Miami is a lavish, tropical metropolis that is known for being a bustling cruise and shipping port, as well as one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. Its sun-soaked beaches, extravagant nightlife, and Latin flare are reminiscent of a Caribbean paradise, without having to venture outside of the United States. Being located on the southeastern tip of Florida, the city is fortunate to have a warm climate year-round, which aides in attracting tourists to its streets. When tourists arrive in Miami, the influence of this great urban area makes it abundantly clear that it is more than just a city: it’s a way of life. Often referred to as Magic City, Miami has a captivating history and distinct style that mesmerizes visitors through its Art Deco architecture and culturally unique neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are busting with attractions and activities from the greatest stretches of white sand beaches of Miami Beach to the diverse ecosystem and exquisite wildlife of Everglades National Park. The following are recommended attractions and locations that I discovered on my various trips to the Miami-Dade area:
Commonly grouped with Miami attractions, Miami Beach is its own municipality that is separated from its name-sake city by means of Biscayne Bay. It was constructed on natural and man-made barrier islands between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, making it an alluring backdrop to downtown Miami. In order to reach this island paradise, visitors have the option of utilizing one of the many series of bridges that connect it to the City of Miami. Although this coastal resort city is best known for its wide stretch of pristine beaches, it also offers beachfront restaurants, luxury boutiques, a neon-lit Art Deco Historic District, and a vivacious nightlife. These attractions are what highlight the region and make Miami Beach one of the oldest and most famous beach destinations in the United States. Whether exploring by day or night, this island metropolis shows off two contrasting sides that, when juxtaposed, are equally fascinating.
Here are some of my favorite photographable landmarks and destinations that I found while wandering the streets of Miami Beach:
Miami Beach Welcome Sign:
The Miami Beach Welcome Sign is an iconic, Art Deco landmark that has two locations to denote the entrance to Miami Beach: South Beach and Mid-Beach. The South Beach welcome sign is at the intersection of 5th Street and Lenox Avenue as motorists cross Biscayne Bay via the Douglas MacArthur Causeway Florida A1A. It can easily be missed if you are not looking for it due to its diminutive size and its unassuming location. Despite both of these issues working against it, the Art Deco style of the Miami Beach Welcome Sign at the entrance of South Beach is a unique, metallic sign that is worth the quick photo opportunity.
The second sign can be found near Exit 5 on the eastbound section of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, also known as Florida State Road 112, upon entering Mid-Beach. This marker is larger and more glamorous than the former, with neon rings around the palm trees and a fluorescent façade. An added bonus is how the neon lights around the various palm trees emanate a different color depending on the night. This whimsical luminescence radiates an appropriate tropical glow that leaves a commanding first impression on sightseers who are visiting the island for the first time.
Miami Beach Boardwalk:
The Miami Beach Boardwalk is a pedestrian-only walkway that runs along the oceanfront from Indian Beach Park (46th Street and Collins Avenue) to 5th Street. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Miami-Dade County, as well as being a favorite amongst the locals. Whether heading north or south on the causeway, pedestrians and cyclists will have views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the exquisite architecture of hotels and apartments on the other. The pathway is just over 4-miles long and is an ideal way of strolling or exercising along the coast of Miami Beach while admiring its stunning coastline. The boardwalk is simply the best way to experience Miami Beach and since there a multitude of access points, visitors may start and stop at any desired location. Luckily, the pathway never strays too far from the beach, so it is worth stopping at any one of the numerous beach access points to admire the distinctively vibrant lifeguard towers. The lifeguard towers are systematically set every 1/10th of a mile and can be found adjacent to each tower’s corresponding street, which stretch from the South Pointe Beach to 87th Street. Here are some of my favorites and where they can be found:
Miami Beach Ocean Rescue Tower – Jetty (near South Pointe Pier)
Miami Beach Lifeguard Tower – 5th Street
Purple/Green Neon-Colored Circular Lifeguard Tower – 10th Street (near Lummus Park)
Stars and Stripes Lifeguard Tower – 13th Street
Sunburst Lifeguard Tower – 24th Street
Although they are not directly correlated with the Miami Beach Boardwalk, and surpass its boundaries, the lifeguard towers have ingrained themselves in the city’s visual identity. Their lively features and pastel colors provide panache to an already stunning coastline and should not be overlooked.
South Beach is located at the southern end of Miami Beach and extends from South Pointe Park to 23rd Street. Despite its southern location, the neighborhood has made a reputation for being the epicenter for anything related to relaxation and entertainment. It is Florida’s quintessential hot spot that is renowned for its white sandy beaches, luxury fashion stores, trendy nightclubs, and chic restaurants. Connecting all of these elements are the district’s three thoroughfares: Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue. Out of the three, Ocean Drive is the most prominent because of its picturesque waterfront location, which is lined with swaying palm trees and awe-inspiring Art Deco architecture. The oceanfront road is a major attraction and often packed with a sea of people enjoying sunshine on a clear day or basking beneath the hypnotic glow of the fluorescent neon lights at night. Regardless of the season or time of day, Ocean Drive highlights the picture-perfect, tropical landscape that has made South Beach the inspirational focus behind many of Miami’s travel advertisements.
South Pointe Park:
South Pointe Park, commonly referred to as South Pointe by locals, is a charming leisure area found on the southernmost point of Miami Beach’s South Beach. The tropical grounds encompass 17-acres and feature amenities such as delightful grassy knolls, a dog park, miniature children’s water park, beach access, and waterfront promenade. The promenade is a popular draw amongst pedestrians, runners, and cyclists, because of how it runs along the Government Cut channel and spans the park’s perimeter before culminating at the South Pointe Park Pier. It is a brilliant location to sit back and admire the various ships entering and exiting the Port of Miami or just to marvel at the city skyline. Although the view from the promenade is a distant view of the city skyline and Port of Miami shipping cranes, the inclusion of the park’s swaying palm trees and bright neon light towers produces a postcard-perfect vista.
Besides the extensive multi-use recreational options that South Pointe offers, one of the highlights is the South Pointe Park Pier. The wharf parallels a rock jetty where visitors are provided with sweeping ocean views and the coast of South Beach. The South Pointe Park Pier reopened in 2014, after undergoing a much needed safety renovation, with turtle-safe lighting, multiple viewing stations, and an artistic speech bubble entry gate. The entrance gates are open from 7:30AM-5:30PM, whereas the park may be utilized until 10PM and the promenade at 2AM. Whether photographing from South Pointe at sunrise, sunset, or during the day, it is imperative to allow enough time to scout out landscape to for the most pleasing perspective.
Casa Casaurina, more commonly known as Versace’s Mansion, is an elaborate oceanfront manor found on Ocean Drive in South Beach. The Mediterranean-influenced villa was the former residence and site where Gianni Versace, the world-renowned Italian fashion designer, was murdered in 1997. After his death, the lavish home was transformed into a glamorous boutique hotel known as The Villa Casa Casuarina. The luxury hotel has 10 hotel suites, an elaborate Mosaic Garden, restaurant, bar and lounge, and a 54-foot pool complete with an elaborate tile mosaic of Medusa, the Versace brand’s logo. All of the glitz and glamour is reflected in the $800 per night price tag, but comes with the possibility of staying in rooms where Versace, his sister Donatella, or celebrities like Madonna, Elton John, and Princess Diana once stayed.
Maurice Gibb Memorial Park:
Previously known as Island View Park, the park was later renamed the Maurice Gibb Memorial Park in honor of the Bee Gees’ Maurice Gibb. The park is located on the western coastline of Miami Beach, adjacent to Purdy Avenue and 18th Street. A touching aspect of the grounds is the commemorative tile mosaic that pays homage to the former singer. The mosaic features a bronze plaque with an inscription from Maurice’s family at its center and then three circles or red, yellow, and blue glass tiles: red represents love, yellow is for peace, and blue for tranquility.
According to locals, the area was one of Maurice’s favorite spots to visit and relish in the peaceful atmosphere and panoramic views of the Biscayne Bay. In fact, the sweeping views are the best feature of the park and are what make it a popular attraction with visitors. The best time to visit is in the late evening or during sunset when photographers can set up near the seawall and frame the sun setting behind Miami with a handful of yachts anchored in the foreground.
1111 Lincoln Road Parking Garage:
The 1111 Lincoln Road Parking Garage is located on the western side of the Lincoln Road Mall and adjacent of Alton Road. The structure is an architectural marvel that is made up of a series of concrete slabs that are stacked together, supported by columns, and connected by ramps. The entire building is covered with various forms of alluring lighting that illuminate its impressive stature. It spans seven stories and incorporates office space, retail shops, apartments, and a penthouse, as well as being a parking garage with over 300 spaces. Besides its imposing design, the best feature of the edifice is its outstanding, uninterrupted skyline views of Miami from the top floor and the unique perspective from the floors beneath.
Miami Riverwalk Trail:
The Miami Riverwalk Trail is a mile-long pedestrian pathway in downtown Miami that traverses the northern end of the Miami River. The walkway stretches westward from Bayfront Park to beneath Interstate 95, a block from the South West 2nd Avenue Bridge, as it links Miami’s diverse neighborhoods with its parks and marinas. It features creative art installations, attractive accent lighting, and luxuriant landscaping that are spread throughout the entire trail. Although the riverfront is surrounded by many commercial and residential high-rises, the palm tree-lined trail is a phenomenal reprieve from the busy streets of the city. Along with being a marvelous location for relaxing, cycling, and running, the Miami Riverwalk Trail provides fantastic views of the Miami skyline.
Watson Island is a man-made island in Biscayne Bay that is connected to Miami and South Beach via the MacArthur Causeway. Although it is home to the Parrot Jungle and Children’s Museum, the best part of the island is its unobstructed views of the Miami skyline. The one downside to this site is that a majority of the island has been under construction, so a series of chain-link fences prevent access to the shore at most prime locations. Despite the temporary fencing, a few ideal vantage points remain: a gravel lot underneath south span of the MacArthur Causeway, a rock wall adjacent to the MPB Miami Seaplane Base, and a pier behind The Deck at Island Gardens outdoor lounge and restaurant. All three provide varying degrees of the same commanding vista that showcase the twinkling lights of the Miami cityscape and luminous purple glow of the Port of Miami Bridge as they’re reflected in the tranquil water of Biscayne Bay.
The Bayside Marketplace is an outdoor mall that wraps along the banks of Biscayne Bay from the American Airlines Arena to Bayfront Park. It spans two-stories and is home to an eclectic mix of over 150 retail and local shops, a plethora of cafes and restaurants, and a waterfront stage for live performances by local musicians. The creative design of the shopping center’s layout, coupled with its viewing platforms and bayside boardwalk, provides visitors with an island ambiance that embodies the tropical way of life that Florida is renowned for. An ideal location to view and photograph the shopping district, although ill advised, is from the suicide lane along Port Boulevard as it crosses over to Dodge Island. This elevated perspective provides the perfect amount of depth between the city skyline and Bayside Marketplace with the marina in the foreground. No matter the reason for visiting, the lively atmosphere is what has made it one of the most visited and highly revered attractions by tourists and Miamians.
Bayfront Park is a waterfront green space on the western shore of Biscayne Bay that is bordered by the Bayside Marketplace to the south. Assortments of public transportation options are available and are the best method of getting to the recreational area, since parking spots are limited and expensive. Once at the park, visitors are transfixed by the well-landscaped, verdant sanctuary that spotlights attractions such as the park’s amphitheater, Pepper Fountain, and three significant memorials: the Challenger Memorial, Torch of Friendship, and World War II Memorial. Another prominent feature of the park is how the amphitheater and other aforementioned landmarks are connected by the Bayfront Park Path, which is a cement walkway that hugs the Miami coast and provides breathtakingly beautiful scenic walks along the bay. Its downtown location, and Biscayne Bay as its stunning backdrop, makes Bayfront Park a high-valued venue for live performances and special events like the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration and America’s Birthday Bash.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens:
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, also known as Villa Vizcaya, is a National Historic Landmark that resides in the Coconut Grove district, just south of downtown Miami. This impressive Italian Renaissance-style estate overlooks Biscayne Bay and encompasses more than ten acres of expansive lavish gardens, decorative fountains, and limestone terraces. In conjunction with its breathtaking location, the manor is teeming with an infusion of European and Floridian influences. An example of this is in the architecture and sculptures and how they are reminiscent of a luxurious Mediterranean villa; whereas, the inclusion of Cuban limestone and native flora, like palm trees and orchids, imprint the estate with a local, tropical panache.
These signature characteristics are what have made the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens a popular venue for local weddings, galas, and other entertainment events. Its awe-inspiring features are also the reason why many photographers list it as one of their favorite sunset locations. The majestic nature in which the sun’s golden rays illuminate Vizcaya’s eastern façade and its commanding presence over the bay is unmatched. However, due to the landmark’s operating hours of 9:30am to 4:30pm, golden hour and sunset can only be captured while attending special events or during the winter. For paying guests, the museum and gardens are open from Wednesday to Monday (closed on Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day) with an entrance fee of $18 for adults.
Crandon Park sits on the northern section of Key Biscayne and is surrounded by Biscayne Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The family-friendly park is open from 8am to 6:30pm and features amenities like the Family Amusement Center, Crandon Gardens, Nature Center, tennis court, golf course, and marina. Above all else, the main attraction of Crandon Park is a stunning, two-mile beach, which is widely considered one of the best beaches in Florida. This picturesque stretch of powdery sand is lined with a canopy of coconut palms that make it look as if it was pulled directly from a travel brochure. The beach is also home to a wide range of ecosystems like mangroves, sand dunes, offshore reefs, wetlands, bird estuaries, and coastal hammocks. Mainly due to the offshore reef and sandbar, the shoreline is protected from high surf, which makes it ideal for swimming and snorkeling. All of these elements further elucidate why Crandon Park Beach is regarded one of Miami’s greatest gems and is the ideal spot to photograph a stunning coastal landscape that is synonymous with Florida.
The Ancient Spanish Monastery:
The 12th century Ancient Spanish Monastery may appear out of place in its North Miami Beach urban setting, but the story behind how it ended up in Florida is a fascinating one. Originally constructed in the early 1100’s in northern Spain, the monastery was occupied by Cistercian monks for over 700 years before it was seized, sold, and then converted into a stable and granary. By the 20th century, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who had a penchant for medieval European architecture, purchased the cloisters and had them dismantled and shipped to the United States. His goal was to have the monastery reconstructed in California, but, after a series of misfortunes involving an epidemic and the crippling financial crisis of the Great Depression, he couldn’t afford to have it shipped and rebuilt. Instead, the 11,000-plus crates containing the stone priory remained in a New York warehouse until they were sold to a pair of Florida businessman at a significant discount; however, they hefty sum to have the structure rebuilt at its current location was insurmountable.
After serving as a tourist attraction for a brief period of time during the 1950’s, the Ancient Spanish Monastery was sold and changed hands twice more before a local multimillionaire was generous enough to purchase and donate it to the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. Today, the parish Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux serves as an active and growing congregation that holds regular Sunday services. The monastery is also open to the public with its hours of operation ranging from 10am to 4:30pm, Monday through Saturday, and from 11am to 4:30pm on Sunday. For visitors, self-guided tours of the uniquely spectacular chapels, arched cloisters, courtyards, and gardens are available for $10 per adult. Admission permits guests to tour the grounds of one of the oldest structures in the Western Hemisphere and bask in the harmony that emanates from the peaceful landscape.
The Wynwood Walls are a massive open-air exhibition and collection of street art between NW 27th and NW 24th Street in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. This haven for public artists quickly gained notoriety when the bare walls of six warehouses were transformed into a canvass depicting subjects ranging from psychedelic patterns to mind-bending three-dimensional landscapes. The intention behind these public masterpieces was to splash color on a monotonously mundane area, while also showcasing the exceptionally detailed, creative, and vivid murals of the many talented artists involved. Themes of the various wall art installations are wide-ranging and are constantly evolving with the introduction of original techniques.
What started as a nondescript industrial district, the development and introduction of these breathtaking murals led to a rapid gentrification and transformation of an otherwise forgotten part of town. The Wynwood Walls are unique as they are imaginative, and this aspect is why they have risen to fame as a must-see attraction. Locals and visitors flock from all over to admire this underappreciated medium, which has helped distort the line between street art and fine art. In fact, the innovative graffiti designs have been instrumental in paving the way towards associating the medium as an accepted art form rather than an act of vandalism.
* A FUN SIDE TRIP: EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK *
Everglades National Park:
Located on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the contiguous 48 states at over 1.5-million acres. The unique landscape is the only subtropical wetland preserve in North America, which experiences two distinct seasons: dry and wet. Dry season is from November to April and is when the park is at its busiest thanks to the warm winters and peak wildlife viewing. Throughout the wet season, which is from April to November, the accumulation of water from rainfall and the Kissimmee River causes Lake Okeechobee to overflow into the surrounding region. This phenomena is why the Everglades is referred to as a ‘river of grass,’ since it is essentially a shallow river of slowly moving water that flows out from the hinterland to the ocean. The water flows through an intermingling of temperate and tropical plant communities, including sawgrass marshes, pine forests, hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps, and coastal prairies. So much of the Everglades are interconnected, as these diverse ecosystems provide a network of critical habitats where local rare and endangered wildlife, including the American crocodile, West Indian manatee, and Florida panther, may flourish.
Since the Everglades encompass an expansive area, there are a multitude of visitor centers located near the three different entrances: Homestead, Miami, and Everglades City. The network of visitor centers are imperative in informing visitors about each section of the park, as well as the evolution and history of the Everglades, as the three entrances are not interconnected. Homestead is considered the main entrance and is where the Ernest F. Coe, Royal Palm, and Flamingo Visitor Centers are located. It is also home to numerous hiking trails, nature walks, and overlooks where tourists can appreciate the local flora and fauna. By far the most popular nature walk is the Anhinga Trail, which is a flat and non-strenuous boardwalk that cuts through the terrain that is bursting with alligators, turtles, and other wildlife.
The second entrance is the Miami entrance, which is closest entry point to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, Shark Valley Observation Tower, and attractions like the Everglades Safari Park and airboat tours. Given that the Everglades are surrounded by water, one of the best ways to immerse into the surroundings is through an airboat tour. The airboats are designed to quickly navigate across the surface of the water without disturbing the plants and animals that reside in the area. An added benefit of airboat tours are that knowledgeable, local guides are able to answer any questions and highlight what makes the Everglades unique.
The third and final entrance is via Everglades City and is where the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, as well as a majority of water excursions, can be utilized. Although a majority of the area is primitive, only explored by outdoor enthusiasts and avid researchers, many visitors are afforded ample opportunities to wade, kayak, and canoe within the boundaries. The eco-friendly expeditions are breathtakingly peaceful as the boats seamlessly glide through the tranquil flat-water away from the crowds. By venturing deeper into the veins of the subtropical cypress and mangrove forests, adventurers have a greater chance of glimpsing the various animal species in their natural habitat.
Recommended Local Eateries:
*Burger and Beer Joint – A variety of gourmet burgers and delicious alcoholic pairings. Starters: Onion rings (Colossal onions that are beer battered and served with jalapeno-cheddar sauce) and Mac Daddy Cheese Gratin (Three cheese mornay sauce, panko bread crumbs, and parmesan cheese), with the Toasted Quinoa and Kale Salad (Toasted rainbow quinoa, roasted corn, avocado, tomatoes,& cilantro, topped over kale & baby greens with smoked cumin & jalapeno vinaigrette); Entrees: Custom Burger (7oz. house made veggie burger, brioche bun, jalapeno jack cheese, grilled onion, fried egg, ½ avocado, jalapenos, with thousand island sauce, & a bucket of sweet potato fries) or the Hotel California but made veggie (7oz. house made veggie burger, sharp cheddar, grilled onions, fried egg, guacamole, jalapeno relish, cilantro sour cream, brioche bun, with skinny fries).
*Vicky’s House – A retro establishment that serves 80's inspired milkshakes, freakshakes, root beer floats, and more!
*Fratelli La Bufala – Serving the best Neapolitan pizza and calzones in Miami since 2005.
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