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An Insider’s Tour of Miami

An insider's tour of Miami offering an array of non-tourist activities including must-visit places and things to do.



That puts you next to the Rickenbacker Causeway and the entrance to Key Biscayne. The drive goes over the water, with one of the best views of Miami’s skyline, past the public beaches, the Miami Seaquarium, the Crandon/Key Biscayne golf course (one of the most beautiful and challenging courses in the area), the site of the Sony Open tennis tournament and along the main street of the Village of Key Biscayne.


Key Biscayne boasts stunning multimillion dollar homes as well as beautiful Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.


Turn down just about any of the side streets to spot some of the most stunning multimillion dollar homes around, or continue straight to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. That’s at the end of the island, with its bike trails, beach and the oldest structure in the county, the Cape Florida lighthouse. Look south to glimpse what’s left of Stiltsville. It was a community of 27 shacks mounted on pilings out on the shallows of Biscayne Bay, established in the 1930s. There are only seven left. It’s also a good spot for manatee-sighting.


Insider stop: If you’re feeling adventurous and have access to a boat, the Neptune Memorial Society Reef, just over three miles due east into the bay, is truly unique. It’s an underwater mausoleum for cremated remains, 40 feet below the surface, designed as an “artistic representation” of the Lost City of Atlantis. It’s also a living man-made reef eventually expected to spread over 16 acres.


Financial District and Downtown


The way back from the Key dumps you on Brickell Avenue for a drive through Miami's financial district, to the Christopher Columbus statue on the bridge at the mouth of the Miami River.


There’s another insider stop there: Rooftop soccer, with games played nearly a dozen stories up atop an office building where Brickell meets the river. It’s mostly lawyers and bankers shedding their wingtips on weeknights, but just about anyone is welcome to watch and yell, “Gooooooool!”




From there you can continue along the waterfront edge of Miami's downtown. That takes you past the Perez Art Museum Miami; Bayside Marketplace – a decidedly touristy outdoor mall, but with enough unique shops and such a great view that locals like it, too; the magnificently restored (and breathtakingly lit at night) Freedom Tower; and the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat.


A great side trip to one of the best restaurant zones in the area and to a storied bar that’s a favorite for locals is just a one-block jog west to Miami Avenue, starting at Coral Way. Miami Avenue is effectively 0 Street, the dividing point between East and West roads, and it takes you through Mary Brickell Village (Eat anywhere; you can’t go wrong.) That also puts you right by the east end of one of Miami’s best-known streets, Calle Ocho –Eighth Street, in English – in the center of Little Havana.


Access to Miami Beach is next to the arena. The MacArthur Causeway takes you past the striking Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami Children's Museum and Jungle Island, then drops down to water level for an incomparable view of cruise ship row on one side and the exclusive island houses of the stars that the likes of Al Capone, Shaquille O'Neal, and Gloria Estefan have all called home.



The road ends at South Beach, where movie stars, millionaires, models and regular folks like you and I can get a ground-level view of Ocean Drive, and the beach and the Art Deco hotels that have served as the iconic backdrop for ”Miami CSI,” “Miami Vice,” and just about every televised sporting event in a 25-mile radius.


South Beach


Every north-south street has a distinctive flavor, and is packed with restaurants and shops. East-West spots not to miss are tiny Española Way with its Mediterranean flair, and Lincoln Road, a chic, pedestrian-only mall lined with shops and eateries, most of which offer shaded outdoor eating under clusters of umbrellas. The stunning Holocaust Memorial stands a few blocks north, behind the convention center.


Continuing north by car, Ocean Drive turns into Collins Drive and, just a few minutes later, to where it seems like you're going to smack into the back of the Fontainebleau hotel. You won't. Just follow the road for a drive between the hotels and the Intracoastal Waterway into the condo canyons of mid-beach.



Or follow the signs toward Arthur Godfrey Road. That'll take you back to the mainland to two of the hippest neighborhoods in the area, the Design District and Wynwood.


Wynwood


Wynwood is best known for casual eats, including clusters of food trucks, and as the heart of the new art scene. There are galleries galore, but no trip to South Florida is complete without a visit to the Wynwood Walls, a world-class display of graffiti by some of the top artists in the urban art field, such as Os Gemeos and Shepard Fairey (you know, the guy who did the famous Obama “Hope” poster). That’s just a few blocks from one of Miami’s most impressive structures, the Bacardi Buildings at 21st and Biscayne. They very deliberately merge art and innovative engineering, with massive murals of traditional Spanish blue and white tiles on one and walls made of one-inch thick hammered glass tapestries on the other.


Restaurants in the Design District are equally trendy, but more upscale, with fusion menus and fancier décor. There’s art here, too. A whole crowd of jury-selected resident artists work and show at the Bakehouse Art Complex, and Swampspace Gallery regularly presents innovative Miami art.


North County


You can go back to the beach or take I-95 north to Bal Harbour Village and THE luxury shopping mall in the county, the Bal Harbour Shops; past an elevated look at the Sun Life Stadium where the Miami Dolphins play; amid the soaring condo-scrapers of Aventura and the Aventura Mall; and to the Oleta River State Park. It proudly pronounces itself Florida’s largest urban park, but we like it for its miles and miles of bike trails (novice to blistering expert paths) and its peaceful canoe and kayak river routes between the mangroves. You can rent what you need for a ride on land or water, and you can even spend the night in one of the rustic (but blissfully air-conditioned) cabins.


The Coral Castle is a testament carved in 1,100 tons of coral rock to the undying – and unrequited – love of Edward Leedskalnin.



One more area, at the opposite end of the county, has the exact opposite feel. Homestead and the neighboring Redland (which everybody calls The Redlands even if it’s wrong), is still largely rural, with a mix of Mexican and Old Florida. It’s got rodeo and narrow roads sided by plant and tree nurseries, mango groves and horse farms. El Taco Toro is probably the best authentic Mexican restaurant in the area, and Knaus Berry Farm (open only from November to mid-April) is a tradition. Folks gladly stand in line for a couple of hours or more for their oven-fresh pecan and cinnamon rolls.


Robert is Here has some of the fattest and freshest veggies and fruits you’ll ever find, including carambola, mamey, lychee, atemoya, papaya, and plump and juicy mangoes. There’s a petting zoo out back, and do not leave without trying one of his smoothies. (You’ll thank me for that one.)


Schnebly Redland’s Winery, just a little farther west, boasts of being the southernmost winery in the country and “crafters of the most exotic wines and beers in the world.” With flavors like lychee, mango, guava and avocado wine, it’s hard to argue with them.


Head west, and a little south, if you want to visit the “river of grass.” The Florida Everglades National Park offers walking and biking trails, as well as canoe and kayak routes. Or stop at the Everglades Alligator Farm, where you can get up close and personal with some 2,000 of the reptiles, or take an airboat tour into the swamp.


Two more stops, east of there. The Coral Castle is a quirky roadside attraction everybody ought to see at least once. That should leave you with enough questions to last a lifetime. Like, how did a skinny little guy barely five feet tall move slabs of coral rock weighing 58 tons each into place – using only hand tools? And how did a guy with a fourth grade education balance them so neatly that you can move a nine-ton coral gate with the push of a finger?


The other place to see is Black Point Marina and Key Biscayne National Park. Black Point is a popular weekend spot on the water for music and beer. It’s next to the national park, a mostly underwater expanse big enough to hold Detroit and Atlanta with room to spare and containing a pristine coral reef and some of the best shallow diving grounds in the state.


Too much to see in a single trip? Well, yeah! We know that. That’s why we live here. And why so many others know to find a fave or two, and explore others as they come back again and again.


Face it, we haven’t talked about the Keys yet.


By Carlos Harrison. Images courtesy of Florida State Park. Special thanks to Visitflorida.org for this story reprint

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