaganza. Yet Art Basel Miami Beach has been an amazing success, drawing galleries and dealers from around the globe. The main fair alone showcases the work of more than 1,000 artists and 200 galleries. And because it’s in Miami, showbiz culture and celebs are part of the equation. Spotting stars buying art, curating exhibitions and partying at exclusive galas adds to the fun. There are also a number of satellite fairs including NADA, Pulse and Design Miami. Galleries hold special shows, South Beach clubs host art soirees and restaurants offer specials. This event is all about drinking cocktails while chatting about art alfresco.
Go back to nature at Homestead
If you’ve had enough of the sun and surf, the farm fields around Homestead, a 40-mile drive from Miami, are a welcome bucolic break. The Fruit & Spice Park is the only garden of its kind in the United States, a 30-acre park exhibiting over 500 varieties of fruits, veggies, spices, herbs, nuts and exotic edibles. An old schoolhouse and coral rock building chart Florida’s pioneer life. Another throwback to the fruit-farming industry is Robert is Here, which started life in 1959 when the shop’s namesake, then six, began selling the family’s cucumbers from a small stall. Since then, it has grown into an exotic emporium of fruit and veg. From November through April, Knaus Berry Farm is the place to score homemade cinnamon rolls, among other freshly baked goods.