What to do in Miami for a day

by Silke Elzner

The only reason why I got to spend a day in Miami was because we were due to join a Caribbean Cruise and I had begged my husband to take another day of annual leave to get rid of that jet lag. We travelled all the way from Germany, kids in tow, to experience this part of the world.

There was no way in hell that I would head from Miami airport directly to the cruise terminal in Fort Lauderdale. I was curious and I wanted to find out what there was to see in Miami.

Of course, given that we were tired from our long flight and had two kids aged 10 and 12 with us, we had to make some smart choices. We had to factor in the Miami weather (hot and humid), the lack of patience and low attention span of the kids, and the desire to at least see the bucket list items of Miami.

In the end, I think we did the best we can with the limited time that we had. This article shall serve as a guide for anyone who would like to experience the many famous Miami sights and attractions in just a day. Of course, you are free to swap things around: I will offer you some alternative sights as you read on.

Note: This post may contain labelled affiliate links.

Before we start, let's have a look at Miami as a travel destination.
Before we start, let’s have a look at Miami as a travel destination.

Stuff you Need to Understand About Miami if you Travel There for the First Time

  • For the purpose of this article I have divided the Miami area into three broader areas. I don’t know if this is how it is done but it works for me.
    There is Miami Beach, the tourist area of Miami, situated on an island just offshore. Then there is the mainland with Downtown Miami and some of the historic suburbs such as Coconut Grove. Between these two you will find Biscayne Bay, home of many waterfront sights, marinas, the cruise port and millionaire mansions.
  • Unfortunately, many of the Miami activities and sights are spread out over the city. This doesn’t help if you are only staying for one day in the city and have very little time. The best way to experience Miami, therefore, is by joining a bus tour, or by hiring a rental car, or by paying an Uber driver to take you to where you want to go.
    For great car rental deals have a look at Rentalcars Connect. (affiliate link)
  • The climate in Miami is tropical. This means that it is hot and humid, and don’t be surprised if there is a sudden downpour. To play it safe, have an umbrella or a cape with you.
  • Hurricane season begins in June and can extend all the way into autumn.
  • Miami is a relatively safe city. This has not always been the case. Do you remember watching Miami Vice in the 80’s? Back then, the city was very much controlled by the cocaine mafia. The Art Deco district in particular looked very run down back then. Today, just be careful as you would be in any major city with a high tourist population.
South Beach is certainly one of the craziest tourist places in Miami. It never gets boring. Just spent a couple of minutes at Muscle Beach and feel entertained.
South Beach is certainly one of the craziest tourist places in Miami. It never gets boring. Just spent a couple of minutes at Muscle Beach and feel entertained.

Miami Beach

If you are in the city for one day only, do think about spending some extra money on your accommodation and book a hotel in a central location. We stayed in Miami Beach, just steps from sights like Muscle Beach, the Versace mansion and the Art Deco houses on Ocean Drive.

This allowed us to explore this iconic and historic Miami area in our own time after finishing our scheduled tour, overall a great time saver. We visited some of the mentioned Miami Beach attractions before and after our organised bus tour. Thanks to the bus tour we would also see attractions on the mainland and in farther away parts of the city.

Now, there are many things you can see in Miami Beach, depending on what you are interested in. Let me share with you some of the highlights.

Lincoln Road Mall

Lincoln Road Mall is the main shopping area in Miami Beach. It is great for spending your extra dollars, for having a bite to eat, or simply to enjoy a stroll. You will find the mall between 16th and 17th in South Beach.

Pastel colours, daring shapes and a clear tendency for overindulgence are the easily identifiable characteristics of the US art deco architecture which can also be found in New York City.
Pastel colours, daring shapes and a clear tendency for overindulgence are the easily identifiable characteristics of the US art deco architecture which can also be found in New York City.

Art Deco District

The historic Art Deco district came about at a time when this architectural style was very popular in the USA. Just think of the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, both of which were built at just about the same time.

Art deco in architecture: this means rounded corners, floral decorations, pastel colours, and neon lights at night. Most examples can be found along Ocean Drive, but you can also head further inland to get a better feel of this style. Read more about it here.

Gianni Versace's Italian style villa is among the best known tourist attractions on Ocean Drive. The designer was fatally shot on the front steps of his own home.
Gianni Versace’s Italian style villa is among the best known tourist attractions on Ocean Drive. The designer was fatally shot on the front steps of his own home.

Ocean Drive

Ocean Drive is the beachfront street in Miami Beach where most restaurants, bars and hotels are located. It’s a party mile, a place where you can show off and party and sip expensive cocktails. We spent a fun evening here with oversized Margaritas, soaking up the lively atmosphere and watching the crazy people.

Restaurant Tip: Havana 1957 (1410 Ocean Drive).

South Pointe Park

We didn’t make it all the way to South Pointe Park, but if your hotel is located further south than ours, or if you decide to hop onto a rental bike, then South Pointe Park is sad to be a great place to enjoy a beautiful Miami sunset.

Indeed, views are outstanding from here: You can see the cruise ships leaving the port, the odd dolphin playing in the waves, and definitely the impressive Miami skyline.

Where to stay in Miami Beach

We stayed at the Marlin Hotel on Collins Avenue, just one block from the beach. A lovely art deco style hotel, super clean, very friendly and great for families.

We actually had one of the best hotel experiences with this hotel ever, and I am more than happy to recommend it to my readers.

Click here for further information and to book. (affiliate link)

Looking from the outside, Downtown Miami must be one of the prettiest I have seen. I love the tropical feel.
Looking from the outside, Downtown Miami must be one of the prettiest I have seen. I love the tropical feel.

Downtown Miami and the Suburbs

We explored a great part of Miami in just one day by joining an organised bus company. They took us from Miami Beach to the Mainland and showed us around some of the most prominent areas. Afterwards, we also joined a cruise of Biscayne Bay (I will come to this part later).

If you are looking to buy tickets for a half-day bus tour and cruise like ours, you can book here. (affiliate link)

The following Miami areas on the mainland are great to visit, either with an organised bus tour like us, or by hiring a rental car for a day.

Downtown Miami

Downtown Miami in itself is probably not a very exciting tourist area. But as you head over one of the bridges from Miami Beach and speed past on the highway you cannot help but notice the beauty of the Miami skyline.

Something I would like to point out is the Metromover. This is an automated, driver-less train that connects the most important government buildings and companies in the Downtown area. It is free to use and operates above ground on a highline (it is nearly impossible to build anything underground in Miami).

Having said that, I would suggest you focus on the surrounding suburbs rather than downtown to get a more wholesome experience.

Little Havana is the centre for Cuban culture. It's a fantastic mixture of Cuban traditions, modern street art, and authentic food.
Little Havana is the centre for Cuban culture. It’s a fantastic mixture of Cuban traditions, modern street art, and authentic food.

Little Havana

Fun fact: Around 70% of people living in Miami are of Cuban or Latin-American descent. That’s quite a high percentage and that’s also the main reason why you hear just as much Spanish spoken as English. The Cuban quarter of Miami is called Little Havana, and you will find it around Calle Ocho.

It’s the perfect place to dive into the colourful and exciting Cuban culture. Stock up on hand-rolled cigars, for example, or try a Cuban coffee at the Visitors’ Center (such a cortadito or a cafecito). Or maybe snack on one of these delicious but mighty Cuban sandwiches (try the medianoche!)

Experience Little Havana on a guided tour! (affiliate link)

Miami Design District

If you are less interested in Cuban culture and prefer arts and culture, head to the Miami Design District. You will find it in Buena Vista. Beware: buying stuff here comes with a hefty price tag. But there is a lot to see here, including some outstanding architecture.

Design District is not simply the name of a mall. There are a number of art galleries for you to explore. Also, while there check out the Fly’s Eye Dome, an artist’s interpretation of a mobile home which resembles the facet eyes of a fly.

Wynwood Arts District

Miami’s up and coming hipster quarter is Wynwood. Go here on your day in Miami if you want to have the quintessential hipster experience including street art, food trucks, outdoor bars, live music and lots of young people.

Highlights of the Wynwood district include the painted walls of the RC Cola Plant, the colourful murals at 2520 NW 2nd Avenue, the restaurant precinct around Wynwood Yard (56 NW 29th Street) and many other restaurants and breweries.

This Coconut Grove resident has some free roaming peacocks in his front yard.. Because, why not.
This Coconut Grove resident has some free roaming peacocks in his front yard.. Because, why not.

Coconut Grove

Coconut Grove is among the oldest residential areas in Miami. This part of town is rather leafy and green. In fact, it is so green, that the tourist busses struggle to get through without knocking their passengers unconscious on the open upper decks. It is also a very posh area with prominent house owners such as Madonna and Serena Williams.

If you not just driving through like us, head to the waterfront. There is a mix of lovely parks and playgrounds as well as some noteworthy Miami sights such as the historic mansion Villa Vizcaya and The Kampong Botanic Gardens.

The Miami skyline is even prettier when seen from the water
The Miami skyline is even prettier when seen from the water.

Waterfront Attractions and Biscayne Bay

After our tour with the bus company from Miami Beach to the Mainland, we boarded a cruise boat to check out the waterfront sights of Miami. This boat tour was already included in our day trip, so we didn’t really have a choice. This doesn’t mean that we regretted it: quite the opposite, spending time on the water is essential in getting to understand Miami.

This is the place where you can see some of the most amazing millionaires’ mansions. It is also a busy port, and there are quite a few important attractions scattered along the foreshore.

Spanish singer Julio Iglesias may call this abode his holiday home.
Spanish singer Julio Iglesias may call this abode his holiday home. It is just one of many mansions on the islands of Miami.

Star Island and the Other Islands

I dare say 99% of people living on one of Miami’s islands must be multimillionaires, if not billionaires. Of course, no surprises here that some of the home owners are well-known to the general public. Celebrities that own houses in Miami include Will Smith, Antonio Banderas and Rihanna.

In most cases, these celebrity houses are holiday homes or maybe investment properties. So it is highly unlikely that you will get to see a real star when cruising the Millionaires’ Row. But this doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable: the mansions and yachts parked in front are truly spectacular. Read more about this part of the tour here.

If you are planning on joining a cruise, chances are that you will also stop at Bayside Mall.
If you are planning on joining a cruise, chances are that you will also stop at Bayside Mall.

Bayside Marketplace

This is the place where all the cruises depart. So sooner or later you may end up here at this waterfront shopping mall. It’s a practical one-stop shopping experience if you have only very little time in the city.

You can also eat here (I suggest ordering ceviche at Largo Bar und Grill right where the boats depart, even if it’s not on the menu). It’s prepared with mahimahi and is light and refreshing on a hot day!

Don’t bother with free wifi at the mall though. The service is slow to non-existent.

Jungle Island

Maybe you are visiting with small children and are looking for something relaxing to do. Jungle Island is your best bet. It is located on one of the islands, but you can still reach it with a car.

It is basically a small zoo with lots of parrots, but that’s not the only type of animal that you will find here. Most visitors rave about the meet-the-animal experiences (at a cost).

Since Jungle Island is right on the water and has a lot of greenery, it’s a nice spot to spend the day with the family. There are also a number of animal shows throughout the day.

Skip the line with this Seaquarium Pass. (affiliate link)

Miami Seaquarium is a popular destination for families that are in Miami for one day only.
Miami Seaquarium is a popular destination for families that are in Miami for one day only.

Miami Aquarium (Seaquarium)

Seaquarium is also located on an island, but it’s a little bit further away in the south of Biscayne Bay. You really need a rental car or an Uber driver to get you there. There is a big parking lot in front, but you have to pay 10 bucks for parking.

If you have some extra money to spend, you can swim with the dolphins. If the dolphins enjoy this encounter as well I cannot say.

Some visitors complain about the small size of the Orca tank, so you need to be aware that this may not be the best place to see sea animals. If you do visit though, there are shows that you attend which will give you a more wholesome experience than just walking around the property.

Suggested Day Trips from Miami

Maybe you have been to Miami before and you prefer heading out of the city to see some of the attractions in the surroundings? There are couple of world-renown places you could visit, all of them just a day trip away.

Everglades National Park

The Everglades are just south of Miami and can be reached within one hour. The swampland is famous for its crocodiles and other wildlife. They are exactly the kind of landscape that the first white settlers encountered when they set up camp in Florida.

There are many different ways how you can get to know the unique wildlife and fauna of the Everglades. For example, you could explore on a boardwalk or you could join an airboat ride. No matter what you choose, make sure you carry enough insect repellent!

There are quite a few tours that head to the Everglades from Miami, so you don’t have to worry about getting there in the first place. It’s best to book early to avoid disappointment, have a look at this popular tour. (affiliate link)

After all these suggestions maybe you now realise you'd rather head out of the city for a day trip. Fort Lauderdale is a great place to check out when you are in Miami area.
After all these suggestions maybe you now realise you’d rather head out of the city for a day trip. Fort Lauderdale is a great place to check out when you are in Miami area.

Fort Lauderdale

When we came back from our cruise we actually still had some hours to kill before heading to the airport. So we joined a guided tour of Fort Lauderdale. Again, this is best done using a combination of bus and boat. The boat tour in particular is very nice.

Fort Lauderdale has quite a few historic houses along the waterways, and of course there are also plenty of millionaire mansions to see as well.

Fort Lauderdale’s main beach is Las Olas, with Las Olas Boulevard being the main shopping mall (The Strip). It is less showy and busy than Miami Beach, at least that’s what I experienced. The city is just about 30 minutes north of Miami, so an easy day trip if you have a car.

Key West

Another great day trip destination from Miami is Key West. It’s a trip that will take all day though: the drive is about four hours each way. However, it’s a spectacular drive on the Overseas Highway, so getting to Key West is also part of the package.

Key West’s best known attraction is probably the Hemingway House which can be visited today. It is also the southernmost point in Continental North America (with a marker to prove it). Plus, there are plenty of restaurants and shops and a distinct beachy feel.

A hassle-free way to get to Key West is by joining a guided tour, for example this one here. (affiliate link)

I was really impressed by the Metromover. Not only does it not have a driver, it is also free to use.
I was really impressed by the Metromover. Not only does it not have a driver, it is also free to use.

Miami in a Day

That’s it: my recommended things to do in Miami if you are only staying for a day.

I hope that I could inspire you to explore this city to its fullest. As said above, we didn’t get to do and see all of the above, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t be back to explore Miami some more.

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