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Miami is a city of contrasts: an urban landscape surrounded by two national parks, it’s also a city steeped in its agricultural roots and is a gateway of international finance. What makes Miami so unusual? Its history, for one. Miami has the distinction of being the only major metropolitan city in the United States founded by a woman.
Miami began as a stretch of citrus groves owned by entrepreneur Julia Tuttle. Needing to get her produce to market, she lobbied wealthy railroad magnate Henry Flager to extend his rail line to reach southern Florida. Flager saw no need to extend his line into what he considered swamplands; his line serviced north Florida, an area with a prosperous agricultural base thanks to its temperate climate. That is, until a frost hit north Florida, destroying many crops. Legend has it Julia Tuttle sent Flager fresh flowers from her groves, demonstrating that her area was unaffected. Intrigued, Flager visited and was impressed by the tropical paradise. The first of Flager’s trains arrived on April 13, 1896, and the influx of commerce and people hasn’t stopped since. With its warm tropical climate, beautiful beaches and surrounding wilderness, Miami became a destination for Eastern seaboard millionaires, Hollywood celebrities and fun seekers.
Although you may think Miami’s natural wonders are the beautiful people on display on its various beaches, the real natural wonders are found in its surrounding areas. Miami is the only major metropolis surrounded by two national parks: The Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park.
The Everglades National Park (305-242-7700) is not only recognized as a national park, it is also recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. These conservation designations showcase the importance of the Everglades as a biological preserve. The park also has various habitats due to slight changes in elevation and water salinity. Mangroves, coastal prairie and pinelands habitats encourage different plants to thrive and many endangered species make their homes in these diverse habitats. Some of the endangered species in the Everglades include the Florida Panther, the Atlantic Ridley Turtle, Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly and the West Indian Manatee. The best way to experience the park is by airboat or canoe. There are many airboat tours available, or you can rent your own canoe for a self-guided tour.
Biscayne National Park (305-230-7275) is within site of downtown Miami, yet it is in another world. Over 95% of this park is underwater. The best way to see this park is in scuba or snorkeling gear. Here, you can see coral reefs, colorful marine life and even shipwrecks. Visit Convoy Point, which houses the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, for information. The park offers boat trips for you to snorkel or scuba. If you’d rather be above the water than under it, the park also offers ranger-guided glass bottomed boat tours and island tours.
Miami is comprised of many neighborhoods, each of which has its own charm and must-see attractions.
Downtown Miami is the business district, home to the cityscape featured in many films and TV shows. It is also home to the city’s biggest sports and entertainment venue: the American Airlines Arena (786-777-1000). The arena hosts various concerts, shows and sporting events throughout the year. So whether you’re in the mood for a Tina Turner concert, a Disney On Ice show or a Miami Heat basketball game, American Airlines Arena has you covered. Check their calendar for upcoming events and to purchase tickets.
Freedom Tower was built in the 1920’s and housed the offices of the Miami News. It lay vacant for some time after the News went out of business and has changed ownership a few times. Now, it is a monument to Cuban Americans and houses different offices and a museum documenting Cuban American life in Miami.
South Beach is the hippest, coolest neighborhood in Miami. Its diverse residents make for some great people-watching. South Beach also houses the Art Deco district, a tribute to a bygone era of elegance. The district is located along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue, between 6th and 23rd Streets. It’s hard to believe these colorful and iconic buildings were once targeted for destruction; the Miami Design Preservation League (305-672-2014) offers walking tours and maps to educate the public about the historic importance of these buildings and the need to preserve them.
Coral Gables was the first planned community in Miami. Many of its houses use natural elements such as coral, rocks or shells as building materials or design elements. Coral Gables also has a history of Old Hollywood glamour. The Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel (305-445-1926) has been a favorite of celebrities since the 1920s. You can also find a touch of Hollywood glamour at the Venetian Pool (305-460-5306 or 5357), where famed water nymph Esther Williams and Tarzan actor Johnny Weismuller swam. Built in 1923, the pool is fed through underground artesian wells. The Venetian Pool underwent major renovations, which included better access for visitors with disabilities, and reopened in May 2010.
The Coconut Grove neighborhood has several attractions. The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (305-250-9133) is a historic landmark. Built by agricultural industrialist James Deering in 1916 as his winter residence, the Vizcaya was patterned after an Italian estate, complete with antique furnishings and precisely manicured grounds. You can tour the main house and the grounds on a guided tour, or explore on your own.
The Kampong Tropical Garden was founded by horticulturalist and plant collector Dr. David Fairchild in 1916. Dr. Fairchild used the Kampong as his garden to house his rare collections. The Kampong features a collection of fruit trees, palms, and flowering trees. Many lectures and workshops about exotic plant species are conducted at the Kampong, along with food and wine tastings.
The Coconut Grove Art Festival (305-447-0401) is a yearly event usually held in February that showcases local artists and craftsmen. This large outdoor festival is a popular family event and features live entertainment, food, and of course art exhibits. Be sure to stop by the Culinary Pavilion Showcase, which has cooking demonstrations from Miami’s top chefs.
Although Cuba is only 100 miles from Florida, travel restrictions make it difficult to visit. But you can get a taste of Cuba in Little Havana, an enclave of Cuban Americans and Cuban immigrants. Calle Ocho is the main thoroughfare that extends through this community. You can find cigar factories, a wealth of authentic Cuban restaurants, and men playing dominoes in their loose-fitting guayabera shirts. The last Friday of every month is Viernes Culturales (Cultural Friday), when a large street party occurs complete with music, dancing and food. Artists display their works and street performers entertain the crowd.
As the most exclusive of all Miami communities, Bal Harbour is known for its mansions, luxury resorts and haute couture shops. Stop by the Bal Harbour Shops (305-866-0311) to get your designer fix or to enjoy some fine dining.
North Miami Beach
The oldest building in the Western Hemisphere is located in North Miami Beach. The Spanish Monastery Cloisters (305-945-1461) were built in Segovia, Spain in the 12th century. Famed newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst purchased the cloisters and had it dismantled and shipped to his warehouse piece by piece in 1925. He intended to rebuild the monastery, but financial woes precluded him from doing so. The cloisters were stored until they were finally reassembled in 1954 at the present site.
Just 159 miles southwest of Miami is one of the most interesting communities in Florida: The Keys. Locals call themselves Conchs and are fiercely proud of the quirky community they have created for themselves. It’s no wonder The Keys has long attracted writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway. His home is now a museum, and every January, the Key West Literary Seminar (1-888-293-9291) pays homage to The Keys’ literary greats, past and present.
Sports fans will find themselves quite busy in Miami. Miami is home to several professional sports teams such as the Miami Heat, the Miami Dolphins and the Florida Marlins. The Dolphins and Marlins play at Sun Life Stadium (305-623-6100), while the Miami Heat play at American Airlines Arena.
For a sport unique to Miami, check out Jai-Alai. Jai-Alai is a fast paced game that originated in the Basque country, and is a popular spectator sport in Miami. Players wear a glove with an attached wicker basket called a cesta. Players catch the pelota (or ball) in the cesta and then hurl the pelota against the wall for the opposing player to catch. The Florida Gaming Corporation is the world’s largest Jai-Alai operator in the world. They operate Miami Jai Alai (305-633-6400, ext. 311), which features a restaurant and clubhouse to enjoy your Jai-Alai experience.
Horse and dog racing both are featured at the Hialeah Park Race Track (404-507-5792), also known as the Miami Jockey Club. Hialeah Park Race Track is on the National Registry of Historic Places, in addition to being a haven for flocks of flamingoes. There are so many flamingoes in Hialeah Park that is has been designated an American Flamingo sanctuary by the Audubon Society.
Whether you’re a first time visitor to Miami or a seasoned traveler, this Florida metropolis will take your breath away. The year-round temperate weather makes this a great destination any time of the year. Just remember to pack comfortable clothing, watch your water intake and wear sunscreen!
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