Miami Beach is where a mix of cultures, residents and travelers mix together. A wide variety of people – including waifish models, amateur architecture critics, distinguished seniors and sun-seeking families – enjoy the renowned shores of “America’s Riviera.” North Miami Beach is where you’ll find the most kid-friendliest beaches and the most affordable restaurants and hotels. Less than 10 miles away are the galleries, museums and theaters of Greater Miami.
Then there is South Beach. This popular southernmost neighborhood proves that Miami Beach is more like two cities – a family-friendly vacation when the sun is shining and a super-chic metropolis come nightfall. If want to keep up with the Joneses, you’ll have to flash your AmEx black card at the high-end stores, schmooze at the cutting-edge fusion restaurants, dance at the energetic nightclubs and relax poolside at the art deco-style hotels. But the rich and famous aren’t the only ones who will enjoy their time here. More laid-back travelers can relax along the sands of Haulover Beach or Lummus Park, learn a little more about architecture on an art deco tour or even try their hand at fishing off of the South Pointe Pier. Another must-do? Window shopping and strolling along the Lincoln Road Mall. And you can’t leave Miami Beach without chowing down on tasty cuisine and enjoying cocktails at a rooftop bar.
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Miami Beach caters to the moneyed crowd. At upscale shopping centers like Lincoln Road Mall and renowned spas (Agua Spa at the Delano is a particular favorite), residents and visitors spend boat loads for decadent experiences and comfortable clothing.
Ancient Spanish Monastery
Set in North Miami Beach, this monastery has a storied past. Officially known as the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, construction on the structure began in A.D. 1133 in northern Spain and was completed eight years later. It was inhabited by monks for nearly 700 years but after a revolution in the 1830s, the monastery was taken over and sold. In 1925, the cloisters and the rest of the monastery were purchased by an American businessman and shipped to the U.S. After years of sitting in storage, the monastery was rebuilt over the course of 19 months and reopened to the public in 1964 as a tourist attraction. (Life Magazine called it “The World’s Largest and Most Expensive Jigsaw Puzzle,” as it involved 36,000-some stones.) It didn’t do too hot as a tourist attraction alone, so it was sold to a local diocese and was turned into a church. Today, it’s an active congregation that welcomes churchgoers and also acts as an attraction highlighting the monastery’s beautiful architecture and its surrounding gardens.
Travelers said it’s worth escaping the hubbub of South Beach to venture north to admire this tranquil monastery, which is consistently described as a “hidden gem.” Visitors love that its grounds are historic, quiet and serene, and say when the gardens are in full bloom it’s truly a sight to see.
You’ll find the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach, about 18 miles north of South Beach. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tours are also available during operating hours and cost $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. Mass is held at the church on Sunday mornings in English at 8 and 10:15 a.m. The monastery occasionally closes for events, filming and photo shoots, so call ahead to ensure that it’s open. For additional info, check out its website.
Art Deco Tour
Miami Beach is known for its art deco architecture, as evident in the gorgeous hotels, storefronts, restaurants and buildings that line South Beach. Art deco architecture is the design style of the 1920s and ’30s that’s characterized by bold colors and geometric shapes. It often incorporates styles of cubism, expressionism and other varying art movements. And the best way to experience all the art deco Miami Beach has to offer is on a walking tour of the South Beach neighborhood.
Several outfitters offer tours, including the Miami Design Preservation League and Art Deco Walks, and prices start at around $25 per person. National Geographic also outlines a handy (and free) walking tour route, with details on where to stop and what to see, which you can view here.
Visitors who took an art deco tour said they enjoyed seeing and learning about the beautifully preserved architecture. Travelers said both the tours offered by the MDPL and Art Deco Walks feature informative guides who provide a wealth of fascinating facts and are happy to answer questions. For information on art deco tours, schedules and costs, visit the individual outfitters’ websites.
Haulover Beach Park
Clothing-optional Haulover has long been a favorite of laissez-faire residents and vacationers, but there’s more to do here than nude sunbathing. You can fly kites, go charter fishing and even play volleyball at this shore (located just north of Bal Harbour). And you don’t have to strip to your birthday suit to enjoy this area, as there are also sections for swimsuit-clad beach bathing.
Most travelers said they enjoyed their time at Haulover Beach, noting that it’s a far more laid-back option than the busier South Beach. However, some warn that you should be prepared (and not be alarmed) to encounter nude sunbathers. This beach/park area is also dog-friendly.
Haulover Beach Park is open every day from sunrise to sunset. And there’s ample parking available at nearby lots for a fee. For additional information and answers to frequently asked questions, visit the beach’s website.
The best way to get around Miami Beach is on foot. South Beach is especially pedestrian-friendly, and how are you going to people-watch or get a tan if you’re in a car? Another option, bikes, can be rented from a number of vendors or from the bike sharing system, Citi Bike.
Plan to pack or purchase a strong lock as bicycle theft can be a problem. Driving will bring headaches, particularly when parking is limited at peak hours. If your feet begin to cramp, there are buses run by Miami-Dade Transit. The SoBe Local is ultra convenient and cheap for visiting travelers. Still, hailing the occasional cab (or Uber) rather than waiting at a bus stop is preferred. You’ll probably also use a cab to get from Miami International Airport (MIA), located about 12 miles west, into town.
If you book a hotel in South Beach, you’ll have no problem walking from the water to your hotel or to the shops and restaurants. You should certainly plan to traverse some of Miami Beach on foot, but not barefoot. Although the beach is usually clean, you never know where shards of glass bottles or splinters of the boardwalk are hiding in the sand.
A bike will help you get from point A to point B faster than walking and (most likely) driving. Proceed slowly through crowds to avoid any accidents. Cycling on the beach and the boardwalk is a very popular, not to mention beautiful, ride. Beware that bikes go missing all the time, so lock your bike as soon as you get off it. You can find several rental shops on Washington Avenue in South Beach. There are also several Citi Bike bike-share stations located around the city. Hourly and daily rentals are available through Citi Bike.
Taxis are the hassle-free option for travelers that don’t want to deal with the troubles of driving a car in an unfamiliar place (and trying to find parking). During the day, you can easily flag down a cab found hovering near places with lots of foot traffic. Their numbers will multiply after dark as they lurk outside popular nightclubs and bars.
If you plan to stay exclusively in Miami Beach, a car is unnecessary. Taxis, buses, bikes and your own two feet will be more than enough to move you around the island. However, if you want to explore farther afoot, a car is a must. Parking can be difficult, certainly on weekends, but not impossible. Metered parking and garages are available. There are six bridges connecting Greater Miami to Miami Beach. These links have drawbridges, so allow extra time when crossing them. Note: Numbered streets (running east to west) increase as you go north on the island.
Although tourists consciously stay away from the city buses, the SoBe Local is a helpful means of seeing South Beach. It runs every 13 to 30 minutes daily and brings passengers to many popular destinations.