By Paul Rubio
Visitors of Miami already know about its sparkling beaches, trendy boutiques, Art Deco architecture, and authentic Cuban food. What about a 12th century Spanish monastery, the largest tropical botanical garden in the continental United States, or the only swimming pool on the National Register of Historic Places?
Peel away the city’s more predictable top layer, and you will soon discover a number of under-the-radar attractions that surprise and delight. Here, our five favorites, all within an hour’s drive of Acqualina.
The Ancient Spanish Monastery
Though Juan Ponce de León was the first European to reach Miami in 1513, the city’s European history dates four centuries prior thanks to a rather special delivery. After a painstaking stone-by-stone disassembly, the circa 1133 Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux was shipped in 11,000 crates from Segovia, Spain to the United States and resurrected true to original form in North Miami Beach in 1953. Roam the cloisters, gardens, and church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux today, and find the spirit of medieval Spain still very much alive—on the other side of the world. Docent-led tours offer greater insight into the church’s history and transplant.
Cost: $10 per adult; $5 per child.
Miami is all about great swimming pools, but this one surely tops them all. Welcome to Venetian Pool, an aquifer-fed, 820,000-gallon municipal pool sculpted into a coral rock quarry and accessorized with waterfalls, grottos, lookout towers, and a Venetian-style bridge. The pool was constructed during the Roaring Twenties, underscoring developer George Merrick’s Mediterranean vision for the city of Coral Gables. It soon attracted the likes of Paul Whiteman, Johnny Weissmuller, and Esther Williams, branding Venetian Pool a national icon. Nowadays, it’s still possible to take a dip in the only swimming pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places and admire the pool’s glory years through fabulous vintage photo galleries.
Cost: $15 per adult; $10 per child.
Photo: City of Coral Gables
This canary-yellow, Schultze & Weaver-designed tower near Biscayne Bay was originally constructed in 1925 as the headquarters and printing press for The Miami News. But in the 1960s, the tower gained recognition as the “Ellis Island of the South,” housing the Cuban Refugee Center which processed and documented over a half-million Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime. On the outside, the restored Freedom Tower stands today as a monument of liberty; on the inside, it houses the MDC Museum of Art + Design, which focuses on contemporary Latin art and pop art (and also includes a Cuban Exile Experience & Cultural Legacy Gallery).
Photo: MDC Museum of Art and Design
Arguably the most creative of Miami locales, Coral Castle tells a tragic love story through 1,100 tons of coral rock. Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin was set to marry when his 16-year-old bride-to-be backed out at the 11th hour. Overcome with sadness and determined to prove his love, he single-handedly built a shrine to his lost love over 28 years using only hand tools. The result, Coral Castle, is a collection of Flintstone-style, carved megalithic stones and towers made from 1,100 tons of limestone—truly a have-to-see-it-to-believe-it artful masterpiece.
Cost: $18 per adult; $8 per child.
Photo: Coral Castle
Fairchild Tropical Gardens
At 83 acres, Fairchild Tropical Gardens is officially the largest tropical botanical garden in the continental United States. But it’s also one of its finest. Among this verdant and vast world of lakes, plants, and sunken gardens lies a 2-acre rainforest (complete with a stream), a conservatory home to rare tropical plants, a research facility devoted to palms and cycads, a mangrove habitat housing migratory and resident birds, and a whole lot of orchids, rare palm trees, and exotic fruit trees. You can explore the grounds on foot or by tram, but be sure to finish your tour at The Glasshouse Café which serves organic and locally grown fare.
Cost: $25 per adult; $12 per child.
About the Contributor
Travel journalist Paul Rubio is a Miami native who has lived in nine countries and traveled to 110 (and counting). Rubio’s writing appears in Condé Nast Traveler, LUXURY, Robb Report, Private Clubs, and ultratravel.