Whenever I see big red tour buses sitting in traffic in Miami, I wonder, “What the hell do tourists do here?” As someone who grew up in Miami, I had done very little “tourist” things there until I moved away. Now when I return to visit, I try to check out as many of the museums, parks, and other sights that I neglected my whole life. For the cost of a meal in town, you can visit any of these Miami tourist destinations.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
One of the things you tend to take for granted living in Miami is the tropical climate. But a fun treat for visitors from colder parts of the world is to check out the exotic flowers and trees of South Florida. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden features all the palm trees you can imagine, a Flowering Tree Arboretum, and the Tropical Plant Conservatory and Rare Plant House, where you’ll find flowers you’ve probably never heard of, some hailing from South Florida, others as far as Africa. It’s an attraction full of butterflies and ripe fruit.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Vizcaya is the former villa turned museum of industrial businessman James Deering. Vizcaya is one of South Florida’s most beautiful attractions loved even by locals as a site for event photography. The property features Italian Renaissance architecture and elaborate gardens. This guy basically took everything you would otherwise be impressed with in Europe and imported it to Miami. The main house has original furniture and art in the villa’s reception rooms, library, and dining room along with rotating art exhibits. The gardens sitting against Biscayne Bay will make you feel like you’re in Venice without ever leaving the US.
Situated in the heart of the Art Deco district of Miami Beach, Florida International University’s Wolfsonian is probably easier for tourists to get to than FIU’s other museum, the Frost Art Museum. The Wolfsonian’s massive collection features art and objects from all over the world dating back to the industrial revolution including textiles, furniture, machines, paintings and books. The museum is dedicated to the cultural and historical significance of art and design. Pro tip: It’s free on Fridays from 6 pm to 9 pm.
Frost Museum of Science
Miami’s newest and biggest museum is the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. The downtown tourist destination features a ton of interactive exhibits (read: broken) for kids and adults alike. It’s made up of 6 floors, though the top two are largely places to hang out and enjoy the view. Among its exhibits, you’ll learn about natural habitats, space travel, and the evolution of flight. But no exhibits are more popular or crowded than the planetarium and the three-level aquarium.
Perez Art Museum Miami
Known simply as the PAMM, the Perez Art Museum Miami is one of the most visited homes for modern art in Miami. It’s in Museum Park along with the Frost Science Museum. The museum has a sprawling outdoor sculpture garden, which you can enjoy along with the Miami skyline and Biscayne Bay all around you. Inside, you’ll find contemporary works from South Florida artists as well as international artists that include paintings, sculptures, and more likely than not, something made of neon lights.
If you like historic homes, then a tour of the grounds of the Deering Estate might fit the bill. This is not the same Deering behind the creation of Vizcaya, though they are half brothers. Inspired by Spanish architecture, Charles Deering designed his Stone House on Biscayne Bay, which is now a museum. Aside from the interior of the Stone House and Richmond Cottage, you can enjoy organized outdoor activities like kayaking and nature walks. Different exhibitions and events are held at the Deering Estate throughout the year.
Coral Gables’ crowning summer destination is the Venetian Pool. The pool was built in a rock quarry, the stones of which were also used to give it its unique look. This is no regular pool; it is a natural spring water pool, which is filled daily from an underground aquifer. It has grottos, waterfalls, and lookout towers to justify the price of admission.
The Bass Museum
If, like most people, your trip to Miami will be spent primarily on Miami Beach, you can enjoy some art within walking distance to the ocean. The Bass Museum houses a small but interesting collection of modern art, and it makes for the perfect indoor escape in the event of an unexpected Miami downpour.
This is without a doubt my favorite museum in Miami and for visitors, probably the most informative if you want to learn about South Florida’s history. The detailed and entertaining exhibits at HistoryMiami will teach you about the evolution of Miami from the time of Henry Flagler to the Mariel boatlift from Cuba. It features local stories, local art and photography, and a rotating series of exhibits that are worth returning to see. There’s probably no better way to get to know true local Miami culture in all its grimy splendor.
Miami’s Freedom Tower was used as an immigration processing center for Cuban refugees from the 60’s to the 70’s. Today it houses Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art and Design (MOAD), where you’ll find exhibits that are as beautiful as they are historically significant, like the building itself. The Cuban Exile exhibit features photos and stories that chronicle Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and the struggle to flee it. The museum features works from emerging contemporary artists along with the New World Mural, commemorating the arrival of Ponce de Leon in Florida.
Go to a Heat game
Miami’s baskeball franchise has become increasingly popular due to championship years led by the likes of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James. Cheap tickets to a Miami Heat game at the American Airlines Arena are almost always available at least through the secondary market from people who have season tickets. Enjoy a couple of hours of drinking and cheering on the home team. Just make sure to use public transportation, because traffic leaving will be a nightmare.
So yeah, I guess that’s what tourists do in Miami.