South Florida has many faces — beautiful beaches, acres of farmland, a bustling international center for business, and even a canvas for world-renowned graffiti artist. In recent years, the cultural, culinary and artistic landscape has really expanded and evolved, stretching far beyond South Beach.
As summer winds down and the temperature begins to cool, sign up for one of these specialized tours to discover — or rediscover — all there is to see.
When George Merrick set forth to build his Spanish Mediterranean style village in the 1920s, he probably never imagined Coral Gables would become one of South Florida’s thriving business districts and coveted places to live.
“Tours have increased in Coral Gables,” said Caroline Parker Santiago, director of programs at the Coral Gables Museum. “People are becoming aware there is more to Miami and Dade County beyond the beach.”
Learn about the area’s history and architecture on a walking tour with stops at the Hotel St. Michel, the Café Demetrio, and the site where Merrick once sold parcels of land (now the Westin Colonnade Hotel). The tour departs from The Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave., every Saturday at 11 a.m. Cost is $10 per person.
While you’re there, don’t miss the museum’s one-of-a-kind mini golf course designed by some of Miami’s leading architects and contractor, available through Sept. 30. Cost is museum admission ($7 for adults/$5 for kids) plus a $3 greens fee. For details, visit www.coralgablesmuseum.org.
Also in Coral Gables, the historic Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., offers a free tour of its grounds, including anecdotes about famous movie stars who lounged by the pool, infamous mobsters and ghost stories. Don’t miss a look at the Al Capone Suite (when not occupied), located in the hotel’s tower, where legend says the ghost of Capone’s bodyguard still roams.
Little Havana is finally getting the respect it deserves. A rising artistic community and mix of eateries have transformed this Cuban barrio into a must-visit hotspot. These days, double-decker buses and hotel shuttles make regular stops in front of famed Domino Park. Foodies flock here too for the local flavor, from the classic El Exquisito to the trendy 2B Asian Bistro and Azucar ice cream shop.
Miami Culinary Tours, one of Miami’s pioneering culinary tour companies, also helped put Little Havana on the map. The tour combines history and food tastings along historic Calle Ocho, with stops in art galleries, cigar shops, fruit stands, restaurants, and more. The tour is available Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. Cost is $55 per person (includes food and beverages). They also offer tours in South Beach. For details, visit www.miamiculinarytours.com.
Viernes Culturales is a great deal. The monthly street festival, on the last Friday of every month, does not charge admission and features live music, dancing, art, and street vendors in the heart of Little Havana. One of the best parts is a free walking tour led by historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George, who takes the group to important landmarks and down residential streets with a bullhorn in hand. The group meets in front of the Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St. The next Viernes Culturales tour will take place at 7 p.m. on Sept. 27. For details, visit www.viernesculturales.org.
Downtown Miami / Brickell / Miami River
Part museum, part gallery space and educational center, HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., continues its mission of gathering, preserving and celebrating Miami’s rich history. One way it achieves this is through City Tours, a variety of specialized tours that explore neighborhoods and landmarks across Dade County by walking, cycling, on a boat, coach bus, or even the Metro Mover.
Among its most popular is the Miami River Boat tour, which takes passengers through the river’s winding waterways. The next tour is scheduled for Oct. 20. There will also be a boat tour on Nov. 10 to Stiltsville, a collection of wood stilt houses in the middle of Biscayne Bay dating back to the 1930s. The cost is from $250 to $600 per guide/per tour (for groups). For individual tours and more details, visit www.historymiami.org.
Design District / Wynwood
Did you know Miami is home to three of the top art collections in the world? Susana Baker, founder of The Art Experience, has the scoop on that and much more in the Design District and Wynwood.
“We take you off the beaten path,” Baker said. “We want to take you to places you would not dare venture on your own.”
One of the most impressive stops is the Wynwood Walls, an outside gallery featuring graffiti art by some of the most respected, contemporary artists in the world. The tour visits galleries and world-renowned collections. Another neat factor is getting to visit the Wynwood Lofts, where some of the artists actually live and work. The Art Experience pairs the art tours with lunch or dinner at some of the area’s most celebrated restaurants. There are several packages available. The cost ranges from $65 to $125. For more details, visit www.theartexperience.com.
To learn about the history, development and architecture of Miami Beach, visit the Miami Design Preservation League office on Ocean Drive and sign up for a guided Art Deco Walking Tour for $20. The self-guided iPod-based tour, $15, offers flexibility and the opportunity to see it all at your own pace. The self-guided tour is available in four languages, seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Other tours include Jewish Miami Beach, MiMo, Gay and Lesbian, and South Beach Food Tour. For details, visit www.mdpl.org.
For nearly 20 years, every January, Robert Burr and the Dade Heritage Trust present Rob’s Redland Riot Road Rallye, coined “a fruity, tropical history tour through Miami’s bountiful countryside.” This guided automobile excursion takes a caravan of motor vehicles through Redland with checkpoints at several farms and historical landmarks, including Knaus Berry Farm, Fruit & Spice Park, Florida Pioneer Museum, Robert is Here, and Schnebly Winery, among others. Last year’s newcomer was Phil’s Berry Farm.
“We always go in January because the strawberries are ripe and all the places are open,” said Burr. “It’s a great time to remind people to visit the countryside.”
It’s also a contest. The cost to participate is $10 per car/team to receive a sealed envelope with contest questions and route map. The first team to turn in the most correct answers before 5 p.m. wins a basket of gift certificates. The next Riot Road Rallye begins at 10 a.m. on Jan. 18.
Can’t wait that long? No problem. Visit the event page at www.redlandriot.com and print the map for free for a do-it-yourself adventure anytime.
Susana Baker, far right, leads visitors on The Art Experience tour with a stop at the Wynwood Walls. Photo: Allison Diaz