In South Florida, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, two of cruising's most important home ports, are also great destinations for pre- and post-cruise stays. The two cities, just about a 20-minute drive apart, have a lot to offer, including great beaches, Atlantic surf, museums, nightlife, trendy restaurants, great shopping and outdoor adventures.
There are more reasons to consider extending your vacation to include a few days on land. We’ve always recommended travelers fly into embarkation ports at least a day early to reduce the risk of air delays that could cause you to miss your ship. You can save money by picking hotels in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale that offer value-oriented discounts via transfers between airports and cruise ports, parking discounts, and other perks.
And for cruise fans, what’s more fun than watching ships come in (or go out), whether you’re your ship or any other cruise vessel.
Tempted? Our local South Florida expert offers her take favorite spots in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale and tells you where to stay, too.
Head to Wynwood Walls:
All over Florida, mural artists have brought blank walls to life in recent years. It's a hot trend that's no more exciting than in this once-sketchy industrial stretch of Miami. Artists from around the world have put their mark on the Wynwood Walls and the sidewalks are now crowded with folks taking it all in. Shepard Fairey, famous for the Barack Obama "Hope" poster, has worked on an expansive wall.
This is a wonderful place for cruising art lovers to get a dose of hip. If you're lucky, there might be a few works in progress. This is also one of the best places in the city for a selfie. Who wouldn't want the giant eyes of Frida Kahlo as their backdrop?
Have more time? It's easy to spend more time looking at the murals and talking to artists. Add a meal into the mix at The Bucher Shop Beer Garden & Grill or any of a number of trendy restaurants that have grown up with the mural scene, including the popular Jimmy'z Kitchen, where the fare is casual but the mango cheesecake is all Miami.
Pay a Visit to Ft. Lauderdale's Hugh Taylor Birch State Park
For coastal Floridians, the water is their neighborhood. And the Intracoastal Waterway is one of the coolest characteristics of these “neighborhoods.” There’s the mainland and then there are the barrier islands that guard most of the peninsula. In between is the Intracoastal, the best water for boating in the state because of the protection from the rough Atlantic. On the barrier island in Fort Lauderdale is Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and its mile-long freshwater lagoon, perfect for beginning and experienced kayakers and canoers. From the bucolic waters, paddlers can spy all sorts of wildlife including gopher tortoises, egrets, herons and marsh rabbits cavorting on the shore. Park & Ocean rents equipment at the park. There are also trails for biking, walking and inline skating. If you are going for a multi-hour outing, bring food and drink.
Don’t have that much time?
Book a tour on the south fork of the Middle River that winds through Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods with Sunrise Paddleboards. Don’t know how to paddle standing up on those oversized surfboards? The “Venice of America” package includes a lesson and a tour. Looking for a romantic paddle? Try a full moon paddle or the paddle and wine excursion.
You've got to go to Miami's Little Havana.
No one should visit Miami without experiencing the Cuban culture that has shaped the city. And, though you can get a taste of Cuban food and music all over Miami, ground zero is Little Havana, which runs along Calle Ocho. One of the best ways to experience the neighborhood is on a three-hour walking tour. Don't panic. It's not three hours of walking because you will stop to sample classic Cuban cuisine, get fueled with a strong cup of Cuban coffee and watch cigar rollers. Most tours stop in Maximo Gomez Park, commonly called Domino Park.
You'll feel transported to Havana as you watch older Cuban men play dominos and, if your Spanish is good enough, you'll hear their heated political discussions. After your tour, make a stop at Ramon Puig, the best place to shop for traditional guayabera shirts, perfect for warm weather climates and cruises.
Don't have that much time?
Craving the Caribbean? Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood is a magnet for Afro-Caribbean culture, art, indie music and family-owned restaurants. Most of the residents here speak Creole, but you won't have a problem if you don't, especially in the restaurants.
**Miami Beach's Lincoln Road is a great place to poke around the shops and absorb local color.
Four hours might seem a lot for shopping but trust us, it's not. Factor in a stop at a restaurant and you might even feel pressed for time. Our favorite place for an authentic locals' experience, is Lincoln Road on Miami Beach, an open-air, pedestrian-only thoroughfare, lined with more than 200 shops and restaurants.
This is the place to pick up that cute little dress for special nights on the cruise ship. There is a flea market on alternate Sundays from October to May that attracts locals, plus antiques dealers from the Northeast. Sidewalk dining under wide umbrellas is a thing here, so choose a cuisine and find a perch to people watch, a highlight of a stop on Lincoln Road. If you want to venture one block off Lincoln, the James Beard award-winning Yardbird Southern Table & Bar is on Lenox Avenue. Go early for lunch or dinner or you'll need a reservation for shrimp and grits, deviled eggs and lots of bourbon drinks.
Don't have that much time?
The new Brickell City Centre in the financial district is a glittering temple to the art of shopping, and features popular American and European designer shops. We love its restaurants, too, especially La Centrale, a sprawling Italian food hall with assorted restaurants, bars and market shops.
**Key Biscayne's Crandon Park has everything you could possibly need for a great beach day.
And it's a wonderful way to start (or end) your relaxation vacation. The 2-mile-long beach on Key Biscayne, just over the Rickenbacker Causeway from the city, is the place where Miamians come to cavort in the Atlantic Ocean.
This wide beach is dotted with palm trees, and once you throw out your towel on the white sand, there's no mistake you’re in America's tropics. Get to the beach early and rent a cabana that will give you some respite from the sun. When you’re ready to take a break, walk to nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center and see the exhibits or take a guided nature walk. Since you're already on Key Biscayne, drive south through the town (mostly high-rise condo complexes) to the Cape Florida Lighthouse, erected in 1825 and still active today (with a few modifications over the years).
Don't have that much time?
Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables has some of the same amenities at Crandon, but what's special here is the bird-watching. The big tropical birds of Florida include impressive egrets, herons and cormorants. They are used to people so take lots of photos. We find that visitors are enamored with these exotic birds and this is a good place to spy them.
Book a table at Miami Beach's Byblos.
One of the newest hot spots in town is Byblos, a restaurant that celebrates Mediterranean cuisine not just from a Greek point of view but also with North African and Middle Eastern flair. Think of the countries that ring the Mediterranean and then order short rib kebabs with buttermilk sauce and a kale salad dusted with pomegranate seeds and crispy carrots to start. Beyond Byblos, Miami's a great restaurant town and dining in this exciting food city is a worthy pursuit that could be satisfied in a couple of hours or could maybe take a lifetime.
Another spot that our favorite out-of-town friends and family often clamor for is the iconic Joe's Stone Crab. Located in South Beach, you go for the classic stone crabs but don't miss the fabulous hash browns and key lime pie while you are there. And in Miami there's so much more: We also love checking out trendy, chef-driven restaurants, like Michael's Genuine Food and Drink for upscale pub fare; Makoto for sushi and Japanese; and Fooq's for Persian-French. Got a favorite to share? Opine in the comments below!
Got more time?
Food walking tours that feature stops at local restaurants, as well as food samples, are a great way to spend the afternoon or evening and get to know Miami even better. South Beach food tours often combine information on the legendary art deco architecture of the area. When the tour is over, snag a table at a sidewalk cafe, order a tropical cocktail and watch the beautiful people go by. You'll mingle with the locals here.
Janet K. Keeler is a 35-year newspaper veteran and is now teaching journalism and food writing at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is a Northern California transplant who's lived in Florida long enough to have a school named after her -- 25-plus years. She's made a career of discovering cool places in the Sunshine State, especially the places that locals like best. One of her favorites is Robert is Here fruit stand in Homestead where she makes an annual pilgrimage to buy mangoes.
Updated October 17, 2018