A Rich Her­itage


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 I-75 (Al­li­ga­tor Al­ley). Clewis­ton’s Ah-TahThi-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 155year-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.


In Fort My­ers, in­ven­tor Thomas Edi­son and friend Henry Ford built Florida homes, known to­day as the Edi­son & Ford Win­ter Es­tates with a mu­seum, lab­o­ra­tory and botan­i­cal gar­dens. To the north, not far from an­other his­toric land­mark, the Boca Grande Light­house in Gas­par­illa Is­land State Park is the Gas­par­illa Inn & Club, which has at­tracted visi­tors since 1913.

Kore­shan State His­toric Site in Es­tero was the scene of one of the most un­usual chap­ters in Florida his­tory. In 1894, Cyrus Reed Teed founded the Kore­shan Unity, a com­mu­nity for his fol­low­ers who be­lieved the uni­verse ex­isted within a gi­ant, hol­low sphere. To­day, the site has 11 well­main­tained his­toric struc­tures dat­ing from 1882–1920 as well as land­scaped grounds with ex­otic or­na­men­tal plants from around the world.

In Braden­ton, the Gam­ble Plan­ta­tion is the only re­main­ing an­te­bel­lum plan­ta­tion house in south­ern Florida. Nearby, the his­toric town of Pal­metto boasts its own his­tor­i­cal park for a peek back in time, as well as an an­cient Na­tive Amer­i­can lo­ca­tion, the Madira Bickel Mound State Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Site.

Far­ther north in Sara­sota, the Rin­gling Es­tate is a stand­ing legacy to the rich his­tory of the Amer­i­can cir­cus and houses a wealth of cir­cus ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing the world’s largest minia­ture cir­cus. Sur­round­ing gar­dens fea­ture an ex­ten­sive va­ri­ety of na­tive and ex­otic trees, as well as the old­est rose gar­den in Florida, founded by Mable Rin­gling. Next door, the his­toric Asolo Reper­tory Theatre is an ac­tive per­for­mance space, pre­sent­ing the best in theater, mu­sic, dance and film.


In 1949, Cape Canaveral be­came a test site for the US mis­sile pro­gram. A decade later, the Co­coa Beach-Ti­tusville area was the heart of the na­tion’s space pro­gram, in­clud­ing Apollo 11, the 1969 mis­sion that car­ried as­tro­nauts Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. Now, the Kennedy Space Cen­ter Vis­i­tor Com­plex al­lows guests to ex­pe­ri­ence the glory years of the US space pro­gram.

Lo­cated on the US Air Force Base is the his­toric Cape Canaveral Light­house; be sure to check tour in­for­ma­tion be­fore plan­ning your trip.

To the north, the Ponce de Leon In­let Light­house & Mu­seum, Florida’s tallest, guards the wa­ter­way at the south­ern end of the Day­tona Beach area.


For a sur­vey of Cen­tral Florida’s fas­ci­nat­ing past, visit the Or­ange County Re­gional His­tory Cen­ter in Or­lando to view ex­hibits such as a “cracker cabin,” a typ­i­cal pi­o­neer home from the 1800s.

One of Florida’s lead­ing African Amer­i­cans was Zora Neale Hurston, a lead­ing 20th-cen­tury au­thor whose works in­flu­enced such writ­ers as Toni Mor­ri­son and Ralph El­li­son. An an­nual fes­ti­val in Ea­tonville cel­e­brates her life and rec­og­nizes her con­tri­bu­tions to lit­er­a­ture.


Lo­cated in Tampa’s Chan­nel­side Dis­trict, the Tampa Bay His­tory Cen­ter houses 60,000 square feet of ex­hibits that link the re­gion’s mod­ern cul­ture with sports leg­ends, rail­road ty­coons, cat­tle drives, pi­o­neers, Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors and Florida’s first na­tive in­hab­i­tants. From the mu­seum, it’s a short drive to Ybor City, known as Tampa’s Latin Quar­ter for more than a cen­tury. Visi­tors can en­joy Cuban cof­fee and cigars and dance to Latin rhythms.

To the west in St. Peters­burg Beach, the Loews Don Ce­Sar Ho­tel is an his­toric ho­tel known as “Florida’s Pink Cas­tle” since it opened in 1928. An­other Florida trea­sure is Tar­pon Springs, where visi­tors can tour the his­toric sponge div­ing docks and sam­ple Greek food at nu­mer­ous restau­rants.


Back in 1513, Span­ish ex­plorer Juan Ponce de León set foot on a sandy At­lantic beach near to­day’s St. Au­gus­tine and chris­tened

the new land “La Florida,” prob­a­bly be­cause of the abun­dance of spring flow­ers. Four decades later, Pe­dro Menén­dez de Avilés founded St. Au­gus­tine, now the old­est con­tin­u­ally in­hab­ited city in North Amer­ica. With an his­toric dis­trict con­tain­ing more than 30 colo­nial-era build­ings, St. Au­gus­tine pro­vides a unique glimpse into Span­ish colo­nial life. High­lights in­clude Castillo de San Mar­cos, the old­est ma­sonry for­ti­fi­ca­tion in the con­ti­nen­tal US, and the St. Au­gus­tine Light­house & Mu­seum.

In 1738, in an at­tempt to desta­bi­lize the plan­ta­tion econ­omy of the Bri­tish colonies by cre­at­ing a free black com­mu­nity to at­tract slaves seek­ing es­cape and refuge, the Span­ish es­tab­lished the fort and town of Gra­cia Real de Santa Terese de Mosé as the first free black com­mu­nity in North Amer­ica. For an in-depth his­tory of Florida’s African Amer­i­cans and their con­tri­bu­tions, re­quest a copy of the Florida Black Her­itage Trail from Visit Florida.

To the north, Jack­sonville traces its roots to the French who landed at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 and founded Fort Caro­line two years later. How­ever, a Span­ish force soon cap­tured the fort, and the French be­came a dis­tant mem­ory. Through the years, the Span­ish main­tained con­trol of the re­gion, es­tab­lish­ing forts, farms and mis­sions, in­clud­ing Fort Caro­line and the Kings­ley Plan­ta­tion House (c. 1798), both of which are lo­cated in the Timu­cuan Eco­log­i­cal & His­toric Pre­serve, one of the last un­spoiled coastal wet­lands on the At­lantic coast. Dur­ing the 1820s, when Florida was a US ter­ri­tory, the plan­ta­tion was the home of Zepha­niah Kings­ley, a slave-owner who spoke out for civil rights, and his free African wife, Anna.

One of Florida’s hid­den his­toric trea­sures is Fer­nan­d­ina Beach on Amelia Is­land north of Jack­sonville. Many build­ings in its 50-block his­toric dis­trict are on the Na­tional Regis­ter, and the Amelia Is­land Mu­seum of His­tory show­cases the re­gion’s fas­ci­nat­ing past. Visi­tors can also tour the Amelia Is­land Light­house prop­erty on Satur­days be­tween 11 AM and 2 PM. Built dur­ing the Ter­ri­to­rial Pe­riod in 1838, it is the state’s old­est light­house. While in the area, scout out the his­toric Fort Clinch and Vis­i­tor Cen­ter for a vivid glimpse into the na­tion’s past dur­ing the Civil War.


Dur­ing the early 1800s, Florida’s pop­u­la­tion was con­cen­trated in North Florida, where Tal­la­has­see be­came the ter­ri­to­rial cap­i­tal. One of the city’s high­lights from that era is The Grove, an his­toric man­sion fin­ished in the 1830s by Richard Keith Call, an aide and ad­vi­sor to Gen­eral Andrew Jack­son.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Florida joined the Con­fed­er­acy, the smallest state to se­cede from the US. Dur­ing the war, Union troops fought the Con­fed­er­ates in sev­eral fights in the North Cen­tral area, in­clud­ing the Battle of Nat­u­ral Bridge in 1865, one of the last Con­fed­er­ate vic­to­ries in the war. To the south near Lake City, “sol­diers” in Civil War uni­forms an­nu­ally re-en­act the Battle of Olus­tee. The state also pub­lishes the Florida Civil War Her­itage Trail, a guide­book to Florida battle sites.

South­west of Tal­la­has­see, visi­tors can tour the un­spoiled fish­ing com­mu­nity of Apalachicola, the cen­ter of the state’s oys­ter in­dus­try for many decades. Nearby is the St. Marks Light­house in St. Marks Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.


One of the na­tion’s old­est cities on the Gulf Coast, Pen­sacola has flour­ished un­der Span­ish, French, Bri­tish, Con­fed­er­ate and US rule, and to­day is known as the “city of five flags.” At its heart, His­toric Pen­sacola Vil­lage in­cludes 27 build­ings and mu­se­ums op­er­ated by the Uni­ver­sity of West Florida.

In the late 1500s, the Span­ish first set­tled in the re­gion to pro­tect their set­tle­ments and galleons car­ry­ing gold from Mex­ico. Storms, bat­tles and other ac­ci­dents re­sulted in nu­mer­ous sink­ings, and divers to­day can ex­plore 12 wrecks along the Florida Pan­han­dle Ship­wreck Trail be­tween Pen­sacola and Port St. Joe. Visi­tors can also tour his­toric light­houses in the re­gion, such as the Pen­sacola Light­house and Mu­seum, built in 1859.

In the 1700s, the Bri­tish took con­trol of the re­gion, build­ing Fort Bar­ran­cas and Fort Ge­orge. Then, a Span­ish army with US vol­un­teers ousted the Bri­tish forces dur­ing a 1781 battle—a lit­tle-known vic­tory of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion.

TOP: Kennedy Space Cen­ter Vis­i­tor Com­plex. CEN­TER: Re-en­ac­tors at Fort Clinch on Amelia Is­land. ABOVE: Se­nate cham­ber in the Old Florida State Capi­tol, Tal­la­has­see. OP­PO­SITE: Pen­sacola Light­house on Pen­sacola Naval Air Sta­tion.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: Ball­room at the Break­ers Ho­tel in West Palm Beach. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM: Edi­son and Ford Win­ter Es­tates in Fort My­ers. TOP: Vin­tage ar­chi­tec­tural styles in Win­ter Park. ABOVE: Statue of early sponge diver in Tar­pon Springs.

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