Business Travel, City Breaks, Featured

Historic Homes: How to Visit Miami’s Vizcaya

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When I say ‘Miami’, I’m pretty confident you don’t immediately think ‘sprawling European  estate’.  I know I didn’t.  Which is why Vizcaya came as a pleasant surprise on my whirlwind visit to south Florida.  I’m always up for a visit to a historic home, and this particular historic home offers a rather interesting twist.

While Jefferson’s Monticello is certainly a required pilgrimage for any American history buff, and Pittsburgh’s Clayton House is fabulously preserved beyond any antique-lover’s wildest dreams, Vizcaya is  a destination for architecture lovers, garden-lovers, and anyone who loves the slightly-eccentric.

Personally, I’d visit Vizcaya for the gardens alone.  And, in fact, that’s pretty much what I ended up doing.  Here’s why: I chose the wrong kind of inside tour.  You have three options–join a (free) guided tour, tour on your own, or pay an additional $5 for the audio guide.  Because I love guided tours, I chose the first option.  Which brings me to my first tip:

When visiting Vizcaya, pay for the audio tour.

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You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the house itself. I figure this one was ok, because I was technically shooting out the window. Right? Right.

While the woman leading the guided tour was lovely and, I assume, informative, I had a hard time paying attention to her.  There were people walking around on their own.  There were other tour groups touring with their respective tour leaders.  There were people doing the audio guide.  It was general chaos.  However, I did manage to learn the following interesting facts on the tour:

-The home was built in 1914 for industrialist James Deering.  He split his time between New York, Miami, and various locales in Europe.  Thus, he wanted a bit of European luxury built for him in south Florida.  Seems reasonable, if you’re an eccentric millionaire, that is.

-The home isn’t entirely European in its design; Deering wanted European style but in the context of the Miami landscape.  Thus, the floors are limestone, not marble.  The windows face the sea, rather than the gardens.

-Symmetry was, apparently, a really big deal to Deering.  The floor and ceiling in the reception room are complete mirror images.

I learned all of the above during the first half of the tour.  Additionally, during the first half of the tour, I checked out a room that was designed entirely around an 18th century ceiling that was imported from Venice.  Who imports a ceiling?  Continuing on during the first half of the tour, I marveled at the worlds most elaborate telephone room.  I walked through a bookshelf-slash-door into a castle-like living room which included an epic fireplace, floor-to-ceiling tapestries, and a huge built-in organ.

And then I left the tour.

I just couldn’t do it.  The areas where you could walk were rather narrow, our tour group itself was huge, other bus tour groups continued to flood the rooms, and the random families completing the audio tour on their own finalized my decision to get the hell out.

I spent the second half of ‘the tour’–now in quotes–wandering around the rest of the house on my own.  I checked out the remainder of the first floor and then ventured upstairs into the living quarters, where you didn’t even need an audio guide–handy little museum-style plaques described each room.  Which brings me to my second tip:

Be sure to check out the second floor of the residence.

The second floor is informative and far, far less crowded.  Though be warned–it is also not accessible to those with limited mobility.  However, there’s a great video provided at the bottom of the stairs for those unwilling or unable to make the walk up.

It was killing me to spend so much of a beautiful Miami day inside–after all, it was February, and my Pennsylvania soul was longing for some sunshine.  So I made my way out into the gardens to spend the rest of the afternoon.  Which brings me to my final point:

Allow a lot of time to explore the gardens.

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I promise, you’ll need more time than you thought.  It took only two years to build the residence at Vizcaya.  It took seven years to create the gardens.  This is a good ratio to use when visiting yourself–spend at least three times as much time outside as inside.  You won’t regret it.

In fact, I spent so much time exploring the gardens, I’m going to have to save the garden photos for another post.  Thus, coming soon to The Suitcase Scholar–Touring Vizcaya’s Gardens: A Photo Essay.  Stay tuned!

Vizcaya is located at 3251 South Miami Avenue in the Coconut Grove neighborhood.  It is very near to the causeway to Key Biscayne and, thus, several beachy parks,  including  Virginia Key Beach Park and Bill Bags Cape State Park.  Had I know there was a lighthouse on the latter (and had I not had to catch an evening flight home) I would have definitely combined my visit to Vizcaya with a trip across the causeway.  

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