Most locals have a love-hate relationship with downtown Miami. Its strip of exclusive multimillion-dollar high-rises, hordes of tourists, and the constantly congested Biscayne Boulevard can turn a trip here into a frustrating ordeal. But downtown is truly the urban core of Miami, and it was one of the earliest areas to be developed in the 1890s. There are many historic buildings, cultural institutions, and public spaces to enjoy. And because the free Metromover rail cars stop at all the main points in downtown and can also take you to Brickell, transportation is a breeze — once you finally get here. Here's our guide to discovering downtown's best art, architecture, history, and recreation.
1. Visit Pérez Art Museum Miami.
What’s better than contemporary art, a waterfront view, and massive hanging gardens? Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Miami’s flagship art museum, curates large-scale exhibits such as "Julio Le Parc: Form Into Action," which displays funky, shiny, and shocking works of kinetic art, including moving sculptures, light projections, video, and paintings. The exhibit is on display until March 2017.
Housed in a building designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, PAMM offers year-round rotating exhibits, educational programming for children, and free nights every first Thursday and second Saturday of the month in a fluid indoor-to-outdoor transitional space. You can even become an artist with the help of PAMM’s teaching artists from 1 to 4 p.m. every second Saturday of the month. On your way out, be sure to check out the gift shop, which sells wearables, decor, books, and toys, and try a Pérez chopped salad and a pomegranate sangria at the restaurant Verde.
1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Open Monday and Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The museum is closed Wednesday. Admission costs $16 for general admission and $12 for seniors, students, and youth; members get in free. Call 305-375-3000 or visit pamm.org.
2. Get schooled at the Miami Science Barge.
Do you fancy yourself a marine biologist? Then hop aboard the Miami Science Barge, a floating marine laboratory and environmental education center. The vessel floats on Biscayne Bay and is accessible from Museum Park. Once you’re onboard, you can check out hydroponic systems, an aquaculture hatchery display, and solar panels. The barge even offers field trips for students in grades K through 12 where they can learn about sustainability and environmental responsibility.
1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Call 305-912-3439 or visit miamisciencebarge.org.
3. Marvel at the Alfred I. duPont Building.
Approach the historic Alfred I. duPont building on Flagler Street, and you’ll be greeted by a façade of glittering black granite and Wisconsin limestone. Hailed by preservationists as an outstanding example of depression moderne architecture — a form of late art deco style — the duPont Building was built by banking tycoon Alfred I. duPont during the Great Depression. The interior boasts four stories of Tennessee marble floors, ornate golden gates, and filigreed elevator doors with bird motifs. For the hand-painted ceiling, artist Harold Hilton lay on his back Michelangelo-style to create 124 scenes of Florida’s history.
Today the building is open only for private events such as weddings, corporate gatherings, and special performances (prices start at $13,000). But you can still access the lobby during operating hours to check out the beautiful materials and decorative elements. The Miami Center for Architecture & Design also offers bimonthly walking tours that include a trip to the second floor to see Hilton's mural.
169 E. Flagler St., Miami. Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. For walking tours, visit miamicad.org/walking-tour. Tickets cost $20.
4. Pay Homage to the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena.
This list wouldn't be complete without the home of Heat Nation. Whether you’re walking, biking, or driving in downtown, the American Airlines Arena — with its three-story, 3,400-square-foot lighted marquee — is hard to miss. The gigantic curved white structure, designed by renowned Miami firm Arquitectonica, seats 19,600 and is a multipurpose arena for sporting events and concerts. Superstars such as Adele, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West have recently played there. Upcoming shows include the Ringling Bros. circus, the Harlem Globetrotters, and Ariana Grande. If you’re hungry before a show, you can get grub from plenty of eateries inside the arena, including Bodega, Kone Sushi, and Pincho Factory.
601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Call 786-777-1000 or visit aaarena.com.
5. Explore the Meetinghouse Art Collective & Gallery.
PAMM doesn't hold a monopoly on art in downtown. Welcome to Meetinghouse, an interdisciplinary artistic and cultural space that’s located in the penthouse of the historic Huntington Building. The 13-story structure was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and is known for its austere, soldier-like sculptures on the roofline. The collective’s programming includes exhibitions, lectures, screenings, performances, and printed materials. The current exhibition, on display until March, is "Type-topia," an idealized and fictionalized city created from a collage of architecture firm Khoury Levi Fong’s public institutional projects. The scale models use programmed QR codes that visitors can scan for more details. Another recent project is a printed “Artists vs. Trump” T-shirt showing a BDSM scene between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, where a thigh-high-booted Hillary dominates a naked, cowering, submissive Trump. The shirts cost $25 on meetinghousemiami.org.
168 SE First St., Miami. Open by appointment from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. Visit meetinghousemiami.org.
6. Visit the Freedom Tower.
Look at an aerial view of downtown Miami and you’ll be sure to spot the yellow Mediterranean revival tower topped with a lantern. Added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the Freedom Tower is now the home of the MDC Museum of Art + Design (MOAD). Originally the offices of the Miami News, the Freedom Tower became a headquarters for the government to process and document the influx of Cuban immigrants to Miami in the 1960s. That history is reflected in the tower's Cultural Legacy Gallery, which is permanently dedicated to work that explores the impact of Cuban culture in South Florida. On display since July 2015 is Eduardo del Valle’s Childhood Memories From the Other Side of the Water, a visual autobiography of the artist’s memories in Cuba.
On the second floor of the museum is a solo exhibit by the Korean artist Sunkoo Yuh, "Grafted Stories," which uses ceramics and drawings to blend Korean folklore and cultural critique. The second floor also holds "Q&A: Nine Contemporary Cuban Artists," organized by Havana-based curator Cristina Vives. Both shows are on display through January 15, 2017.
600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Visit mdcmoad.org/freedom-tower.
7. Get nostalgic in the shopping arcades.
Shopping in downtown Miami might not rank highly on any modern fashionista's list, but at the turn of the 20th Century, it was a hot spot for commerce. The Ultramont Mini-Mall, for example, was packed with retail shops and ice-cream parlors as recently as the 1980s; it even made a cameo during a car chase in a Miami Vice episode. The mall is still open but spookily unoccupied, with the only businesses a tailor, a Christmas tree pop-up stand, and a café. You might not find much to buy, but wandering the corridors can conjure a nostalgic trip in time. Just look at the font on that rainbow-hued neon sign!
The retro appeal of the Ultramont and other shopping arcades in downtown Miami, such as the Flagler Station Mall and Metromall, will be short-lived, though: A $13 million Flagler Street renovation is slated to be completed by the end of 2017. Developers hope the revamp will attract more businesses and foot traffic to these dying malls. In the meantime, they're the perfect place to reenact that Tiffany video you were obsessed with when you were a kid.
Ultramont Mall, 112 SE First St., Miami.
Flagler Station Mall, 48 E. Flagler St., Miami.
Metromall, 1 NE First St., Miami.
8. Take a romantic stroll on the Miami Riverwalk.
As Miami's romantic strolls go, it's hard to beat the Riverwalk. It begins behind the InterContinental Hotel, right next to Bayfront Park, and loops back around at SW North River Drive. You’ll see the Miami River on your left as you walk the path, dotted with public works of art. The One Miami Condo building, designed by Arquitectonica, houses the Zagat-rated restaurant Il Gabbiano. Take a date, take your time, and take it all in.
9. Catch a show at Olympia Theater.
Transport yourself back to a time of silent movies and Vaudeville: bobbed hair, glowing cigarettes, jazz. Olympia Theater opened in 1926 as a silent-movie palace and later screened talkies and staged Vaudeville acts. Today it hosts all types of events, including musical performances, standup comedy, and film festivals.
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Though its brick façade looks modest, displaying a simple “Olympia” marquee, the interior is an immersion of warm colors, curving forms, tight patterns, and intricately painted details, all representative of Moorish architecture. Every Wednesday, the Olympia offers a free event series, In the Lobby Lounge, ranging from readings to jazz performances. During intermission, you can even get a guided tour of the historic theater. You can also receive a guided tour the second Tuesday of every month when the Olympia hosts the Moth: Miami StorySLAM. Tickets cost $10.
174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Prices and showtimes vary. Call 305-374-2444 or visit olympiatheater.org.
10. Get some fresh air at Bayfront Park.
Densely packed streets, slow-moving tourists, and dizzyingly tall buildings — that’s life in an urban core such as downtown Miami. Sometimes you need some nature and greenery to shake off the claustrophobia of city living, and if you're downtown, you don't need to travel far to find it.
Bayfront Park, a 32-acre site overlooking Biscayne Bay, combines lush greenery and landscape features such as a sand beach, tropical rock garden, waterfall, playground, fountain, and monuments. The park is home to wandering visitors, local runners, and even the last surviving Pokémon Go players. Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, managed by Live Nation, regularly hosts celebrity performances. Elsewhere on the grounds, you'll find programming such as free yoga and capoeira classes. If you’re feeling adventuresome, try your hand at being a trapeze artist. Lessons with a harness and safety net are available at the Flying Trapeze School, located in the center of the park.
301 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Visit bayfrontparkmiami.com.