We booked a cruise out of Miami over winter break. Since we’d never been to this famously colorful Florida beach city, we decided to spend 48 hours exploring.
Planning our 2-night itinerary was a challenge.
Miami doesn’t market itself as a family destination. There are plenty of fun and unique things to do with kids in Miami, but when I asked the city’s tourism board for family activities that would give us a taste of the city they told me to go to the zoo and the aquarium. (I’ve heard they’re both great, but they weren’t the only-in-Miami experiences we look for).
We discovered that Miami is a city of neighborhoods and with the help of friends and Google we found interesting places to explore and things to do that the whole family enjoyed. Since this Florida city is known for its dynamic and not expensive food scene, several of those activities involved eating.
Here are our tips getting a real local taste of Miami on a a weekend vacation with kids.
5 Things To Do in Miami With Tweens
Little Havana: Eating Cuban Food
We arrived in Miami around lunchtime and naturally headed to Calle Ocho (8thStreet), Little Havana’s main drag. We found Old’s Havana Cuban Bar and Cocina, which had local folks at the bar and tourists at all the tables, and there was a food tour sampling media noche sandwiches.
It’s no wonder visitors like it though; we chose it because it looks the way you want a Cuban restaurant in Miami to look: a little aged with dark wood trim and tables and antique-syle Coca Cola lamps over the bar.
We settled in to a table on the pleasant back patio and snacked on an ample fresh ceviche, crispy and creamy ham croquettes and classic rice and beans, which Tween Traveler barely shared. In a nod to Graham Greene, we chased it all with cold daiquiris.
As you stroll along Calle Ocho admiring the cigar makers, the old men playing dominoes in the park and the kitschy souvenir shops, it’s hard to miss Azucar Ice Cream Company. Just look for the large, multi-colored, 3-D ice cream cone on its facade (see pin below).
It’s a small shop with a mix of the usual flavors and some distinctly Latin ones like mamey fruit, sweet plantain, sweet corn, coconut flan and sugarcane/pineapple. I went local with Keylime Pie and Tween Traveler asked for her usual garish birthday cake flavor.
if the store isn’t crowded I recommended staying there to eat your cone. Outside, the Miami sun will make a quick mess of it.
Coconut Grove: Sightseeing
We headed next to Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, a palatial Mediterranean-style villa that James Deering built with his farming equipment fortune.
Aside from a large sunlit atrium and a sunroom with lovely stained glass, the house didn’t do it for us. Most of the furniture just seemed to heavy and uncomfortable for a seaside home.
The gardens however, were fantastic. a gazebo jutted out over the water. There were beautiful flowers and sculpted shrubs, great places to sit in the shade and admire the views, plenty of space for kids to run around without bothering people and lots of tucked away spots for hide-and-seek.
Tween Traveler did both. It’s a popular place for wedding photos and there were two fashion shoots going on while we were there. It was easy to understand why.
Note: Free parking is available on the grounds. The surrounding area is residential. There is a small onsite cafe for snacks, but don’t plan on finding a meal nearby.
Wynwood: Eating and Street Art
We spent our Friday night wandering around Wynwood, a neighborhood so up-and-coming a friend who grew up here had never heard of it.
The main draw, aside from restaurants and bars, is Wynwood Walls, an outdoor collection of murals with a contemporary art gallery at one end and Wynwood Kitchen and Bar at the other.
Rich and leisurely inspected the giant paintings while Tween Traveler joined other kids running around the open space and climbing on boulders in the middle.
There are more murals around the neighborhood outside of this collection; real fans of street art should consider a walking tour of the neighborhood.
Wynwood Kitchen & Bar looked inviting but it was packed so we opted to explore. The neighborhood has a distinct hipster vibe but we saw plenty of young families and strollers in the early evening.
Second Avenue is the main artery but you have to explore the side streets to find the tapas joints, Mexican tacquerias, coffee bars, brew pubs and more.
We wandered into The Butcher Shop, a store by day and an open-air beer garden by night. It was full of families and had a great local beer selection.
The house-made sausages and inventive burgers tempted us but we opted to share a steak salad (perfectly rare meat atop greens, beets and goat cheese) and crispy fried Brussels sprouts. Tween Traveler had far-better-than-average chicken fingers.
Bianco Gelato is on a side street one block over and Morelia Gourmet Paletas (colorful Mexican ice pop) is two blocks over. You can’t go wrong with either for dessert.
There is an outdoor food truck court a few blocks away from the Walls. On a Friday it was largely closed, but I imagine that on a weekend afternoon it could be hopping and a potentially interesting way to sample Miami’s diverse food scene with kids.
South Beach: Food Walking Tour and Swimming
A fellow writer recommended a food tour of Little Havana with Miami Culinary Tours. That tour was full, so on our second morning we met local friends for the company’s food and art deco walking tour of South Beach.
Our group included three kids, which we told the company about in advance. Two of them tried almost everything and one ate almost nothing. We received cocktails at two stops; at one of them the kids got a soft drink and at another they just had water.
The tour highlighted the diversity of the South Beach food scene, so we ate Bolivian ceviche and beef empanadas at a stylish bar called Boliva, Cuban picadillo and tostones at Gloria Estefan’s Lario’s (left), then falafel, feta cigars and tatziki from a Middle Eastern take-out place. We finished with cold antipasto at Mercado della Pescheria, a fun Italian restaurant and gelato at Milani Gelateria (The kids’ favorite stop, of course), both a few blocks from the water on quaint Española Way.
Between bites to eat we learned about the introduction, decline and revitalization of the area’s art deco buildings and learned the history and detail of select landmarks. The guide and the food were both really good.
Afterward, we spent the rest of the day on the sand at South Beach, which was crowded but not crazy. While the waves were choppy there wasn’t a strong undertow.
We grabbed drinks and a light snack late in the day at one of several restaurants with patios across from the beach. They are all crowded, loud and a little overpriced, but the food and cocktails were actually good.
Key Biscayne: Beach
We had a late afternoon flight after our cruise so we spent the day in Key Biscayne at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, which I recommend over South Beach for a straight-up beach day. It’s quieter and less crowded than South Beach and almost all families with kids.
There is a long stretch of beach with a fairly calm surf. There’s also a grassy picnic area back from the beach with a decent playground (it’s hotter than by the water, though), a lighthouse you can visit, changing and restrooms, life guards and two restaurants.
We opted to have lunch at the casual, outdoor Lighthouse Cafe. My black-bean soup was well seasoned and my conch fritters were crispy. Rich enjoyed his Cuban sandwich and Tween’s burger and fries were what you’d expect. A few tables around us ordered whole cooked snapper that looked amazing.
Note: It’s much easier to get here if you have a car. There’s a small parking fee, but you have more lunch options. Stop at a Cuban deli for picnic supplies or choose any of several casual restaurants off the main route and in the hotels.
If you do take a taxi, have them drop you off outside the toll plaza and walk in by the bike route to avoid paying for parking you aren’t using.
Helpful Information For Miami
As much as we enjoyed everything we did and ate in Miami we didn’t fall in love with the city. One large downside is that it’s hard to get around the city as a tourist.
Public transit is neighborhood based. So getting from one part of the city to another always making two or three connections and took at least twice as long as driving would.
We weighed the option of renting a car against taking taxis everywhere. We chose the latter and easily spent more on taxis in three days than we do in New York City in a year.
But having a car would have made getting to the cruise ship more complicated and we didn’t want the stress of navigating and parking in a congested, unfamiliar city. The ideal is probably to have your own car and supplement with taxis.
We stayed at the DoubleTree Miami Airport, largely because it had a free airport shuttle and paid shuttle to the cruise-ship terminal, which made things very easy.
It’s a stylish DoubleTree with a very nice pool and our room came with access to the executive lounge for breakfast. If you are taking a cruise it’s a good value, but if you’re in Miami to see the city it’s too far from everything.
Shopping for hotels online, several South Beach places looked stylish but not necessarily family friendly and some were potentially a little seedy. Key Biscayne has a handful of upscale hotels and a lot of vacation condos.
I would say that Miami can provide a fun weekend getaway with kids, even without resorting to the zoo and aquarium. Be prepared to eat well, see some fun sights, enjoy the beach, and to drive yourself around.