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An Insider’s Tour of Miami

So you’re finally coming to Miami? Great!

Let me give you the Insider’s Tour – you know, the “must do’s” that will let you say you really saw Miami, along with some “we do’s” so you can say you know Miami like a native.

Start early if you think you might want to do more than just ogle the outside of the Biltmore Hotel or the Venetian Pool. - Courtesy of Kreps DeMaria Public Relations & Marketing

Insider Tip #1: “Miami” includes Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Homestead and a whole hunk of places that aren’t technically in the city. But they’re most definitely what we mean when we say “Miami.”

Insider Tip #2: You need a car. You can park when you want to walk or to ride the Gables Trolley or to hop on the Metromover to get a bird’s eye view of Brickell Avenue or Downtown. Otherwise, trust me, you won’t see much of Miami. Our definition (see Tip #1) sprawls over an area the size of Rhode Island, and includes everything from models and manatees to mangoes, mangroves and murals.

Classy, chic, trendy and historic all in one. The Gables (see, you’re already talking like a native) is one of the oldest neighborhoods – actually, a city all unto itself – where you can come for the architecture, enjoy the fine dining, and stay for a stroll through some of the finest art galleries in the area.

Start early if you think you might want to do more than just ogle the outside of the Biltmore Hotel or the Venetian Pool. The Biltmore’s 93-foot copper-clad tower may be the Gables’ most recognizable point. It’s modeled after a 12th-century Moorish tower in Seville, Spain. Everyone from Judy Garland to Al Capone has stayed there, including “Tarzan,” Johnny Weissmuller. It’s got a spa, a 22,000-square-foot marble swimming pool and one of the most elegant and challenging – but not daunting – golf courses around. Venetian Pool started as a quarry providing the rock to build the first Coral Gables homes. City founder George Merrick fancied it up as aVenetian” lagoon with loggias and towers, added waterfalls, a cave and “cliffs” for the kids to jump off (you, too, if you want), and opened it as the “Venetian Casino” in 1924. The 820,000-gallon pool, fed by artesian wells, is drained and refilled nightly.

When you’re done, drive down just about any street to see some of the exquisitely maintained original Mediterranean Revival 1920’s homes with their Old World arches and columns. Merrick’s coral stone home (tours available) is on Coral Way. A statue of him stands next to City Hall, a limestone palace topped by a 90-foot clock tower and bronze belfry.

It sits at the head of Miracle Mile, the center of the shopping and fine eating district. It’s hard to go wrong here. There’s cuisine from around the world. Gallery night (first Friday) brings showings of fine contemporary and Latin art, including talented new artists and Cuban art you won’t find anywhere else. Take the trolley.

Insider stop: Books & Books. It’s kind of the unofficial epicenter of the South Florida literary scene, with frequent author readings and signings, as well as a weekend gathering place for good jazz and Latin fusion.

This used to be the starving artists’ district, and the site of some of the nicest old Miami houses overlooking the bay. Now, folks like billionaire developer Jorge Perez (the guy whose name is on the art museum downtown) call it home.

Some of the houses are newer, too, but still just as nice. You’ll see great examples heading along South Bayshore Drive. Or, you can cut in a block to Tigertail Avenue for more. Keep an eye out for the Grove peacocks. They wander into the road along narrow neighborhood roads, seemingly indifferent to the cars that have to stop while the birds meander. (Why did the peacock cross the road in the Grove? He didn’t. He just stood there with his peacock buds while the cars backed up.)

Then it’s time to park and wander. There are plenty of boutique-y shops, and lots of restaurants boasting Brazilian fusion, middle eastern inspired American, Key Westy seafood, and more.

Peacock Park looks out over a marina and allows an easy bayfront stroll to the Dinner Key Marina and Miami’s historic city hall. The Art Deco building once served as the “Air Gateway Between the Americas,” back when it was the biggest and most modern seaplane base in the world and the international flight terminal building for Pan American Airways, with its giant and luxurious “Clipper” flying boats lined up on the water outside. (An insider note to impress your friends: FDR flew there in 1943, the first time a U.S. president traveled by air while in office.) Inside, there’s a marvelous zodiac mural on the ceiling of the commission chambers and photos from the building’s heyday, including one of Charles Lindbergh in his leather aviator’s helmet, stepping into a seaplane cockpit.

The Grove is a great jumping off point. If you head south, you can take a magnificently scenic tree-lined drive along Old Cutler Road to Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The garden has a world-recognized collection of palms, orchids and tropical fruit trees. Locals come out in droves for the art exhibits and annual Chocolate, Orchid, Edible Garden and Mango Festivals. That last one has sparked more than one lifelong love-affair with the many flavors and feels of this international fruit.

Matheson is a unique man-made atoll, with a tranquil lagoon ringed by palm trees. It fronts Biscayne Bay at a favorite place for kite-boarders to zip along the water’s edge.

If you head north from Dinner Key Marina, you’ll drift past joggers, walkers and roller-bladers at Kennedy Park, and soon reach Vizcaya, the bayfront winter home of International Harvester heir James Deering. Designed to look like a fully restored 400-year-old Italian estate, it’s now a museum with 34 rooms filled with sumptuous antique European art and furnishings, amid a lavishly landscaped labyrinth of gardens.

It’s next to the Ermita de la Caridad (there’s an English name, but no local would ever use it) the Catholic church that now holds the original statue of Cuba’s patron saint, smuggled here in 1961. Just past that is Alice Wainwright Park, a family-friendly gathering place with tremendous views of Key Biscayne, nestled on the quiet and exclusive street where both Madonna and Sylvester Stallone once had homes.

By Carlos Harrison. Image courtesy of Biltmore Hotel. Special thanks to for this story reprint


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