Florida Museums You Don’t Want to Miss
By Dalia Colón
With world-class theme parks and scene-stealing sunsets, Florida’s outdoor attractions often get top billing. But don’t overlook the Sunshine State’s inner beauty—specifically, its museums.
Florida is home to some of the country’s finest institutions, from arts and culture to history and science. If you’re looking to experience something new or inject some education into a family getaway, consider one of these museums that’s sophisticated enough for young adults but still accessible to travelers with children.
Pérez Art Museum Miami showcases international works from the 20th and 21st centuries. To learn in-depth about the museum’s collection, architecture and gardens, take a guided tour in English or Spanish. If you’re traveling with kids, time your visit for the third Saturday of the month, when there’s an interactive family tour that includes artmaking. Or for a grown-up good time, swing by on a Thursday, when the museum stays open until 9 p.m. so you can enjoy a drink in the museum’s waterfront bar.
The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science—or Frost Science, if you’re cool—is the latest addition to downtown Miami’s Museum Park district. WIth four floors of hands-on exhibitions, the museum is a no-brainer for bringing kids. But even if you’re not trying to sneak some STEM into your kids’ school vacation, you’ll be impressed by the three-level aquarium, 8k planetarium and “living roof” terraces with urban gardens.
Tucked away in Delray Beach on Florida’s southeast coast is the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. The museum chronicling South Florida's Japanese farming community is modeled after a Japanese villa with an open-air courtyard and thousands of artifacts. Surrounding the building are 16 acres of Japanese gardens, offering an escape from escape from work, kids and grad school applications. To further take your mind off everyday stressors, immerse yourself in a kimono demonstration, calligraphy workshop or “Sushi and Stroll” event.
With so much to do in Central Florida, why would you pencil in time to visit a museum? Because the Orlando Museum of Art houses a stellar collection of American, Native American, African and contemporary art. Stop by on the first Thursday evening of the month for live music, a cash bar and an opportunity to hobnob with local artists. The museum is located in Loch Haven Park, surrounded by lakes, oak trees and a handful of Orlando’s premiere cultural institutions.
When Tampa Theatre opened in 1926, it was the city’s first commercial building with air conditioning. Nearly a century later, it’s still a favorite destination for cooling off, while catching a classic or independent film. Although not technically a museum, the nonprofit movie palace will give you a memorable cultural experience, with its ornate architecture, live pre-show organ concerts and “Balcony to Backstage” tour.
While you’re in town, make sure to visit the Tampa Museum of Art. It showcases ancient marvels to modern curiosities and promises to ignite imaginations. And you might want to visit Tampa International Airport even if you don’t have a flight; it offers tours that include their amazing, new, contemporary collection of art.
If you’re headed to St. Petersburg, the Salvador Dalí Museum deserves top billing on your itinerary. The stunning waterfront building houses the largest collection of the surrealist painter’s work outside of his native Spain. Non-flash photography is allowed in the galleries, and museum’s garden labyrinth is full of photo ops, so your Instagram feed will runneth over.
The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is the newest addition to downtown St. Petersburg’s thriving cultural scene. The building houses the private art collection of St. Pete residents Tom and Mary James, whose travels led to their love of contemporary Western American art. The museum’s cafe is operated by Tampa’s popular Datz Restaurant Group, so definitely stick around for a meal. And the museum’s quiet space for lactation, prayer and/or sensory breaks is a welcome touch.
You probably didn’t come to Key West to see the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. But you should. Whether you gave For Whom the Bell Tolls five stars on Goodreads or you paid someone to write all your high school English papers, it’s worth a visit. Take a guided tour of home the novelist bought in 1931, enjoy the lush garden and pet the dozens of cats that roam the grounds—descendants of Hemingway’s own pets.
There’s old Florida, and then there’s old Florida. The Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach—a historic landmark—chronicles 12,000 years of Florida’s Native American life via exhibits and artifacts. Scratch an itch for your inner history buff, or bring the kids to show them what the area was like long before Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and the Emerald Coast Science Center became the area’s most popular attractions. The museum is the flagship of the City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center; also check out the nearby Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, Garnier Post Office Museum and Civil War Exhibit Building.
Traveling with multiple generations? The Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences is like several museums in one, with something for everyone. Your parents can spend hours browsing the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, with its 2,600 Florida-themed paintings. For teens and tweens, there’s the Root Family Museum, displaying Indy race cars, mid-century train cars and one of the largest collections of Coca-Cola memorabilia in the world. Take the little ones to the children’s museum for hands-on learning; then everyone can reunite in the planetarium for a crowd-pleasing show.
With its cobblestone streets, Old World architecture and horse-drawn carriages, St. Augustine is perfect for a romantic getaway for you and your main squeeze. And while you may not consider a museum at the top of your list of romantic places, the city’s Lightner Museum is worth a hand-in-hand stroll with your sweetie. Built in 1888 by railroad magnate Henry Flagler, the museum—formerly the Alcazar Hotel—will transport you to the Gilded Age with its stunning entrance, exquisite event spaces (wedding, anyone?) and one of the country’s best collections of 19th-century art.
Think outside four walls with a visit to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. Exhibits show what maritime life was like beginning in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon first laid eye on Florida. For a birds-eye view of present-day St. Augustine, climb the 219 stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Take a guided daytime tour or, if you dare, an after-dark ghost tour.
If you’re searching for an under-the-radar art museum, the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery in Fort Pierce deserves a look. The museum contains the nation’s largest collection of works by the late Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus, a 20th-century landscape painter who mentored dozens of artists, including, most notably the Florida Highwaymen. You can also check out a revolving gallery of contemporary pieces and buy reproductions of Backus’s work in the gift shop.
The Ringling Brothers made their fortune in the circus biz, but when John Ringling built a sprawling waterfront estate in the early 1900s in Sarasota, he wasn’t clowning around. Tour the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s magnificent Ca’ d’Zan mansion, featured in films including the 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations, admire the Ringlings’ massive art collection, learn some history in the Circus Museum or catch a modern performance in the property’s Asolo Theater. The museum’s grounds are a popular spot for photography, so if you’re in need of a new headshot, engagement pics or a family portrait, this is your place.
If you had Thomas Edison or Henry Ford money, you’d own a winter home, too. For now, you can see how the legendary inventors and friends spent some of their fortunes with a visit to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. Spend time in 20 acres of gardens and historic buildings, including Edison’s Botanic Research Laboratory, and check out something more modern: the Smithsonian Spark!Lab, a hands-on exhibit with five interactive stations that rotate every few months. The Edison Ford is one of only nine museums in the country that have a Smithsonian Spark!Lab, offering kids and adults a chance to “invent” something.