Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Ultimate Miami Travel Guide | Best Restaurants, Attractions, Hotels and Tours

If you follow me on social media you might think I live in Miami. My husband and I visit 2-3 times a year and locals recognize us at our favorite restaurants. We no longer need a map or GPS to navigate the city and I feel completely at home under the swaying palm trees of Ocean Drive.

When I flew back to Toronto last week there was a snow storm. It took 15 minutes to drive one block and I immediately regretted not staying longer. If you’re looking for a fabulous winter escape, Miami is a short flight away and offers the perfect balance of bustling city life and serene tropical beaches.

In this guide I am sharing a few of my favorite attractions, restaurants, tours and hot-spots to help you plan a fantastic vacation. I will be updating this article frequently so you might want to bookmark it for future reference. 

Places to Stay
There are many great hotels and neighborhoods in Miami but you'll pay more to stay near the beach and accommodations on the strip range from run-down rooms above noisy bars to high-end suites. Over the years hotel prices have skyrocketed but you can cut costs by renting a car and staying in a beautiful suburb like Doral.

I prefer resort style properties reminiscent of the Caribbean so Provident Doral is one of my favorite hotels. The large complex backs on to a pristine golf course and offers spacious rooms, great amenities and luxurious bathrooms with TVs above the Jacuzzi tubs.

For families and groups, I recommend Marriott's Villas at Doral (4101 NW 87th Avenue Miami) which offers suite style accommodations. Our apartment had a full kitchen with pots, pans and utensils, in-room washer and dryer, 2 bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, a large balcony overlooking the lake and a stylish living-dining area. 

The master bedroom has a deep soaker tub and waterfall shower. 

Take advantage of the beautiful pool, free mini golf, shuffleboard court and pool tables. 

There are also fun events listed on the resort's activity schedule. They include wine and cheese tasting, paint night and an animal show. At 3 pm daily there is free ice cream by the pool and the fire pit is a cozy place to relax after a long day.

Attractions, Tours and Shopping
Both hotels are close to one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon – Dolphin Mall. This is the liveliest shopping center I've ever been to which is probably why I’m always there. Aside from a wide selection of great stores, there is a nice outdoor area with arcades, restaurants, bowling alley, movie theater and stylish bars. In the evening people gather to have dinner or sip cocktails and on weekends there is usually a live band. I also recommend the Cheesecake Factory patio for a fabulous meal.

If you're in the mood for a spicy chicken sandwich head to Popeyes. In Canada we don't have the original burger (the one Americans are obsessed with) but it is definitely worth trying. The thick, juicy chicken breast is marinated for 12 hours and cooked to crispy perfection. I don't eat a lot of fast food but this was delicious!

Duck Tours is one of my top recommendations for newbies because it covers both land and water with fun historical commentary. The bus takes you on an exhilarating drive around the city while blasting the song “Welcome to Miami and when you reach beautiful Biscayne Bay, it transforms into a boat and plunges in the water. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for manatees! For more information visit the website by clicking HERE.

Miami also has a Hop On - Hop Off Bus Tour which I’ve taken in many cities throughout the world. It stops at top attractions and you can sit back, relax and enjoy the city without dealing with traffic.

Vizcaya Museum and Garden is a beautiful oasis of baroque architecture, fountains, flowers and exotic creatures. Spend an afternoon strolling around the villa and soak up the warm Florida sun. The garden is also a great place for photography.

Jungle Island is a small eco-adventure park in the heart of Miami offering family friendly activities, exciting animal encounters and shows. Tickets cost $49.95 for adults and $35.95 for children.

Miami has a beautiful coastline and South Beach/Miami Beach along Ocean Drive is known for its nightclubs, restaurants and colorful Art Deco buildings. Walk along the strip, dip your toes in the cool water and stop for lunch at one of the many trendy patios that serve giant cocktails.

One of my favorite places to party on South Beach is Clevelander Bar. You will spot the illuminated palm trees and blue dance floor as you make your way up the beach at night.

When I exit the plane (tired and hungry) I usually head straight to Jamaica Kitchen for flaky curry chicken patties, spicy jerk chicken, sweet plantain tarts and savory soup. I discovered this Caribbean gem while watching The Food Network show - You Gotta Eat Here and since then I’ve been back countless times. The small restaurant is tucked away in a plaza and owned by a friendly Chinese-Jamaican family. What they lack in dining space they make up for in flavor.

CityPlace Doral is a beautiful entertainment complex with street performances, music, bars and restaurants. 

For date night I highly recommend Cinebistro - a VIP luxury full-service move theater with comfortable reclining chairs. Arrive early to enjoy the bar and take advantage of their in-theater dining experience. Ticket holders are eligible for validated parking in CityPlace lots.

Pinecrest Gardens is a tropical rainforest that seems to have sprouted up out of nowhere! If you are looking for peace and quiet, escape to the beautiful canopies and enjoy the natural ponds, petting zoo, vibrant flowers and exotic wildlife. Tickets cost just $5.00 and it is very close to Jamaica Kitchen Restaurant. 

Thrill seekers won’t want to miss the Florida Everglades. While flying over Miami you may notice that much of the city is surrounded by marshland and canals. These lush wetlands are home to dense mangrove forests and hundreds of unique species including birds, turtles, manatees, panthers, deer, large pythons and of course alligators. I recommend a high-speed air boat tour that cruises alongside floating gators and cuts through grassy rivers. 

I went on an Everglades tour in Homestead and stopped at Robert’s Fruit Stand to enjoy delicious milkshakes and all-natural smoothies loaded with tropical fruit. Recently this little store has gained a lot of attention for its fresh jams and flavored honey but the prices are quite steep.

If you venture outside of Miami, I highly recommend a scenic drive from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale Beach along the coast. It may take a couple hours (depending on traffic) but you can also jump on the highway and get there in about 30 minutes. 

In Fort Lauderdale Beach (North Atlantic Blvd area) make sure to stop at Primanti Brothers for delicious pizza and their famous sandwiches loaded with homemade slaw, crispy fries and meat. I seem to eat pizza on all my trips and Primanti makes one hell of a pie. The dough is fresh, the sauce is spiced to perfection and the toppings are scrumptious (plain cheese is my favorite).

Don’t miss Las Olas Boulevard - a trendy neighborhood with malls, specialty shops and great restaurants. Stop for frozen yogurt and have dinner at one of the beautiful patios on the water. 

Boat Tours and Dinner Cruises
I also recommend booking a dinner cruise aboard the iconic Jungle Queen River Boat. It departs from The Bahia Mar Yachting Center on Seabreeze Blvd in Fort Lauderdale.

The tour travels through downtown Fort Lauderdale to Millionaires Row (the "Venice of America") where you will see celebrity mansions and spectacular mega yachts before arriving at Tropical Isle for an all-you-can-eat barbecue dinner.

I've been on this cruise twice and it is by far my favorite scenic tour. The food is mediocre - barbecue chicken (you might want to bring your own Tabasco), warm bread, ribs, beans, delicious potato wedges and creamy coleslaw served with water or watered down ice tea. Dessert, soft drinks, hot beverages and alcohol is not included but can be purchased at the bar.

The beautiful island is decorated with twinkling lights, pagodas and tiki torches. After dinner you'll have time to visit the rescued animal sanctuary and enjoy a lovely outdoor show featuring comedians, jugglers and magicians.

Traveler's Tip: Check Groupon Miami for discounted tickets (usually $10 off per person) and arrive early to check-in and line up for preferred seating. For more information visit the Jungle Queen website HERE.

I know Key West is not in Miami or Fort Lauderdale but if you have a car and don’t mind a long, scenic drive, I highly recommend spending a couple days in the area. Make sure to visit the iconic Southernmost Point Buoy and stop at a few white sandy beaches along the way.

Check out my Key West Travel Guide HERE

There are a lot of trendy spots in Miami and Bayside Market Place and Marina is one of my favorites!

Do some shopping, take a photo with the oldest tree in the city and have lunch on a patio overlooking the marina as boats sail into the harbor. I usually opt for Chilis Bar & Grill because they serve delicious South-Western Egg Rolls.

Travelers Tip: Street parking in this area of downtown Miami is around $15.00 for 3 hours so check rates at the nearby arena. On weekdays they offer parking for as little as $5.00.

If you want to spend more time on the water, Fiesta Cruises leaves from Bayside Pier and usually offers great discounts on Groupon Miami (we paid $14.00 per person). Although the tour is relaxing, be weary of their giveaway scam. They may ask you to fill out a ballot to win prizes. My husband and brother-in-law both won and were asked for a $40 deposit. You are also required to pay taxes on all vacation packages plus attend some sort of time-share meeting.

If you book a specific cruise time with Fiesta they may not honor it so be prepared to leave whenever the next boat does. Drinks on-board are overpriced. A frozen cocktail in a small plastic cup cost $10.00 but the skyline looks stunning from the water.

Wynwood Walls outdoor art gallery is one of the most popular free activities in Miami. The bright graffiti murals are created by artists from around the globe and they make spectacular selfie backdrops.

If you stop in Wynwood, head to The Salty Donut for gourmet treats and coffee. Strawberry shortcake is my favorite flavor.

Little Havana is a vibrant Cuban neighborhood in the heart of Miami. I mainly go for the delicious Cuban ice cream at Azucar. They make unique flavors like guava, almond, cinnamon and pear.

This district is also famous for colorful graffiti art, Latin American galleries, cigar shops, eccentric rooster statues designed by local artists and cafes with walk-up windows selling authentic Cuban cuisine.

One of my favorite healthy restaurants in Miami is Diced. The all-natural rice and salad bowls are loaded with your choice of veggies, meat and sauces.

Over the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time relaxing on the long, quiet beaches of Key Biscayne. This area is a nice escape from the crowds on Miami Beach and the water is calm and shallow. My husband and I like to picnic under the palm trees at sunset.

Many cruises leave from Miami and Fort Lauderdale so after you explore the city why not hop aboard and sail to the Caribbean! Of course this will require extra planning but I’ve been on 10 cruises and they were all incredible. (Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have been my favorite).

Travelers Tip: Arrive 1-2 days before your cruise sets sail in case of flight cancellations or delays at the airport. You wouldn't want the ship to leave without you!

South Pointe Park and Pier is a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon. Around 4 pm you can watch the cruise ships set sail and this area of the beach is usually less crowded. I saw a few jellyfish and 3 large manatees floating by!

If you're looking for an upbeat lounge, restaurant and bar with delicious food and amazing music, check out Bahama Breeze Island Grille. I went to the Pembroke Pines location on a Friday night and the patio was decorated with torches and romantic lighting while the DJ played reggae, soca (calypso), R & B and old school. 

Cuban culture is an integral part of Miami's fun, upbeat vibe so I highly recommend trying some of the delicious food. El Mago de Las Fritas has been around since 1984 and the family owned restaurant serves authentic Cuban sandwiches bursting with flavor and topped with crispy potato strips. Instead of French fries, try the fried plantain and wash it down with a fresh mango smoothie.

There is much to discover in Florida so I am already planning another trip after I explore a few other destinations on my bucket list. For more vacation inspiration check out my travel page.

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