Key West’s past unfolds as you visit its museums and historic homes. Some of them explore the island’s seafaring roots, some celebrate famous residents, some offer a glimpse of unique architecture and a bygone way of life — and all are fascinating if you’re truly interested in the intriguing southernmost city.
So on your next Key West getaway, put on your walking shoes and adventure through the five favorites listed here.
Key West Lighthouse Museum, 938 Whitehead St. Since the island’s settlement in the 1820s, residents have been dependent on the sea for their livelihood. Whether wreckers, traders, fishermen, or spongers, they were at the mercy of wind and wave — and the beacon of the Key West Lighthouse led them safely home.
The light itself was completed in the late 1840s and guided mariners for more than 120 years. Today the museum contains collections relating to the history of Florida Keys lighthouses and their hardy keepers. (More than one keeper, incidentally, was female.) Eighty-eight steps lead up to the light’s top, and if you make the climb you’ll discover an unequaled view of the island and surrounding waters.
Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead St. Hemingway began his love affair with Key West in 1928. By 1931, he and his then-wife, Pauline, were ensconced in the former Asa Tift home on Whitehead Street. Today the Spanish Colonial mansion is a museum furnished with mementos, and the second-story pool house where Hemingway wrote every morning has an evocative atmosphere all its own.
Entranced by the island’s rowdy lifestyle and spectacular fishing, Ernest remained in Key West until 1939, and he captured the island’s spirit during the Depression in the brilliant “To Have and Have Not.” The grounds of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s home are inhabited by cats — some with six toes who are supposedly descended from Hemingway’s feline Snowball.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St. Key West resident Mel Fisher spent 16 years searching for the shipwreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank during a 1622 hurricane. On July 20, 1985, his long search ended. Subsequently, gold and silver coins and bars, religious jewelry, contraband emeralds and more were recovered from the site.
The impressive museum contains treasure and artifacts from the Atocha and her fleet-mate, the Santa Margarita. Among them are a 77-karat emerald glowing with green fire, a solid-gold poison cup once used by Spanish nobles, and historically priceless ship’s fittings and navigational instruments. Artifacts from the English merchant slaver Henrietta Marie, also excavated off Key West, are on display as well.
The Curry Mansion, 511 Caroline St. With its circular drive, exuberant balconies and veranda, and widow’s walk that offers a sweeping panorama of land and water, the Curry Mansion exemplifies the elegance of yesterday’s Key West.
The rear of the house is part of the 1855 homestead of William Curry, who became Florida’s first millionaire, and its imposing facade was added later by Curry’s son Milton. Today the Curry Mansion remains one of the most spectacular structures on the island, and its collection of antiques transports visitors back in time.
Harry S. Truman Little White House, 111 Front St. In 1946, suffering from a vicious cold, then-president Harry Truman was ordered by his doctor to take a break. He visited Key West and was so impressed by the island’s warmth and friendliness that he returned 10 times — spending 175 days of his presidency in the building that became known around the world as Truman’s Little White House.
“The best time I ever had,” said Truman, who continued to visit the island until 1969, “was in Key West while I was president.”
Today, the home he loved is restored to offer a fascinating glimpse of the Truman era. Items of note include a round poker table handmade for the president, his desk, and his treasured piano. Every year Truman’s grandson, author Clifton Truman Daniel, returns to the Little White House for a critically acclaimed symposium exploring aspects of his grandfather’s legacy.