From swashbuckling tales of Spanish adventurers to Civil War battles and US astronauts’ first ventures into space, Florida’s history is an intriguing one. Visit coastal forts and lighthouses, museums, mansions and vintage hotels. Explore a variety of Native American, African American and Hispanic cultural sites that bring Florida’s past to life. Myriad historic treasures are waiting to be rediscovered throughout the state.
Thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived, Florida was populated by Native Americans such as the Tequesta people, who lived near the mouth of the Miami River. After an excavation uncovered the remains of a village, the state Division of Historical Resources has preserved the site as the Miami Circle Park.
Other Native American tribes survived the incursion of northern settlers in the 1800s by moving into the Everglades, where they gradually rebuilt their societies. Now, visitors can learn about the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, sample native cuisine, take a ride on an airboat or watch alligator wrestling at Billie Swamp Safari and other attractions along US 41 (Tamiami Trail) and 1-75 (Alligator Alley). Clewiston’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (meaning “a place to learn”) is a living village of early Seminole culture and definitely worth a visit.
To help mariners avoid rocks and reefs, several lighthouses, erected in this region in the 1800s, are open to visitors. For fascinating glimpses into Florida’s past, tour the Garden Key Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson National Monument and nearby Loggerhead Key Lighthouse (both in Dry Tortugas National Park); the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne near Miami; and the 155-year-old Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Palm Beach County, where outdoor exhibits include the Lighthouse Keeper’s Workshop, the Tindall Pioneer Homestead and a Seminole chickee.
The Museum of Art & History at the Custom House in Key West is South Florida’s most important historic building. Built in 1891, the red brick national landmark has been returned to its former glory following a nine-year, US$9-million restoration project. Exhibitions within expose visitors to a Florida they may have never known. Clinton Square Market, now a bi-level shopping mall, is housed in an 1800s building that was once a US Navy coal depot. Historic Key West also offers the Harry S. Truman Little White House, a favorite vacation spot for the president in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.
Other cultural sites in the region include Miami’s historic Lyric Theater, which was a major entertainment center for African Americans in the state’s segregated society. A few blocks to the south, Little Havana reflects Miami’s Cuban heritage, with restaurants, clubs and shops where you can buy hand-rolled cigars. Pioneer homes and historic hotels are found in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Two examples are Stranahan House on the New River in Fort Lauderdale and the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens near the Intracoastal Waterway. In Palm Beach County, the Boca Raton Resort and Club, the Colony Hotel & Cabana Club in Delray Beach and the world-famous Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach are examples of Florida architecture from the 1920s. The Breakers actually dates back to the late 1890s when railroad magnate Henry Flagler began bringing northern visitors to Florida, but after the hotel’s second disastrous fire, it was rebuilt in 1926.