Perhaps best known for its unique art-deco heritage or rich Latin American influences, Miami has long had an alluring charm. But Miami's number one draw has always been its location on the Atlantic Ocean.

When it comes to natural beauty, few cities are quite as blessed as Miami. Shimmering waters lap at long stretches of white sandy beaches, while manatees and dolphins ply the waters around relatively unspoiled areas like Virginia Key. These are Lonely Planet's favorite Miami beaches.

South Beach

South Beach (SoBe) is everything Miami is known for – the sparkling beach, beautiful art-deco architecture, top-end boutiques, and buzzing bars and restaurants. Still, there's more to this area than velvet ropes and high-priced lodging (though there's a lot of this too). You'll find some great down-to-earth bars, good eating and cool museums, all set against a backdrop of relentlessly attractive pastel deco architecture.

The section of beach running from 5th to 15th Sts is usually the busiest, but you can head south to an area known as SoFi to escape the crowds. Alcohol and pets are prohibited on the sand.

Read more: Top 16 beaches in Florida

Miami Beach Boardwalk

Posing is what many people do best in Miami, and there are plenty of skimpily dressed hotties on the Mid-Beach boardwalk, but there are also middle-class Latinos and orthodox Jews, who walk their dogs and play with their kids here, giving the entire place a laid-back, real-world vibe that contrasts with the nonstop glamour of South Beach.

A white sand beach dotted with palm trees
Crandon Park Beach in Key Biscayne © Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock

Crandon Park Beach

This 1200-acre park boasts Crandon Park Beach, a glorious stretch of sand that spreads for 2 miles. Much of the park consists of a dense coastal hammock (hardwood forest) and mangrove swamps. The beach here is clean and uncluttered by tourists, faces a lovely sweep of teal goodness, and is regularly named one of the best beaches in the USA. Pretty cabanas at the south end of the park can be rented by the day ($40).

Haulover Beach Park

Swimsuits are optional at least part of this 40-acre beach park hidden behind vegetation from the sight of condos, highways and prying passers-by. You don't have to get into your birthday suit if you don't fancy it – in fact, most of the beach is clothed and there’s even a dog park. It is one of the nicer spots for sand in the area. It is located on Collins Ave about 4.5 miles north of 71st St.

A family walks over the sand dunes from a beach
An entrance to the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park ©James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

If you don’t make it to the Florida Keys, come to this park for a taste of their unique island ecosystems. The 494-acre space is a tangled clot of tropical fauna and dark mangroves – look for the ‘snorkel’ roots that provide air for half-submerged mangrove trees – all interconnected by sandy trails and wooden boardwalks, and surrounded by miles of pale ocean. A concession shack rents out kayaks, bikes, in-line skates, beach chairs and umbrellas.

At the state recreation area’s southernmost tip, the 1845 brick Cape Florida Lighthouse is the oldest structure in Florida (it replaced another lighthouse that was severely damaged in 1836 during the Second Seminole War). Free tours run at 10am and 1pm Thursday to Monday. If you're not packing a picnic, there are several good places to dine in the park, including Boater’s Grill and Lighthouse Cafe.

Virginia Key Beach North Point Park

This lovely green space has several small but pleasing beaches, and some short nature trails. Pretty waterfront views aside, there are two big reasons to come here. The first is to get out on the water by hiring kayaks or stand-up paddleboards at Virginia Key Outdoor Center. The second is to go mountain biking in a gated-off section known as the Virginia Key North Point Trails, with a series of trails ranging from beginner to advanced.

Sunset over a rocky coastal area with palm trees
Sunset at Matheson Hammock Park, Miami, Florida © Katelyn Racanelli / Shutterstock

Matheson Hammock Park

This 630-acre county park is the city’s oldest and one of its most scenic. It offers good swimming for children in an enclosed tidal pool, lots of hungry raccoons, dense mangrove swamps and (pretty rare) alligator-spotting. It's just south of Coral Gables.

Historic Virginia Key Park

A short drive (or bike ride) from Downtown Miami, the Historic Virginia Key Park is a fine place for a dose of nature, with a small but pretty beachfront and playgrounds for the kids (as well as a carousel). From time to time there are concerts, ecology-minded family picnics and other events. Coming from Downtown Miami, this is the second park entrance on the left (just past the entrance to the Virginia Key Beach North Point Park).

In the dark days of segregation, this beachfront, initially accessible only by boat, was an official "colored only" recreation site (African Americans were not allowed on other beaches). Opened in 1945, it remained a major destination for African American communities (as well as Cubans, Haitians and many others from Latin America) seeking to enjoy a bit of the Miami coastline. It was popular until the early 1960s when the city's beaches were finally desegregated.

A tree-covered entrance to a beach
The beach entrance at Oleta River State Park in North Miami Beach, FL © Tlshelton79 / Shutterstock

Oleta River State Park

Tequesta people were boating the Oleta River estuary as early as 500 BC, so you’re following a long tradition if you canoe or kayak in this park. At almost 1000 acres, this is the largest urban park in the state and one of the best places in Miami to escape the maddening crowd. Boat out to the local mangrove island, watch the eagles fly by, or just chill on the pretension-free beach.

On-site BG Oleta River Outdoor Center rents out kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and mountain bikes. It also offers paddling tours, yoga classes on stand-up paddleboards and other activities. The park is off 163rd St NE/FL 826 in Sunny Isles, about 8 miles north of North Miami Beach.

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