Unconventional Miami: Offbeat and Original Charms
Miami has long been known as an unconventional place, with its whimsical Art Deco architecture, daring fashions and quirky attractions.
Here, even the most jaded travelers expect the unexpected, finding inspiration in Miami’s unusual and off-the-beaten path treasures.
Hidden Gem Attractions
As visitors check off the items on their Miami “must do” list, it is easy to find the road less traveled, even in the midst of some of the city’s most popular destinations. Deep in the heart of bustling Coconut Grove, the Barnacle Historic State Park houses the oldest home in its original location in Miami, designed and built by Commodore Ralph Middleton Munroe, one of Miami’s early pioneers. Here in this peaceful spot overlooking Biscayne Bay, one can imagine life in South Florida’s nascent days, before any roads had been built.
Just south of Coconut Grove, Coral Gables is also home to the Venetian Pool, an 820,000-gallon (3.1 million liters) swimming pool built in 1923 from a coral rock quarry. Considered one of the world’s most unique and breathtaking municipal swimming pools, the pool is spring-fed and the beautiful coral rock keeps the water cool even in the summer sun, and the two waterfalls and cave-like grottos make the experience more fun. Completing the Venetian vibe are the loggias, porticos, palm trees and Signature Bridge, along with two historic lookout towers with a view to “the City Beautiful.”
While Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is known around the world, the lesser known, 600-acre (24 hectares) state park, Matheson Hammock, has been attracting local naturalists and outdoorsmen for years. With its well-marked nature trials and lovely island-pool lagoon Matheson Hammock is a great, un-crowded destination for families and nature-lovers alike. Red Fish Grill, a truly magical out-of-the-way restaurant located at the far end of the park, is housed in the original Matheson Hammock beach pavilion, hewn from coral rock cut and quarried onsite. With its tucked away location, intimate atmosphere and breathtaking beach views, locals consider Red Fish Grill one of the most romantic restaurants in Miami.
Located midway between downtown Miami and South Beach, Jungle Island offers unusual immersion programs such as the Lemur Experience, which brings small groups of guests in the park’s Lemur Nursery, where rare red-ruffed and black-and-white ruffed lemurs are growing up and developing. Their VIP Safari offers guests a privately guided, 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the Jungle that brings guests closer than ever to some of the world’s most rare and fascinating animals, with personal interactions from lemurs to the only tame Cassowary on the planet.
In North Miami Beach, just off of the busy highways, the leafy and peaceful Ancient Spanish Monastery, originally built in Segovia in the 11th century, was brought over and reconstructed stone-by-stone, is a great out-of-the-way find. The monastery, which occasionally offers moonlight concerts, has been used in many television shows and Hollywood films, such as the recent film “Rock of Ages,” which features the Chapel in Catherine Zeta-Jones' big dance number "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."
In the southern part of the county, near Everglades and Biscayne national parks are three of Greater Miami’s quirkiest attractions. Monkey Jungle, where the people are caged and the monkeys are free, is a fun alternative to mega theme parks. It is one of the few protected habitats for endangered primates in the United States and the only one that the general public can explore. The iconic attraction recently introduced the behind- the-scenes Amazonian Rainforest Adventure Tour, which lets guests hand feed squirrel monkeys and Black Capped Capuchin monkeys. Everglades Alligator Farm offers thrilling airboat rides, as well as alligator, snake, and wildlife shows. The farm, rather than processing alligators, collects their eggs to sell to other alligator farms around the state. The truly offbeat Coral Castle -- featured on U.S. television’s “That’s Incredible” and other shows as a marvel of architectural engineering – still mystifies travelers with the conundrum of how one small man could move and carve tons of coral rock without machines.
The unusual Dezer Collection Museum and Pavilion is a car lovers’ paradise, featuring more than 1,000 of the most unique and eclectic vehicles in the world. Guests can trace the evolution of the automobile through exhibits showcasing American classics from all eras, rare European classics, military cars, electric cars, micro-cars, bicycles, classic motorcycles, and more. For a lower tech experience, try the Miccosoukee Indian Village, where guided tours take guests through the past, present and future of the tribe through craft demonstrations, a museum and alligator wrestling, while airboat rides through the River of Grass.
The Other Miami Beach
South Beach, a. k .a. “the American Riviera,” draws throngs to its world renowned Art Deco District, from the candy-colored hotels on famed Ocean Drive to its legendary beaches and night spots. Formerly known only to locals, Lincoln Road, a wonderful pedestrian promenade that features great al fresco dining, funky boutiques, art studios and theaters, has become a “must shop” experience for travelers. Its popularity has drawn major internationally renowned stores such as Base, H&M and the Alchemist, the latter of which sells high-end labels such as Givenchy, Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens and Balenciaga.
Of course a visit to South Beach wouldn’t be complete without exploring these places, and the amazing people watching opportunities they provide. But insiders will tell you that there are still new and interesting ways to explore this sexy city. A great way to experience South Beach glamour is to do a Collins Avenue hotel crawl. There’s no cost -- and no car necessary -- to wander from luxury oceanfront hotel to hotel, checking out the stunning lobbies, gorgeous pools and perhaps lingering over a signature martini at a poolside bar in celebrity haunts like the Shore Club, Raleigh, Delano, The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, The Perry South Beach, The National and Sagamore hotels. Savvy shoppers head to Collins Avenue Fashion District — a dazzling collection of hip designer stores spread between 5th and 9th streets – for sophisticated finds. Big-name designers like Armani, Versace, Nicole Miller, Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Cole have all set up shop here, as well as trendy mid-range stores such as Urban Outfitters, Mac and Nine West, playing up South Beach's hip vibe with their super chic décors and A-list service.
Lower in profile than Lincoln Road and other busy thoroughfares, but no less charming, is Espanola Way, an enchanting neighborhood with a European flavor, cafés, art galleries one-of-a-kind boutiques and a farmer’s market on weekends. The Miami Beach Botanical Garden is a peaceful and lush spot for meditation and reflection, and for those who want to experience a truly original museum, The Wolfsonian-FIU contains the country’s largest collection of twentieth-century German, Italian, and American political propaganda. The World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM) feature a collection of erotic art valued at over $10 million.
At the bottom of Miami Beach, the emerging SoFi (South of Fifth) neighborhood is more relaxed than the go-go Art Deco District. Here, stroll quiet streets and discover the Jewish Museum of Florida, Miami Beach’s repository of Jewish culture and history in Florida. Stop by the Miami Beach Victory Garden, a community vegetable garden that honors Miami Beach’s wartime contributions during WWII with a stunning decorative fence and visit South Pointe Park, a great locals' beach where kites fly and surfers ride the waves.
A bit further up the beach is North Beach, a revitalized neighborhood that many informally call a “miniature South Beach.” This neighborhood offers unpretentious charms, from inviting oceanfront cafes and quaint shops to uncrowded beaches with plenty of parking. Architecture lovers will marvel at the uninterrupted concentration of MiMo (Miami Modern) 50s- and 60s-era buildings that give the entire neighborhood a unique character. Start off in the morning with a MiMo walking tour and discover the particular form of mid-century modernism that is unique to Miami Beach and then unwind at North Shore Park. Mosey over to a local restaurant for an Argentine, Italian, Thai or Greek feast, then take in the farmer’s market for fresh produce or unique bargain gifts.
Eating and Dancing Off the Beaten Path
Key Biscayne, renowned for its swanky resorts, world-class tennis center and beaches continually ranked among the top in the nation, is also home to The Donut Gallery, a great place for a casual breakfast, with locals lining up to get in on the weekends. In Little Haiti, Churchill’s Pub, a local neighborhood English pub, draws crowds for live music in a neighborhood where Creole is spoken more frequently than the Queen’s mother tongue. Downtown, Tobacco Road, another venerable music joint, is a legend, a former speakeasy and gambling hall, that has survived many attempts to revoke its liquor license (the oldest one in Miami) and close it down, but still the neighborhood hangout survives and offers live music seven nights a week.
In Little Havana, beyond the mamey milkshakes and old men playing dominoes, there’s a great place to go to dance to Latin music, Hoy Como Ayer. A favorite among locals and Latin Americans, occasional gringo and tourist sightings are reported during the club’s jam-packed live music nights. Little Havana is also the location for Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), a monthly event that turns Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) into an outdoor art gallery and festival. The last Friday of each month, the streets fill with the sights, sounds, and tastes of historic Little Havana.
Edgy Art and Fashion
Art and design are on the menu at two Miami neighborhoods just north of the well-traveled downtown, home to the popular Bayside Marketplace, American Airlines Arena and Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center. Vanguard collectors head to the Wynwood Arts District, boasting a tropical SoHo vibe and more than 100 galleries. This emerging neighborhood is home to the amazing Wynwood Walls, an open air par dedicated to cutting-edge museum quality contemporary urban murals. Part of Miami’s new Midtown area, which features trendy boutiques, cafes and lounges, the Wynwood neighborhood recently welcomed the first U.S.A. store of Saccaro, one of Brazil’s most celebrated and innovative furniture designers. One of the most interesting spots is the Rubell Family Collection, one of the nation's most important and edgy collections of contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at Goldman Warehouse showcases art from the personal collection of urban visionary and South Beach pioneer Tony Goldman, who is largely credited with the transformation of the neighborhood. The Margulies Warehouse and The Boxing Club, as well as many individual galleries and artist studios, have also opened their doors in the evolving neighborhood. Cutting edge film lovers flock to O Cinema, showing first-run independent, foreign, art, and niche market films.
The innovative spirit carries over into the adjacent Design District, a compelling 18 blocks of interior design showrooms, home furnishings and furniture studios that are open to the public. Top names like Holly Hunt, Knoll, Tui Lifestyles and Waterworks are all strolling distance from one another, while hip restaurants and art galleries have sprung up on every block. The neighborhood is redefining how fashion is merchandised, with new fashion icon brands recently opened or soon to come, such as Cartier, Tom Ford, Zegna, Burberry Christian Dior, Fendi, Bulgari, Pucci, De Beers, Celine and Marc by Marc Jacobs.
One of the most creative attractions in the Wynwood and Design districts is Primary Flight, Miami's original open air museum and street level mural installation that takes place annually during Art Basel Miami Beach in December. Arguably the world’s largest event of its kind, Primary Flight features more than 250 world class artists from around the globe collaborating on high profile walls throughout Miami’s urban landscape. Maps outlining the installation are circulated, providing patrons with an opportunity to view the works in progress.
Just north of the district along Biscayne Boulevard, the transformation continues, with great local spots like C. Madeleine for vintage clothes, and the Museum of Contemporary Art – a modernist building offering great traveling shows and works of local artists. The neighborhood is also home to local galleries showing cutting edge Miami and international artists, as well as a plethora of funky antique and vintage stores.
Anyone interested in learning more about the history of Miami, its ecosystems and its various communities would be wise to sign up for a tour with Dr. Paul George, local historian and Miami Dade College professor. Dr. George regularly leads walking, coach and boat tours that cover almost every facet of Miami history, past and present. Join Dr. George on a boat trip to Stiltsville, a remnant community of six houses perched on stilts in the middle of crystal turquoise waters. Now a part of Biscayne National Park, Stiltsville was, in its heyday, the site of legendary parties and scandalous activities. Dr. George also leads the Many Faces of Miami coach tour, which travels by bus through some of Miami’s most ethnic neighborhoods, including Little Haiti, Overtown and Allapattah. George also conducts popular walking tours of Little Havana, downtown Miami, the historic Miami City Cemetery, Coconut Grove, and Coral Gables.
In partnership with the League of Paranormal Investigators, the Deering Estate at Cutler offers a variety of ghost tours, paranormal investigations, and overnight experiences. Guests can hear about the sightings and experiences from the actual paranormal investigations of the Estate, and experience evidence recorded on video, in photographs, and via audio recordings during the ongoing investigation of one of Miami's most haunted properties.
Miami Duck Tours offer a decidedly unique way to explore Miami by land and sea. As you glide through downtown Miami and South Beach aboard “vesicles” that look like ducks on wheels, your guide quacks on about landmarks and encourages you to interact with the locals. Next thing you know you are cruising into Biscayne Bay, passing celebrity mansions from the water. Experience Miami GoCar Tours, the worlds first GPS-Guided, Storytelling Cars and zip all over town while this little yellow car takes you on a GPS-guided tour. Your talking GoCar navigates and shows you the way – but that’s not all. As you enjoy the drive, it takes you to all the best sites and tells the stories that bring this unique city to life. It’s like having a local show you around. Go where tour buses can’t. Best of all, the adventure happens at your pace. Stop for photos, take detours, grab a coffee, break for lunch, or blaze your own trail and explore the city streets, neighborhoods and parks on your own. Enjoy a half-day biking tour of Miami Beach's Art Deco Historic District, with South Beach Bike Tours you will see first hand, incredible architecture, famous movie locations, celebrity homes and fabulous hotels, the bikes, safety helmets and refreshments are all provided. Experience the excitement of the only Zodiac RIB ride (the same boats used by the FBI, special military forces, DEA and Coast Guard) in Florida on Ocean Force Adventure’s two-hour outdoor adventure sightseeing boat tours as you speed across brilliant blue ocean waters and soak up the sun-drenched Miami skies to explore the glamour, the mystery and the history of Miami Beach and Biscayne Bay. The latest way to explore Miami is through Roam Ride’s Vespa Tours, featuring the Street Art Tour and Gallery Tour in the Wynwood Arts District, Little Haiti Studio Tour, South Beach Art & Architecture Tour and eco-tours of the Redland. Dragonfly Expeditions, who promote themselves as “purveyors of uncommon adventures,” offers the Florida Everglades Backwater Tour, voted one of the world’s best eco-tours. Guests can travel the wild backwaters on a private tour with experienced field biologists and naturalist guides for a day of discovery and exploration in one of the world’s most threatened and beautiful wild places – The Florida Everglades and Big Cypress Preserve. Other great city tours include Grayline Miami’s “hop on hop off” double-decker bus tours, as well as DECOBIKE’S Discovery Miami Beach tour -- using a Discovery Player to experience hotspots and history.
Just 45 minutes south of the city, is the Redland, an agricultural paradise where visitors can spend an entire day sampling fresh-from the-farm produce and savoring the exotic fruits and vegetables that have become the foundation for "Floribbean" or “New World” cuisine.
Exploring the back roads by bicycle, in-the-know tourists and locals alike line up at Burr's Berry Farm for delicious strawberry shakes or at quaint Knauss Berry Farm for their sticky-sweet baked goods, such as cinnamon rolls. All roads lead to Robert is Here, a popular pit stop for visitors en route to Everglades National Park, offering exotic tropical fruits along with famous fresh fruit shakes and homemade key lime pies. In season, visitors can harvest their own vegetables at the many U-Pick farms that line Krome Avenue and the surrounding streets. Schnebly Redland's Winery, Miami Dade County’s first wine production facility, sells locally pressed wine made from overripe tropical fruit, grown as part of the family’s produce business on 96-acre (39 hectares) farm.
Open daily, the Fruit and Spice Park, a one-of-a-kind tropical botanical garden, has more than 500 varieties of fruit, nut and spice trees. Or, by appointment, one can arrange to visit orchid groves or check out small boutique farms that grow specialties like baby lettuce and cherimoya. At the end of a long day of wandering through bird and butterfly sanctuaries, tropical nurseries and fruit groves, visitors can find respite in charming bed and breakfasts such as the lushly landscaped Grove Inn Country Guesthouse.
When stomachs are full, great family-owned attractions that recall simpler times are a marked contrast to the high-tech organized mega theme parks in other parts of the state. This region is home to the aforementioned Monkey Jungle, Everglades Alligator Farm and Coral Castle -- each retaining the flavor of the old South with quaint hospitality. Also nearby, revitalized downtown Homestead, boasts an historic main street loaded with antique shops, restaurants and ArtSouth, a funky colony of artist studios and gallery spaces. Also make sure to take in Zoo Miami which is rated one of the top 10 zoos in the nation, and is the only subtropical zoo in the continental U.S. This enormous cageless zoo showcases more than 2,000 animals from Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America, representing more than 500 species, 40 of which are endangered.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) is an independent not-for-profit sales and marketing organization whose mission is to attract visitors to Greater Miami and the Beaches for leisure, business and conventions. For a vacation guide, visit our website at www.MiamiAndBeaches.com or call 1-888-76-Miami (US/Canada only) or 305-447-7777. To reach the GMCVB offices dial 305-539-3000. Meeting Planners may call 1-800-933-8448 (US/Canada only) or 305-539-3071 or visit www.MiamiMeetings.com.