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Top 15 Best Museums in Key West

Top 15 Best Museums in Key West

Many first-timers to Key West may not realize just how many museums in Key West there are. Key West is a small place but packed full of history.

You’ll come for the sunshine and end up staying for the museums and local stories. Think of a museum, and Key West has probably got it. There are museums about prominent historical figures and underwater wildlife. There are shipwrecking treasure-seeking museums and floating ones too.

Take a look at these 15 best museums in Key West. There’s something for history buffs, families, locals, and tourists alike. They’ll leave you realizing there’s more to Key West than just endless ocean and sunshine.

Why Should a History Buff Visit Key West?

You may be surprised, but Key West is a great place for history buffs. There are so many different history museums in Key West you’ll be spoiled for choice. There’s so much to see from museums showcasing local shipwrecking history to notable literary houses.

Hemmingway House Outside Key West Floirda

1. Ernest Hemingway House

Throughout the 1930’s world-renowned novelist Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West. The house that Hemingway owned until his death in 1961 is now a museum. If you love Hemingway’s work or literature in general, you’ll love this museum.

The house is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark showcasing Hemingway’s life and work. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote some of his most famous works. ‘From Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘A Farewell to Arms’ were written in his studio. Look around the museum, and you’ll find interesting information about Hemingway’s life and work. You might even get some ideas for your own writing projects.

This is one of the best museums in Key West for literature and animal lovers. It’s an odd combination, but Hemingway was rather fond of cats. At one point in Hemingway’s time in Key West, he had more than 50 cats. Yes, 50! Visit this Key West sight today, and you’ll see around 60 cats.

But why so many cats? A local sailor once gave Hemingway a six-toed cat, which he named Snow White. I guess he liked these six-toed cats so much that they just started multiplying.

If you are a cat lover, this is one of the must-do things to do in Key West!

Father and son at the Key West Lighthouse

2. Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Museum

This Key West attraction is operated by the Key West Art & Historical Society. The lighthouse and museum have a truly local feel. The 22m high Key West Lighthouse opened in 1848.

Originally tended by a female keeper, this lighthouse was critical to the local community. However, new technological advancements meant the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1969. This former working lighthouse has now been turned into an amazing local museum.

Step inside, and you can delve into Key West’s intriguing history. The lighthouse has a ton of information about Key West’s economic history. From shipwrecking to cigars, Key West has an absorbing past.

Look through old lighthouse photographs, then head up the 88 stairs to the top. This is a wonderful museum to see with children. They’ll love exploring the lighthouse.

Exterior view of the Harry Truman Little White House in Key West - Top Tourist Attractions

3. Truman’s Little White House

This is one of the best museums in Key West for discovering our presidential history. The Little White House was used by President Truman for 175 days of his presidency. Its presidential history doesn’t stop there. Six other American presidents also used the house. The house was originally a command headquarters but was later turned into a winter retreat.

Though presidents are still allowed to stay in the house, it’s now also a museum. It has been beautifully restored to how it looked in 1949 when Truman stayed there. Explore the house, and you’ll find a detailed timeline of Truman’s time in office. You’ll also learn about JFK’s stay at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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  • Address: 111 Front Street, Naval Air Station, Key West

Exterior View of the Shipwreck Museum - Things to see in Key West

4. Shipwreck Treasure Museum

Key West owes its fortunes to wreckers who salvaged treasure from shipwrecks. The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is a playground for pirate and treasure lovers. This museum is one of the best things to do in Key West with kids.

The museum is filled with exciting artifacts from shipwrecks in the area. In the golden age of sailing, 100 ships would sail by Key West daily. Key West’s reefs were treacherous to vessels like the Isaac Allerton which sank in 1856.

The visually appealing shack-like building and watchtower will have kids screaming to go inside. Be sure to climb the 65-foot lookout tower and shout, “Wreck Ashore!”

5. Customs House Museum

This four-story, 19th-century building was originally a customs office, district court, and postal service. Now, the Custom House Museum showcases Key West’s art, culture, and people. This is a top museum if you want to learn about local history.

Key West became a wealthy part of Florida because of its maritime industries. Just think how rich all those shipwreckers got. The Customs House is popular because it’s right around the corner from Mallory Square, which has some of the best restaurants in Key West. This red brick building houses a collection of more than 35,000 pieces. From postcards to textiles, there are tons of things to see at this museum. There are even paintings by playwright Tennessee Williams.

If you love history and are in Mallory Square, check out this Key West attraction.

6. Flagler Station “Sails to Rails Museum”

This museum showcases the Florida Keys’ unique history, from the sailboats to the railroad. Located in Old Town Key West, this museum is definitely worth a visit.

Key West is renowned for its maritime history. At one point, Key West was the richest city per capita in the entire U.S. By the 1820s, the first steam-powered train came to the area. This changed local livelihoods and the history of Key West.

There are plenty of things to entertain the kids at the Sails to Rails Museum. Interactive stuff for the kids and historical artifacts for everyone else. This is a captivating museum that really presents a unique part of Key West’s history. When you’re in Old Town be sure to check out this Key West attraction.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum in Key West

7. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum

The USCGC Ingham Maritime Museum is one of the best museums in Key West. This museum isn’t just any old museum. It’s a floating museum. Hop aboard the USCGC Ingham, and you can explore this prestigious military vessel.

The Ingham served as a coast guard ship for over 50 years. This vessel is the last floating U.S. Warship to have sunk a WW2 German U-Boat! It’s even been given National Historic Landmark status. You can take a self-guided or guided tour of the vessel. Be sure to take a look inside the control rooms and sleeping quarters.

There is also a stimulating exhibit which documents the vessels’ role in WW2 and Vietnam. One of the highlights of a trip here is the staff. They are super friendly and more than willing to answer questions about the vessel. You’ll surely learn a lot.

This is the best museum in Key West for sunset. In fact, it might even be one of the best places in Key West for sunset all together. On Friday and Saturday, there’s a happy sunset hour for just $5. So, relax and enjoy some drinks on board the Ingham.

8. Fort East Martello Museum

In 1950 Fort East Martello opened as a museum. This museum is perfect for those interested in Civil War history. The museum guides visitors through the local wrecking history. It also displays Civil War relics as well as Key West’s cigar-manufacturing industry. Not only is this museum super interesting but you can explore the fort as well.

Though the history is enthralling, perhaps the most popular exhibit is the haunted doll! Robert the Doll used to be owned by a local boy called Robert Otto. The doll would often act in a human way, performing all sorts of voodoo. Visit this museum, and you can learn about the “most haunted doll in the world.” Attend one of the ghost tours, and this museum will be an instant vacation favorite.

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  • Address: 3501 South, Roosevelt Boulevard, Key West

9. Tennessee Williams Museum

Many famous faces have called Key West their home over the years. One of America’s finest playwrights, Tennessee Williams, is no exception. You can take your pick of the best museums in Key West for literature lovers. This is a top museum in Key West for drama students and playwrights alike.

Williams’ notable plays include “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. If you were wondering, Williams’ play has nothing to do with Hemingway’s six-toed cat! Williams earned numerous literary accolades for his work, including Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards.

Williams visited and lived in Key West between 1941 and his death in 1983. This museum showcases Williams’s literary accomplishments and life while in Key West. Inside you’ll find first-edition plays and books, newspaper articles, and his very own typewriter.

Oldest House Museum & Garden Key West

10. Oldest House Museum & Garden

The oldest standing house in Key West is well worth a visit. The house was built by former ship captain Richard Cussans in 1829. The house reflects the classic conch style found all over the Florida Keys today.

Inside, portraits of the first owners of the house document the stories of Key West. Several maritime artifacts also tell local stories of shipwreckers and their discoveries.

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  • Address: 322 Duval Street, Key West

11. Key West Turtle Cannery Museum

The name of this museum may sound alarming to nature lovers. But don’t worry; this museum aims to protect sea turtles through its educational exhibit.

This tiny museum is located right on the water. It’s the same building that, between 1912 and 1957, used to be a turtle cannery. The museum highlights how the turtle meat industry almost eliminated the species completely.

The museum is small but highly informative. If you chat with the owner, you’ll be gratified by his enthusiasm for turtles. This is one of the best free museums in Key West, perfect for ocean lovers. Though the museum is free, donations to protect the sea turtles are always welcome! This is a superb little museum to pop into if you’re by the waterfront.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West

12. Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Mel Fisher was a treasure hunter known for finding one of the most famous shipwrecks. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was shipwrecked in 1622 along the Florida shores. It wasn’t until 1985 that Fisher and his crew found the lost Spanish Atocha.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum presents this enthralling shipwrecking discovery. History buffs, kids, and treasure seekers will all love this museum. Discover underwater archeology, piracy, and the Henrietta Marie slave ship. One of the museum’s highlights is the lab tour. This tour shows visitors how the cleaning and preservation of salvaged artifacts take place. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Key West.

13. Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

This museum is one of the best national history museums in Key West. This Eco-Discovery Center showcases plants and animals native to the Florida Keys.

The center’s main attraction is a mockup of an underwater lab. Aquarius is an underwater lab situated 5.4 miles off Key Largo on Conch Reef. In the center’s mockup lab, you can witness coral spawning and other interesting ecosystem processes. There’s so much to discover about the Florida Keys’ ocean habitats. The whole family is bound to enjoy this attraction. It’s hard to believe this is one of the free museums in Key West.

The Key West Firehouse Museum

14. Key West Firehouse Museum

Built in 1907, this station is one of the oldest fire stations in Florida. Now dedicated to telling the history of the firehouse, this is a must-see museum.

Stories of the firehouse are powerfully told by retired firefighters. They offer a different perspective, one you won’t find elsewhere in Key West. The firehouse’s history spans from horse-drawn servicemen with hose carriages to the modern-day. You’ll visit for the exhibits and stay for the lovely community guides.

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  • Address: 1026 Grinnell Street, Corner of Virginia and Grinnell, Key West

Audubon House Key West Museum

15. Audubon House Garden

The Audubon House Garden features the work of John James Audubon. Audubon was an American artist whose love for ornithology is reflected in his work. Throughout 1832 Audubon resided in the home you get to explore.

Explore the Audubon house for displays of local history and to see 28 of Audubon’s original works. Out back, you’ll find the serene tropical gardens. Palms, croton, and orchids fill the garden, making you forget you’re in downtown Key West.

Where are your favorite museums in Key West?