Even though Miami is a young city, having been incorporated just 120 years ago, some neighborhoods are hoping to hold onto what makes their fascinating past.
“Knocking down old buildings and slapping up a new [one], then everybody’s neighborhood would look the same,” said Annalisa Damley, MiMo Biscayne Association board member, which encourages developers to restore mid-century buildings in this historic neighborhood north of Downtown Miami.
Preservation efforts can prove difficult in this melting pot of a city, explained Christine Rupp with the Dade Heritage Trust, but “public education is the best way to [overcome] that hurdle.” Discover three of the most interesting communities that Miami has to offer—Downtown Miami, Overtown and MiMo—and get an intriguing look at the art, architecture and history through a variety of walking tours.
Downtown Miami has roots dating back some 2,000 years. The Tequesta Indians, Spanish missionaries and black slaves all once called the area home. Today, its bustling financial district and multi-million-dollar high rises stand next to 20th-century buildings with Art Deco architecture. Many of the historic buildings today are being reused. For example, the former Miami National Bank during the booming 1920s is now The Langford Hotel, a boutique hotel and cocktail bar, a 10-minute walk from Bayfront Park.
Stroll through Downtown Miami to see examples of Neoclassical Revival architecture and Art Deco at the Shoreland Arcade. Learn the history of the Miami News/Freedom Tower, once home to Miami’s first newspaper and a processing center for nearly 300,000 refugees fleeing Cuba's revolution. Step inside a glorious 1920s movie palace, Olympia Theater, or admire the architecture of the Alfred I. Dupont Building, designed to resemble New York City’s Rockefeller Center.
Tours: The Miami Center for Architecture and Design offers two-hour walking tours every other Saturday, from its office in the 1912 Old Post Office Building at the center of the city's Historic District. The tour covers a three-block radius in the core of the Central Business District and highlights several of Downtown Miami’s best historic buildings, most of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Tickets: $20/$15 for seniors and students.
Overtown is one of Miami's most colorful and storied neighborhoods. Once known as "Colored Town," Overtown is where blacks who built Miami’s railroads and hotels were allowed to stay. The historic area thrived in the 1900s as the epicenter of black culture. The neighborhood, called “Little Broadway,” welcomed iconic African-American entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Billie Holiday to name a few, who stayed in the area after performing in beach resorts.
For a great history lesson, walk through Overtown where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with activists during the Civil Rights Movement at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Visit The Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum, built in 1950, as it includes memorabilia from the city's all-black police force during segregation. Stop at the Lyric Theater, once a movie and vaudeville theater during its heyday, it was a hub of entertainment attracting the "who's who" in music and dance. Today, it hosts "Lyric Live," an amateur comedy night the first Friday of every month. After sightseeing, head to Jackson Soul Food for some down-home cooking that keeps people coming back again and again for their fried catfish and biscuits.
Tours: Big Bus Tours offers hop-on-and- hop-off tours of historic Downtown Miami including Overtown. Book the Uptown Green Loop with stops at the Black Police Precinct Museum and the Lyric Theater.
The Urban Tour Host features Miami Cultural Community Tours that are privately booked; Miami Native Tours and the Miami Heritage Experience also provide educational experiences of Miami's heritage communities.
The Miami Modern District (MiMo) lies north of the trendy Miami Design District and the up-and-coming area of Little Haiti, along Biscayne Boulevard from 54th to 77th streets. The low-key area once boasted the largest collection of motels with mid-20th century architecture. The “Miami Modern” style spanned through the 1950s when the neighborhood fell into disarray and later those Art Deco motels gained a seedy reputation.
After years of redevelopment, the area is a top visitor destination. MiMo is an eclectic mix of restored motels that dot the major north/south artery called Biscayne Boulevard (US1), including the New Yorker Boutique Hotel, The Vagabond Hotel Miami and the Shalimar Motel along with trendy shops like Gypset Miami, Rebel and a recent outpost of luxury fashion brand Trina Turk. See first-hand how locals have transformed the area’s historic commercial buildings into cozy pubs, trending restaurants, charming antique shops and retro-style hotels.
As you drive south on U.S. Route 1, you can't miss seeing the iconic 35-foot Coppertone Girl sign on 7300 Biscayne Boulevard. Designed in 1958, Miami's most-famous sunbather shows off her cheeky assets that hints at the naughty side of this old Miami place.
Tours: Spend time inside some of Miami’s greatest residential gems of the lush enclave of the Upper Eastside at the annual Morningside Historic Home Tour held in April to coincide with Dade Heritage Trust Days.
The Upper Eastside Farmer’s Market is open every Saturday at Legion Park from 9 am to 2 pm.