It turns out my hometown of Miami is actually the fattest, rudest, worst-run city in the country. That’s according to Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and a site called 24/7 Wall St. (Well, it’s technically only the second rudest.) Yet for some strange reason, tons of people still want to move to this tropical hellscape, at least for retirement. Let’s ignore this bewildering anomaly for now. I want to tell you about the Miami I know.
So there are a lot of haters out there, but let me set this straight: there’s a whole lot of awesome in Miami. Sure, everyone’s heard of the clubs and nightlife, and most visitors to America’s most tropical city either love or hate them, but Miami’s got plenty of other great stuff to offer independent-minded travelers eager to learn something other than which South Beach bar serves up the best Mojito. This is a list of just five. I’d love it if readers added their own.
1) Eat, Talk, and Eavesdrop at Versailles
The epicenter of the Cuban exile community, Versailles is a gigantic megarestaurant and bakery complex appropriately located on 8th Street, the main thoroughfare running through Little Havana and undoubtedly Miami’s most quintessential street. Cubans come to Versailles for everything from their morning cafecito to their catered Christmas Eve dinner of lechón (roast pork), congrí (black beans and rice), yuca (cassava), and mojo (garlic dressing).
This is the best place in Miami to overhear exiles discussing politics, which will just as likely be about Cuba as Miami, if the two can even be totally separated. It’s also a great place to test out your Spanish skills as you attempt to navigate the rapid fire rattle and dropped s’s of the Cuban accent. The menu comes in Spanish with tiny English translations beneath and is itself not a bad way to learn a little Cuban slang. Stop by for lunch or grab a pastel de guayaba (guava pastry) with a cortadito (espresso with condensed milk) in the afternoon.
2) Rise Early and Go Birding in Matheson Hammock
Instead of waking up hungover after blowing a few hundred at a nightclub where the people were too good looking to have a chance with anyway, try doing something that’ll make you feel active, healthy, and emotionally closer to Miami’s natural landscape: birdwatching. Important as a migratory route for everything from shorebirds to raptors and with a high likelihood of accidentals from the Caribbean, South Florida is easily one of the top five most coveted birding destinations in the continental US.
Matheson Hammock is a great introduction to the beauty of South Florida wilderness without having to leave Miami. Located on Old Cutler Road close to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Matheson features many of the region’s most emblematic ecosystems, like wetlands, mangrove forests, turtle grass beds, and tropical hardwood hammock. Bring binoculars and a field guide. Birding in Matheson is especially rewarding in winter when warblers, waders, and other avian peregrines are sojourning in warm and balmy Miami, just like you.
3) Head Down to Robert Is Here
Robert Is Here is essentially a fruit stand with a vast selection of tropical produce, a lot of it grown by Robert himself, and other neat hodgepodge like seashell necklaces, sugar cane juice, and a wide selection of bee pollen. The milkshakes are expensive but worth the trip alone. The strawberry is simply beyond criticism.
Technically outside of Miami, take the Florida Turnpike down to Homestead and make your way towards the Royal Palm entrance of Everglades National Park. Before you get there keep your eyes peeled for an open-air building with huge block letters spelling out: ROBERT IS HERE. The story goes that when Robert was six his father sent him to sell cucumbers on the side of the road and gave him an enormous sign that read “Robert Is Here.” He sold everything and eventually started a business in the very spot.
Once productive agricultural land, most of the area between Miami and the Everglades has been bought up for development. Robert is one of the last holdouts. What’s cool is Robert’s been in business since 1959 and really is still here. You’ll often find him behind the cash register or helping to haul in fresh fruit grown on the land he decided was worth staying on.
4) Listen to AM 710, Radio Mambí
Once a critical group in the powerplays of world history, the Miami Cubans still feel they’re fighting the Cold War. Named after Los Mambises, the Cuban freedom fighters who liberated the island from Spanish oppression, Radio Mambí is a mix of American and Cuban current events with a decidedly conservative leaning. The station sometimes contacts Cubans still on the island, and even gets jammed by the regime.
Apart from being another great opportunity to test your Cuban comprehension ability, listening to Radio Mambí is among the best ways to learn about the fears and joys of the refugees who transformed Miami into one of the most prosperous cities in the world, yet more than half a century later still talk about their eventual return to Cuba. Whether you feel moved by their impossible longing or not, this is the true essence of a city where half its residents haven’t stopped dreaming of an island that, regardless of what changes one day come, is gone forever.
5) Jog to the Top of Key Biscayne Bridge
Undoubtedly the best view of the downtown Miami skyline, try a predawn jog that’ll leave you atop the bridge just as the sun comes up. There are parking lots by the beach just before the bridge. Traffic will be light, and the view of the surrounding bay is just as impressive as the city. Keep your eyes peeled for the crossbow-shaped silhouettes of magnificent frigatebirds and other pelagics floating overhead. As the sun rises, size up the metropolis that a hundred years ago was nothing more than a swampy backwater, and now attracts all kinds of visitors who find themselves settling in longer than they might’ve guessed, maybe not unlike yourself.