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The best Miami attractions and museums

Take a break from the beach and discover intriguing Miami attractions, including historic sites, museums and impressive estates and gardens

Photograph: Bill Sumner
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

Those looking to take a break from the beach scene will find a range of Miami attractions and museums, starting with the Wolfsonian-FIU, a museum and research center that explores how design shapes and reflects the human experience. If that sounds a bit stuffy, it’s not—the artifacts include some real gems, like a deco postbox from New York’s Central Station and a collection of Cuban cinema posters. If you’re looking for things to do in Miami with kids, take a trip to the Miami Children’s Museum (cutely styled as MiChiMu), which unites educational exhibits with an interactive playground design.

Best Miami attractions and museums

Hemingway Home & Museum

Critics' pick

Relentlessly hyped—especially when you consider that Ernest only lived here for eight years—and often busy, this is nonetheless one of Key West’s most appealing sights. The stories related by the laconic guides (they set off every 15 minutes) bring the place to life. And it’s a must for fans of polydactyl (six-toed) cats named after celebrities. Nearly 50 of them roam the museum grounds, many of them descendants of Snowball, Hemingway’s own multi-toed ball of fur, which lived with him on the property. Today, all of the cats are named after famous figures such as Rudolph Valentino or Tennessee Williams, as a nod to Hemingway’s own tradition. In late 2012, the US Department of Agriculture won a decade-long battle against the Hemingway Home, claiming that the animals shouldn’t be allowed to simply roam the property. Nothing has been confirmed on how the cats’ free-wheeling ways might change, but it’s best to catch them now.

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Key West

Miami Children's Museum

Critics' pick

Across the causeway from the Jungle Island, the Miami Children's museum turns as many heads as the parrots, with its futuristic design by the stellar architecture firm Arquitectonica. Inside, it's nothing like the familiar boring old museums at home, but rather a highly interactive kid's playground. The fun includes a colourful mosaic-tiled, two-storey sandcastle, a sea room designed specially for under-fives, the world's most cultural teddy-bear exhibit and a television studio. But what kids seem to like best are the exhibits celebrating the mundane: the bank with teller stations and fake cheques, the supermarket with checkout lanes, and the police motorcycle and fire truck.

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Watson Island

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

Critics' pick

Incongruous, unlikely and bizarre, Vizcaya is also an utter delight. An Italian Renaissance-style villa and gardens set on Biscayne Bay, it was built by F Burrall Hoffman, Diego Suarez and Paul Chalfin for Chicagoan industrialist and committed Europhile James Deering from 1914 to 1916. And a wildly extravagant spot it is too. Not only architecturally: the place is crammed with European antiques and works of decorative art spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries. All the furnishings at Vizcaya are just as they were in Deering’s time, including early versions of such amenities as a telephone switchboard, a central vacuum-cleaning system, elevators and fire sprinklers. The East Loggia looks out on to the bay, the exit guarded by a vast telescope. Off to the south stretch Vizcaya’s idyllic gardens, with fountains, pools, greenery, a casino and a maze. Strolling here on a quiet summer’s day can be magical (not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for weddings). Another bonus is the café, which offers above-average lunches and, on Sundays, tea for two ($16) from 1pm to 4pm.

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Coral Gables

Ancient Spanish Monastery

Built in the mid 1100s near Segovia, Spain, this monastery was occupied by Cistercian monks for 700 years before it was converted to a granary and stable. In 1924, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst purchased the cloisters and outbuildings, and had the structure dismantled and shipped to the United States. It was intended for his California coastal mansion, Hearst Castle, but Hearst had financial problems, so most of his collection was sold at auction, and the stones remained in a Brooklyn warehouse for 26 years before finally being purchased and reassembled at a cost of $1.5 million. Today, this Romanesque structure is an anomalous oasis in a noisy area. Things to look out for include a life-size statue of the Spanish king Alfonso VII (the monastery was originally constructed to commemorate one of his victories over the Moors) and a couple of attractive round stained-glass windows. The monastery is a favorite spot for weddings – so much so that it’s often closed to the public, especially on Sundays; call in advance before setting out.

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Miami Beach

Arch Creek Park & Museum

Created around a natural limestone bridge formation that was once part of an important Indian trail, this small park has a museum and nature center containing artifacts left by natives as they passed over the arched bridge. Naturalists are on hand to point out native birds, animals and insects. It’s a perfect place for gazing at the natural world around you, and allegedly also a hotspot for supernatural activity; park guides lead nature walks every Saturday and ghost tours each Wednesday (call ahead for reservations).

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North Miami

Coral Gables Museum

The Coral Gables Museum lives up to its name by providing a useful overview of the district's culture and history, with a special emphasis on architecture and town planning. It's more diverting than it sounds—recent exhibitions have looked at pioneer life in Miami and the Florida land boom of the '20s, while a season dedicated to Coral Gables's sister cities around the world branched out into exhibits on Italy and Colombia. Appropriately, the museum is partly housed in the Old Fire House & Police Station, an imposing old building whose blend of Depression-era architecture and Mediterranean Revival influences speaks to the area's colorful history.

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Coral Gables

HistoryMiami

It’s young, but south Florida does have a past and a lively one at that. Tracing the history of the region, from early Indians to rafting Cubans, HistoryMiami succeeds in educating while entertaining. The exhibits on the wreckers of Key West and Henry Flagler both merit an extended look, as does the section on photographer Ralph Middleton Munroe.

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Downtown

Wolfsonian-FIU

Housed in a finely restored 1927 storage facility, this museum and research center explores how design shapes and reflects the human experience. If that sounds a bit stuffy, it’s not. The artifacts include some real treats—a deco postbox from New York’s Central Station, a stained-glass window by fey Irish illustrator Harry Clarke, and Cuban cinema posters, as well as lots of attractively displayed furniture, ceramics, metalwork, paintings and architectural drawings. The permanent exhibits are supplemented by touring exhibitions, lectures and films.

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South Beach

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