9 things to do in Greater Miami

Miami’s energy is infectious. If you delve a little deeper into its pages, you’ll be surprised by how much substance can be found in a place where glitz and glamour takes the front cover. Here are nine ways you can discover the real story of Miami and see its more authentic side

“The dirtier the sock the better” said Andi our tour guide, showing me the traditional Cuban coffee machine and explaining how she used to make coffees for her Grandma. Earlier, Andi had told me that she used to be an air steward before training as a tour guide which she enjoyed so much more. And who could blame her? A walk of Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood was certainly more exciting than a walk down a plane aisle. I was trying to concentrate on the coffee machine, but my eyes kept being drawn to the window. Outside, music blared, people danced arm in arm down the road and a vintage car parked up against a backdrop of a flamingo pink building. I wasn’t sure whether it was the mix of mojitos, Cuban coffee and fresh sugar cane I’d consumed, or just the vibrant atmosphere outside that was making me feel giddy. Probably a combination of the two.

Our characterful tour guide, Andi

Our characterful tour guide, Andi

It was a feeling I had grown used to during my time in Greater Miami where there is always something exciting to see. From the tangerine sunrises painting the skies above South Beach, to the bold, bright art museums that must have been inspired by these morning displays. From the alligators gliding down the Everglades, apparently oblivious to the “oohs” and “ahs” coming from nearby airboats to the chattering locals under the shade of the trees opposite South Beach's Art Deco buildings. This is a city where life can be seen everywhere – being enjoyed, being loud and being lived.

Miami’s energy is infectious and if you delve a little deeper into its pages, you’ll be surprised by how much substance and authenticity can be found in a place where glitz and glamour takes the front cover. Here are nine ways you can discover the real story of Miami.

A traditional Cuban coffee machine in Miami's Little Havana

A traditional Cuban coffee machine in Miami's Little Havana

A traditional Cuban coffee machine in Miami's Little Havana

Little Havana in Miami

Little Havana in Miami

Little Havana in Miami

One of the 850 buildings in Miami's Art District that are under preservation

One of the 850 buildings in Miami's Art District that are under preservation

One of the 850 buildings in Miami's Art District that are under preservation

And orchid at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami

Miami is bursting with colour, creativity and life

Miami is bursting with colour, creativity and life

1. Go on an Art Deco tour

Running in a colourful line from 6th street to 23rd street, Miami’s Art Deco Historic District is home to some 850 buildings that are under preservation and around 80% of these are Art Deco, making it the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in one place anywhere in the world. The Art District is also home to Mediterranean Revival, and MiMo (Miami Modern) architecture. The reason these streets are so well preserved is largely thanks to the work of theMiami Design Preservation League, a not-for profit organisation that has been promoting, preserving and protecting the area since 1976. For a closer look and to learn more about these bright buildings, go on a guided tour with one of the Preservation League's volunteers.

Mark Gordon, for example, is the Guest Experience Director for the organisation and has been coming to Miami since he was three, now calling the city home. His personality is just as colourful as the buildings on his tour, and in between mischievous smiles and Trump put-downs, he regales a passionate and knowledgeable account of the history of the architecture here. 

Mark Gordon gives an insightful tour of the Art Deco buildings

Mark Gordon gives an insightful tour of the Art Deco buildings

While the facades of the buildings hog the postcards, a guided tour also allows you to go inside the buildings to learn about the symbolism of the geometric shapes found on some of the walls and floors, and to admire the murals, rare now as many were painted over when they became unfashionable.

2. Discover Deering Estate

More Mediterranean Revival architecture can be admired at Deering Estate, the grand 1920’s Miami home of industrialist, environmentalist, philanthropist and art collector James Deering. His Stone House was built by famed architect Phineas Paist in the Mediterranean Revival style and a tour of the 100-year-old house gives you a glimpse into the life of his eccentric character. He used Stone House like it was his own private art museum, with big rooms displaying the intricate and colourful art he collected. He had such a big collection that it filled two houses in Spain.

Stone House at Deering Estate

Stone House at Deering Estate

While much of this art is no longer in Stone House, you can still see original pieces such as the headboard for his wife’s bed, fashioned from a 13th century altar, and a 500-year-old stain glass window taken from Marcel in Spain. Downstairs, another surprise awaits as you enter a huge wine basement which secreted away Deering’s alcohol collection during the Prohibition Era.

Views back to the Estate from Biscayne Bay

Views back to the Estate from Biscayne Bay

Outside, the estate offers a chance to get close to nature and you can head out on kayaks on Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve to paddle in between the mangroves on the lookout for birds including herons, egrets and spoonbills, as well as manatees, nurse sharks and bull sharks. The paddle back to shore offers fine views of Stone House and its pretty neighbour Richmond Cottage.

Breakwater is just one of the many preserved buildings along Ocean Drive

Breakwater is just one of the many preserved buildings along Ocean Drive

Richmond Cottage at Deering Estate

Richmond Cottage at Deering Estate

Miami is home to some 850 preserved buidlings

Miami is home to some 850 preserved buidlings

The probation era wine cellar at Deering Estate

The probation era wine cellar at Deering Estate

Miami's Ocean Drive is packed with Art Deco architecture

Miami's Ocean Drive is packed with Art Deco architecture

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Breakwater is just one of the many preserved buildings along Ocean Drive

Breakwater is just one of the many preserved buildings along Ocean Drive

Richmond Cottage at Deering Estate

Richmond Cottage at Deering Estate

Miami is home to some 850 preserved buidlings

Miami is home to some 850 preserved buidlings

The probation era wine cellar at Deering Estate

The probation era wine cellar at Deering Estate

Miami's Ocean Drive is packed with Art Deco architecture

Miami's Ocean Drive is packed with Art Deco architecture

3. Cool off at the botanical gardens

Miami may be a city known for its urban delights, but there are many pockets of greenery to escape, away from the bustling streets and heat of the sun. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, for example, offers 83 acres of natural space brimming with more than 23,000 plants from more than 3,400 species, and boasts one of the largest collections of palms and cycads in the world. The garden is named after Dr. David Fairchild who created the space alongside a group of passionate plant collectors including environmentalist Majory Stoneman Douglas, landscape architect William Lyman Phillips and founder Robert Montgomery. The garden opened to the public in 1938 and has been delighting visitors ever since. You can explore the garden on free guided tram tours, guided walking tours, or explore at your own leisure. Be sure to take a stroll around the enchanting Native Butterfly Garden, and don’t miss the 2.5 acre rainforest with its cooling mists and colourful orchids that grip the tree trunks.

Statue of environmentalist Majory Stoneman Douglas

Statue of environmentalist Majory Stoneman Douglas

The orchids are an important part of the garden. Fairchild has established the Million Orchid Project dedicated to conserving the pretty flowers and planting them in urban landscapes, with the goal of growing and replanting one million orchids in the region. So far, they have grown up to 450,000.

The Japanese bridge at Miami Beach Botanic Beach

The Japanese bridge at Miami Beach Botanic Beach

Another Botanic Garden worth a visit is the smaller but no less tranquil Miami Beach Botanic Garden. Founded in 1962, the urban green space offers 2.6 acres of plant life where you can relax on seats around a fish-filled pond, near a Japanese bridge and at many other quiet spots dotted around the park.

4. Be beguiled by Coral Castle

This strange little castle near Homestead may look romantic, and it certainly has a fairy tale story to go with its aesthetic, but a guided tour will reveal not all is as it seems here. The castle was built from coral rock (if you look closely, you can see fossilised sea life in some of the walls) entirely by hand by eccentric Edward Leedskalnin between 1923 and 1951. He built the castle to honour 16-year-old Agnes who he was engaged, but at the last moment told Ed she couldn’t marry him. Coral castle hints at the life that could have been, with king, queen and baby-sized thrones carved out of rock, a love heart-shaped stone table and stone beds with a crib nearby. All as an ode to his lost love. Or so that story goes. As you tour the site, you will be told multiple theories of the castle, including the Freemasons, the Illuminati and even aliens.

Ed made his tools out of car parts

Ed made his tools out of car parts

But perhaps more fascinating (and true) than all of these theories is the fact that Ed built the fortress entirely from his own hands. Ed was from a family of stonemasons in Latvia and made all of his own tools out of old car parts, using them to fashion the rock. A large collection of the tools can be seen on site, as can the quarries where he dug the rock out from under the ground. The castle was run as a business, with Ed charging entry fees to allow people to look around his creation, and it is certainly an impressive site. There are huge rock doors that until very recently still opened and closed on rock hinges, a working sundial, perfectly carved planets and a moon, as well as a huge stone thought to be inspired by Stone Henge. The biggest rock here is a whopping 29 tonnes – all an ambitious undertaking for a man who was only five feet tall.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Coral Castle is shrouded in mystery

Coral Castle is shrouded in mystery

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The Native Butterfly Garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The Native Butterfly Garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

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Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Coral Castle is shrouded in mystery

Coral Castle is shrouded in mystery

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The Native Butterfly Garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The Native Butterfly Garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

5. Enter the Everglades

What’s a trip to Florida without a visit to the Everglades? The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States is 1.5 million acres and can be easily accessed from Downtown Miami – roughly an hour from two main entry points. Once here, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Downtown. Whether exploring by bike, hike, kayak or on one of the popular airboat tours, you’ll be surrounded by nature.

The vast wilderness consists of saltwater marshes, hardwood hammocks and grass parries, and is home to incredible wildlife. Look out for wild alligators gliding down the muddy waters, see white-tailed deer jumping across the grass and have the binoculars at the ready for birds including bald eagles, herons, egrets, and the colourful roseate spoonbill.

6. Admire the art

Like Miami itself, the city’s art scene is big, bold, colourful and eclectic. As well as popular and acclaimed art museums such as Pérez Art Museum Miami and ICA, take time to visit some of the city’s lesser-known venues. ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum in South Beach, for example, will transport you into a future world with its Renewal 2021 production, where immersive light installations upstairs allow you to get hands-on with the art. Downstairs, you’re invited not only to participate in the art, but reflect on its meaning. As you watch images of an overdeveloped metropolis flash across all four walls, with nature flourishing in unexpected places, you’ll no doubt think about humanity’s relationship with the planet, and the resilience of the natural world. The production finishes at the end of August, when a newly-imagined world will fill the walls of this innovative art space.

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum isn’t the only place that allows you to interact with art, and at nearby Lincoln Road you can have some fun at the Museum of Illusions, where cleverly designed murals on the walls allow you to snap pictures of yourself in the art. There are more than 40 illusions to play with, featuring everything from a gun-wielding monkey to a guitar-strumming astronaut.

The Museum of Illusions

The Museum of Illusions

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

White ibis at the Everglades

White ibis at the Everglades

Aligator at the Everglades

Aligator at the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

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The Museum of Illusions

The Museum of Illusions

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

ARTECHOUSE Digital Museum

White ibis at the Everglades

White ibis at the Everglades

Aligator at the Everglades

Aligator at the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

7. Go wine tasting

There are worse places to sit outside with a glass of wine than at Schnebly’s winery. The southernmost winery in the US looks as exotic as its unique wines taste, and a seat under a shady cabana will offer you views over a peaceful waterfall feature and of the green garden surrounding it. Behind the estate are 96 acres of land where the fruit grows to make the vinos, but if you thought it was all grapes, you’d be mistaken. Schnebly’s wines are created using a creative concoction of tropical ingredients, and during a tasting tour you can try bottles: AvoVino – made from avocado, GuaVino –made using guava and tastes similar to a Sancerre, and its award-winning Lychee wine – any guesses what that’s made from?

The wines at Schnebly's are made from exotic fruits

The wines at Schnebly's are made from exotic fruits

 After your tasting, go on a tour of the estate to see the entire wine-making process, learn the history of the family and also see the on-site brewery.

8. Tour Little Havana