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Vizcaya Mansion Museum and Gardens, Miami, FL
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
No trip to Miami is complete without a visit to Vizcaya. Carefully designed nearly 100 years ago to resemble a centuries-old Italian Renaissance villas, the stunning house and gardens at Vizcaya are open to the public year-round. Beautiful, affordable, and conveniently located very close to downtown Miami, a visit is an amazing way to spend half a day. When you need a break from the beach, shopping, or the clubs, take a couple of hours to stroll Vizcaya's grounds and mentally regroup - you'll be glad you did.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is conveniently located near downtown Miami on the Biscayne Bay
Seahorses and Caravels
The Story Behind Vizcaya
Vizcaya was the winter home of International Harvester vice president James Deering. A rare remnant of a brief era in American history, Vizcaya was built between 1914 and 1916. Deering hired three professional designers to help him plan the estate. Originally 180 acres and designed with outbuildings, including a dairy, poultry coop, and staff housing, to resemble a norther Italian estate, each aspect of the plan had a specific designer. F. Burrall Hoffman designed the buildings, Diego Suarez crafted the gardens, and Paul Chalfin unified everything as the overall artistic director. The house was painstakingly crafted using a combination of European antiques and disguised modern conveniences.
Named for a northern Spanish province, also called Vizcaya, the estate hosted Deering and his guests for less than a decade. After he passed away in 1925, a minimal staff ran the property for the next 20 years. In the 1940s, Deering's heirs gave most of the groups to the Catholic Diocese of St Augustine and Mercy Hospital. A decade later, the same descendents gave the remaining grounds and the house to Miami-Dade County. The site has been open as a public museum since 1953.
The Vizcaya House Museum
To help preserve the antiques, photography is prohibited inside the house museum (camera flashes are exceptionally damaging to antique textiles and documents), so I do not have any personal photographs from inside the house. However, for a sneak peek of the interior, visit Vizaya's website.
Like the villas that inspired it, Vizcaya has a central, open-air courtyard. Using a central, open-air space as the functional room and heart of the home has been common in Mediterranean architecture since Roman times. Today, the courtyard at Vizcaya is covered with glass to preserve the antiques, but still provide the open-air, daylight experience.
While in the house, you can visit most of the major rooms on the first and second floors, as well as the North and South Towers. This means you have the opportunity to see well over 20 different rooms. Even though the house is well-stocked with European antiques, Deering had many of them altered to accommodate state-of-the art technologies. The home was constructed in the early 1900s and incorporated all the latest conveniences. It was built with central heating, an automatic electric telephone switchboard, elevators, electric lights, a fire control system, and even a central vacuum! You can peek inside one of the telephone closets. It is surprising to see a telephone closet hiding just outside a dining room that looks hundreds of years old!
Because the sub-tropical, salt-air environment is very harsh on the home and its contents, rooms at Vizcaya may be closed on any given day. However, when portions of the house or grounds are closed for conservation, admission discounts are frequently offered. For example, the courtyard is closed from May, 2012 through mid-September, 2012 so the glass cover may be replaced, but admission discounts are available.
The Vizcaya Gardens
The formal gardens at Vizcaya are one of the best examples of Italianate gardens in the United States today. While they have traditional Italian designs and architecture, the garden has only ever hosted plants that thrive in Mami's climate. Additionally, native limestone and coral are used extensively for architecture and sculpture. The gardens feature sculptures, pools, fountains, and clipped, or trained, plants. A small labyrinth lies in a secluded part of the garden, and the Center Island offers a fantastic view of the gardens and the South side of the main house. The first photo on this page was taken from the Center Island.
Other must-see features of the grounds include the Barge, which rests in Biscayne Bay, and the flanking Boat Landing and Tea House. Both this area and the mangroves that bound the gardens feature Venetian-like striped poles. The poles, their carefully-crated careless angles, and intentionally worn appearance almost make you expect to see masked players acting out some piece of Italian Renaissance theater.
On the North side of the house, you can visit the David A. Klein Orchadarium, cafe and shop, and swimming pool. The swimming pool is small but stunning. With beautiful blue waters and cut coral steps, the pool was designed to be accessible from outside and directly from the house. Today, the door you see in the photo below opens in to the gift shop.
Pictures of Vizcaya's GardensClick thumbnail to view full-size
Seahorses and Caravels
Learn More about Vizcaya
Can't visit Miami any time soon? Bring Vizcaya to you, instead!
How to Visit Vizcaya
Before getting in your car, call the Vizcaya office or check online to make sure it is open. The first time I tried to visit, I arrived and discovered the museum and gardens were closed on that particular day of the week. Save yourself some disappointment and call ahead! Its hours are typically 9:30 - 4:30 every day except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, but specific areas may be closed without prior notice.
Vizcaya is a great destination for non-English speaking visitors, too. The signs, guide book, and audio tour are available in Spanish and English, and the leaflets inside the house are available in an astonishing variety of languages.
Vizcaya is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have seen in recent memory. When you visit, be sure to bring your camera, fresh batteries, and plenty of storage space - film or memory cards - for your photographs.
The gardens are, of course, outside, and Miami can get pretty hot. There is a cafe on site with some tasty-looking food and beverages, but you may want to bring a bottle of water to sip while walking the gardens. Just make sure to keep the water closed up and stowed away while you are inside the house museum.
The house is enormous and the gardens are extensive, so make sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes. I work at a historic site/museum and I see people in footwear designed for the clubs, not walking. You don't look fabulous if you wear six-inch heels to a museum, you look foolish and you will leave limping.
As long as you allow enough time, wear something comfortable, and get ready to use your camera a lot, you should have an amazing time at Vizcaya. The opulence and splendor of the house contrast beautifully with the carefully crafted, yet naturalistic, beauty of the gardens and serenity of the pools and fountains. I hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did.