MIAMI -- With its sizzling beaches and steamy night life, it's no wonder Miami is a top vacation spot for snowbirds, spring breakers, international tourists and passengers heading out on cruises from Florida ports. More than 13 million people visited the city in 2011, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Getting past sticker shock, though, can be difficult for anyone on a budget. Expect to pay $20 for a burger at trendy restaurants, the same for cocktails. Just getting past the velvet ropes of a popular nightclub can run $300.
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To avoid draining your pocketbook, do as the locals do and enjoy Miami's free attractions. In addition to beaches and people-watching, take in spectacular water views while biking over a causeway. Become an art enthusiast -- or critic -- while browsing neighborhoods lined with galleries and graffiti murals. Or catch a movie outdoors on a nighttime picnic.
• The beaches: Even if you can't afford to stay in luxury hotels with ocean views or you're not trendy enough to get into the beachfront clubs, the sand and turquoise waters of South Beach are free, accessible and popular with visitors along Ocean Drive from about Fifth Street up to Collins Park. You'll share the sand with locals, day-trippers and tourists staying in nearby hotels.
Other activities in the South Beach area include a free New World Symphony concert projected onto a 7,000-square-foot wall of a building designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry at 500 17th St., during Wallcasts. Bring a blanket or picnic to enjoy the experience. Or watch a movie under the stars at the free SoundScape Cinema Series on the corner of 17th Street and Washington Avenue. Movies begin at 8 p.m., http://www.mbculture.com/Scroll.aspx?id=232.
If you're coming by car, parking can be a challenge. Street parking is easier in North Miami Beach. Information about other beaches in the area can be found at http://www.miamiandbeaches.com.
• Art deco buildings and Lincoln road: Miami Beach is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for having the largest concentration of 1920s and 1930s resort architecture in the U.S. The 800 buildings are known for their Mediterranean and Art Deco styles, with pastel colors, porthole windows, curved walls, and distinctive lettering on historic hotel signs. Walking tours cost $20 to $30 but many of the buildings are easily recognized. National Geographic offers detailed notes for a self-guided tour, mostly along Ocean Drive between Fifth and 17th streets, http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/city-guides/miami-walking-tour-1/.
Perhaps the absolute best free thing to do in Miami Beach is to go people-watching along Lincoln Road. The pedestrian mall lined with palm trees, dozens of shops, restaurants and bars is a popular tourist destination and hangout spot for locals -- along with their designer dogs.
• Bikes and buses: The bike scene in Miami has taken off, turning into a giant social gathering of all ages. On the last Friday of every month, bicyclists take to the streets en masse and bike just over a dozen miles during Miami Critical Mass -- http://www.meetup.com/criticalmass-40/. If you don't have your own bike, rentals are available -- http://www.decobike.com/.
A popular cycling route is the Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects Miami to the barrier island of Key Biscayne. Ride into Crandon Park for free to visit a two-mile long beach.
Another alternative to cars in Miami: Check out the free Metromover bus, which makes stops in tourist-friendly areas such as Downtown, Brickell and Bayside.
• Get artsy: The Wynwood Arts District -- http://www.wynwoodmiami.com/ is a neighborhood with some of the best artwork to see for free: Legal outdoor murals by graffiti artists cover the walls near art galleries and restaurants. Walking tours are $15 but you can see plenty on your own. Or visit on the second Saturday of the month when you can mingle with artists and art buyers when galleries open their doors to the public. Some provide complimentary alcohol; arrive early for the freebies. The nearby Design District -- http://miamidesigndistrict.net/ offers more galleries, antiques shops, restaurants and bars.
• Little Havana: At Maximo Gomez Park, better known as Domino Park, 801 SW 15th Ave., you can watch locals playing the game or catch up on Cuban politics. The neighborhood is also home to a cigar factory, Cuban cafes and other eateries, and Paseo de las Estrellas (Walk of the Stars), where celebrities from Latin American are given stars similar to those in Hollywood.
The last Friday evening of every month from 7 to 9 p.m., Little Havana hosts Viernes Culturales -- or Cultural Fridays -- including dancing, domino games, cigar rolling, and free walking tours of the neighborhood with local historian Paul George (departing at 7 p.m. from the Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St.).