Miami’s history is as rich and colorful as any blockbuster movie. With pirates and gangsters, shady politicians and murder mysteries, it’s no wonder so many top films are set on these shores. Visitors often want to check out the area where BIRDCAGE, BAD BOYS, or MIAMI VICE was filmed. Locals point out that OJ Simpson dines at their favorite restaurant or that Tony Blair spent his holiday at the Bee Gees posh mansion last Christmas. Reality and the evening news seem to crossover more often in Miami than in most places.
There are many American cities with top-level museums, significant historical sights and important cultural centers. Most people do not consider South Florida a historically significant destination. While we can’t brag that we played a role in the Battle of Gettysburg or the Signing of the Constitution, there are many fascinating sights in the city to pique the curiosity of history buffs on holiday. That’s where our Eighth Wonder of a perfect south Florida vacation fits in. Spend at least a day’s time discovering the Magical History of our City and you’ll be amazed how interesting we truly are!
The obvious first stop in any history lover’s tour is the Spanish-inspired community of Coral Gables. Developed in the Jazz Age by George Merrick, this planned community of businesses, golf courses, parks and theme neighborhoods still remains a distinctive and architecturally significant destination. Framed by stately gateways at Douglas Road and 8th Street, or overlooking the Granada Golf Course, these structures cost millions of dollars and stand as memorials to one man’s Beaux Arts dreams. The Country Club Prado gates overlook an avenue of spectacular homes.
At Anastasia Avenue, stop for a walking tour of the legendary Biltmore Hotel, a majestic structure that looks more like a movie set than the plush resort it is today. Perched at the edge of an 18-hole golf course, the Biltmore still serves as the backdrop for million dollar parties and photo shoots. Converted to serve as a hospital during wartime, legend has it that the hotel hallways are still haunted by a few restless spirits. If that doesn’t scare you away, be sure to pop out back to see one of the largest swimming pools ever built. Sundays at the Biltmore are the highlight of the foodie calendar when the most opulent buffet brunch is served. If you have deep pockets and a big appetite, just try to tackle the groaning tables of gourmet treats. Be warned, the only thing left to do after a Biltmore Brunch is a nap. If you’re still mobile, the hotel offers a free carriage ride through the city when weather permits. Check at the front desk for more information. www.biltmorehotel.com
Just around the corner, the Venetian Pool is a historic oasis that’s still operating as a public swimming facility. Even if you don’t have time for a dip, grab your camera and wander along the edge of this architecturally magnificent structure and imagine the years when bathing beauties floated by on real gondolas.
At the western edge of Coconut Grove, the Villa Vizcaya is open to visitors who want to explore Miami’s answer to San Simeon. Built by millionaire industrialist James Deering, this spectacular waterfront palazzo stands in distinct contrast to the more humble wooden residence at the Barnacle State Park in Coconut Grove. If you have just a day to explore our historical sights, start out early at the lush gardens of Vizcaya and then wend your way through the quaint village of Coconut Grove to the Barnacle Estate. From here, make your way to Old Cutler Road and the John Deering property or explore the lush tropical foliage of the Fairchild Gardens.
The Barnacle Historic State Park features the home of Miami pioneer Ralph Middleton Munroe, a boat designer and civic activist. Originally constructed in 1891, the family home is surrounded by a tropical hardwood hammock that remains one of the few original landscapes in the city of Miami. Locals cherish this quiet refuge because most of the land in the area has been developed and paved. To get a real sense of the history of Miami, spend a while wandering through the grounds and the boathouse where Munroe designed his classic yachts. This is the only public property that truly reflects the image of Florida’s real past, not a tourist venue or theme park. While James Deering was creating his fantasy palace at the nearby Villa Vizcaya, Munroe sought to preserve his 40 acres of lush bayfront property in its natural state. The Barnacle is open to the public Friday through Monday 9am to 4pm. www.floridastateparks.org/thebarnacle/
Architecture buffs have long been drawn to the candy-colored hotels along South Beach. The Art Deco designs of the 1920s and 30s influenced the development of the southern tip of Miami Beach which is lined with small, square, symmetrical low-rise buildings with modern flourishes and metal rails. Many of the classic structures have been preserved and updated to reflect the look of the period when Miami Beach first started attracting visitors to our shores. Some properties are vintage on the outside but modernized enough to accommodate hotel guests who require amenities like WiFi, flat screen TVs and jacuzzi tubs. A few boutique hotels have maintained the original, smaller room sizes while others removed interior walls to create more modern and larger luxury accommodations. Touring the Art Deco district is a wonderful way to visualize the growth of Miami Beach from a small town to a massive resort destination. To see the transition, simply to drive (or take a northbound bus) up Collins Avenue. Buildings gradually grow taller and the evolution of architecture from Art Deco to Mediterranean Revival to Miami Modern Design spreads from the 1930’s at First Street up through the 1960’s at 60th Street.
Built after World War II, the northern part of Miami Beach has a futuristic inspiration. The curved surfaces, swiss cheese holes and breezeways that punctuate these structures make up the “MiMo” movement that is Miami Modernism. Architect Morris Lapidus is the most notable figure of this period. Jet planes, space ships and a completely optimistic vision of the future inspire his signature style. The Fontainebleau and Eden Roc Hotels best capture the MiMo movement, but there are many smaller structures still standing that embody this whimsical design. From the funky fountains and concrete pavilions of Lincoln Road pedestrian mall to the DiLido Hotel and Spa to the kitschy classics of North Beach, MiMo is definitely an important moment in Miami Style.
While some of our outdoor sightseeing opportunities can be a bit daunting when temperatures rise into the 90s, a better way to explore the historical sights on Miami Beach would be by sea. The North Beach Development Group promotes Miami Modern Architecture (MiMo) with printed walking maps and a 90-minute afternoon cruise that departs from the Watersports Center at 6500 Indian Creek Drive. A guided tour encompasses 1920s Mediterranean Revival Estates, Art Deco Resorts and landmark properties including the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc Hotels. Learn all about the history of Miami Beach aboard a 30-foot tour boat cruising Indian Creek, Biscayne Bay, Lake Surprise and the Flamingo Waterway. 305-865-4147 or www.gonorthbeach.com
The pastel palaces of South Beach offer a lasting impression of the Art Deco era. The Miami Design Preservation League takes interested visitors on walking tours that provide an in depth study of the evolution of early Miami Architecture. Gathering at the Welcome Center at 10th Street and Ocean Drive, 90-minute walks start at 10:30am Wednesday through Sunday. Advance tickets and reservations are not necessary for small groups; just comfortable shoes and a camera will do the trick. Explore the Art Deco Historic District which encompasses Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern hotels, restaurants and other commercial structures. Additional tours of the Lincoln Road Pedestrian Mall and the Collins Park Cultural Campus are also available. For more info – 305-672-2014 – www.mdpl.org
Florida has so much more to offer than mouse ears and thrill rides. The traditional museum and monument visits you’ll find up north can be tough to take when the sea breeze hits your hair. Luckily, you can see the sights and learn more about our state while soaking in the sun. Is it the best of both worlds?
We think so…
Our next segment is all about Great Escapes. Lucky for you, the road to paradise is only 2 lanes and a thousand bars long. Stick around and see where real Miamians go to get away from it all.