Miami is the continental United States’ southernmost major city and the principal city in South Florida, a culturally distinct region with close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean. Miami itself is one of the country’s most diverse and dynamic cities, shaped by multiple waves of newcomers and a seemingly unstoppable flow of foreign investment in the local property market. According to The Atlantic, Miami is one of the United States’ most thoroughly bilingual major cities. Here, Spanish is spoken fluently across geographical and socioeconomic lines. In many ways it’s Miami’s first language.
Miami’s unique, Caribbean-influenced culture is seductive – and expensive. Though not quite as gaudy as Las Vegas or as glamorous as Hollywood, this city definitely has a flashy, superficial side. Conspicuous consumption isn’t really conspicuous here, simply because there’s so much of it to go around. And, if you want to live near the water, it’s going to cost you. According to Zillow, the median home price in affluent North-East Coconut Grove, near downtown Miami, was approximately $624,000 in early 2018. In the even more exclusive island enclave of Key Biscayne, it was $1.1 million, per Zillow.
It seems strange to talk about affordability and value in such a glamorous and (seemingly) pricey setting. It’s certainly true that the Miami area is a magnet for well-off international tourists who can afford to stay in super-luxe hotels and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as millionaires and billionaires who treat local condos and mansions as investment vehicles – and, in some cases, hedges against government corruption in their home countries.
However, for budget-conscious travelers willing to research fun, affordable attractions and activities ahead of time, and to look for accommodations outside trendy areas such as South Beach, Miami can actually be easy on the wallet. Getting here doesn’t have to be costly either – Miami International Airport is a major hub with dozens of daily affordable flights to other U.S. cities. Additionally, Fort Lauderdale’s airport – less than an hour north of downtown Miami – is well-served by budget carriers.
Here’s a look at the best fun and cheap – or free – things to do in Miami and surrounding communities.
Historical Sights and Attractions
Though the Miami area has been home to native cultures for thousands of years and was visited by Spanish explorers and missionaries as early as the 16th century, it wasn’t actively settled until the late 19th century, and didn’t incorporate until 1896. Nevertheless, Miami has a wealth of historical buildings and points of interest, many of which are free or cheap.
1. Art Deco District
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7
Also known as the Miami Beach Architectural District, the Art Deco District was the first 20th-century neighborhood to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Located in Miami Beach, it stretches along Collins Avenue (the main beachfront drag) from Miami Beach Drive north to 18th Street, with a spur to the west along Lincoln Road.
The buildings here, mostly hotels, were built between the 1920s and the 1940s, and their spaceship-like architecture provides a window into this increasingly distant past – truly, Miami Beach’s formative years. It’s free to walk throughout the district, though you may be tempted to stop at one of the many beautiful (but overpriced) outdoor lounges or restaurants along the way. You may also be able to sneak into a few hotel lobbies and pool areas, many of which are just as interesting as their street-side exteriors, as well.
2. HistoryMiami Museum
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 5; Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
Located in downtown Miami, the HistoryMiami Museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that “gathers, interprets, and presents the history of Miami and the greater South Florida region as a cultural crossroads of the Americas.” Always popular with school groups, the museum has a robust research arm that delves deep into the various events and trends that have shaped the Miami area’s history over the years, from the Cold War to Hurricane Andrew.
3. Ancient Spanish Monastery
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 4:30pm (hours may vary on Sunday)
Located in North Miami Beach, The Ancient Spanish Monastery has existed, in one form or another, since the 12th century. Originally constructed in Segovia, Spain, it was purchased in the early 20th century by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and transported in pieces to the United States. In the 1950s, it was reassembled on its current location, and has welcomed visitors (and hosted special events, including copious weddings and film shoots) ever since.
Be warned that there are three Catholic Masses on most Sundays. Since closings for special events are frequent, visitors are advised to call ahead at all times.
4. Cauley Square Historic Village
- Adult admission: Free to enter and explore; shops cost extra
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm; shop hours are variable
Cauley Square Historic Village, located southwest of Miami proper, is a well-preserved (if somewhat kitschy) railroad village that dates back to the early 20th century. Though the lush surroundings are very different, Cauley Square’s building stock is similar to the recreated frontier towns common in the western United States. Restaurants, gift shops, and interpretive exhibits abound, as do beautiful gardens, scheduled musical performances, and various community events, including a car show.
5. Venetian Pool
- Adult admission: $13
- Hours: Variable (generally daylight hours)
Only in South Florida can swimming be a legitimate historical exercise. In the city of Coral Gables, near Miami, the spring-fed Venetian Pool is a stunning feat of art and engineering – a handsome void carved out of solid coral rock. Don’t miss the original fountain room as you enter. Bear in mind that the pool quickly fills up on hot days (which is most days) and re-entry is prohibited, so arrive early and be prepared to stick around.
6. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
- Adult admission: $18 ($16 for National Trust members)
- Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 9:30am to 4:30pm
Built as a winter home in the 1910s by James Deering, who oversaw an agricultural equipment conglomerate, the stunning Vizcaya Museum & Gardens sits on 10 acres of prime real estate – just two miles southwest of downtown Miami, along Biscayne Bay. The immaculately landscaped gardens and ornate dock area are almost as impressive as the sprawling stone mansion itself. Vizcaya is truly a chimera: part art museum (thanks to private art donations from multiple benefactors), part Gilded Age exhibition, and part nature preserve.
7. Freedom Tower
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 12pm to 5pm (gallery); building hours are variable
Miami’s first proper skyscraper, Freedom Tower, was built in the mid-1920s. It housed the “Miami Daily News and Metropolis” (later “Miami News”) newspaper until the late 1950s, when it was briefly abandoned. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Government took over and turned the building into the “Ellis Island of the South.” Officially known as the Cuban Assistance Center, this was the central processing point for Cuban exiles and refugees fleeing the newly installed Castro regime.
8. Miami Tower
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Variable – call ahead
Miami Tower is far more avant-garde than Freedom Tower, but no less significant in its own way. With three distinct setbacks and a beautifully curved facade, this is among the most arresting structures in a city that’s full of bold architecture. Try to visit at night, when more than 200 LED lights come alive in a multitude of patterns (including customized light shows).
Arts, Culture, and Entertainment
Miami is arguably Florida’s most cosmopolitan city. Magnificent museums, cavernous concert halls, intimate performance venues, eclectic art galleries, and outdoor cultural districts make Miami a must-visit destination for culture buffs of all stripes.
9. Wynwood Walls
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Variable – call ahead
Wynwood Walls is a free, open-air museum in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. Splashed upon the exterior (and a few interior) walls of dozens of light industrial buildings in an otherwise nondescript part of town, Wynwood Walls’ incredibly detailed and polished murals blur (and perhaps obliterate) the line between street art and fine art. Subjects range from intimate character studies and realistic landscapes to fantastically detailed, utterly surreal patterns and forms.
Many of the world’s top working artists have contributed their talents here, and the museum’s coverage (80,000 square feet of walls and counting) continues to grow. Several galleries offering original art for sale dot the neighborhood, though many visitors simply wander about for an hour and head elsewhere.
10. Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)
- Adult admission: $16
- Hours: Friday through Tuesday, 10am to 6pm; Thursday, 10am to 9pm
Located near the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami, Perez Art Museum Miami has an expansive collection focusing on contemporary (20th and 21st century) art from the Americas. 45-minute public tours are available throughout the day. Check ahead for special exhibitions, which often feature specific Latin American artists or movements.
11. Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
- Adult admission: $5 (free for Bank of America cardholders on the first weekend of each month, through the Museums on Us program
- Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 5pm; Saturday, 1pm to 9pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm
Located in North Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, is arguably Miami’s foremost contemporary art institution. Founded in 1981, its mission is to “[make] contemporary art accessible to diverse audiences – especially under-served populations – through the collection, preservation and exhibition of the best of contemporary art and its art historical influences.”
The museum describes its exhibitions as “provocative and innovative.” In addition to temporary exhibitions and a well-curated permanent collection, MOCA frequently screens independent films, hosts lectures, and sponsors onsite concerts.
12. Bass Museum of Art
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 10am to 5pm
The Bass Museum of Art is located in Miami Beach. Founded in 1963, it originally consisted largely of the donated private collection of local residents John and Johanna Bass, though it has since more than doubled in size and now includes pieces from a wide range of artists and donors.
The permanent galleries reopened in late 2017 with a significantly expanded collection. Unfortunately, the expansion work came at a hefty cost that’s now passed on to the once-free museum’s customers. Check ahead for special exhibitions, most of which feature work from specific contemporary artists.
13. Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 11am to 7pm
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, or ICA Miami, is an offbeat modern art museum that’s completely free to enter and explore. Its collection revolves around innovative, sometimes interactive exhibitions, along with speaker series and educational programming for community members of all ages.
Though the museum is always free, ICA Miami encourages visitors to reserve tickets in advance. This is particularly important on weekends, when the museum is more likely to run at capacity. Come at 2pm for a free guided tour.
14. Lowe Art Museum
- Adult admission: $12.50
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm (except Lowe After Hour Days – check ahead for monthly schedules); Sunday, 12pm to 4pm
Located in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, the Lowe Art Museum focuses on old school art – everything from the Baroque and Renaissance periods on back. It also has a solid collection of Native American art and artifacts, as well as a growing collection of contemporary art and frequent exhibitions by living artists. On the first Thursday of each month, the museum puts on Lowe After Hours, a wine- and cheese-fueled experience for art lovers and curious visitors alike.
15. Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science
- Adult admission: $29 ($24.50 for Miami-Dade residents)
- Hours: Daily, 9:30am to 5:30pm
The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science is a popular, hands-on science museum that’s appropriate for all ages. Following a move to a larger, more modern space (complete with a state-of-the-art planetarium and three-level aquarium) in downtown Miami’s 40-acre Museum Park, the Frost routinely and deservedly earns a spot on lists of the country’s top science museums. Don’t miss Feathers to the Stars, an engrossing exhibit about the history of human flight – appropriate enough for the location in light of Florida’s outsized contribution to the U.S. space program.
16. Miami Seaquarium
- Adult admission: $45.99 ($2 discount when you buy online)
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6pm
Miami Seaquarium is a large, modern aquarium with a bevy of large marine mammals: sea lions, dolphins, and manatees, to name a few, plus non-mammals such as sea turtles. Located on Virginia Key, between downtown Miami and Key Biscayne, its permanent exhibits, periodic shows, and special tours and experiences are appropriate for kids and adults alike.
Bear in mind that it’s very easy to rack up charges at Miami Seaquarium. Special experiences, such as dolphin and seal encounters, cost well in excess of $100.
17. Miami Children’s Museum
- Adult admission: $20
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 6pm
If you’re bringing kids to Miami, Miami Children’s Museum is a must-visit. Located on Watson Island, just east of downtown Miami, it’s one of the 10 largest children’s museums in the United States. Hands-on exhibits cover a host of engaging subjects, including sustainable buildings, health and wellness, supermarkets, pets, and cruise ships. There’s a healthy dose of pop-culture intersection here too: The Lion Guard, a Disney-backed exhibit that ran in early 2018, is a case in point.
As is the case at most children’s museums, unaccompanied children – and adults without children in tow – are not allowed at Miami Children’s Museum.
Neighborhoods and Local Sights
Miami has dozens of distinctive neighborhoods. Some are hubs for international business and tourism, while others are ethnic or cultural enclaves with lively streets, unusual shops, and delicious, unpretentious eateries. Try to hit as many as you can during your visit. And remember, exploring by foot is free.
The development of Wynwood Walls turned out to be a powerful catalyst for Wynwood, a rapidly gentrifying district northwest of downtown Miami. In the early 2000s, Wynwood was little more than a shabby collection of underutilized storefronts, shady auto repair businesses, and struggling workshops. Since then, thousands of new full-time residents have moved in, tens of thousands of domestic and international visitors have passed through, and local business owners have ridden the rocket ship to prosperity. Walk through Wynwood Walls, centered on NW 2nd Avenue between NW 27th and NW 24th Streets, then look for an affordable place to grab a bite or refreshment.
19. Design District
Located north of downtown Miami, the Design District is super-posh, with dozens of flagship stores for virtually every high-end clothing, apparel, and jewelry brand you’ve heard of – and some you probably haven’t. However, you don’t have to buy anything to enjoy yourself here. Simply walk past the sleek storefronts, many of which are arrayed around pedestrian-only paths, and marvel at what’s inside. A handful of outdoor sculptures and art installations (including a really fun swinging bench set) make for great photo opportunities.
20. Downtown Miami/Brickell
Downtown Miami is one of the premier business districts in the southern United States. Along with Brickell, a densely packed residential and commercial neighborhood directly south across the Miami River, this part of town is a key financial hub for Latin America and the Caribbean. To get a feel for the place, wander through its commercial canyons or hop the efficient Metromover tram system to get around faster.
Home to most of Miami’s high-capacity performance and event arenas, including American Airlines Arena (home to the Miami Heat NBA team) and Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County (location of the Florida Grand Opera and Miami City Ballet), downtown Miami is also a great place to experience South Florida in style. For a view of the massive Port of Miami – the busiest cruise port in the U.S. – and Miami Beach, don’t miss the Museum Park Baywalk along Biscayne Bay.
21. Little Havana
Anchored by Calle Ocho (8th Street), a super-vibrant main drag of traditional eateries, pocket parks (popular with domino players), cigar bars, stall vendors, and street performers, Little Havana is the heart of Miami’s huge Cuban expat community. There’s no right or wrong way to experience this utterly unique neighborhood – as long as you budget a couple of hours to take it all in and don’t mind jostling with crowds of eager tourists.
22. Little Haiti
Little Haiti is a northern Miami district that’s home to a diverse Caribbean diaspora, including thousands of newcomers from Haiti. The fact that it’s not as well-known or as heavily visited as Little Havana works in its favor – few tour buses (or even independent tourists) make it all the way up here. Highlights include beautiful wall murals depicting prominent Haitians, fanciful and colorful building facades, and locally run cultural institutions such as the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance and Little Haiti Cultural Center.
23. Miami Beach
Miami Beach is a separate city on a barrier island due east of Miami proper. It’s arguably the glitziest, and probably the rowdiest, part of the Miami area – a slice of Vegas in South Florida. It’s very expensive to actually stay in Miami Beach, though local hotels sometimes offer deals during the summer months. Nevertheless, try to spend at least an afternoon here checking out the Art Deco architecture along Collins Avenue, walking the cat-infested boardwalk separating the beach from the hotel and resort properties, and – weather permitting – lounging on the beach itself.
24. North Miami
North Miami is another independent city in the Miami area, just north of Miami proper. Once among the fastest-growing communities in the United States, it boasts several noteworthy parks and cultural institutions. In addition to MOCA, North Miami is home to the Miami Auto Museum (Dezer Collection), an open-to-the-public collection of rare and classic cars, including cars that appeared in major films, such as an original Batmobile and the 1981 DeLorean from “Back to the Future.”
25. Coral Gables
Located southwest of Miami proper, Coral Gables is an independent city that’s best known as the home of the University of Miami. Laid out in the 1920s, it’s one of the first-ever planned communities, predating the more famous Levittown (New York) planned community by more than 20 years. Coral Gables is also known for an unusual downtown that’s many times longer than it is wide.
A trolley ferries shoppers and workers from one end to the other. And many of Coral Gables’ buildings are Mediterranean Revival – their distinctive red roofs look more Southern California than South Florida. If you like architecture and urban planning, Coral Gables is definitely worth a visit.
Parks, Beaches, and Natural Attractions
Despite its densely built cityscape, Miami has a solid collection of urban and peri-urban parks, along with plenty of beaches.
Unless otherwise noted, beaches are free to access and use during the day, though drivers may need to pay for lot or on-street parking nearby. Smaller parks tend to be free, but larger parks generally charge entry fees. Check with local authorities for open hours and use caution at night.
26. South Pointe Park and Beach
South Pointe Park lies at the southernmost point of Miami Beach island, affording stunning views of the open ocean, Biscayne Bay, the Port of Miami, and the Miami and Miami Beach skylines. In addition to a nice beach, the park has ample seating, public restrooms, an observation deck, and a long pier that’s very popular with local fishermen. South Pointe Park is technically open from sunrise until 10pm, but it’s possible to walk through until the early morning hours.
27. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park
Virginia Key is a small island to the southeast of downtown Miami. It’s known for its white-sand beach with excellent skyline and ocean views, plus a historic park that’s maintained by a private organization. The historic portion is an important sanctuary for birds and other wildlife, and is host to periodic public events, such as yoga sessions. Admission is $6 to $8 for cars, depending on the time of year, and $1 for bikes.
28. Surfside Beach
Surfside Beach is a quiet, mile-long beach north of the city of Miami Beach. The shoreline is less built-up in this part of the region, so crowds tend to be thinner on normal days. Surfside is pretty popular with walkers, and the beach itself is narrow in many places, so it’s not ideal for laying out for extended periods.
29. Miami Beach North
South of Surfside, Miami Beach North isn’t as quiet, but it’s still much more subdued than South Beach. And, as it’s wider than Surfside, it’s great for hanging out in the sun or under an umbrella. The North Beach Bandshell is a great place to catch evening performances too. Just off the beach is a friendly commercial district with reasonably priced eateries and lounges.
30. Miami Beach South (South Beach)
South Beach is a long, wide swathe of sand that fronts the busiest, most dynamic part of Miami Beach. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually crowded whenever the weather is nice. Then again, the crowds are great for people-watching. When the tide is out, swim to the sandbar a few dozen yards offshore and take in the human carnival – and the Miami Beach skyline, many of whose Art Deco hotels are clearly visible from here.
31. Miami Riverwalk Trail
The mile-long, art-studded Miami Riverwalk Trail hugs the north side of the Miami River in downtown Miami. Though the riverfront is fairly built-up, the walk itself is tree-lined in many places, and affords great opportunities to snap pictures of the skyline.
If you’re staying in the area, the Riverwalk is great for early-morning or sunset jogs. Or, if you’re exploring downtown Miami from an outlying neighborhood, you can head to the Riverwalk for a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of the urban core.
32. Arch Creek Park
Located in the nearby city of North Miami, Arch Creek Park is a small but popular park with a substantial collection of Native American artifacts, a butterfly garden, and a bird and animal sanctuary. There’s no admission fee. Park hours are from 9am to 5pm, Wednesday through Sunday.
33. Oleta River State Park
Oleta River State Park is the Miami area’s largest urban park. It includes a sizable mangrove forest, inland waterways perfect for canoeing or kayaking, and several miles of off-road bike trails. If you want to stay in the park, you can reserve semi-rustic cabins (with air conditioning, but no bathrooms or kitchens) for $55 per night. Park entry costs $6 per vehicle and $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist.
34. Everglades National Park
Located west of Miami’s urban area, Everglades National Park protects part of the enormous Everglades, South Florida’s ecological crown jewel. This expansive swamp is a critical habitat for thousands of species, including the endangered Florida panther (the only breeding cougar population east of the Mississippi), the threatened American crocodile, and the lovable manatee. Words don’t do this place justice – so, if you have any time to get outside Miami during your visit, you need to see the Everglades.
The entrance fee is $20 per vehicle (collected at Shark Valley and Homestead, both of which are easily accessible from urban Miami) and $8 for pedestrians and cyclists. Consider staying overnight at Flamingo or Long Pine Key Campgrounds ($20 per site, per night).
35. Biscayne National Park
Located about an hour south of urban Miami, but within sight of the downtown skyline on a clear day, Biscayne National Park is a marine reserve split between mainland Florida and a handful of offshore islands accessible by boat. If you only have an hour or two, hit Dante Fascell Visitor Center (which includes a great natural history museum), explore the mangrove forests on Convoy Point, and call it a day. If you have more time, consider a 2.5-hour boat tour to Boca Chica Key, whose iconic stone lighthouse and unique island landscapes are extremely popular with landlubbing visitors. It’s free to enter Biscayne National Park, but the boat tour costs $29 (plus tax) per adult.
Pro Tip: Before you arrive in Miami, look for social coupons and daily deals in the area. My two go-to providers are Groupon and Living Social. Groupon is my preferred option, as it’s larger and tends to have more relevant deals, but both are great for finding last-minute (often time-sensitive) discounts, package deals, and other opportunities to save on activities and services that you’d purchase anyway.
I particularly like how social coupons amplify local flavor. You’re just as likely to find deals from small, independently owned business as from national chains’ local outposts. If supporting local businesses in another part of the country is important to you, the Groupon and Living Social apps are great places to start. Since they’re both free, there’s no downside to downloading them – and plenty of upside if and when you take advantage of advertised deals. If you’re using a laptop or desktop, check out the Miami Groupon and Miami Beach Groupon pages for ideas.
One more thing: I’m a big proponent of social coupon push notifications. Yes, it can be annoying to receive alerts at random times, but push notifications are great for uncovering truly spur-of-the-moment deals near you and buttoning up dead or unstructured periods in your itinerary. Personally, I’m a sucker for restaurant coupons: If I know I’m going to eat out one night, and I receive a push notification for a nearby restaurant shortly before dinner time, you can bet I’ll jump on it (after checking online reviews and scouting the place out, of course).
When to Visit and What to Bring
Miami has a tropical monsoon climate characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons, persistent humidity, and year-round warmth. The dry season runs from late fall through mid-spring. During this period, days can go by without measurable rainfall – though, as passing showers and thunderstorms can occur without warning, it’s a good idea to have an umbrella on hand. The wet season, when rainfall is heavier and more consistent, runs from mid-spring to late fall.
Hurricane season roughly coincides with the wet season, peaking in late summer. Though rare, hurricanes and tropical storms are life-threatening events that bring normal city activity to a halt and may precipitate mandatory evacuations. Visitors who wish to minimize the chance of a ruined vacation (and avoid risking their lives and property) should plan their visits for winter or early spring.
Compared with northern cities such as Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami’s temperatures don’t vary much from month to month. However, winter tends to be milder, with manageable humidity and high temperatures in the 70s and low 80s. Summer is hotter and more oppressive, with uncomfortably high humidity readings and air temperatures in the 80s and low 90s. High temperatures above 95 degrees are very rare in the Miami area. Low temperatures below 50 degrees are extremely uncommon as well.
Here’s a basic packing guide for your affordable South Florida vacation:
- Light, Breathable Clothing. Light, breathable clothing is a must in Miami, regardless of season. Cotton shirts and dresses, canvas shorts and pants, and sandals or flip-flops all work here. If you’re worried about chilly evening breezes blowing in off the water, bring a windbreaker that you can easily shed.
- Sun and Rain Protection. Due to Miami’s low latitude, the sun shines stronger here than just about anywhere else in the continental U.S. If you’re prone to sunburn, bring a comfortable hat, particularly if your hair is short or receding, as well as more sunblock (at least SPF 30) than you think you need. For times when the sun isn’t shining, pack a lightweight poncho or raincoat.
- Swimwear. Even if you’re not a swimmer, pack a swimsuit. Depending on your itinerary, you’ll probably have a chance to stretch out and soak up some rays on Miami Beach. And, after an hour or two of hanging out in the sun, the prospect of a cool dip is nearly irresistible.
- Hydration Gear. Miami’s strong sun can really take it out of you, so make sure you’re getting enough water. Before heading out for the day, throw a refillable water bottle in your purse, bag, or backpack, and keep an eye peeled for places to refill. If you’re engaged in strenuous activity, such as a long-distance hike through the Everglades or bike ride along the coast, consider shelling out for a larger, more flexible container, like a Camelbak.
Arriving in Miami
Here’s what you need to know to plan your voyage to Miami.
Arriving by Air
If you’re traveling to Miami from anywhere other than the southern half of Florida, chances are good that you’ll arrive by air.
Miami International Airport (MIA)
Miami’s principal airport is Miami International Airport (MIA), a major international hub about 15 minutes west of downtown Miami by road on a good day. MIA has nonstop service to virtually all major U.S. cities and dozens of hubs in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East.
Most major and discount U.S. airlines have a presence at MIA, so fares are competitive – a good thing for travelers. Your fares will of course depend on your travel dates and times, but you can likely find round trip fares from any major U.S. airport for under $300 if you’re willing to fly early or late in the day.
Getting out of MIA is a snap. SkyTrain, the airport’s free internal rail line, serves the rental car center and MIA Metrorail station, which in turn is serve by both Metrorail lines. I’ve taken public transit into and out of more than two dozen North American airports over the years, and Miami is easily in the top five for speed and convenience.
Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport (FLL) is a little farther up the road from downtown Miami: about 40 minutes by road on a good traffic day. If you don’t plan to rent a car here, no worries – there’s an easy, quick connection to Miami’s Metrorail system via FLL’s Tri-Rail station, and an Uber or Lyft to central Miami shouldn’t set you back more than $30 or $40.
FLL has nonstop service to most major U.S. cities, including East Coast hubs like Washington, D.C. and West Coast hotspots like Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle. It also has service to second- and third-tier airports like Worcester, Massachusetts and Knoxville, Tennessee – great news for farther-flung travelers who don’t want to drive hours to larger hubs.
The vast majority of flights into FLL come courtesy of discount carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue, Allegiant, and especially Spirit, for which FLL is the main hub. This means FLL often has South Florida’s lowest average airfares, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the lowest final cost, as budget carriers often tack on extra fees for baggage, seats, snacks, and other items included in mainline carriers’ base fares. Spirit is notorious for this: If you’re taking a short trip and can fit everything into a smallish bag (personal item), you’ll pay less for a Spirit ticket than on just about any other airline; otherwise, you’ll nickel-and-dime your way to a much higher fare.
Pro Tip: Expecting a long layover? Check out our roundup of tips and tricks to save money while traveling in airports, regardless of your layover length or final destination.
Palm Beach International Airport (PBI)
If you don’t mind a longer hike down to Miami, or you plan to spend some time on any of the glorious beaches north of the city, Palm Beach International Aiport (PBI) is a realistic third option. It’s about 70 minutes north of downtown Miami by car on a good traffic day (though you’ll almost certainly encounter traffic at some point along the route) and boasts easy access to points south (including MIA and downtown Miami via Metrorail) from the West Palm Beach Tri-Rail station.
PBI has nonstop service to a couple dozen major U.S. hubs, principally in the eastern half of the country. It also serves some choice Caribbean destinations, including Nassau and Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, so it’s a great choice for travelers adding an international leg to their South Florida trip.
Bear in mind that many PBI connections are seasonal – depending on the destination, flights start up as fall verges into winter and go dormant sometime in spring. The upshot is that PBI has direct service to second- and third-tier northern airports that may be more convenient (and lower-stress) than big-city hubs: Long Island-Islip (a nice alternative to New York-JFK), Trenton (a solid alternative to Newark and Philadephia), Westchester-White Plains (a bridge-free alternative to New York-LaGuardia for travelers from southern New England and the northern suburbs of New York City).
PBI airfare can be more expensive, though. A casual search revealed fares anywhere from 25% to 50% higher than comparable routes into MIA. If you do choose to fly into PBI, it might be worth your while to cash in your airline loyalty miles.
Pro Tip: One of PBI’s most prolific airlines is JetBlue, a discount airline turned major carrier for travelers in the eastern United States. If you regularly fly with JetBlue, you can rack up the loyalty miles and reduce the cost of future trips with one of the airline’s Barclaycard-backed branded credit cards: the JetBlue Card or the JetBlue Plus Card.
Arriving by Train or Bus
If you’re traveling from elsewhere in Florida, or don’t mind taking your time (and probably paying less) to get down to Miami, consider Amtrak. Miami’s main Amtrak station is located in Hialeah, a few miles west of downtown Miami. From here, you can reach downtown Miami, MIA, and other major regional destinations via Metrorail’s Orange Line.
Miami has low-cost Megabus service to and from Orlando, a roughly four hour 40 minute trip in light traffic. The bus stops in the heart of downtown Miami, so it’s a fair bit more convenient than Amtrak. It’s also cheaper than the train or plane: $25 round trip. If you’re aiming to add a South Florida leg to your Disneyland trip, this is the best deal you’ll find.
Arriving by Road
One glance at a map of the continental United States is enough to confirm what you probably already suspected: Miami is actually pretty far off the beaten path. Sure, it’s served by two major Interstate highways, I-75 and I-95, and numerous controlled access freeways and toll roads besides.
But it’s a hike to get here. Atlanta, up I-75, is a full 10 hours in good traffic; Detroit, further up I-75, is a full 20 hours. You’ll need at least 15 hours to get here from Washington, D.C., via I-95, and about 22 hours from Boston.
No matter. When your heart is set on a road trip, long driving distances are par for the course. If you plan to spend time in densely populated neighborhoods of central Miami or Miami Beach, consider ditching your car at a Metrorail station with overnight parking, which costs as little as $4 per 24-hour period.
How to Get Around Miami
Miami itself is one of the most densely populated cities in the United States, but it comprises just a small slice of the sprawling greater Miami area, which has plenty of far-flung attractions – including the totally uninhabited Everglades. As such, your Miami trip is likely to include several modes of transportation.
Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars
It’s fairly easy to get around core Miami and Miami Beach neighborhoods without a personal car. However, reaching quieter neighborhoods and outlying areas is faster and easier with four wheels of your own.
Rental Cars and Tolling
All major U.S. car rental companies serve Miami International Airport, as do several local and internationally based companies that aren’t as well known. These lesser-known companies tend to be cheaper up front, but watch out for hidden surcharges and limitations (such as driving distance restrictions) in your contract.
If you do rent a car with plans to travel throughout the Miami region, consider taking advantage of your rental company’s unlimited tolling service (if offered). This service, which usually costs less than $10, allows unlimited passage through the toll checkpoints that litter South Florida’s limited-access highways.
Though each toll only costs a dollar or two, you can hit several on longer trips, and they’re hard to avoid altogether without resorting to traffic-choked surface streets. Worse, all highway tolls in South Florida are toll-by-plate, meaning a camera snaps your car’s plate and then bills the rental car company. To handle the administrative expense (and pad their profit margins), rental car companies sometimes charge per-toll processing fees of $5 or more, plus the actual cost of the toll. Paying upfront for unlimited tolling can greatly reduce your driving costs.
Street and Garage Parking
In most busy Miami neighborhoods, street parking is metered. Happily, you don’t have to carry coins around (or even take out your credit card more than once). The city of Miami has a handy parking app, called Pay by Phone, that securely stores your credit card and plate number. When you find a spot, you just enter the parking location number, indicate how much time you want to buy, and pay.
In core neighborhoods, street parking can cost more than $2 per hour, but $1 per hour is the norm in quieter areas. Overnight parking is not permitted in many locations, so check street signage before leaving your car outside for the night.
If you plan to split your stay between downtown Miami or Miami Beach and an outlying area, perhaps north along the coast or near the Everglades, consider renting a car only for the non-city portion of your trip. Garage parking is very expensive – $20 per day or more – in central neighborhoods. Before leaving town, take public transit to Miami International Airport and pick up your rental there.
Miami has a comprehensive public transportation system operated by Miami-Dade Transit. It operates three main types of regularly scheduled public transit in Miami and close-in suburbs: Metrorail, Metromover, and Metrobus.
Metrorail is an elevated train system with two lines (Green and Orange) and 25 miles of track. In terms of speed and carrying capacity, it’s comparable to an American subway system – it’s just that Miami’s high water table and unstable bedrock make subway tunnels impractical.
Metrorail’s Orange Line serves Miami International Airport, downtown, and points south and west of the city. The Green Line serves the northwestern city and suburbs, then runs alongside the Orange Line through downtown and the southwestern city and suburbs. Single-ride fares are $2.25.
Metromover is a 4.4-mile people mover system in downtown Miami. Its fully automated trains run along several elevated routes, hitting many of downtown’s top business and cultural destinations. Metromover connects with both Metrorail lines at Government Center station, on downtown’s western edge.
The system is active from 5am to midnight. Trains arrive every 90 seconds during rush hour and every three minutes during off-peak times. The best part is that Metromover is totally free to ride.
Metrobus is Miami’s city bus system. With nearly 100 routes serving virtually every part of the city, it’s a lifesaver for tourists who wish to visit outlying neighborhoods without paying for a taxi or rideshare, or walking for hours.
The regular Metrobus fare is $2.25, and the express fare is $2.65. Transfers may cost extra. Before boarding Metrobus, review the system map, route list and schedule, and fare table for information pertinent to your trip.
If you plan to travel north of Miami, Tri-Rail is an option. Tri-Rail, operated by the South Florida Transportation Authority, is a single commuter rail line that connects Miami International Airport with communities in northern Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties.
Tri-Rail fares range from $2.50 to $6.90 one-way, depending on how far you travel, and $4.40 to $11.55 round-trip. Multi-ride discounts are available.
Biking and Bikesharing
The Miami area is pancake-flat, making it a great place for bike commuting. It also has a heavily used bikesharing program, under the CitiBike brand (locally operated by DECOBIKE LLC). There are a couple hundred stations in the network, covering most of Miami Beach (virtually the entire island south of the I-195 causeway, and the beachfront for a mile or two north of there) and most of central Miami (within approximately a mile of Biscayne Bay). More stations come online every year.
Each 30-minute riding period costs $4.60, but longer rides come with discounts – for instance, a two-hour pass is $10, and an all-day pass is $24. If you plan to bike for more than one day, consider picking up a 30-day visitor pass, which provides unlimited access to the system, for $35.
Ridesharing and Taxis
Miami is well-served by ridesharing and taxi services. Both Uber and Lyft operate throughout South Florida. In fact, Uber goes all the way out to Everglades National Park – though park staff advise people who arrive by Uber to prearrange a taxi ride home, as Uber drivers don’t typically wait for fares in the uninhabited swamps near the park’s entrances.
Miami ridesharing costs vary by demand, distance, traffic conditions, and ride quality (for instance, UberX costs a lot less than UberLUX). For lower-priced options, figure on spending $2 to $4 per mile during non-peak periods. Taxis are generally more expensive, though certain common routes (mostly to and from Miami International Airport) are rate-controlled by local ordinance – for instance, the airport to downtown Miami costs approximately $22, while Miami International Airport to central Miami Beach costs $35. These fares are subject to change, so check ahead before budgeting out your local transportation costs.
Where to Stay in Miami
This is by no means a comprehensive list of tourist- and business traveler-friendly neighborhoods in Miami, but it’s a good overview of what to expect from the various hotel clusters around the city and region.
- Miami International Airport Area: Like most major airports, MIA is surrounded by a slew of relatively inexpensive, brand-name hotels. But, unlike some big-city hubs, MIA is quite close to downtown Miami. That makes its hotel districts unusually convenient home bases for low-cost Miami visits. On our most recent trip to Miami, we stayed at a two-star property on the north side of the airport and traveled back and forth to the waterfront via Lyft Line for about $8 and 15 minutes each way. Stay closer to the Metrorail station, on the airport’s east side, for greater convenience. Expect to pay less than $100 per night here for a two- or three-star property during the low season and around $150 for comparable digs during the high season.
- Downtown Miami: Downtown Miami lacks the ostentatious glamour of Miami Beach, but it’s still an upscale environment popular with businesspeople and well-to-do leisure travelers in town to shop and soak up the sun. On the other hand, it’s convenient. You can find isolated deals for less than $150 per night here, but $225 and up is more realistic.
- Miami Beach: Aside from Key Biscayne, which has fewer properties, Miami Beach has South Florida’s highest average nightly hotel rates. You get what you pay for, though: dozens of beachfront resorts with sprawling pools, private ocean access, and attentive service. Expect to pay at least $200 per night at “basic” resorts on the beach side of Collins Avenue, and substantially more than that at five-star properties (or anywhere during the high season). You’ll find isolated deals for less than $150 per night on the bay side. Use a flash sale site like Hotwire or Last Minute Travel to catch under-the-radar deals.
- Coconut Grove: Coconut Grove is an upscale community a few miles southwest of downtown Miami. It has a handful of pleasant resort properties within walking distance of the water, plus some extended stay properties geared toward frequent business travelers. Expect to pay at least $200 per night at hotels here. You’ll do better on Airbnb: a quick search revealed multiple whole apartments, some in high-rise condo properties with stunning ocean views, for less than $100 per night.
- Wynwood/Edgewater: Wynwood and Edgewater are trendy, up-and-coming neighborhoods on the north side of downtown Miami. Off-brand two- and three-star hotels in this area start at less than $150 per night. Expect to pay more like $200 to $250 per night, and possibly more, for higher-class accommodations on or near the waterfront. As in Coconut Grove, you’ll do better on Airbnb, provided you’re not set on resort amenities. I found whole apartments for less than $70 per night here.
- Little Haiti/Little River: North of Wynwood and Edgewater, but still within easy reach of downtown Miami and Miami Beach, lie Little Haiti and Little River. Though whole swathes of these neighborhoods are predominantly residential, the area around the Fashion District is popular with out-of-town visitors. Biscayne Boulevard, the area’s main thoroughfare, has at least a dozen two- and three-star properties, starting around $100 per night. Side-street Airbnb deals are even more affordable: less than $80 per apartment, per night to start.
- Hollywood: Hollywood isn’t right next door to downtown Miami – it’s about 30 minutes north of the business district by car. But it’s fairly affordable. Off the I-95/FL-848 interchange, you’ll find about a dozen name-brand properties starting at $150 or so per night. This is a great home base if you’re planning to visit beaches or other attractions north of Miami proper, or a logical last-night choice if you’re fixing to fly out of FLL early the next morning.
- Fort Lauderdale: Fort Lauderdale is a few minutes beyond Hollywood, on the other side of FLL. The cheapest digs are found on SW 24th Street (FL-24), where two-star properties start at less than $100 per night during the low season. Like the I-95/FL-848 interchange, this is a great area to spend your last night if you’re flying out of FLL. Further east, toward the center of Fort Lauderdale, you’ll find a wider selection of four-star properties starting at $200 to $225 per night during the low season. Fort Lauderdale Beach, a narrow barrier island where Fort Lauderdale meets the Atlantic Ocean, is even swankier – call it Miami Beach redux, with upscale waterfront resorts charging anywhere from $300 to $600 per night.
- Homestead: Strategically located at the intersection of several major thoroughfares at the southern extent of Miami’s built-up area, Homestead is inexorably eating up the scrubby, marshy flatlands on the edge of the Everglades. If you’re planning a foray into the Florida Keys or a visit to Biscayne National Park, this is a great jumping-off point. It’s cheap, too, with basic rooms in two-star properties starting at $80 or $90 per night. Don’t expect much personality from Homestead, though.
Miami has a well-deserved reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. From South Beach’s glitzy waterfront hotels, to downtown Miami’s soaring condo towers, to Key Biscayne’s stately mansions, Miami has plenty of wealth on full display.
However, just as South Florida is safer and more wholesome than pop culture portrayals such as “Scarface” and “Miami Vice” would have you believe, parts of Miami are down to earth – and downright affordable. The trick is knowing where to find great value – and how to take advantage when you do.
Have you ever been to South Florida? What are your favorite affordable things to do and see there?