12 cool things to do in Miami for the first-time visitor

There are so many cool things to do in Miami but it’s a big city, so where do you start? I spent just 48 hours in the Magic City, but you’ll be surprised at how much you can see and do within just two days. For a bit of inspiration, here are 12 cool things to do in Miami (in my opinion!) if you’re visiting for the first time.

Cool things to do in Miami: My top 12

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1. Visit the Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower is one of the most treasured National Historic Landmarks in Miami. So it’s a great place to visit if you’re keen to explore the cultural side to the city. Dubbed ‘the Ellis Island of the South’, this historic tower was originally built as an immigration-processing centre for refugees arriving into Florida from Cuba during the Fidel Castro regime. Apparently, the architectural design was inspired by the Giralda Cathedral Bell Tower in Seville and while it later became the offices for the Miami Daily News, it’s still widely recognised as a symbol for freedom in Miami.

Today, it’s a contemporary art museum and you won’t want to miss the Tower of Snow sculpture, which stands close by. It represents the 14,000 Cuban children who were sent to the US in exile during the 60s and I think you’ll agree, is one of the most striking statues in the city.

Tower of Snow sculpture Miami

2. Catch a basketball match at the American Airlines Arena

If I’d been organised enough I would have definitely got myself some tickets for an event at the American Airlines Arena. Hosting everything from live music concerts and children’s shows to NBA basketball events, it’s without a doubt, one of the cool things to do in Miami.

You’ll find the American Airlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard, close to the Downtown Miami waterfront. It’s easy to get to via the MetroRail, MetroMover or MetroBus and you could head to Bayside Marketplace for cocktails or a bite to eat after your visit as it’s really close by (see point 8!) Alternatively, it’s a short cab ride or walk away from Brickell, an area that’s home to a burgeoning food scene and is a cool alternative to the popular South Beach. (check out my review of Miami EAST and the restaurant Quinto La Huella for a bit of inspiration).

Brickell City Centre

Downtown Brickell

3. Visit the Wolfsonian FIU

Museum, library and research centre, you won’t miss the striking Wolfsonian building when you’re walking along the lower part of Washington Avenue in South Beach. If you take an Art Deco tour of the city, you may well stop at this historical building as it has an interesting story.

Built in 1927, it used to be the Washington Storage Company and was beautifully ornate, to fit in with the wealthy neighbourhood of the time. After author and philanthropist Mitchell ‘Micky’ Wolfson Jr started filling it to the brim with treasures he’d picked up from his world travels, he decided to eventually buy the building and turn it into a museum. As its name suggests, it’s affiliated with the famed Smithsonian museums and inside you’ll find more than 100 collections of art and design. It also has a really cool gift shop and coffee bar inside.

Wolfsonian FIU Museum, Miami

4. Walk along Ocean Drive

It’s one of the most iconic places in the world and it’s featured in countless songs and films. So, a walk along Ocean Drive is definitely among the cool things to do in Miami. One of the highlights of this palm-fringed street, which runs parallel to South Beach, is of course, the candy-coloured Art Deco architecture which turns all sorts of neon shades at night.

If you don’t mind the slightly higher prices, the cafes here are a great place to enjoy some people-watching. Try the legendary News Café (an old favourite of Gianni Versace’s and one of the original cafes that opened here in 1988) or you might want to consider Lario’s on the Beach, a Cuban restaurant owned by Gloria Estefan. Ocean Drive runs parallel to Collins Avenue, which is great for designer shopping, and Washington Avenue, which plays home to more cafes, shops and Art Deco buildings.

For party animals, Ocean Drive has plenty in the way of pool parties, drag shows and DJ nights. Plus, there’s a strong LGBT scene here. Whether you’re here to party or just enjoy some relaxing sight-seeing, it’ll make you want to watch re-runs of Miami Vice when you get home.

Ocean Drive, Miami

5. Hang out in South Beach

You might as well make a day of it when you visit Ocean Drive, especially if the sun’s out, as you’ll want to hit South Beach for some sun, sea and sand. The sun, sadly, wasn’t quite toasty enough for sunbathing when I was here, but it’s well worth taking a walk along this famous beach.

Lifeguard station Miami

Miami Beach runs for miles and is split up into various parts – each with their own characteristics – so you could easily spend an entire holiday experiencing it all. SoBe, known as the ‘party beach’, has a reputation for being the coolest. It’s where super-toned fitness enthusiasts flex their muscles, it’s where you’ll see those multi-coloured Lifeguard stations and it buzzes with events throughout the year.

South Beach, Miami

People working out at South Beach Miami

6. Take a walking tour of the Art Deco Historic District

If you’ve read my piece on Art Deco Tours, you’ll see that the Art Deco district was one of my favourite things I did in Miami. A tour of The Art Deco Historic District is one of the coolest things to do in Miami, not just for the Instagram-worthy photographs, but also because it has a fascinating story. From Gatsby-style glamour and A-listers to mobsters and murderers, a tour of the Art Deco Historic District is a history lesson you’re bound to enjoy.

Ocean Drive, Miami

7. Get a snap of the Versace Mansion

The former home of Gianni Versace has been a favourite sight among first-time visitors on Ocean Drive for years. But it’s even more popular among visitors these days following the release of the true-crime series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which retells the tragic story of the murder of the Italian fashion designer who once lived here.

The fact it’s also a super exclusive hotel, known as the Villa Casa Casuarina, only adds to the curiosity factor and it still boasts the beautiful Spanish-inspired architecture that architect Alden Freeman once created (inspired by the Alcazar De Colon in the Dominican Republic).

When you’re on Ocean Drive, stop for some photos of its elegant entrance. But as I mentioned in this post, don’t go beyond the steps, unless you have a reservation as you’ll be firmly shooed away!

Versace Mansion, Ocean Drive

8. Stop by Bayside Marketplace and Bayfront Park

Bayside Marketplace is very much geared towards tourists (and is a popular hangout for the hundreds of cruise passengers who stop here) but it’s well worth stopping by for lunch during a walk along the waterfront.

This outdoor mall is a hub of well-known clothing brands, tourist shops and restaurants. And you’re right by Bayfront Park, home of The Challenger Memorial (in memory of the crew of the Challenger spaceshuttle), the 40ft Light Tower and the famed statue of ‘Mother of Miami’ Julia Tuttle. There’s even a trapeze school and line-up of yoga classes here. The views over Biscayne Bay are also lovely.

9. Go shopping in Brickell City Centre

Brickell City Centre is the shiny new mall that’s transforming the financial district of Downtown Miami. And if you’re staying at EAST Miami, or nearby, it’s a great place to get your fill of retail therapy.

You’ll find over 100 shops here, spread across four floors including Victoria’s Secret, Lululemon, Sephora and Diptyque, as well as a few high street favourites like Zara and All Saints. One of the highlights – if you’re feeling flush – is the Saks Fifth Avenue department store which also has a couple of restaurants inside.

from shopping, you’ll find nail bars, a blow dry bar and some fab juice bars and restaurants like Casa Tua Cucina, Luke’s Lobster and the newly-opened La Centrale Italian Food Hall. There’s also a swanky dine-in cinema complex where you can enjoy waiter service while you watch a film. Cool right? What I love about this place is it has a futuristic design and inside-outside feel. Don’t miss the farmers markets on Sundays.

Brickell City Centre, 701 S Miami Ave, Miami, FL, 33131

Brickell City Centre shops

10. Visit The Wynwood Walls & the Wynwood arts district

As I mentioned in this post, Wynwood Walls is possibly the most instagrammable place in Miami. It’s also one of the coolest. This outdoor gallery of colourful murals was pioneered by Goldman Properties who have helped rejuvenate areas such as Miami’s South Beach and Soho in New York.

It’s free to visit and there are various sculptures and gardens to admire as well as various temporary art exhibitions in the GGA Gallery.

Put aside a good few hours to explore this collection of colourful murals, its cool gift shop and the surrounding art-filled neighbourhood. You’ll find a couple of places to eat within Wynwood Walls such as the Wynwood Kitchen & Bar. Meanwhile, Panther Coffee, Salty Donuts and a whole host of cool cocktails bars and craft beer joints can be find amongst the independent shops and boutiques of the wider Wynwood arts neighbourhood.

Read: Exploring The Wynwood Walls, Miami

Cool things to do in Miami: Wynwood Walls

11. Visit Calle Ocho in Little Havana

A trip to Little Havana is a must in Miami. There are nods to the strong Caribbean and Latin American influence all over the Magic City, however Little Havana allows you to fully immerse yourself in Miami’s Cuban culture. The main ‘strip’, if you like, is called Calle Ocho, a super long street where you’ll find all the action. It’s ideal for exploring independently, at your own pace. Or if you’re looking for something more structured, Art Deco Tours (who I explore South Beach with), offer a cultural walking tour here.

Lucy McGuire, The Travel Journo in Little Havana, Miami

Get some snaps of the giant rooster statues, which are a strong symbol for community in the Cuban culture. Stop by Domino Park (also known as Máximo Gómez Park after the Cuban military hero) to see smartly-dressed locals enjoying a competitive game of dominoes.

And drop by for a Cuban coffee or mojito in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the street. You’ll find a clutch of Cuban cigar shops alongside live music bars which blast out merengue and salsa beats both day and night. The Calle Ocho Festival also takes place here every March.

Dominoes in Little Havana, Miami

Men playing dominoes in Domino Park, Miami

12. Eat Cuban food at Versailles

If you ask a local about the best Cuban restaurant in Miami, many will claim it’s Versailles. We really didn’t know what to expect when we visited this legendary café. But expectations were high when we got there, especially as there was a sign proudly stating that Versailles is ‘The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant’ (that’s quite a claim).

If you’re in the neighbourhood, it’s worth a visit – even if you just to say you’ve been to ‘The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant’! If you don’t have time for lunch or dinner, head to the bakery next door for some empanadas, pastries and super-strength Cuban coffee, aka, legal speed (!).

Read my review of Versailles restaurant here.

Versailles restaurant, Miami

What do you think are the coolest things to do in Miami? Feel free to leave your tips and comments…

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