If you could step back in time and visit Miami 100; 50; or even 20 years ago, you would find a very different place than you would today. Perhaps because Miami is a place constantly in flux, its past is often forgotten or simply masked by the city’s loud and flashy reputation. Downtown Miami is a great symbol of that ongoing transformation. One of our most popular tours – the Miami Magic City Bus and Walking Tour – introduces guests to Miami’s various neighborhoods, including a brief stop in downtown. The past several years have seen the development of four tours that explore each Miami neighborhood in depth: Coral Gables – The City Beautiful, A Path through Old Cocoanut Grove, Cuban Heritage Tour, and Tropical Deco in a Fabled Playground. But something was missing – we didn’t have a tour for that fifth Miami neighborhood: downtown. For a long time, we had dreamt of creating a product that focused on the downtown area and would educate Miami’s visitors on how the history of downtown Miami and its dynamic present are linked. Last year, our intern Janine helped make that dream a reality and we can now share with visitors what the tens of thousands of the new downtown high-rise condo residents have already discovered.
Five Centuries in the Making – A Walking Tour of Downtown Miami is a historical journey that spans – if you didn’t already guess – five centuries; it is an exploration of the events and individuals that transformed a small, Indian settlement into the bustling and thriving “Capital of the Americas” it is today. The most defining feature of this activity is that it takes place on foot. You’re not seeing skyscrapers pass by as you look through a bus window; instead, you’re walking the same streets locals walk and experiencing downtown Miami’s unique sights, sounds, and smells up close.
The tour begins at the mysterious and controversial Miami Circle, a location that provides participants with a breathtaking and inspiring view of the Port of Miami and a chance to learn more about the Tequesta Indians. Our journey through history continues with a stop at Flagler’s Palm Cottage. Built in the late 1880s, the cottage is a structure drastically different than the typical downtown building. In fact, many of the places at which we stop don’t look like they belong in a downtown area – especially the stately (and pink!) Gesu Church and the Olympia Theater.
Five Centuries in the Making includes a visit inside the Olympia Theater, which in my opinion is the highlight of the day. When it was built in 1926, the structure amazed theater-goers with its unique architecture. The “atmospheric theater” looks like a palace garden; there is even a machine that transforms the ceiling into an open sky complete with fluffy and slowly-drifting clouds. Maurice Gusman saved this one-of-a-kind theater from demolition when he purchased it in the 1970s and later donated it to the city. Dragonfly Expeditions supports the still-struggling venue by donating a portion of the proceeds from Five Centuries in the Making.
The route also takes us to historical locales such as the Langford, Huntington, Ingraham, Alfred I DuPont, and Seybold Buildings – each with their own story. In three short hours participants discover a mural of the Royal Palm Hotel hidden beneath a bridge, learn about the determined pioneer women who carved this city from a rough and unforgiving wilderness, become inspired by the story of the family that started La Época, discover the origin of Macy’s, and hear the stories of the tall courthouse from which prisoners once escaped. The end of our journey finds us near Bayfront Park, where we gaze up at the Freedom Tower, Miami’s own “Statue of Liberty.”
Five Centuries in the Making is an experience that counters Miami stereotypes. I was new to Miami when I participated in this tour for the first time and it was definitely not what I expected. Some would say that South Florida is devoid of culture; well, those people are downright wrong! This tour not only taught me that the Magic City has a rich history rife with progress, setbacks, and determination that laid the groundwork to what Miami is today, but also exposed me to Miami’s varied culture. Experiencing this tour left me with a new and surprising perspective of downtown Miami – a perspective I hope Dragonfly Expeditions can share with many visitors to come.