Those looking to take a break from the South Beach scene will find a range of things to do at the best Miami attractions, starting with Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the city’s grandest, most-recognized estate. If the views of Biscayne Bay from the villa’s back patio don’t convince you, tea time near the grotto after meandering through the beautiful sculpture garden may make you never want to leave. If you’re looking for things to do in Miami with kids (besides taking them to the local water parks), take a trip to the Zoological Wildlife Foundation, where getting up close and personal with the animals is part of the fun.
Best Miami attractions
From holding a monkey to having some one-on-one time with a Bengal tiger, all of your wildest animal dreams can come true at the Zoological Wildlife Foundation. This zoo, preservation and conversation facility functions as a type of petting zoo, where guests can hold and interact with a number of exotic animals. Regular admission includes a one-hour tour of the five-acre property and an opportunity to hold and take pictures with several of the animals. Extended wildlife encounters are available for an additional purchase—think a play session with a cougar cub or a primate encounter with a capuchin monkey.
Spanning acres of lush greenery and with an abundance of tropical blooms, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden isn’t the type of place one would imagine exists in Miami. But with the help of ingenious horticulturalists (and 45,000 members and over 1,200 volunteers) this conversation facility has figured out sustainable ways to keep the landscape thriving despite the city’s often stifling weather. Even those not particularly interested in gardening have taken to Fairchild, thanks, in part, to a range of programming and events offered year round. Be sure to mark your calendars for the annual mango festival and the chocolate festival—which is exactly what it sounds like: a decadent celebration of all things cocoa.
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 events such as Tea on the Terrace.
Before his younger half-brother James Deering built the other Miami manse on the bay, Vizcaya, Charles Deering set out to create his own waterfront abode—albeit far less ostentatious. What remains is bare compared to Vizcaya, containing few of Charles’ belongings or the home’s original furnishings. But what it lacks in decorative arts, the Deering Estate makes up for in natural beauty: it preserves an impressive 444-acre parcel of land, which includes mangroves and salt marshes. It’s also an archeological preserve and the site of a Tequesta Indian Burial Mound. Visit throughout the year to experience its popular seafood festival, jazz concerts under the stars and other outdoor events.
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.
The nine-acre botanical garden hidden away in Coconut Grove is one of only five nationally recognized tropical gardens, making it a veritable oasis for a diverse array of plants, flowering trees and shrubs. Founder Dr. David Fairchild planted many of the specimens found on the property, which have continued to be cultivated through the years and are now used as part of workshops and educational programs offered at the garden, such as courses in tropical botany. But the Kampong isn’t just a place for learning. Its waterfront location and colorful architecture make it a popular event venue too (Singer Pharrell Williams reportedly got hitched here!).
Formerly known as Parrot Jungle, one of the first Miami attractions ever built, Jungle Island is a sanctuary for all kinds of species of birds. Though with its name change came a slew of new animals, such as orangutan twins Peanut and Pumpkin, and a larger facility on Watson Island. These days, it functions as a zoo and a tropical garden with a vast array of unusual flora, as well as a water park for kids in the summer. Fans of the original will be pleased to find the same bicycle-riding cockatoo, dancing macaw and other performing birds that have made Jungle Island a favorite of families for 75 years.
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 weekends; call in advance before setting out.
You’ll find South Florida’s oldest lighthouse at the very southern tip of Key Biscayne. It’s been around since 1825 and despite being ravaged by fires and hurricanes, and enduring beach erosion, it’s still as popular today as it was throughout the 19th century, when it guided mariners off the Florida Reef. Entrance to the lighthouse is free with admission to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, though only those who book a guided tour (also free) are allowed to climb the 109 steps to the top.
South Florida’s only castle is like a modern-day version of the Taj Mahal, only this one is wrought in rage and shrouded in its share of mystery. The story goes that a scornful Latvian immigrant named Ed Leedskalnin spent 28 years building the castle for his ex-fiancé, Agnes, who left Ed one day shy of their wedding on the grounds that he was too poor. To show his worth, the young man moved to Florida and began single-handedly building the structure out of coral rock, using only hand tools—which many still question today. Today, Ed's grand gesture is open to the public and available for private events.