At Miami's Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens, a European tour in one palatial estate

The entrance to the Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens, built in 1916.
The entrance to the Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens, built in 1916. Photo Credit: Holly V. Kapherr

Strolling the winding paths and formal gardens and admiring the exterior of the Italian-style villa is reason enough to visit Miami's Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens. But there is so much more to appreciate within the walls of that palatial residence itself: the historical artifacts, decor and architecture rivals anything you might find at any of the world's great museums.

Built as a winter home in 1916 on Biscayne Bay by farm-equipment tycoon James Deering, the original house and furnishings are remarkably well-preserved, especially considering the storms the property has endured over the past century (most recently, 2017's Hurricane Irma, which flooded the bottom level entirely, and which still has not reopened to the public since).

History buffs and art history lovers will admire the breadth of art and architectural details put into the construction of the house and its furnishings by creative director, artist and interior designer Paul Chalfin. Each room embodies a different style of architecture, making guests feel as though they've stepped into a separate Italian villa, French chateau or English castle at every turn.

Guests walk through the Greco-Roman-style receiving hall to the Renaissance living room, featuring 12th century tapestry, wood carvings and paintings; an intensely ornate French rococo sitting room; a bedroom styled in silk-wallpapered chinoiserie; Napoleonic coffered ceilings and canopies above artifacts straight from Pompeii and a marble slab from Rome, repurposed as a side table; and an early-English library.

There are some curious surprises, as well, including some technology that Deering wasn't completely comfortable incorporating into the house. One of the original Otis elevators is in the northwest corner, obscured by a dark doorway. Only 8% of households in 1916 had a telephone, but Deering had one installed in a phone booth between the sitting room and living room. He also had a bell-ring system installed, with pulleys in each room that correspond to a small, labeled light in the servants' quarters whenever a member of the household was in need of anything.

The kitchen, curiously located on the second floor, was placed there to "avoid the odors of cooking food wafting throughout the house," according to our docent. Technologies like a dumbwaiter (which would transfer food from the kitchen to the serving pantry), refrigeration, and stainless steel counters and sinks were advances Deering incorporated for convenience but were well out of sight of guests. Deering wanted to preserve the illusion that the house had been passed down and inhabited for centuries.

A fountain in the interior courtyard of the Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens in Miami.
A fountain in the interior courtyard of the Vizcaya Museum House & Gardens in Miami. Photo Credit: Holly V. Kapherr

Heading outside, guests can spend several hours wandering the delightfully symmetrical formal gardens, which look like a cross between the gardens of Versailles and the Roman Forum. Statues, vases, fountains and staircases beg to be photographed, and on the day I visited, there were no less than five photographers snapping away at the gorgeous greenery. Deering loved orchids, and many species can be seen in trees and in the newly rebuilt David A. Klein Orchidarium next to the main house.

As the weather heats up, visitors can find relief in the cool breezes that float in off of Biscayne Bay, watching kite surfers and parasailers from the terrace outside the south-end loggia. The house itself is air-conditioned, so even if the terrace doesn't feel like a break from the heat, just duck inside.

Admission to the museum and gardens is $22. A 45-minute guided tour (priced at $5) is a good investment, as the docents have a well-rounded knowledge of each of the rooms on the bottom floor. The top floor is open for self-exploration, with historical and architectural information on well-written placards and additional information available from the audioguide, which costs an additional $5.

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