As any true local knows, the best things to do in Miami extend beyond 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
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.
True to its mission, the new 250,000-square-foot museum connects people of all ages with science through a range of inspiring programming—some of which is even bilingual. The new Frost Science (an upgrade from its previous Coconut Grove location) occupies four buildings—the Aquarium, the Frost Planetarium and the North and West Wings—features year-round exhibits such as "Feathers to the Stars," "River of Grass" and “MeLab,” an interactive exhibit that lets kids learn about health by using their own bodies to conduct experiments (think hands-on simulations). The "Aquarium" is a remarkable display across three levels, one of which includes the museum’s 500,000-gallon Gulf Stream aquarium that houses all sorts of sea creatures. Don't skip a visit to the planetarium dome and the monthly rock 'n' roll laser light shows.
Stroll down Calle Ocho 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.
Today’s Ball & Chain is a recreation of a 1930s hotspot that once occupied the same space and welcomed jazz superstars like Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Chet Baker to its stage. Across from the historic Tower Theater, the Ball & Chain has its own storied past filled with Jewish and Cuban community influences. We recommend sampling a few Cuban-inspired cocktails: the Mojito Criollo (made the classic way with the mint leaves left intact for enhanced aroma, and more sugar), the Canita (white rum, lime, house-made honey syrup, guarapo or sugarcane juice, sugarcane stick) and the Pastelito Daiquiri (pastelito-infused aged rum, lime, simple syrup, and a side of pastelitos or guava pastries). Expect live jazz at 6pm sharp Thursday through Saturday. On Saturdays, a wild Cuban fiesta, La Pachanga, kicks off around 9pm when salsa dancers take to the bar.
Almost as famous locally as its palatial namesake is in France, Versailles is a kitschy Cuban diner with wall-to-wall mirrors, a constant buzz and an unabridged menu featuring every dish ever cataloged as Cuban. The Cubano might be the most popular thing on the menu: toasted, filled slices of ham, roasted pork and swiss cheese and cut perfectly in half. The Little Havana institution is also the unofficial meeting place for the city’s Cuban community during times of political unrest.
Azucar owner Suzy Batlle takes the best flavor combinations from her childhood and churns them into delicious “Cuban” ice cream, including the wildly popular Abuela Maria—vanilla ice cream, Maria crackers, guava and cream cheese. The dairy queen can often be found concocting new flavors from local ingredients, such as her recent creation with Knaus Berry Farm cinnamon buns soaked in bourbon.
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.
No, not the same Deering who built Vizcaya, but close. The Deering Estate was, in fact, set up and built by James’s similarly well-off brother Charles, who erected his own winter retreat at about the same time that Vizcaya was constructed. The main building, the Stone House, takes a similarly revivalist tack to Vizcaya: Deering built it to remind himself of his properties in Spain. It’s not as grand as his brother’s digs, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Other buildings on the site include the Richmond Cottage, built at the turn of the 19th century, and three small but delightful utilitarian buildings from 1918. The vast grounds contain all manner of nature, including a mangrove boardwalk, and canoe trips to pleasant Chicken Key are available if you book in advance. The estate is most notable for its fossil pit of 50,000-year-old animal bones and 10,000-year-old human remains; the latter are Paleo-Indians.
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 the Colony Theatre—and stretch along its length from Washington Avenue to Alton Road. 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.
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.