Growing up in central Pennsylvania, my favorite football team was the Miami Dolphins. I would watch the games and Miami seemed so exotic. So different. So warm. As a kid from Pennsylvania, Miami seemed so far away. Almost like a different planet. That was almost 50 years ago. Now we live in Florida and travel to Miami quite a bit. Much has changed with the city and it is truly an international hub. Miami is an iconic American city that people from all over the world have at least heard of, even if they’ve never been. The area’s history is pretty long with Spanish settlers colonizing the area first, before changing hands to the British and finally Americans. It was the coming railroad in the 19th century that brought people to the area and a highway connecting the Keys to the mainland. Homesteading and tourism boomed in the 1920s and during prohibition, many Floridians got rich from bootlegging rum from the Caribbean.
Miami of the 21st century is a different place though many vestiges of its past remain. Tourists and tourist hotspots are generally centered around the beach so if you’re traveling for a beach holiday, there are definitely tons of that in the city, but Miami is also a lot of other things. Check out some of the best things to do in Miami that are not just being at the beach.
See the Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery
While Spain was the first European country to settle the area, the ancient Spanish cloisters of the St Bernard de Clairvaux church technically make it the oldest European structure in the western hemisphere even though it was not technically built here and was constructed by Americans. Confused? Let’s explain.
In 1133 the Cistercian monastery was built in the town of Sacramenia, Spain, and was dedicated to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. For over 700 years the building was used as a monastery in Spain until the mid-1830s when the Spanish rulers closed and privatized it. Spain sold Florida to the U.S in 1819 and in 1925 entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst bought the remnants of the monastery and had it shipped to the U.S in 11,000 crates. The crates sat in a Brooklyn Warehouse until 1952 where they were then bought for 1.5 million dollars. After 19 months of putting the blocks of the monastery together, it became a tourist attraction in North Miami Beach.
So technically, this is the oldest non-native building in the western hemisphere. It is now known as the Ancient Spanish Monastery and it is a beautiful shady spot to spend a sunny afternoon.
Hang out with the Miami Design Preservation League
There’s nothing better than getting a crash course in something by people who are super passionate about it. The Miami Design Preservation League are people who are more than just passionate about design and architecture. They live it and breathe it and they want you to live it as well. For the traveler on a budget, the Miami Design Preservation League gives affordable tours of South Beach’s Art Deco district with tours starting on the illustrious Ocean Drive.
Learn about the colorful and iconic buildings that give Ocean Drive and Miami some of its architectural charm and the glamorous colors and chromes accents that give it personality. The tour is knowledgeable and at the end of the walking tour, you’ll feel like you just took a crash course on art deco history.
Shop at the Bayside Marketplace
There’s no doubt that shopping in Miami can cost a pretty penny. For everyone else looking to do some shopping that won’t put them in debt, the Bayside Marketplace is a good alternative. The two-story open air shopping area is a great spot on the waterfront that has over 150 stores and stalls to shop from. Even if you’re not looking for something to buy just hanging out at the Bayside Marketplace is a good option for just some sightseeing, people watching, and even grabbing a quick bite to eat.
There’s often live music and tons of family-friendly things to see and check out and for TV fans out there, the shopping center was frequently featured on the show Miami Vice.
Surround Yourself with Monkeys
In 1933 a large part of land in Miami was set out to be a conservation area for various endangered monkeys and apes. Florida’s natural vegetation and environment made it a good area for this endeavor and now Monkey Jungle is one of the biggest monkey conservation areas and is a popular tourist site housing over 400 primates with 30 different species representing them.
Monkey Jungle began as an interesting concept. Zoos were not an uncommon thing by this era and most people would have been familiar with the concept of a zoo but what founder Joseph DuMond wanted to do was to have the monkeys roam free. The concept around Monkey Jungle is that it is the monkeys that roam of their own free will and it is the humans who are caged. When the park expanded the monkeys didn’t like being in cages, so a compromise was made in favor of the monkeys, where the human visitors would be the ones caged.
Experience the Food and Culture of Little Havana
Following the 1959 Cuban revolution, wealthy Cubans sought refuge in Miami. With Florida being a mere 90 miles off the coast of Cuba, the city was soon filled, Cuban immigrants. The area of Little Havana was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood from the 1930s until the 60s when it became the cultural hotspot for Cuban exiles fleeing the revolution. Today Little Havana is a protected area and the home of one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the U.S.
So while you’re here check out some of the coolest things to do for a taste of Cuba in Miami.
Party at Ball & Chain: The Original Ball & Chain was one of Miami’s biggest and most popular clubs even before the neighborhood was known as Little Havana. The club was a hugely popular jazz club in its heyday bringing in such jazz luminaries as Billie Holiday and Chet Baker to its stage. Today the Ball & Chain kept recreated its original 1930s jazz charm but modernized its cocktail menu and clientele. If you’re looking for live music, dancing, and 1930 charisma, Ball & Chain will surely deliver.
Café La Trova: Coming from a James Beard Award-winning chef Café LA Trova is a definite stop for those looking to get a taste of some of the best Cuban food outside of Havana. Indulge in delicious things like fresh mojitos, Cuban sandwiches, and (not so traditional) croquets. They also have live music in an art deco-inspired dining room.
Viernes Culturales: Going on for over 19 years is this local street party that brings in everything from music and dancing, to art live performances. The event is hosted between the 13th and 17th avenues going along the Calle Ocho. Every 3rd Friday of the month is the party where you can see and take part in a number of cultural activities. There are also free neighborhood tours so you can get the historic low-down on Little Havana.
Azucar Ice Cream Company: Miami can get pretty hot so while not cool off and get yourself a treat at one of the city’s most iconic ice cream shops. Aside from the eclectic and colorful design of the shop, what makes Azucar Ice Cream Company unique is their Cuban/Miami inspired flavors like café con Leche, mantecado, and guava.
Cool off in one of the World’s most Beautiful Public Pools
Checking out the Venetian Pool is worth the trek out to Coral Gables on its own. The Venetian Pool was built in 1921 in a Mediterranean revival-style and originally opened as the Venetian Casino. It is built out of rock coral and features structures like Moorish towers, a grotto, caves, and waterfalls. It is currently the only pool to be featured on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Venetian Pool is emptied and refilled every day replacing over 820,000 gallons of freshwater daily which also makes it the largest freshwater pool in the country. In the summer months, the pool gets packed so buy tickets to get in well ahead of time.
Have a Drink at the Ultra Exclusive Onyx Bar
Located in the Villa Casa Casuarina, if the name doesn’t ring a bell it is the former home of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace. Before it was a bar, Kati and I stayed overnight at the home. The architecture was incredible. The bar is located in the opulent former Versace home with its gated Mediterranean Revival property and to get in you’ll have to wade your way through the people outside taking selfies. Versace was shot here in 1997 and now the home is a very exclusive hotel with rooms starting at 1,400$ a night but the Onyx Bar and Gianni’s restaurant (located by Versace’s kitchen) is open to the public. The only catch is that the bar only seats 6 people. If you’re able to get a seat, be prepared to stay for a while.
The drink menu is long and pricey with over 25 vintage wines to select from and a variety of scotch that’s old enough to drink its own scotch. A small sampler of food is available which features things like Key-West prawns and truffle arancini so you can nibble while you drink. There is a dress code here which isn’t too stuffy, all things considered, but you can’t wear sandals or sneakers so put on something with sleeves and a collar for men and a dress for women.
Head up the Cape Florida Lighthouse
Located a little quiet stretch of sandy beach is the Cape Florida Lighthouse. The beach area is part of a park and is relatively quiet as far as Miami beaches go. But the attraction here isn’t the beach, it is the lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1825 and is one of the oldest structures in the area and serves as a sort of reminder of some of Florida’s darker pasts. From nautical adventures to the slave trade and the alcohol smuggling, there are half-hour tours of the park and monument available and if you’re looking to head up to the top, wear comfortable shoes because the 109-stair climb is a long one.
On clear days from the top of the lighthouse, you can see Coconut Grove and the quirky “stiltsville” settlement.
Stroll down Lincoln Road Mall
Who doesn’t like to do a little bit of shopping when they’re traveling? The Lincoln Road Mall is not your run of the mill shopping experience as the mall runs almost the entirety of South Beach. The beach itself is just a few blocks away and the pedestrian mall is filled with everything from mid-range options like Gap and American Eagle to higher-end shops like All Saints and John Varvatos. The mall itself was also designed by the architect behind the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel which aims to maintain Miami-style with modern accents. What sets Lincoln Road Mall apart is that the myriad of cafes, restaurants, and bars around it doesn’t shut down just because the retail stores do, so effectively the Lincoln Road Mall is open until the wee hours.
Miami is one of the hottest spots in the country for tourism. Just behind New York City, Miami brings in visitors from all over the world who want to hang out in the sun, relax and swim in the ocean. Visitors enjoy all the fun that Miami has to offer. But along with its iconic beaches, there are so many other great and interesting places to check out in Miami.