12 Places to Visit in Miami to Experience the City’s Funky Side

Weirdly cool things to do (mostly) beyond South Beach

Miami, contrary to popular belief, is not one big music video full of bikinis, sports cars, and dollar bills flying through the air. It’s far funkier than that, a place where you’ll travel from glam beach scene to gritty reality while barely blinking. Sure, our inherent sexiness is part of why people become obsessed with Miami. But it’s also our weird, bizarre, and head-shaking insanity that makes the city so unique. So come along — from down-and-dirty barbecue, to late-night Latin dance clubs, to a castle made of coral — and find the funky places locals love and tourists rarely find.

Think you’re a home improvement guru because you managed to build yourself a deck? Ed Leedsklanin sees your deck and raises you an entire fort and sculpture garden carved out of coral. He built this 11,000-pound wonder all by himself between 1923 and 1951, opening it up as a roadside attraction along South Dixie highway. And since nobody ever saw him build the place, how it was constructed is one of the city’s great mysteries.

Card Sound Road
Locals know that if you’re headed to the Keys on a busy weekend, Card Sound Road is a must to avoid the masses. They also know that this little waterside fish shack about halfway down Card Sound is the ideal spot to wait out traffic, where live country music, cold drinks, and fresh fish make it a virtual trip to pre-air-conditioned Florida. The swampy redneck vibe is a look into what this place was like before it was discovered by the rest of the world. And it makes a peaceful respite from an afternoon of South Florida drivers.

Photo courtesy of Club Tipico Dominicano

You know that scene in From Justin to Kelly when Kaya goes with a sexy waiter who she just met to an underground salsa club and has the night of her life? Probably not, since nobody saw From Justin to Kelly, but, trust us, it was definitely based on Club Tipico. This Dominican-owned spot has been a staple for merengue and bachata for over 35 years. We can’t promise you’ll have a class-busting romance that teaches the world a lesson in love, but we can promise you’ll have a hot, sweaty, dance-filled night, with plenty of booze to keep you going.

West Little River
With all due respect to our city’s bevvy of great barbecue spots — Society, Myron Mixon’s — if you want the real-real Miami ish you gotta head up to this golden shack on NW 22nd Avenue & NW 93rd Street. Here, you’ll find hands-down the best ribs in Miami sold by the slab or sandwich, plus pork and chicken souse like only northwest Miami can make. You’ll be joined in the takeout-only line by local boxers and MMA fighters filling back up after sparring. Their seal of approval is the only one you’ll need.

Design District
Calling a Miami tour “Weird Miami” is a little like calling a tour of the Aleutian Islands “Cold Alaska,” but what you get on Bas Fisher Invitational’s artist-led jaunts around the city are legitimately unique. Your guide for the monthly bus tours are local artists who take you through the strange, surreal, and bizarrely beautiful places around this city that inspire their work. You’ll delve into spots most locals don’t even know about, and immerse yourself in some of the city’s subcultures, if only for a few hours.

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Biscayne Bay island parties

Biscayne Bay
TV producers would have the world believe that Miamians do all our day drinking at swanky poolside day clubs with $20 cocktails. But locals know that scene is strictly for people with plane tickets home. The real local parties are on the little, unoccupied islands in the middle of Biscayne Bay, where every weekend we pull our boats up to the shore and impromptu ragers ensure. Live DJs often play on the sand on spots like Flagler Memorial and Pace Picnic islands. Yes, you’ll need a boat to get there. But, hey, isn’t that part of what dating apps are for?

Key Biscayne
Another TV misconception about Miami locals: That we spend our beach days at South Beach. Sure, if you live in Miami Beach you might, but for mainlanders, nothing beats the soft sands and swaying palms of Crandon Park. The beach at this Key Biscayne park feels like a remote paradise, where all you’ll see from your spot in the shade is turquoise water and the occasional cruise ship. Our slice of paradise got even better this year with the addition of the Open Seas Café, which has brought a menu full of Latin and Caribbean favorites to the beach, so you can feast on empanadas and conch fritters and forget you’re less than 10 minutes from downtown.

South Beach
Usually, a secret bar where you need to be buzzed in is some kind of chic, underground speakeasy where guys in leather aprons muddle cocktails full of ingredients you can’t pronounce. That could not be further from the scene at the most scenic VFW bar in America. Stroll up to an unmarked door just left of the entrance to the Floridian condo tower, press a buzzer, and you’ll saunter into a dimly lit room that’s typically full of people who enjoy hiding from the sunshine. The bar has a stunning view of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, plus cheap drinks and cold AC. And unlike some of our better-known dive bars, it won’t leave you smelling like smoke for days after.

Photo by Phillip Pessar/Flickr

Opa-Locka City Hall

The Opa Locks, as it’s locally called, was once upon a time designed to be a treasure trove of Islamic Revivalist architecture, where buildings inspired by 1920s Arabian-themed movies dominated the landscape. The great hurricane of 1926 wiped out a lot of them, but the most impressive still standing is City Hall, a castle covered in domes and minarets that looks like Casablanca dropped in the swamp. The TRI-rail station could also be a set piece — you’ll find it just a half-mile down Ali Baba Avenue.

Crandon Park Zoo ruins

Key Biscayne
The story of the old Crandon Park Zoo has all the great trappings of a classic Miami story: Bankrupt wanderers, comically bad planning, and, of course, a major hurricane. The story goes that a traveling animal show got to the end of the road in Miami and went broke, then sold a handful of animals to the city. In its infinite wisdom, the city reportedly opted to make these animals the star attractions of a new zoo, set on a low-lying island that acted as a barrier to hurricanes. As it was, in 1965, Hurricane Betsy rolled through and over 200 of the animals perished. Eventually, the city moved the zoo to a bigger, more-open location in Southwest Dade. But you can still stroll through the overgrown Crandon Park zoo relics today.

Miami Beach
Just getting to Miami Beach’s Russian and Turkish Baths is a trip into the bizarre, as the entrance is through a confusing hallway/half-abandoned shopping mall under the New Point condo tower. Once inside, you’ll find a world of marble saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and other places to generally relax in warm water. For the ultimate experience, ask for the Platza, a Russian bath house tradition where a staff member hits you with oak leaves inside a sauna. The oak leaves’ smell is said to reduce stress, but it’s probably more the nonstop laughing you’ll do while Platza-ing that makes you feel better.

Various locations
Before every hipster who put bulgogi in a taco decided to open a food truck, there was The Pincho Man, a roving purveyor of some of the city’s best grilled meat sandwiches who became a legend among those who grew up in the Miami suburbs. His sandwiches range from burgers to churrasco to shrimp and chicken, all covered with his secret sauce and potato straws. Legend has it, a national food TV show once tried to film the Pincho Man. He immediately shut all his doors and peeled out of whatever suburban parking lot he was in. To find him, follow his social media and call. He’s always at “the spot,” but where exactly that is, is up to you to discover.