Miami Culture Enlightening weekend alternatives

Only 105 years old, Miami is young by American standards. Yet the diverse city offer of some of most varied cultural and historical hotspots in the American South. Its history is market by good times and bad, success and utter abandonment.

From the works of Picasso and De Kooning being offered throughout the city’s art galleries to the history of bacteria at the Museum of Science, Miami and its surrounding communities serve up a uniquely appetizing dish of old and contemporary history and culture.

Here are some of the more interesting and unique spots Miami has to offer:

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

3251 South Miami Avenue

Once you have made your way through the tree canopied, winding road that leads to this mansion, you will think you have been invited to the summer residence of a powerful Venetian doge during the Renaissance. Millionaire industrialist James Deering commissioned the 180-acre estate to resemble a self-sufficient Italian villa. When it was completed in 1916 it was the toast of the then-fledgling Miami, and still is. After Deering died in 1925 and the fierce hurricane of 1926 ravaged Miami, the estate was left in disarray until the county purchased it in 1952.

A tour of the mansion is a vivid lesson in European architectural history, as each room represents a different time period. Stories abound in every corner, and if your docent is good enough, they will share with you all of Vizcaya’s secrets – from the original Titanic-doomed china set of the sparse whitewashed kitchen to the origins of the dummy waiter.

While a tour inside the mansion is not to be missed, the view of the bay and a forever foundering concrete ship also commissioned by Deering is breathtaking. The gardens, a revival of formal European gardens a la Versailles, are also a sight to see with its maze of evergreen shrubs, tree-lined paths and classical statues and sphinxes.

A visit to Vizcaya is a one-of-a-kind true escape from the chaos of the modern city and a refreshing cultural break.

Admission: $10

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The Biltmore Hotel

1200 Anastasia Avenue

You can gaze at the Biltmore Hotel’s majestic tower, a replica of the Giralda Tower in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain, from the University of Miami campus. Up close, the Biltmore is even more dazzling. Built in 1926, this luxury hotel has graced the Coral Gables skyline for decades of success and abandonment.

Coral Gables land developer George Merrick and Biltmore Hotel magnate John McEntee built the structure at the height of the Florida land boom. The hotel was a haven for northern socialites during the heady days of the Roaring ’20s, and survived the economic turmoil of the Depression by hosting royalty and guests such as Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, and the notorious Al Capone.

The hotel was converted into a hospital by the army during World War II. Serving as an early site of the UM School of Medicine, it remained a VA hospital until 1968. The city of Coral Gables was granted ownership in 1973, but it was left abandoned until 1983 when it began to undergo a full restoration.

Thanks to its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1996, visitors are free to roam the stately lobby and corridors. Ripe with Corinthian columns, Italian-styled rafters, an enormous pool, luxurious ballrooms, and 18-hole championship golf course the hotel is an amalgamation of fine faux European craftsmanship and an elite getaway for the wealthy and heads of state.

Local historian Linda Spitzer tells “ghost tales” every Thursday night for free in the lobby. With so many rich ups and downs, the hotel has many a tale to tell. Venture the hotel on your own or with friends, and if you’re not rowdy, take the elevator to the 10th floor, and then climb the stairs to the unmarked 13th floor and see if you can sneak into the two-story suite incorrectly known as the “Al Capone suite.” Something definitely haunts this opulent hotel.

Admission: Free

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Miami’s Freedom Tower

600 North Biscayne Boulevard

Before the late Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) chairman Jorge Mas Canosa purchased the Freedom Tower for $4.2 million in 1997, it was just another one of downtown Miami’s decrepit and forlorn buildings. It was a disgrace to its past glory.

The Mediterranean-style building sits on the site of Miami’s first train station, and its top was used as a beacon by ship captains to guide them into port. The building opened in 1925 as the headquarters of “The Miami Daily News & Metropolis,” the city’s first newspaper. In 1957, the newspaper sold the building to the U.S. General Service Administration.

The building gained its name and entered its most important period in 1959 when dictator Fidel Castro took over Cuba. More than 500,000 Cubans fled to America and many were processed in the building, rendering it the Ellis Island of the South.

The government abandoned the building in 1974, and the insurmountable cost to transform the narrow building into space for offices left it once again abandoned.

The building now resembles the beauty it once was in the Miami skyline thanks to the CANF. Doused in tropical yellow, it is sometimes the site for protests, hunger strikes, rallies, prayers and marches. Some of the plans the CANF has in store for the tower include a 15,000-square-foot gallery and interactive museum; a library and research center featuring a database of Cuban immigrants who have arrived in the United States; an outdoor Freedom Plaza landscaped with typical Cuban flora, and a ceiba, or kapok tree.

Admission: Free

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Cloisters of the Monastery of

Saint Bernard de Clairvaux

16711 W. Dixie Highway

How did the oldest building in North America end up in South Florida?

Originally built in the 12th century in the Segovia Province of Spain, the monastery was the home of Cistercian monks for 700 years until a social revolution in the 1830’s turned it into a granary and stable.

Media titan William Randolph Hearst purchased the Cloister and the Monastery’s outbuildings and had it dismantled and shipped to America stone by stone in 1925. Fearing an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, the shipment was quarantined and stored in a Brooklyn warehouse for 26 years until they were purchased by Messrs. W. Edgemon and R. Moss to be used as a tourist attraction.

The cloisters include beautiful monastery gardens, vaulted cloisters, and a chapel straight out of another time.

Admission: $5, $2.50 with Student I.D.

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Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium

3280 South Miami Avenue

Like most museums of science, Miami’s is aimed mostly at children and their families. This is not to say that it is not worth a visit. Flashy and enticing exhibits include “Kinetosaurs: Dinosaurs You Move!” which features marionette dinosaurs that you control, “The Atoms Family,” where monster characters Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy present you with energy concepts, and “Smithsonian Expedition: Exploring Latin America & the Caribbean,” where you traverse the Americas via an Indiana Jones styled adventure.

The always-fascinating planetarium offers daily shows on constellations, flying stars, and other universal phenomenon. Friday nights, the planetarium truly is out-of-this-world, offering a laser lights show that harmonizes with the music of Pink Floyd.

Admission: $10, $8 with Student I.D.

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Miami Art Museum

101 West Flagler Street

While Miami lacks in the fine art scene when compared to other major American metropolitan areas with the paltry exhibition space that is the Miami Art Museum, the museum compensates with its permanent collection of western hemisphere art after the 1940’s and wide collection of international art and touring exhibits.

Admission: Varies $5 to Free,

depending on the day

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