Heading to Key West, Florida on a cruise or road trip? Be sure to make a stop at the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Not only will you get the best views of the entire city from the lighthouse’s observation deck, but you’ll learn lots of fascinating history about the keepers and their families who lived here and kept the lighthouse running.

Key West’s lighthouse is just a 20-minute walk from the cruise port, and is super-close to other landmarks including the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and the Southernmost Point Buoy.

If you’d rather not walk that far, the Key West Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour has a stop near the cruise port as well as one near the lighthouse.

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A quick history of Key West’s lighthouse

After the U.S. Navy established a base in Key West in 1823, they realized that a lighthouse was necessary for safety. The reefs and shallow waters off the coast of the island presented a hazard to both military and commercial ships in the area. The original 65-foot (20 m) Key West lighthouse was built in 1825. It was destroyed by the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, and fourteen people inside the lighthouse were killed.

The lighthouse that stands today was built in 1848, but has been upgraded several times over the years. A third-order Fresnel lens and an extension to the tower were added, both of which allowed ships to see the light from a greater distance. Although it’s now obsolete, today the light is about 100 feet (30 m) above sea level.

The Keeper’s Quarters, which now house the museum, were built in 1895. Nineteenth-century lighthouses were fueled by kerosene, hauled to the light by the keeper. Sometime before 1918, the lighthouse was converted to run on piped acetylene gas and a full-time keeper was no longer needed. In 1934, the light was once again converted, this time to run on electrical power.

The end of an era

The U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the Key West Lighthouse in 1969. The county took over the property, and presently the Key West Arts and Historical Society maintains the lighthouse and other buildings on the property as a museum.

From 1989 until just a few years ago, the lighthouse, keeper’s quarters, as well as the old oil house located on the grounds underwent an intensive restoration project.

If you’re a lighthouse buff, you’ll notice that the Key West Lighthouse seems to be in an unusual location – in the middle of a residential neighborhood and not next to the shore. However, its location is at one of the highest points on the island. Many postcards and books from the 1930s and ’40s make the claim that the lighthouse is the only one in the US that’s located entirely within the city limits of a community.

Should you climb the lighthouse or visit the museum first?

I’ll admit, I was so excited to climb the 88 steps of the lighthouse to take in the view that I didn’t even consider visiting the Keeper’s Quarters Museum first. But I wish I had!

I learned so much about the unusual history of the Key West Lighthouse’s keepers in the museum. Having that knowledge beforehand would have contributed to my enjoyment of the lighthouse. So if you can contain your excitement, I recommend touring the museum before you make the climb.

The Key West lighthouse keeper’s home has been turned into a museum celebrating the hardworking men and women who kept the light burning

The museum is located in the old Keeper’s Quarters, a small home with an inviting farmer’s porch wrapping around it. The museum features interactive and multimedia displays that acquaint visitors with the history of the lighthouse and the keepers who lived and worked on the property many years ago.

Women were the primary keepers of the Key West lighthouse

Unusual for the time, the Key West lighthouse was maintained primarily by female keepers throughout its history. In fact, Barbara Mabrity had the longest tenure as keeper, from her husband’s death in 1832 until she was fired from her post in the early 1860s at age 82 (she made anti-Union statements, and Key West was under Union control throughout the Civil War).

The job of a lighthouse keeper was incredibly physical, as keepers were charged with all the tasks associated with keeping the light running and all maintenance of the lighthouse. In addition to hauling fuel, trimming the wicks, and polishing the lenses and glass, keepers would have to repair broken glass, paint and repair the lighthouse, and perform maintenance on the other buildings on the property.

The museum includes some of the furnishings used by the lighthouse keepers and their families in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Keepers were responsible for the light 24 hours a day year-round, and rarely took a day off. During hurricanes and gales, when danger to ships was greatest, keepers often risked their lives to keep the light burning.

Many of Key West’s lighthouse keepers also raised their families in the quarters, and cared for livestock and gardens on the property as well.

A 1911 wedding dress that was worn by the keeper’s daughter, who was married on the site

The museum today displays a mix of artifacts from the lighthouse’s active years, along with furniture and photographs of the keepers and their families. This small museum would be fascinating to anyone interested in maritime history, social history, or just curious about how entire families helped to keep lighthouses running over a century ago.

The old lenses on display were used to concentrate the light into a narrow beam, easily recognizable by ships’ crew

Climbing to the top of the Key West Lighthouse

The lighthouse’s 88-step iron spiral staircase is a bit tricky to navigate. Two-way traffic, especially on a busy day, can make climbing the narrow stairway difficult. Thankfully there are a few small landing areas to stop and let people pass. On the way up, a number of people remarked that going down is much scarier than going up, and I later agreed!

Although the climb isn’t very strenuous, I’d advise skipping it if you have any issues with balance or aren’t steady on your feet. However, If you’re able to make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view from the observation deck that wraps around the top of the tower.

The section above the observation deck where the lens sits was closed during our visit, but you can peek at it through the open ceiling. The sun was shining on the lens when we reached the top, bathing the landing below it in a rainbow of colors.

The prismatic lens rewarded us with a rainbow glow when we reached the top of the spiral staircase

A panoramic view of Key West

Out on the wraparound observation deck, we were able to have a birds-eye view of Key West and to the Caribbean Sea. You can see from my photo below just how far the lighthouse stands from the shoreline.

The 360° view from the Key West Lighthouse is the best way to see the entire city all at once

After visiting the Keeper’s Quarters Museum, I thought back to my climb up and down the stairs in the lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers (most of whom would have been wearing long, full skirts) made that climb several times a day hauling fuel for the light. Imagine doing that in a hurricane, with wind whipping around and through the structure!

I left with a new appreciation for the brave men and women who dedicated their lives to keeping ships and their crews safe from harm.

Admission to the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum

The Key West Lighthouse is located at 938 Whitehead Street, diagonally across the street from the Ernest Hemingway House. It’s open daily from 9:30 AM until 4:30 PM, and is only closed on Christmas.

Admission to access both the lighthouse and museum is $12 for adults, $5 for children age 6 and up, and free for kids under 6. Students with a valid ID are $5, and seniors 62+ are $9. The museum accepts both cash and credit cards.

Have you visited the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author

Carrie Ann is the founder of Should Be Cruising and a lifelong travel fanatic. A former flight attendant, she now prefers cruise ships over airplanes and spends several months each year cruising and exploring cruise ports. Facebook | Instagram

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18 Comments

  1. I’m loving that there’s been a bit of girl power running the show historically, operating a lighthouse sounds like such hard work though. I’m not a massive fan of spiral staircases but the view looks worth the climb!

    1. I loved learning about the women that ran the lighthouse for so many years! The spiral staircase was a bit tricky on the way down, but I’m glad I got to drink in the amazing view at the top.

  2. I would be anxious to climb the lighthouse as well. Look at that view. It’s incredible. I am a lighthouse lover and I love the fact that the lighthouse from 1848 still exists, even if it has had some updates. So much history.

    1. The history of this lighthouse is so fascinating! I was a little anxious on the spiral staircase, but it was so worth it to be able to look out over all of Key West.

  3. I already have a big vacation planned. If the coronavirus issue ends within few month I will be visiting Key West in October. So, I guess I’m in the right place. Key West Lighthouse is definitely in my list of things to do.
    Really happy that I came across your blog.

    1. Niry, my fingers are crossed that your trip goes off as planned! Glad you found me as well – enjoy your time in Key West 😀

  4. I love lighthouses, if you ever go to Nova Scotia, make sure to tour the lighthouses, moreover the one in Peggy’s cove, at sunset preferably. My husband uncle was a lighthouse guardian back in the days!

    1. Audrey, I love lighthouses too! I’ve always wanted to see the light at Peggy’s Cove, and hopefully I’ll get back up to N.S. one of these days. How fascinating that your husband’s uncle was a keeper. I bet he had lots of great stories to tell!

  5. I love lighthouses. I’m always interested in their stories. I wonder about the life of lighthouse keepers. I would like to visit this museum when I visit Key West.

    1. Agnes, if you love lighthouses you’ll really enjoy visiting this one and the museum. You can really get the feel for what life was like for the keepers and their families. Thanks for reading!

  6. I love this post! I was in Key West in January and saw this lovely lighthouse, but I didn’t know all the details about this history, so this was a pleasure to read! Thanks so much for the insight!

    1. Michelle, thanks so much for your kind comment 😀 The lighthouse really does have a fascinating history!

  7. I never thought about the keeper’s life – but you’re right, having to walk up & down the stairs numerous times in heavy clothes during a hurricane can be very dangerous! Great post.

    1. Pam, I agree -they must have been so brave! I was nervous walking back down the staircase on a clear day wearing modern clothing!!

  8. I love Key West, but I’ve yet to visit the lighthouse. I always make it a point to get a high vantage point somewhere in a city and it looks incredible. Looks like I missed a must-do site and I’ll have to go back and try it again.

    1. Derek, the view from the lighthouse is absolutely amazing! Sounds like you have the perfect excuse to go back to Key West 😀

  9. So beautiful, I love Key West, but was not able to visit the lighthouse. I will have to make it a priority for my next visit. I would love to see the views from the top.

    1. Isn’t Key West just gorgeous? The views of the island are so worth the climb to the top of the lighthouse!

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