Yes, You Can Visit Miami on a Budget
Eat, drink and explore for less in Florida's most dynamic city
En español | It’s wise to approach a visit to Miami with a sense of compromise: There’s so much to see, do and taste in this city of nearly 500,000 on mainland Florida’s southernmost tip, you can’t possibly include it all in one visit. There’s the busy tourist stretch between 1st and 192nd streets in Miami Beach, with more than 12 miles of golden sands for walking or lounging. West of the beaches, Miami’s vibrant downtown neighborhoods (Wynwood, Little Havana and Brickell among them) offer other pleasures — many of them free or inexpensive.
Read on for fun and affordable ways to enjoy the Magic City.
What to Do
Enjoy the water: A fun way to ditch your car and explore the city is by riding the Water Taxi Miami (all-day passes from $30 per person), a catamaran with plenty of shade and hop-on, hop-off service between six locations in downtown Miami, Brickell City Centre and Miami Beach. Along the way, you’ll pass mansions of the rich and famous on Star Island and Fisher Island. Once you arrive at the Miami Beach Marina, catch the free trolley to Ocean Drive to explore all the art deco highlights there.
For more of a sightseeing cruise of the area with entertaining commentary, Island Queen Cruises and Tours ($28 per person) runs cruises — on Biscayne Bay and through Millionaire’s Row — aboard an air-conditioned yacht with a breezy upper deck. Guides share the city’s history and point out mansions of Miami icons such as Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias.
Miami’s busiest beach is the stretch of South Beach along Ocean Drive. The section roughly between 5th Street and 14th Street is home to some of the best preserved art deco hotel facades from the 1930s and ’40s, including the Colony, the Carlyle and the Breakwater (expensive to stay at, free to admire). Overpriced tourist restaurants with gaudy cocktails dominate this part of town. An exception is News Cafe, on the corner of 8th Street, which is open 24/7 and never disappoints for strong coffee and great people-watching with your morning newspaper (of which there’s a worldly selection).
When you’re ready for a swim, ditch the South Beach crowds and head to nearby Key Biscayne and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where parking ($8 per vehicle for the day) is a fraction of what it will run you in South Beach. The park has shaded picnic pavilions, beach wheelchairs and a spectacular undeveloped stretch of sand with shallow waters for bathing. If you’re up for some exercise, climb the more than 100 steps to the top of the historic 1825 Cape Florida Lighthouse for spectacular views of the coast.
Museums and street art: Every winter, the Art Basel fair in Miami is the city’s biggest cultural calling card and a prestigious international event. But from gritty street murals to high-brow contemporary art, Miami explodes with art every day of the year. Just north of downtown, in the stylish neighborhood of Wynwood — home to designer boutiques, galleries and chic cafés — Wynwood Walls is a free outdoor exhibition space of painted warehouses and shops where new works by the world’s graffiti artist greats are constantly cropping up. A fun Art Walk is held on the second Saturday of each month, with food trucks and live music.
About a mile north, in the Miami Design District, the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami (free admission) displays experimental contemporary art stars in the permanent collection and ongoing programming features lectures and performance art.
At the exquisite Pérez Art Museum Miami in Museum Park, admission is free on the second Saturday of every month (otherwise it’s $16 for adults, $12 for adults 62 and older). The contemporary collection spans 20th and 21st century artists. The museum is known for its Herzog & de Meuron design, which takes exemplary advantage of Biscayne Bay views with a sprawling veranda and airy steel framing.
In the heart of downtown Miami, the 17-story Freedom Tower houses the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College, a free museum that reopened in 2018 after extensive interior upgrades turned it into a world-class gallery space. The tower is an important American Latino heritage landmark that served as the Cuban Assistance Center for Cubans fleeing Castro’s regime.
Dance: Get some free salsa coaching every Thursday night at 9 at the famous Ball & Chain club, a bar in Little Havana that’s been drawing crowds since 1935. Roughly 30 people usually turn out as in-house dance masters share their tricks for swaying your hips to the Latin beats. (For liquid courage, the bar does a mean mojito.)
On Friday nights, you can head to the rooftop restaurant and bar called Bluewater at the InterContinental Miami for a weekly salsa night (from 6 to 10 p.m.) with a more touristy slant that draws dancers of all ages. In addition to a live salsa band and instructors to lend a hand, you can enjoy sweeping Biscayne Bay views while you dance.
Relax: Miami’s nonstop buzz can leave you knackered. But beyond its many luxury hotel spas, the city offers some fine ways to kick back without spending a bundle.
October through May is the main season to pack a picnic and a lawn chair or blanket to enjoy one of the New World Symphony’s fabulous outdoor Wallcast events. Free concerts are projected on a 7,000-square-foot screen in SoundScape Park. Free films and concerts are screened at other times here throughout the year, too, so check the official website to see what’s upcoming.
And bypass the busy weekends for a midweek visit to the freshwater Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, an iconic swimming grotto created from a coral rock quarry in 1923 ($20, closed in December and January). Fed by the underground aquifer, it’s the only swimming pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Waterfalls, caves and shaded loggias are among the many places to relax.
Where to Eat
Your options for meals out in Miami are as diverse as the population itself. You can start your day with a strong cafecito (Cuban espresso) and a guava-and-cheese pastry in a no-frills Cuban diner and finish it with white linens and exquisite seafood with Miami River views. For all the city’s glitzy appeal, Miami’s restaurant scene can also be very relaxed and inexpensive.
You haven’t done Little Havana until you’ve dined alongside Cuban exiles in guayaberas (short-sleeve sport shirts) and extended Latino families at the legendary Versailles on Calle Ocho. Whether you just grab a café con leche from the to-go window or settle in for a Cuban feast of stuffed green plantains and ropa vieja (a shredded beef dish), it makes for a wallet-friendly and authentic Miami meal. In the Edgewater district, Enriqueta’s is another authentic Cuban joint worth visiting for a takeaway Cuban sandwich piled thick with meat or a quick cortadito (an espresso with steamed milk).
Just-caught Key West seafood stars on the menu at Stiltsville Fish Bar, a favorite lunch spot with things like shrimp po’boys and grilled fresh catch (grouper, cobia, mahi-mahi) sandwiches. They’re about $15, so not cheap, but worth a bit of a splurge. And for more than a century, Joe’s Stone Crab has been the spot to sample the sweet, sustainable crab claws that are in season and served fresh in Florida from mid-October through mid-May.
Where to Stay
You’ll find hotels in all price ranges on both the beach and city side of town. Downtown, consider the stylish and affordable Aloft Miami-Brickell hotel, within a short stroll of restaurants and a grocery store and with a rooftop pool. In Miami Beach, Circa 39 has cheerfully decorated guest rooms with mini fridges and an on-site swimming pool, and it’s across the street from the beach.
Airbnb and other vacation rental sites have good one-bedroom options in and near downtown, starting from around $70 per night.