Miami Insider’s Guide: Culture and Adventure Wrapped Into One For An Adventurous Spirit

Sarah Fay from Travels of Sarah Fay explores her insider spots for the best food, where to stay, and what to do outdoors in and around Miami for a safe adventure.

By: Travels of Sarah Fay + Save to a List

I am Sarah born and raised in Florida, but have traveled near and far to over 49 countries and 39 states sharing my adventures and guides on my blog Travels of Sarah Fay. While I love traveling to far off places, my love for Florida is unwavering, and exploring my home state has always been one of my favorite things to do. There is so much beauty here that can be experienced for all levels of adventure seekers. I was born in Orlando and lived in other countries and states, but I have enjoyed the last two years being back in Florida. Especially during this past year, we are so lucky in Florida to have access to destinations that people dream about for their holidays. One of Florida’s treasures is our state park system with over 161 parks, 10 state trails, and is one of the largest systems in the country. So you don’t won’t want to miss these pockets of treasure across the state. From pearly white-sand beaches to mangroves, coral reefs, natural springs, and one of the most biodiverse National Parks there is no shortage of outdoor activities to do in Florida.

Miami is known for its’ glitz and glamor, but there is also another side of Miami- the wild side. I always appreciated Miami for the excitement of South Beach and the Latin flare that can be found in the food and culture of the city. However, over the last few years, I have branched out to visit the different neighborhoods across the city and get out into nature beyond what you find in most travel guides. So here is my insider’s guide to Miami, from a Floridian that has explored the ins and outs of her state.

The below is a guide for those looking to explore some unique places in Miami and the surrounding areas, including some of the restaurants I cannot leave Miami without visiting. Also, my favorite neighborhoods and places to stay when I come to Miami.

Top Adventures and Outdoor Activities:

Visit Oleta River State Park- The Best Mountain Biking in Florida and Mangrove Kayaking (Estimated Time: 2-3 Hours)

Wait, mountain biking in Florida? I thought the same thing when I arrived at Florida's largest urban park. This spot was only 30 minutes from Downtown Miami but felt like it could have been in the Everglades. Whether you want to hit the mountain biking trails or explore the mangroves by kayak this is a must on anyone’s outdoor activities bucket list in Miami. The mountain biking trails winds through 15 miles of trail. Ride through hammock mounds, mangroves, and swamp as well as over wooden platforms offering some challenges. One of the best views of the park is when you drive over the Oleta River on a bridge by the entrance. Imagine kayakers paddling down the river, surrounded by thick trees and mangroves, with the Miami skyline in the distance on a sunny day. It is serene, quite the opposite of what you think of when you think of Miami.

I have been going to Miami for a while and when I found this gem I was in shock that this paradise has been kept secret. Oleta River State Park is the perfect spot to see the wild side of Florida. If you don’t have time to drive out to the Everglades, but want to paddle through mangroves and maybe try out mountain biking.

Fun little secret: Plan in advance to rent and sleep in one of 12 cabins in Oleta River State Park. Who knew you could camp so close to Downtown Miami?

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (Estimated Time: Half Day)

A hidden spot that locals flock to when visiting Miami is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park located on Key Biscayne. If you want a mix of history, a day at the beach, and scenic views from a different perspective of Miami then Bill Baggs State Park is the place for you!

Here you will escape the crowds, and find an ideal beach with views of the oldest building in Miami-Dade County- the Cape Florida Lighthouse. The Cape Florida Lighthouse was built in 1825 and offers the best views of the park and Miami Beach from above. While many think of Miami as an expensive destination, for a mere USD 8 you have access to one of the best beaches in Miami, the views at the top of the lighthouse, and a few restaurants to try on the state park grounds. My favorite place to eat on Key Biscayne is Boater's Grill overlooking the marina with nice outdoor dining. Finish your time here with a walk along the seawall and on a clear day catch a glimpse of Stilt Houses off in the distance.

Coconut Grove’s Vizcaya Gardens and Museums (Estimated Time: 3-4 Hours)

Not far from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Miami and South Beach, lies Coconut Grove, a beautiful Miami neighborhood right on Biscayne Bay. If you want to escape the city to relax in gardens that have an air of decadence and a mansion straight out of the Italian Renaissance, look no further. Vizcaya Gardens and Museum was built in 1914 by James Deering an industrialist with a unique taste in architecture. It took over 1,000 workers to build a 70 room house, and a formal garden spread over 10 acres! This is where culture and nature merge at the exquisite home that offers the perfect space to enjoy some green in the middle of a city.

After you are done wandering the gardens of Vizcaya, head to Coconut Grove, a historically funky neighborhood with Bohemian vibes. The newly renovated CocoWalk is a great spot to check out if you want to explore some shops and dining. Finding stores like The Bazaar Project a cafe that made me feel like I was in Europe with its lifestyle store that also doubles as a cafe/wine bar. This neighborhood is perfect to explore by foot compared to other neighborhoods in Miami with ample green space to get shade. Don’t miss your chance to cool off with A.C. Icees, an institution since 1978, located in David T. Kennedy Park.

South Beach (Estimated Time: All Day)

What would Miami be without South Beach? The art deco ladened neighborhood is the heart of Miami from South Pointe Pier Park, to Sunset Harbor. This may be more of a touristy area of Miami, but you cannot miss it and there are still local treasures, such as Puerto Sagua a local Cuban family-owned restaurant on Collins Avenue.

Once you are fueled up, it’s time to wander Ocean Drive. As the warm ocean breeze hits you as you walk down ocean drive, and beach volleyball games are played, it is apparent Miami is a city with an active lifestyle. Want to join in on the fun? Rent a bike and ride down the Miami Beach Boardwalk. If you decide to stay here into the night, don’t miss the sunset at South Pointe Pier Park. There are so many outdoor activities to do in South Beach it would be impossible to list them all, however renting a jet ski and heading down the stretch of beach by water is an epic experience.

At night Ocean Drive’s activity does not slow down, and people come for happy hours, dancing, and food with a view of a lavish show of cars parading down the street.

Miami Arts and Culture

Wynwood Walls and Miami Design District (Estimated Time: 4 Hours)

Why not take an art walk when you are in Miami? A little over 10 years ago the area of Wynwood began its transformation into the artistic and hip neighborhood it is today. Wynwood is home to many art galleries, boutiques, and plays hosts to amazing events such as Art Basel. If you don’t want to miss any of the highlights of the Art Murals take a Wynwood Golf Cart Buggy Tour and make sure to get some awesome pictures at the Wynwood Walls.

Miami Design District

Where to eat in Miami?

Little Havana (Estimated Time: 3 Hours)

Calle Ocho aka Little Havana may be my favorite spot to grab some delectable options and a must see for foodies. While it may not have the glamour and glitz of South Beach, it sure makes up for it with its authentic Cuban cuisine. Before covid, you could see old men playing dominoes in Domino Park, while you enjoyed ice cream across the street from Azucar Ice cream. My favorite spot to dine was also featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain, Versailles Restaurant is the place where you can have a sit-down meal, served with class or just grab a cortadito at a window with an empanada for something more low key.

Sunset Harbor ( Estimated Time: 2-3 Hours)

However, if you don’t feel like leaving South Beach, head to Sunset Harbor for a more modern neighborhood with shops, dining, and great coffee. Some spots to check out in this neck of the woods are Panther Coffee and Pubbelly Sushi (check out their daily happy hour from 4 pm-6 pm). Florida has some great seafood, so it would be a shame to not try some fresh fish when you are in town and the perfect spot for that in Sunset Harbor is Stiltsville Fish Bar.

Then after you wait for your food to settle you can take a SUP tour or rent a paddleboard to see Miami from the water with Miami Beach Paddleboard located right near the Maurice Gibb Memorial Park. Also, the name is not lying, this is one of my top two places to see the sunset.

Where to Stay in Miami?

The Palms Hotel and Spa is the perfect nature-inspired hotel located directly on Miami Beach. I enjoy staying in the Mid Beach section of Miami since the beaches are less crowded and just as beautiful. Also, I love that this spot has some of the greenest credentials in Miami. The Palms Hotel and Spa have made a vow to stop all use of disposable single-use plastic at their property, has a LEED Certified building, and also promotes weekly beach cleanups with their “Fill a Bucket” program.

When you want to just relax and come back to your hotel, it is hard to believe you are in the center of Miami Beach because the pool area makes you feel as if you are in a tropical paradise with cabanas,

tropical plants, and a very tranquil environment. If you want to stay at a place that cares about the environment and educates its guests on how they do it, this is the best environmentally friendly hotel in Miami Beach. The Aveda Spa located on the property also is perfect to unwind after all the exploring you do. Plus, who wouldn’t want to wake up to these oceanfront views?

Day Trips from Miami for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Everglades National Park has two main entrances: Flamingo and Shark Valley Visitors Center. However, to see the Everglades quickly, head to Shark Valley Visitors Center about an hour drive from Miami Beach. On the way stop at Coopertown for an exhilarating airboat tour, which will bring you very close to alligators and the wild. If you are brave, check out the gator bites and fried frog legs at their restaurant.

Shark Loop Observation Tower- Everglades

Afterward, make the 14-minute drive to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, where you can either take a tram or ride a bike around the 15.8-mile loop through the Everglades. At the halfway point you can walk up the Shark Valley Observation Tower, to catch a glimpse of the 1.5 million acres that make up the Everglades.

If you find the 2 hours to drive to Flamingo Visitors Center you can take ranger-led guided tours canoeing, and even stay the night glamping with Flamingo Everglades.

What are you waiting for?

Miami offers perfect weather almost year-round (minus Hurricane Season), a diverse range of neighborhoods, and a Latin infused culture giving it one of the most unique characters of any city in the USA. It is constantly rated as one of the best places in the country for outdoor lovers, and it is easy to see why from Oleta River State Park and the long stretches of beach to the Everglades there is an amplitude of activities at your doorstep. Miami is perfect for those looking to experience culture, adventure, and nature all in one place.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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