Key West’s subtropical climate means the island is typically blanketed in a viscous humidity that makes a short walk to the mailbox feel like wading through tapioca pudding. Luckily, Key West is chock full of fascinating museums where both kids and adults can attempt to stave off the cognitive slump that begins to take hold when the temperature hits 88 degrees. If you’re new in town, or if you’re just desperate for a place to escape the heat and maybe learn a few things while you’re cooling off, check out some of Key West’s best places to expand your mind.
Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s
938 Whitehead St.
Today, you can purchase a GPS system for your boat that will navigate you around the globe and will tell you jokes along the way. But back in the 19th century, the likelihood of crashing your ship in the shallows off Key West was strong enough to support a hugely profitable wrecking business (essentially a legal version of finder’s keepers). The establishment of Key West’s naval base in 1823 solidified the desperate need for a lighthouse to guide boats safely through the straights. Over the course of its active service, Key West’s lighthouse played host to a range of brave Keepers and their families (including, rather shockingly at the time, a female Keeper in 1848.) Peruse their belongings, climb the 88 steps up to the top of the light and learn how this once vital beacon served to protect thousands of ships before being decommissioned in 1969.
Free on the first Sunday of every month for locals, while any child currently matriculating at a Monroe County school may enter the museum for free year-round.
Ernest Hemingway House
907 Whitehead St.
He might be better known for his written works (or his drunken antics) but one thing’s for sure: Papa had great taste in real estate. Check out Hemingway’s Key West digs, which—along with the honor of having housed the writer while he penned some of his most well-known works — was also the first house on the island to have a swimming pool. You can’t swim in it today, but you can admire the many six-toed cats that laze around it, said to be descendants of Hemingway’s original polydactyl feline friends. The museum is free to locals every day, and boasts an eclectic collection of Hemingway’s old possessions.
U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER
INGHAM (WHEC-35) Maritime
Museum & National Historic
Southard Street at the Truman
You don’t need a set of sea legs to visit this ship — it’s safely docked at harbor, and, after being decommissioned by the Coast Guard, now serves as a nonprofit veteran’s museum honoring those killed in action during WWII and Vietnam. The ship is one of only two preserved Treasury-class U.S. Coast Guard cutter ships, and the most decorated in the fleet, with two Presidential Unit Citations to her name. Now a national landmark, the Ingham hosts daily tours, including an excellent happy hour deal: $5 buys you a ticket on board and your first drink.
Custom House Museum
281 Front St.
Today it serves as the official headquarters of the Key West Art & Historical Society, but over the course of its past life, the Key West Custom House has been home to a variety of Key West businesses, including the island’s postal service, district courts, navy, and port of entry processing center. Despite early drunken antics that almost prevented its construction, the building is considered an architectural icon of Key West; it towers over the harbor with a red brick façade that is immediately recognizable amidst the endless blocks of wooden homes that surround it. Impeccably restored and now used as a museum, is home to some of Key West’s most often photographed outdoor sculptures. ¦