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9 Interesting Facts About Miami’s History That Will Surprise You

by Roslie L.
Published: Updated:
Tropical setting with vintage car on side of the street

Think you know Miami? It’s time to put your knowledge to the test! Today, we’re moving past the postcard-perfect beaches and buzzing nightlife to explore the sordid stories and shocking history that make this city magical. From pirate hideouts to ancient underground cities, let’s dive into the hidden depths of our unique city’s past.

Join us as we uncover the story of a trailblazing female founder who defied the odds, delve into the truth behind the hidden pirate treasures, and get a glimpse into the inspiration for the iconic film Scarface. Prepared to be surprised, intrigued, and maybe even a little hungry as we unearth the true magic of Miami, one fascinating fact at a time.

Here’s your guide to everything you didn’t know about Miami’s history.

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1. Walking on Ancestral Land: Exploring the Buried Tequesta Village Beneath Miami

The Word Miami Mayaimi along the bay

While Miami is one of the country’s youngest cities, it is built on top of one of the oldest Native American civilizations. Calling Miami home more than 4,000 years ago, the Tequesta tribe is believed to be one of the earliest residents of South Florida.

Want to step back in time and imagine how they lived? Carved into Miami’s heart, you’ll find the Miami Circle, a millennia-old mystery of 24 giant holes whispering tales of the Tequesta people and their enduring legacy. It’s one of the many relics found in the ancient Tequesta village that lies buried beneath modern-day Miami.

Fun Fact: Did you know that Miami’s name originated from the Tequesta word Mayaimi, which is believed to mean “big water” or “sweet water”? And, on the topic of names, the city’s nickname “The Magic City” was coined during the late 19th-century construction boom when the city seemed to rise almost magically from the swamps and marshlands.

Hey, history buffs! For more info on Miami’s past, be sure to check out Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami for a fascinating look into the rich history of Florida before the days of Spanish colonists. Once you’ve uncovered the ancient secrets, dive into the nineteenth and twentieth history by exploring Black History in Miami with a DIY tour of the essential historical landmarks.

2. How an Orange Blossoms Secured Miami’s Destiny

Oranges and orange blossom tree

The story of Miami started with one bold and pioneering woman: Julia Tuttle. Born in the far too chilly northern city of Cleveland, she came to Florida in the late nineteenth century. While many of the men involved in land development during the time saw the region as mosquito-infested swampland with no potential, Julia saw the incredible potential of the region.

During an icy cold snap in the northern US, the determined Julia sent orange blossoms to renowned railroad magnate, Henry Flagler (who happened to live in her home state of Ohio) to convince him of the tropical charm of South Florida — and it worked! Seeing the value of the tropical land, he agreed to expand the Florida East Coast Railway to Miami.

The railroad connected Miami to the rest of the country, and in 1896, the city was officially incorporated. This made the Magic City the only major U.S. city with a woman in its origin story.

3. Booze Boats & Backchannels: Unveiling Miami’s Prohibition Underworld

Miami has always had a wild side! In the early 20th century, it was a major hub for the illegal rum trade during Prohibition, with smugglers known as “rum-runners” using the city’s extensive waterways to transport alcohol.

Officially cementing Miami as a party city and the best winter escape, President Coolidge took a dip in Miami’s Venetian Pool in 1926 while living it up on vacation. Meanwhile, Miami Beach was transforming into the Sin City of the early twentieth century as celebs and fun-loving flappers sipped forbidden cocktails.

Want to learn more about the strange but true history of the city? You’re going to love the Miami Beach Art Deco, History & Crime Non-Touristy Walking Tour.

4. From Necessity to Inspiration: Practical and Pretty Art Deco

View of Lummus Park and the Miami Beach Art Deco District along Ocean Drive South Beach

In 1926, Miami Beach was hit by a major hurricane, and the Great Depression quickly followed. Due to a lack of funding and resources for reconstruction projects, many properties remained damaged or abandoned for years.

The need for affordable construction methods played a significant role in the emergence of Art Deco architecture. The style’s emphasis on simplicity and modern aesthetics aligned with the city’s desire for progress despite the incredible economic hardships of the era. Government programs and continued tourism further fueled the adoption of Art Deco, shaping Miami’s iconic architectural landscape.

And Miami’s iconic Art Deco architecture in the South Beach area isn’t just for aesthetics and cost-savings. After the disastrous hurricane, resilience was the word of the day.

The architecture is well-suited for hurricanes thanks to its sturdy construction and streamlined designs. Typical Art Deco buildings are made with reinforced concrete or masonry, providing structural strength against strong winds and impacts.

The sleek, aerodynamic shapes reduce wind resistance, minimizing the force exerted by hurricane winds. As a bonus, the minimal exterior ornamentation and elevated foundations further enhance their resilience, making Art Deco buildings a practical (and gorgeous!) choice.

Miami travel tip: Now that you have some insights into history, explore the Art Deco District of Miami Beach with new eyes and book the behind-the-scenes Art Deco District tour to bring your appreciation to a new level.

5. From Sunshine to Sliders: Miami’s Cultural Contributions

Attention, sun worshippers! We’ve talked numerous times about the best beaches in Miami, and it’s high time that we honor the man who made these countless hours in the sun possible: Benjamin Green, the man who brought sunscreen to the US.

The popular Coppertone sunscreen was born right here in Miami when the pharmacist came home from WWII looking for a way to protect pilots from the harsh sun rays.

Just a decade later, in a fun but unrelated turn of events, the world’s first Burger King opened its doors in Miami Beach in 1954, forever changing the fast-food landscape.

Miami travel tip: Love food but not really into chain restaurants? Grab our guide to Where to Eat in Miami: 30+ Hidden Food Gems.

6. From Humble Beginnings to Vibrant Hub: Little Havana Springs to Life

Lady serving Cuban food from buffet

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Little Havana neighborhood was a nameless working-class corner. In the 1950s, when political turmoil spread across Cuba, waves of immigrants began arriving. They converged in the affordable area, now Little Havana, and developed a mutual support network. Cuban cafes, cigar factories, and restaurants boomed as the neighborhood began to thrive.

Fun fact: Did you know that 70% of Miami’s population is Hispanic, with Cuban Americans making up a whopping 54% of the city? Latin and Caribbean influences are interwoven into the heart of Miami. To fully appreciate one of the things that make the city special, diving into Cuban American culture is essential.

Sip Cuban coffee, indulge at the local bakeries, and explore the ventanitas (the famous walk-up windows at cafes and restaurants) on a DIY tour of Little Havana. Once you’ve got the lay of the land, book your spot on the Little Havana Food and Walking Tour. This iconic Miami tour will give you an inside look at the best family-owned spots and walk you through Miami’s history.

7. A Tale of Two Titans: The Wonders of the Everglades National Park

Alligator heading into water at Everglades National Park Shark Valley Miami Florida

Miami’s Everglades holds the unique title of being the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist naturally. With diverse habitats ranging from swamps to mangroves, the Everglades gives both a place to thrive, showcasing the delicate balance of conservation success.

Gators rule the freshwater, and crocs lurk in salt water — and you can be in the center of it all! Feeling inspired? Biking the Shark Valley Trail is the best way to visit the Everglades and soak in the incredible beauty of the local ecosystem.

8. Scarface and the City: A Match Made in Miami

Rooftop with cabanas, pool and large building in the distance

In the searing South Florida sunshine, Miami wasn’t just Scarface’s backdrop; it was its co-star. The film didn’t merely borrow the city’s setting; it inhaled its very essence.

From the Cocaine Cowboys era of the 70s and 80s, awash in drug money and desperation, Scarface draws its grit and Tony Montana’s relentless ambition. Art Deco landmarks like the Fontainebleau Hotel become opulent symbols of allure and danger, mirroring the film’s exploration of wealth and its dark side.

Beyond glitz and bloodshed, Scarface delves into Miami’s cultural soul. Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant navigating assimilation, reflects the struggles of many who arrived during that era. While Scarface may be fiction, its enduring impact stems from its ability to capture the true pulse of Miami – a city as vibrant and captivating as it is turbulent and layered.

Love crime history? Join the unforgettable Miami “Cocaine Capital of the 80’s” History Tour for an absolutely wild ride.

Fun fact: The story of immigration is central to Miami’s history, and it’s made the Magic City one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the United States, with more than 80 different languages spoken in the metropolitan area.

9. Honoring the Unique Culture and History of Miami with 305 Day

People hanging out in open courtyard

Miami is a vibrant tapestry of diverse cultures, rich history, and infectious energy that deserves its own special day—and that day is March 5th! Aptly named 305 Day, this day is a celebration as unique and multifaceted as the city itself.

Born in 2014, 305 Day has blossomed from a local gathering into a full-fledged block party and community initiative. Spearheaded by 305 Cafecito, a local business with deep Miami roots, it’s been amplified by the iconic Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull, who joined forces in 2020.

What Is 305 Day?

305 Day is a love letter to everything Miami: the mouthwatering flavors from different cultures, the electrifying music that fills the streets, the vibrant art that reflects the city’s soul. Local businesses flaunt their goods and remind us of the importance of shopping locally, while a yearly roundup of charitable initiatives helps bring up the community.

Every year, there is a dazzling lineup of live music, performances, photo walls, family-friendly activities, and local vendors. Come hungry to taste the global flavors with local restaurants serving everything from pastelitos to burgers to vegan eats. For a full rundown of the events, hop over to the official Miami 305 Day site

Final Thoughts: Exploring Miami’s History and Culture

Aerial view of Miami Florida

The history of Miami is a tale of resilience, innovation, and cultural richness. From its ancient Tequesta roots to its modern-day cultural events like 305 Day, the city’s evolution reflects a vibrant blend of adventure, diversity, and community spirit. Whether you’re exploring buried treasures, admiring Art Deco architecture, or savoring culinary delights, you can’t help but fall in love with Miami.

Feeling inspired to dig deeper into Miami culture? You need our 101 Things to Do in Miami: The Ultimate 2024 Miami Bucket List.

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