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Miami’s Stiltsville: See it by boat on tours in Biscayne National Park

Last updated on June 24th, 2022 at 08:58 pm

Folks love Stiltsville – it captures our imagination and it always has.

From tales of gambling and debauchery in the 1930s to ‘60s, to appearances on Miami Vice in the ‘80s to mentions in Carl Hiaassen novels, Stiltsville in Miami has represented the wild and kooky side of Miami.

A Stiltsville tour by boat is the best way to learn about the six remaining houses, built on stilts in Biscayne Bay a mile from land in Miami that are now part of Biscayne National Park. (Sadly, a seventh house burned down in early 2021.) 

The Baldwin-Sessions House viewed from a boat on the Stiltsville Miami tour.
The Baldwin-Sessions House viewed from a boat on the Stiltsville Miami tour. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Biscayne National Park and Biscayne National Park Institute offers regular two-hour Stiltsville guided historic tours for by boat, with a well-informed and entertaining guide. The tours are $56 per person.

There tours leave from two locations (in winter season.)

  • Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove. This tour leaves from a central location in Miami. It is available Friday, Saturday and Sunday plus, during winter holidays, on some weekdays.
  • Deering Estate in Cutler Ridge. During the winter season, this Stiltsville tour is offered Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets include entrance to the very worth-visiting Deering Estate, which is normally a $15 admission. (In summer 2022, Stiltsville tours were not offered from Deering Estate.)
  • A new tour, kayaking the seagrasses around Stiltsville, is not a guided historic tour, but it allows you to experience the Stiltsville area in the bay up close. It is offered Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. for $99 per person. Participants leave from Dinner Key Marina and board kayaks in the water near Stiltsville. Details are here.

Here are details and reservations for the tours.

The Bay Chateau house on the Stiltsville Miami tour. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Bay Chateau house on the Stiltsville Miami tour. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Stiltsville Miami tour tells the story (and the myth)

The first houses in Stiltsville were boats purposely run aground in the shallow sea grass in the 1930s. At the first of these “Crawfish Eddie Walker” sold bait, beer and chowder from his shack, which has been gone for 70 years, thanks to a 1950 hurricane.

Other buildings followed and, at the peak of activity in 1960, there were 27. During those mid-century years, Stiltsville got its rowdiest reputation, and you have to wonder what was true what was hype.

The famous example was the Bikini Club, where alcohol flowed and women in bikinis drank free – or so the story goes. The club was raided in 1965 for lacking a liquor license and was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy and a fire in 1966. And still, feature stories about the Bikini Club continued, years after it was gone.

Some Stiltsville homes were and continue to be weekend getaways and fishing shacks, often for prominent Miami figures. (Governor Leroy Collins was a frequent visitor.)

When the National Park Service area expanded to include the remaining Stiltsville buildings in 1980, existing leases on the buildings in Stiltsville were honored. When they expired in 1999, however, the park service planned to remove the six Stiltsville buildings that had survived Hurricane Andrew to return the national park to its natural state.

Miami rallied to “Save Stiltsville” with thousands signing petitions. The park service reversed its decision and today the six buildings can remain as long as they survive as safe structures. If a house is more than 50 percent destroyed by a hurricane or fire, it will be removed, as happened with a fire in 2021.

The A Frame House in Stiltsville, Miami: The triangular pieces were salvaged from a Key Biscayne Church. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The A-Frame House on Stiltsville Miami tour: The triangular pieces were salvaged from a Key Biscayne church. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Stiltsville boat tour

For years, Biscayne National Park offered no way to see Stiltsville and, if you didn’t own a boat, the best you could do was peer through binoculars from the Cape Florida Lighthouse on the tip of Key Biscayne.

In recent years, however, the non-profit Biscayne National Park Institute began tours, which started leaving from a perfect location – the Deering Estate in south Miami. Since then, a second location at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove has been added.

The tours are on a covered boat with a bathroom. A well-trained volunteer guide provides extensive background and history of not only Stiltsville, but of Biscayne Bay. (I never knew Ponce De Leon sailed through Biscayne Bay!) On the day we took the tour, the guide was Certified Florida Master Naturalist Mike Cugno , a Miami native, who added his own lifetime experiences paddling, snorkeling and boating on the bay.

The two-hour Stiltsville tour takes you close to the Cape Florida Lighthouse and all six of the Stiltsville Miami houses. In the distance, you can see the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse and Soldier Key, a tiny island that unbelievably was the site of Henry Flagler’s Soldier Key Club in 1904.

All the while, your view includes postcard-worthy vistas of the Miami skyline in the distance.

The Stiltsville Miami houses are not clustered closely together. Some look almost abandoned, with rotting wood and peeling paint. Others are clearly prized and cared for, like the home leased by Miami Springs Powerboat Club, which has docks for many boats and is in excellent condition.

The idea of Stiltsville may be better than the reality of it – with no AC and rudimentary facilities, staying there is probably like camping.

Still, with the vast and spectacular clouds and the Caribbean blue water all around, it’s easy to see why we’re still fascinated by Stiltsville.

The Jimmy Ellenburg House in Stiltsville; Miami skyline provides a perfect background.
The Jimmy Ellenburg House in Stiltsville; Miami skyline provides a perfect background. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Details of the Stiltsville Miami tour

You can reserve your spot on a Stiltsville guided historic tour here.

At two hours, the leisurely paced tour may tax the patience of children. Its focus is on history and nature. You may get lucky and see dolphins and birds. We saw manatees at the Deering boat basin both as we left and when we returned, and this was in  June – not prime manatee viewing time.

Even on a summer day when land temperatures hit 88, the boat tour was pleasant because of the sea breeze and movement of the boat.

Most of the seating is in the shade, but there are some full-sun seats. If shade is a concern, arrive a little early to make sure you don’t end up there. On our tour, the folks who sat there wanted the sun.

If you choose the Deering Estate location, I recommend you come early and spend a few hours touring the two historic houses that were home from 1922 to 1927 of Charles Deering, the art- and nature-loving industrialist who was chairman of International Harvester.  (His half-brother, millionaire industrialist James Deering, built Vizcaya, the Mediterranean palace and gardens also overlooking Biscayne Bay, which is far better known as a Miami landmark.) Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Deering Estate.

Deering Estate is a great place for a picnic before the boat trip, but you are also welcome to bring food and beverages on the boat.

Map of Stiltsville houses in Biscayne Bay off Miami. (Map courtesy Mgreason via Wikimedia.)
Map of Stiltsville houses in Biscayne Bay off Miami. (Map courtesy Mgreason via Wikimedia.)

Another Stiltsville Miami tour

An alternative to this boat tour is offered by Ocean Force Adventures, which operates out of Miami Beach Marina and primarily serves visitors staying in nearby hotels. At $150 per person, this tour is a small group excursion (six people on a 30-foot Zodiac) that covers a variety of waterfront sites in Miami including Stiltsville, which owner Kim Falconer calls “the star” of the tour.

The Stiltsville Miami tour boat at Deering Estate. (Photo: David Blasco)
The Stiltsville Miami tour boat at Deering Estate. (Photo: David Blasco)

Can you visit a Stiltsville house?

All six of the houses have “no trespassing” signs with a $5,000 fine listed. (However, we saw several houses where boaters seemed to be trespassing.)

As public facilities, two of the Stiltsville houses in better condition are available for “public events.” In the past, owners of the leases have allowed youth groups to visit.

The Stiltsville Miami house that seemed to be in the best shape was the own leased by the Miami Springs Power Squadron, which includes many police and firement. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Stiltsville Miami house that seemed to be in the best shape was the one leased by the Miami Springs Power Squadron, which includes many police and firemen. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Stiltsville tour locations

Deering Estate
16701 SW 72 Ave., Miami, FL 33157

Dinner Key Marina. The dock is located directly next to the Miami City Hall on its northside before Pier 1.
3500 Pan American Drive, Miami, FL 33133.

Useful links

The skyline from Stiltsville, Miami. (Photo: David Blasco)
The skyline from Stiltsville, Miami. (Photo: David Blasco)

Things to do near Stiltsville, Miami

  • If you’re driving to Biscayne National Park, you may want to keep going to explore the Florida Keys. Our Florida Keys mile-marker guide is an ideal companion to a roadtrip.
  • Everglades National Park is 20 minutes away from the Deering Estate. Here are our tips for visiting Everglades National Park. In winter, a free trolley connects the two national parks and the city of Homestead.
  • Robert is Here is a great stop in Homestead for milkshakes (key lime passion fruit!) plus exotic fruit and variety of farm animals.
  • Drive down scenic Card Sound Road and discover Alabama Jack’s, a classic Keys tiki bar known for its conch fritters.
  • An attraction that belongs on the Florida funky hall of fame: Coral Castle Museum, is minutes away.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

This page may include affiliate links from which we may earn a modest commission if a purchase is made. More often, we include free courtesy links to small businesses, such as kayak outfitters, from whom we receive no commission. 

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Ramona Rung

Saturday 26th of September 2020

Our MIAMI (SNOW) SKI CLUB got scheduled for a few get-togethers at and on Stiltsville. We found it totally fascinating and, yes, bikinis were popular. (But ours did not meet up with the Bikini Club)

Chuck DePue

Saturday 13th of July 2019

I thought New Port Richey was the only Stiltsville. Maybe you could come explore ours as well and dig up all of it's similar history.

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