When I visited this residential city about ten miles west of downtown Miami it had just doubled in area. This came after annexing two square miles of unincorporated land, while the famous Dolphin Mall became a part of the city in 2010.
Sweetwater is known for its sizable Nicaraguan community, earning it the nickname, Little Nicaragua.
To the south, the city shares a boundary with the massive main campus of Florida International University. This means that, in addition to some of the best shopping in Miami-Dade, the area is endowed with culture, sports, and entertainment to match.
There’s also the wilderness of the Everglades, just minutes away. Stay west on US-41, and you’ll be in a boundless sea of sawgrass, ripe for airboat tours.
1. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum
One of the best things to do around Sweetwater is to visit the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum.
Located on the grounds of the Florida International University, the Frost Art Museum, this is one of the state’s foremost art institutions.
There’s an incredible array of works from around the world, but the focus is primarily on 20th-century American art, with a healthy dose of Latin American art in the mix.
There’s always something inspiring or thought-provoking to see. On my last visit I saw To Recognize a Pattern, an awesome survey of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 70s and 80s.
2. Dolphin Mall
A big chunk of Sweetwater’s area is taken up by one of the largest Outlet Shopping and Entertainment Centers in Florida. It’s no insult to say that The Dolphin Mall is reason enough to visit the city on its own.
There are quite literally hundreds of shops and outlets to browse through, and you can easily find yourself lost for hours in retail heaven.
You’ll find brands from across the world here, including all the major international fashion and designer labels you could want.
For a bit of a cross-section, there are outlets for Polo Ralph Lauren, Boss, Nike, Reebok, Columbia, Guess, Lacoste, and Calvin Klein, among more than 200 others.
Dolphin Mall is a city in itself. As well as the shops, you can dine out at a different restaurant every day, catch a movie, or sample a new bar every evening.
3. Florida International University (FIU)
Sweetwater shares a boundary with the eighth-largest public university in the United States. The year I wrote this list there were more than 55,000 students enrolled at Florida International University.
For people living in or visiting the area, this institution may feature heavily in your plans. As well as a verdant campus with interesting modern architecture and quirky traditions, you’ve got a stellar art museum, NCAA sports via the Panthers, and top-notch performing arts.
If you’re just here for a casual tour, check out the central fountain, surrounded by the oldest buildings on the campus. Also iconic is turtle pond. Apparently if you blow a kiss to the turtles while crossing the bridge with a loved one, you’ll be together forever.
4. Miami-Dade County Fair (The Youth Fair)
Every spring some 600,000 people flock to Tamiami Park for three weeks of fun at the Youth Fair. This is South Florida’s largest charity event, giving many millions of dollars back to the community since its inception in the 1950s.
At one of the top 30 largest county fairs in the country this event has the usual agricultural and educational exhibits, concerts, a marketplace, tempting fair food, and a giant carnival with 100+ attractions.
I have a serious weakness for fair treats, and a few of the specialties at the Youth Fair are roasted corn, elephant ears, and bizarre creations like deep-fried milkshake, pickle lemonade, and Cuban funnel cake sandwich.
5. Tamiami Park
On its south side, Florida International University merges with this large park, maintained by Miami-Dade County.
This is where you’ll find the Miami Fair Expo Center, holding events throughout the year, including the Youth Fair, which I’ll come to later.
There’s also a 22-lane Olympic-sized pool, along with walking and biking trails, and amenities for baseball, tennis, football, basketball, and soccer.
As well as the big fair in March and April, the Expo Center has a busy program of events in every season.
One of the most important is the Tamiami International Orchid Festival every January. Packed with stunning exhibits, vendors, and talks by experts, this is the largest winter orchid event in the country.
6. Everglades Airboat Adventures
With the world-famous Everglades just ten minutes west of Sweetwater, I think an airboat tour has to be on the agenda. Just to affirm, this is North America’s largest expanse of sawgrass prairie.
What I like about Everglades Airboat Expeditions is the personal touch. All tours are either private or semi-private, and you’ll zip out over the wetlands for up to two hours.
In this your guide will point out and get you up close to an astounding variety of wildlife. There are a lot of alligators of course, but also wading birds of all stripes, massive crickets, fish and rare plants.
Late in the day the wetlands are illuminated by the low sun, so I’d consider a sunset tour for something memorable.
7. The Women’s Park
Dedicated in 1992, this inspiring park pays tribute to the contributions made by women to improve the quality of life in Miami-Dade County.
On 15 acres, and set around a lake, the Women’s Park was one of the first spaces of its kind in the United States. As soon as I arrived I could tell that this park was out of the ordinary.
The sculptural gates, representing Courage, Love and Wisdom, were designed by Miami artist Lydia Rubio and unveiled in 2009.
Elsewhere, the Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Exhibit charts the work of the feminist Roxcy O’Neal Bolton (1926-2017) across 50+ years of activism.
Among the park’s features are a playground, tot-lot, a picnic pavilion, butterfly garden, and a paved trail around the lake.
8. Miccosukee Indian Village
Sweetwater is one of the closest cities to the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, spread across almost 130 square miles in the heart of the Everglades.
One of the main attractions is the Miccosukee Indian Village, which you can reach in about 30 minutes. Opened to the public in 1983, there’s an enlightening museum where you can learn more about the traditions and history of the Miccosukee Native Americans.
This is revealed via a trove of original artifacts, as well as historical documents and archival photographs. I was captivated by the exhibits explaining the various ways in which this people adapted to the unique environment of the Everglades.
Aside from the museum, you can check out alligator-handling demonstrations, showing off skills passed down the generations. There are also airboat rides, out to a traditional hammock-style Miccosukee camp.
9. Miami International Mall
Before the Dolphin Mall there was Miami International Mall, which is less than half a mile east of its rival. It’s a testament to the strength of brick & mortar retail in Miami-Dade that two large malls can survive side-by-side in the 21st century.
The Miami International Mall opened in 1982 and has upwards of 130 tenants. The anchors are JC Penney, Macy’s, Macy’s Men’s Store, and Kohl’s, while there’s a wealth of familiar favorites throughout.
I’m talking, Forever 21, Old Navy, Foot Locker, H&M, Hollister, Sephora, GameStop, Bath & Body Works, and Kay Jewelers. A sure sign of a thriving mall, the food court was hopping when I came. Options here include arepas, pizza, noodles, BBQ, and tacos.
10. Wertheim Performing Arts Center
Another advantage of being close to a major university is high-quality live entertainment. The Wertheim Performing Arts Center opened in 1996, and combines a 585-seat concert hall with a 300-seat mainstage theartre.
This is one of the top collegiate performance venues around Miami, and has hosted the likes of Olivier Latry, Arturo Sandoval, and the Woody Herman Orchestra.
I’m not going too far to say that there’s something to check out every week, especially during the semester.
It might be classical music performances by FIU’s various ensembles, or guest musicians, or theater productions, from Broadway to Shakespeare.
11. Tropical Park
Another outdoor attraction to visit in the Sweetwater area is Tropical Park, just a ten-minute drive away.
Laid out on what used to be the Tropical Park Race Track, this is a great place for exercising or doing nothing at all. In an area that’s heavily built up in the suburbs of Miami, it makes for a great outdoor escape within the urban environment.
Equestrianism is still important here. The Ronald Reagan Equestrian Center hosts close to 40 shows a year, with two grass courses, three show arenas, and seating for 1,000+ spectators.
Meanwhile on Saturdays you can shop at the Southwest Community Farmers’ Market, while there are amenities for everything from racquetball to track and field.
12. FIU Nature Park
Surrounded by sports facilities on the west side of the FIU campus is an 11-acre nature preserve.
There are more than 230 different plants growing in this environment, 13 of which are endangered and 15 of which are threatened.
The three native ecosystems to encounter here are freshwater wetlands, tropical hardwood hammock, and pine rocklands.
In quieter parts it was hard to believe I was still on the campus. In just one walk I saw turtles, an osprey, and snowy egrets by the lake on the north side.
Finally, there’s a jogging path tracing the perimeter, more than half a mile long and paved with recycled tires.
13. AMC Tamiami 18
There’s an amazing amount of entertainment options in and near Sweetwater, including two movie theaters.
The pick of the two is AMC Tamiami 18, at the Las Americas V Central Plaza, just west of the FIU campus.
Among the many things going for this spot is the cozy reclining seats, and the bar, allowing you to enjoy an alcoholic beverage with your movie.
This is an awesome daytime option, and there was a discount of 30% off tickets before 4PM when I went to press. Even more convenient is the 19–screen CMX multiplex at the Dolphin Mall, worth keeping in mind for its IMAX screen.
14. Miccosukee Casino & Resort
Coming into view along the Tamiami Trail just west of Sweetwater is a Vegas-style casino resort. Miccosukee Casino & Resort is all the more prominent as the last building of real scale before you enter the Everglades.
Opened in 1999 and operated by members of the Native American Miccosukee Tribe, this is a sight for sore eyes, rising from the sawgrass.
The nine-story hotel building has 256 rooms and 56 suites, and there are five dining choices around the resort. The gaming area is vast, with more than 2,000 slot machines.
There’s also a 20-table poker room, and a bingo hall, which was actually here before the casino was built.
15. Bowlero Doral
At the Dolphin Mall, this bowling alley had recently become part of the Bowlero chain when I visited. I’d call Bowlero Doral more of a stylish indoor entertainment center, with laser tag, and a sports bar to go with its 34 lanes.
The lanes themselves are state-of-the-art, with cosmic bowling all of the time, rather than just on weekend evenings.
Kids will love the laser tag arena, and it makes this place perfect for birthday parties. Lastly there’s a sports bar, mixing signature cocktails, pouring craft beer, and showing the game on large flatscreens.