A beginner’s guide to visiting Miami: Everything you need to eat, see and do
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Any mention of Miami evokes visions of sun-soaked beaches, glamour, international flair, and a buzzing nightlife scene of drinking and dining. No wonder this South Florida city attracts vacationers from around the world to its shores — there’s so much to offer to every kind of traveler.
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Before you make your first trip down to “The 305,” make sure you’re aware of all there is to see, eat, drink and do. Whether you want to relax at a beachfront resort or take in the city’s rich cultural and culinary experiences, you won’t be disappointed in Miami.
How to get to Miami
Getting to Miami is easy. Although airline route networks have been significantly altered because of the coronavirus pandemic, Miami International Airport (MIA) is one of American Airlines’ largest and busiest hubs, offering lots of connecting flights to the Caribbean and Latin America. Most midsize and large cities across the nation have nonstop service to MIA, making a trip to this electric city quick and easy for many.
And, if you strike out on flights into MIA, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) is about 30 miles north of South Beach and is perhaps even better located for reaching resorts like Aventura and Bal Harbour on the northern edges of the Miami metro area.
Once you’re in Miami, you’ll want to get around by car. The area is sprawling and although the city has a public-transit system, it isn’t extensive or the most convenient option for visitors. A car rental would be a great option for anyone who plans to do extensive exploration of the region, while Uber or other ride-hailing services will be more than sufficient to transport you from your resort to dinner and back.
Where to eat and drink in Miami
Over the years, Miami has gained a reputation for being one of the best places in the U.S. to eat, thanks to the rich combination of restaurants that have become local institutions, the recent trend of buzzy, high-end dining spots, and a strong influence from Latin America — particularly Cuba.
Best restaurants in Miami
There’s no way you’ll get around to sampling all the phenomenal food Miami has to offer in one trip, so here are some of the highlights that you can’t miss on your first trip.
One of the city’s most venerable restaurants, Joe’s Stone Crab. Since 1952, it has been attracting flocks of diners eager to taste the restaurant’s famous — you guessed it — stone crab. They’re especially delicious when they’re in peak season between October and May. Located in South Beach, this Miami standby doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to arrive early and wait quite a while for a table. And whatever you do, save room for key lime pie.
In Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, on the famous Calle Ocho, Sanguich de Miami serves up traditional Cuban sandwiches with modern twists. For your first trip, though, you should stick to the classic Cubano sandwich, made with pork, spiced ham, Swiss cheese and mustard on toasty Cuban bread. Don’t forget to indulge in a batido, a rich milkshake that comes in multiple flavors.
Wynwood is Miami’s hippest neighborhood, with tons of restaurants, cafes and bars. One of my favorites in the area is Kyu, a restaurant featuring Asian-inspired dishes cooked on a wood-fired grill and focused on sustainability and green practices. Opt for dishes like the crispy pork belly buns, a whole roasted cauliflower with goat cheese, shishito-herb vinaigrette, myoga and shiso and baby bok choy with toasted garlic, chili and lemon.
Greek cuisine is big in this seaside city, and one of the best options in town is Mandolin Aegean Bistro in the Miami Design District. I’ve visited this restaurant many times during visits to the city, and I recommend sitting outside and ordering the grilled octopus to share with your group, and then enjoy kebabs of lamb, chicken and beef along with a bottle or two of crisp Mediterranean wine.
Miami is a city in which to see and be seen, and there are perhaps no better places to do that than at any one of the city’s high-end and trendy Japanese restaurants. There’s no shortage of places to get high-priced sushi in the city, but Makoto, located in the Shops at Bal Harbour, one of the city’s most affluent areas, stands out. Expect a full menu of raw fish dishes, but Makoto offers more to diners, too, with its charcoal robata, which churns out Japanese barbecue-style dishes to hungry diners every night.
Best bars in Miami
Miami has a wide range of drinking establishments for every type of vibe you could want on a given night — or day, from rooftop hangouts to laid-back beachside watering holes, you won’t lack for places to get a cold drink. Here are some “greatest hits” for a first trip to Miami.
Just north of Downtown Miami, Esotico is a paradise for anyone who loves tiki bars and Polynesian culture. Covered in tropical flora, this drinking spot serves up rum-based Polynesian cocktails that will instantly transport you to the South Pacific.
The Broken Shaker at the Freehand Hotel in Miami Beach is an ideal place to begin any evening out in Miami, and I make sure to stop by for a drink or two every time I’m in town. Most of the bar is outside in a lushly landscaped courtyard that even features a pool that guests can sit around while they enjoy cocktails. This laid-back spot’s outdoor emphasis suits balmy Miami evenings perfectly.
One of the last true dive bars in Miami Beach, Mac’s Club Deuce, is a guaranteed good time. Featuring old-time classics like a jukebox, pool tables and terrible lighting, it’s a great place to change up the pace from the typical nightclub-heavy nightlife scene in Miami.
What to see and do in Miami
Many people — including myself on occasion — choose to spend a Miami vacation by spending the whole day at the pool or beach and only venturing from the hotel to go to dinner in the evening. That’s a totally acceptable way to vacation in South Florida. But Miami has other things to do and see.
One of the most culturally vibrant cities in the country, Miami is full of museums, cultural institutions, sporting events and more that can easily fill your days.
One of the hottest spots in the city is what’s known as the Wynwood Walls, in the Wynwood district. The Walls are a display of public art created several years ago when this area of the city began its transformation from a zone of derelict warehouses to one of the city’s trendiest districts. Today, the Walls and their murals attract artists from all over the world eager to leave their mark on the city.
One of Miami’s most iconic attractions is the Art Deco Historic District found in South Beach. The district has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the U.S. — including the famed Versace Mansion — and transports visitors back to the heyday of Miami’s glamour. The pastel-colored buildings lining the beach come alive at night with their neon signs beckoning passersby to stop in for a drink or meal.
Another area that you won’t want to miss is the city’s Little Havana neighborhood, the center of Miami’s strong Cuban heritage. Stroll down the famous Calle Ocho and pick up a case of Cuban cigars, enjoy a cafecito which is a very potent — and sweet — espresso drink and sample the numerous culinary delights that are abundant in the neighborhood.
If you’re looking to escape the city for a day and get out into nature, look no further than Everglades National Park, which is the third-largest national park in the continental United States and the largest tropical wilderness in the nation at over 1.5 million acres. There’s plenty to keep you busy on a visit to the park, with miles of trails, campgrounds, waterways for boating and even observation areas for stunning dark skies at night.
Florida is synonymous with golf, and if you’re a fan of the sport, you can’t go wrong in Miami. The area is home to more than 20 courses ranging from public courses such as the Miami Beach Golf Club to high-end resort courses like the duo at the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa. Whichever route you choose, you’ll be (likely) blessed with picture-perfect weather and beautifully maintained fairways.
For some fun for the whole family, head to the Miami Seaquarium in Key Biscayne, south of the city. The kids will love meeting and learning about all the marine animals including turtles, seals and dolphins, and it’s a perfect activity for a rainy day or to get out of the blazing summer sun. Book your visit online for the best prices.
For a heavy dose of culture, visit the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), which is the city’s preeminent art museum. Set in a stunning building next to Biscayne Bay, the museum was designed by the renowned architecture firm, Herzog & de Meuron. It provides a fitting home for international modern and contemporary art, presented from the viewpoint of U.S. Latino people, as well as those from the African diaspora, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Where to stay in Miami
Located in the heart of South Beach just blocks from the beach, The Gates Hotel South Beach – A DoubleTree Hotel is a great option for travelers on a budget. With rooms from around $170 or 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night, you’ll be paying significantly less than other properties in the area — especially those right on the beach. Expect an outdoor pool, spa services and, of course, the famous DoubleTree cookies to help enhance your Miami vacation.
Great value on points
One of Hyatt’s few beachfront hotels in Miami, the Confidante Miami Beach packs a big punch at a great price — especially when you’re paying with points. As a Category 4 property in the World of Hyatt program, an award night will run you just 15,000 points. (Or, you can use a Category 1-4 award-night certificate that you get on the anniversary of the World of Hyatt Credit Card.) And, Hyatt points are easy to earn, since the program is a 1:1 transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards. Once you’re there, you’ll delight in the 1940s-era property complete with three dining and drinking outposts, two heated pools, a fitness center, spa and, of course, a prime oceanfront location.
For refined oceanfront luxury, look no further than The St. Regis Bal Harbour. Appropriately located in Miami’s well-heeled Bal Harbour neighborhood, The St. Regis makes a big impression on the beach. Huge and luxuriously appointed guest rooms and the signature St. Regis butler service makes this five-star property stand out. And with three restaurants, two resort pools, a top-notch Remède spa, expansive private beach and more on offer, you won’t even have to leave the property during your stay. This is a top-tier Category 8 Marriott Bonvoy hotel, so a free night will cost you 70,000 points for an off-peak night, 85,000 for a standard night and 100,000 for a peak night.
Miami has so much to offer to every type of traveler, so you must prepare for your first trip so you don’t waste valuable time once your vacation has started. Use these TPG recommendations and you can feel confident that you’ll get a taste of the city, but know that you’ll have to schedule several return trips before you can even begin to scratch the surface. After you visit once, there’s no doubt you’ll want to return.
Featured photo of Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami by Pola Diamonte/Getty Images.
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