Not all "tourist traps" are meant to be skipped because the have been given that label. Just three weeks after arriving in Key West, Ernest Hemingway finished "A Farewell to Arms" and he and his wife fell in love with the island. They built their home in 1851 and it is now a National Historic Landmark. Beautiful gardens blooming with hibiscus and water lilies surround the property, along with a 60-foot swimming pool in the thick of it that is an architectural wonder in itself. To top it off, numerous cats roam the property - some of which still have the unusual six-toes like Hemingway's original feline friend.
When the museum admissions and snorkeling tours start to add up, free options are always the way to go - especially when the kids can learn a thing or two. The Eco-Discovery Center provides a look into the ecosystems of the Florida Keys. On the third Saturday of each month, a kid's workshop is held that educates them about the marine environment through games, crafts, and puzzles. Just a step away from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, exhibits include an interactive satellite map of the Keys, a replica of the Aquarius underwater laboratory, a 2,500-gallon reef aquarium, and an underwater video camera used for monitoring the health of a coral reef. Stop in to the Center's theater to catch "Reflections of the Florida Keys," a short film on the diverse ecosystem of the Florida Keys by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot.
This structure was constructed in 1862 to protect Fort Zachary Taylor from confederate attack. Now it is an eclectic museum that houses various artifacts from Keys life and history. See found art sculptures by Stanley Papio, woodcarvings by Cuban folk artist Mario Sanchez, a Cuban refugee raft and books by the seven Pulitzer Prize-winning authors that have lived in Key West. Be sure to take in the panoramic view from the tower. The legendary Robert the Doll is also on display at the museum, a real life "Chucky" doll that is said to have a life force of its own.
By the time he was 50 years old Henry Flagler was one of the richest men in America. Due to his wife's ill health they spent much of their time in Florida, particularly in the Keys. In 1905 Flagler undertook the mission of building a 130-mile extension of the existing railroad that would reach Key West, which, at the time, was the closest deep-water port to the Panama Canal. In January 1912 Flagler's dream was realized when the first New York to Key West train arrived at this station. Flagler's career and the construction of the railroad are chronicled in dioramas and exhibits.
It is a wonder why more travelers don't stop by this treasure trove of history. The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society is a non-profit organization that works to preserve archeological artifacts and educates visitors on maritime history. The museum's collection holds over 100,000 pieces of jewelry, coins, glassware, tools, cannons, iron shackles, and anchors that were all found on sunken ships. Upstairs, workers carefully preserve underwater artifacts that are either recovered from research expeditions or donated to the society. A number of educational programs are also available including children's camps to study marine life and the environment, plus a night at the museum!
Key West's iconic lighthouse was built in 1847 and originally powered by 15 oil lamps that helped guide sailors to the island. Although it no longer serves as a functioning lighthouse, visitors can climb the 88 winding steps to the top for 360-degree views of the city and the ocean. Admission includes entrance to the museum (the former keeper's quarters), where audio and visual recordings are available as well as glass display cases of the previous owner's possessions. Photographs and quotes from lighthouse keepers and their families show ensure that the now obsolete way of life will never be forgotten.
Key West has served as a presidential retreat since 1880 when Ulysses S. Grant visited the island. This house belonged to Harry Truman and his wife Bess. Truman reportedly despised living in Washington and viewed this as his sanctuary. Truman spent 175 days of his presidency here from 1946 through 1952, a stressful time where he faced post-World War II reconstruction, and the beginning of the Cold War. High-ranking officials met with Truman here to discuss significant legislation such as the Marshall Plan and his fifth Civil Rights Executive Order. The house is a living museum that has been impeccably restored and is open to the public for tours and special events.
This Richardsonian Romanesque Custom House was built in the 1820s when Key West was designated an official point of entry into the United States. Various exhibits track Key West's ascendancy from port town to richest city in the country. The exterior of the building is made from beautifully-preserved brick, the first floor displays paintings from local artists and the second is reserved for historical artifacts. Visitors can see Ernest Hemingway's bloody World War II uniform and they can stand in the room where the U. S. decided to go to war with Spain after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, or watch a film on the construction of the Flagler railroad.
This well-preserved time capsule was an integral part of the Coast Guard history from 1936 to 1988 and was instrumental in WWII and Vietnam. The ship was awarded 19 ribbons, 17 battle stars, and two Presidential Unit Citations for service in Vietnam. She is credited with sinking U Boat 626 in 1942 - the only Cutter to do so. Self-guided tours lead visitors through the inside of the ship, so be prepared to climb up and down some ladders. Volunteers keep the museum open, so the entrance fees goes toward maintaining the vessel, which was left just as it was when in service - right down to the kitchen utensils.
The San Carlos Institute was founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles of Key West as an educational, civic, and patriotic center, and now serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater, and school. The museum played in important role in Cuba's history when, in 1892, legendary patriot Jose Marti addressed gathering at San Carlos and announced that a united front would be established to lead the effort for Cuba's independence. Exhibits include the life of Marti, a collection of postcards from Cuba, a study on their aviation history, presidents, and more. A small theater also showcases musicians and actors from the Waterfront Playhouse. Be sure to check out the events schedule.