Florida might be more widely known for its many wonderful and exciting theme parks – places like Disney World and Sea World Orlando – but there is far more to the sunshine state should you be willing to look a little further afield. Florida is rich in history and able to boast many fascinating sites – from titanic Civil War forts to stunning estates and manors. A history lover can have a lot of fun in Florida, including with trips to the historic Kennedy Space Center. So with that in mind, we have put together this guide to some of the very top historical locations to visit when on holiday in Florida.
This unfinished Fort, situated about 70 miles off Key West, is truly a sight to behold with its mammoth construction and stunning natural surroundings. The fort is actually located within the Dry Tortugas National Park which itself is comprised of seven individual islands. It was upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park by President Bush in 1992.
This 19th century fort was an important location during the Civil War, having been garrisoned by Union Troops and serving as a military prison. Three of those who conspired to assassinate Abraham Lincoln were also once imprisoned here.
Jim Campi, Director of Policy and Communications at the Civil War Trust, spoke to us about the historic significance of Fort Jefferson.
“Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the largest and most imposing all-masonry forts remaining in the United States. It stands as a testament to the brave soldiers, blue and gray alike, who were stationed or imprisoned there. Although never fully armed or completed, the fort served as an undeniable symbol of Northern resolve to maintain the Union. The Civil War Trust appreciates the National Park Service’s commitment to preserving and interpreting this historic treasure for the enjoyment of visitors, now and in the future.”
The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation works to preserve and protect a number of historical attractions in the state, including that of Fort Jefferson and the Edison and Ford Estates (more on this later). They were kind enough to tell us a little about the important work they do.
“The Florida Trust is a State-wide Partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and works with a variety of historic attractions, not-for-profit and governmental organizations to identify, protect, and showcase Florida’s vast and diverse heritage. Our mission is to promote the preservation of the architectural, historical and archaeological heritage of Florida through advocacy, education and historic property stewardship.”
Once you’ve made good use of your Florida park tickets, Coral Castle is a location that must surely be on your bucket list. This mysterious site is in fact a monolithic arrangement, complex and replete with huge structures, all constructed by one man from coral-formed limestone. It’s as impressive as it sounds.
Located in South Florida, Coral Castle was built and maintained by one Edward Leedskalnin in 1918, a man of only five ft. who somehow managed to erect a 28-ton obelisk which stands at 40ft tall. The site also contains a throne room and 18,000lb gate. Some rumours regarding the site’s construction involve magnetic currents, hollow blocks, a vortex, and the builder having supernatural abilities.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates
Boasting over 20 acres of botanical gardens, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates are made up of nine historic buildings which were the winter homes of icons Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Located in Fort Myers, the current site dates back to 1885 which was when Edison first visited southwest Florida, purchasing a winter retreat/vacation home. His good friend Henry Ford purchased the adjoining property in 1916.
Lisa Wilson from Edison & Ford Winter Estates spoke to us about what makes this historic location such a great place to visit.
“Edison & Ford Winter Estates is a great place to visit for many reasons. For tourists, it has something to offer for everyone. History enthusiasts will enjoy learning about both Edison’s and Ford’s inventions and the research that went into trying to find a viable source of natural rubber. More than 17,000 plants were tested in the laboratory, now a National Chemical Landmark.
“The museum is full of hundreds of inventions and artefacts, including many of Edison’s phonographs and several antique automobiles. There are more than 20 acres of botanical gardens for anyone that loves plants and trees. The third-largest Banyan in the world is here, along with many other historic trees. There are even museum exhibits for children, including a Smithsonian Spark!Lab that will open in September.
“Visitors can take a historian-led guided tour or a self-guided tour with an audio wand. Audio tours are available in English, German, Spanish and French. Guide maps are available in English, German, Spanish, French and Chinese.
“There is a casual seafood restaurant, Pinchers, next door where visitors can have lunch or dinner.”
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a picture of beauty and holds within it its own fascinating history. Today Vizcaya is a National Historic Landmark that looks to engage its community and visitors in both the arts and the environment.
“Vizcaya is Miami’s original hot spot, where the city’s interest in art, international culture and innovation began 100 years ago” the museum told us.
“Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a National Historic Landmark celebrating its centennial year. The historic home of James Deering who was vice president of International Harvester, Vizcaya’s Main House sits on the shores of Biscayne Bay and features 34 ornately decorated rooms and a beautiful formal garden, surrounded by the mangroves and a native pine rockland forest. Visitors step back in time and learn how one man’s vision impacted the history and future of Miami.”
Castillo de San Marcos
St. Augustine has a number of historic locations for visitors to Florida to get excited by, one of which is Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort that is in fact the oldest of its kind in the country.
Being over 315 years old, the fort is today a National Monument and the oldest structure in the historic area of St. Augustine.
David Chatterton, General Manager of Old Town Trolley Tours of St. Augustine, had the following to say about St. Augustine and this majestic old fort.
“Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city and is filled with colonial Spanish neighborhoods, museums and charm. It is home to the Castillo de San Marcos, a centuries old Spanish fort. The fort was built and constructed to guard the coastline against invasions. A true national treasure, the Castillo is open daily for tours.
“St. Augustine is also home to more than 60 historic sites and attractions that are easily accessible on foot or by taking the Old Town Trolley sightseeing tours. The trolley delivers a unique mix of history and entertainment.”
Henry B. Plant Museum
The Henry B. Plant Museum is a truly eye-catching piece of architecture that was built by railroad extraordinaire Henry B. Plant and completed in 1888. After the death of Henry Plant in 1899, the building was purchased by the city of Tampa in 1904, and after a stint as a hotel in 1932, it became a museum as well as the home of The University of Tampa.
This beautiful building – a National Historic Landmark – currently contains a museum of America’s Gilded Age. With its original furnishings and fascinating artefacts, the museum contains a wonderful history to explore, and visitors are helped along by a dynamic audio tour which aims to truly transport guests back into 1891.
We spoke to the Henry B. Plant Museum about why this historic location is a true highlight when travelling to Florida.
“The Plant Museum is a must-see in Tampa. The architecture takes your breath away and stepping inside is like stepping into the Victorian past. To understand the history of the Tampa Bay area, there is no better place to start than the Henry B. Plant Museum.”
CA' d'Zan, The Ringling Museum
A Mediterranean Rival mansion, the exotic and elegant Ca’ d’Zan is as lavish as its name suggests. The mansion was built in 1926 to be circus magnate John Ringling’s home during the winter months and today is a proud part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
We spoke to The Ringling about the museum and they were able to tell us some fascinating information about its historic significance.
“The John Ringling mansion, better known as the Ca’ d’Zan, is a symbol of the American Dream, showing that with hard work and determination you can become the 13th wealthiest man in the nation. His gift to the State of Florida is priceless, now developed with many museums and a world class master painting collection that is internationally famous.
“Ca’ d’Zan is the creation of Mrs John Ringling (Mable) who poured her love of the arts into the Venetian-gothic fifty-six room mansion that is one of the most visited mansions in America with over 400,000 visitors. The Circus museum has opened another aspect to Ringling’s history with displays of early to contemporary circus posters and wagons and the Tibbal’s Learning Center delights our guests with the largest miniature circus in the world.”
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