Do memories of daydreams about swashbuckling and rum-drinking with pirates take you back to your childhood? Can you picture the sights, sounds, and smells of sailing the seven seas aboard a massive military battleship like those described by combat veterans? Do you ever look up at the stars as you travel down the American shoreline and imagine what it was like in the days before GPS? If any of these questions pique your interest in boating history, it might be an opportune time to check out one of the many maritime and antique boat museums located around the U.S.
The 10 museums listed below are regional treasure troves of history that highlight maritime exploration and transform bodies of water into virtual institutions of education. Through engaging and hands-on activities, you can have fun while learning about the culture and history of our greatest lakes and seas. Whether you want to spend the night aboard a tall ship from the 19th century, discover how to build your own boat, or explore a spooky lighthouse in the dark, these museums have something to offer everyone.
1. Texas Seaport Museum — Galveston, Texas
Galveston, a barrier island that lies in the Gulf of Mexico, conceals a treasure trove of maritime heritage housed in the Texas Seaport Museum. Its halls tell the tales of the ships that protected the southern coast of the United States and brought new life to the continent’s immigrant communities. The tall ship Elissa, originally built in 1877 and recovered from a scrapyard and carefully restored, serves as the museum’s showpiece. The nautical exploits of the Texas Navy and their battle for independence from foreign powers are chronicled in a new show via model ships, antiques, and paintings.
Address: 21 Pier, Galveston, TX 77550
Phone: (409) 763-1877
Visit the Texas Seaport Museum website.
2. Independence Seaport Museum — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Two boats at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River are surrounded by the river’s current. The cruiser Olympia, which set sail in 1892, is the oldest steel-plated warship still afloat and the only one of its kind from the Spanish-American War still in existence. The 1944-launched submarine Becuna was used to sink Japanese ships in the Pacific and to spy on Soviet vessels in the Atlantic. Anyone interested in sailing, regardless of age, is welcome to board and explore these remarkable vessels up close. Don’t forget to schedule some time to explore the museum’s interior and see its collection of priceless antiques and informative displays on the region’s main ports. Learn about the rescues and tragedies that occurred on the sea, the fights between colonial patriots and pirates, and how the emancipation of African-Americans altered the trajectory of maritime history.
Address: 211 S Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: (215) 413-8655
Visit the Independence Seaport Museum website.
3. Michigan Maritime Museum — South Haven, Michigan
This museum is a reminder that the Great Lakes were crucial to American maritime history, even though the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines tend to get all the glory. Five exhibition halls offer exhibits on boat construction, maritime history, and sunken vessels. Outdoors, there’s a water park complete with a replica tall ship, the Friends Good Will, a commercial vessel that served as a troop transport ship during the War of 1812, as well as a Coast Guard rescue boat and fishing tugs. Lake Michigan’s Call to Duty, a relatively new exhibit, details the region’s efforts to prepare for World War II following the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.
Address: 260 Dyckman Ave, South Haven, MI 49090
Phone: (269) 637-8078
Visit the Michigan Maritime Museum website.
4. Nauticus — Norfolk, Virginia
When you set foot on the deck of the battleship Wisconsin, you can’t help but be impressed by its size and might. The Nauticus museum takes great satisfaction in this memorial to the bravery of the U.S. fleet. But don’t allow your admiration for this extraordinary ship, which saw action in both World War II and the Korean War, prevent you from seeing the remainder of the Nauticus exhibits. There are displays devoted to military hardware, maritime history, and natural phenomena discovered at great depths. Kids especially like the hands-on exhibits on marine life, including sharks and horseshoe crabs. Plus, there’s the added bonus of getting to watch the regular movement of seagoing boats, from little watercraft to big naval battleships, in Norfolk’s port.
Address: 1 Waterside Dr, Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: (757) 664-1000
Visit the Nauticus website.
5. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum — Santa Barbara, California
Everything from surfboards to warships crowd California’s shores. Located in Santa Barbara’s picturesque harbor, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is committed to preserving the area’s maritime history via a variety of unique and engaging exhibits. Diverse subjects are covered, including the history of surfing, shipwrecks, Coast Guard rescues, the role of women in the Coast Guard, commercial fishing, Navy seaplanes, and more. New areas of marine science and navigation are the focus of lectures and other educational programming. One unique program gives students the opportunity to spend the night aboard the tall ship Spirit of Dana Point and learn about the lifestyle of sailors in the 1830s.
Address: 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
Phone: (805) 962-8404
Visit the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum website.
6. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum — St. Michaels, Maryland
People all throughout the Chesapeake Bay area set aside time on their calendars every year when the region’s Maritime Museum publishes the dates for its oyster and crab festivals. However, local delicacies aren’t the only things to enjoy here; the museum is a celebration of the sailors, the history, the culture, and the natural wonders of the area. The museum’s Miles River campus in the small port town of St. Michaels features 12 buildings that showcase the area’s maritime heritage, including the construction of work boats, the carving of duck decoys, the processing of crab meat, the tonging of oysters, and much more. To learn more about the maritime history of the Chesapeake, you can visit the museum’s operating boatyard, Point Lookout bell tower, and Hooper Strait Lighthouse. The Rising Tide After-School Boatbuilding Program at the museum is open to students in grades 6 through 9 and is offered at no cost.
Address: 213 North Talbot Street, St. Michaels, Maryland, 21663
Phone: (410) 745-2916
Visit the Chesapeake Bay Marine Museum website.
7. Ships Of Sea Maritime Museum — Savannah, Georgia
This museum is about as classy as it gets if you want to learn about the transatlantic commerce that took place between England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The main building of the museum, constructed in 1819, is a beautiful representation of the early Greek Revival style in Southern architecture. William Scarbrough, a 19th-century shipping entrepreneur and co-owner of the Savannah, the first steamboat that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, previously lived in this grand home. A remarkable collection of model ships is now on display in nine rooms of his old house, among historic marine artworks and antiques. The garden outside the museum, with its pleasant scent of flowers, is the perfect setting for daydreaming about high seas adventures.
Address: 41 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Savannah, Ga 31401
Phone: (912) 232-1511
Visit the Ships of Sea Maritime Museum website.
8. Mystic Seaport Museum — Mystic, Connecticut
This museum, which lies on 19 waterfront acres of Connecticut’s Mystic River, is the undisputed crown jewel of American maritime history due to its unparalleled collection of roughly 500 vintage vessels, one million-plus pictures, and two million-plus objects. The Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest commercial vessel still afloat, was built in 1841 and serves as the museum fleet’s finest specimen, luring tourists to her deck with stories of New England’s whale-hunting history. Elsewhere in the museum, you can visit a 19th-century seafaring village that’s bustling with craftsmen, storytellers, artisans, and musicians who can help you step back in time, as well as a planetarium that explores the wonder of navigation by the stars, moon, and planets.
Address: 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, CT 06355
Phone: (860) 572-0711
Visit the Mystic Seaport Museum website.
9. Columbia River Maritime Museum — Astoria, Oregon
The mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean is one of the West Coast’s most perilous waterways due to the presence of unpredictable waves, furious storms, and untamed natural phenomena. Not far away from here is the Columbia River Maritime Museum, featuring the richest collection of Pacific Northwest nautical relics and a world-class research library. Everything from pirate loot to Coast Guard rescue vessels to maritime trading artifacts is on display. The floating lightship Columbia welcomes visitors to come aboard and learn about the challenges of using flashing lights and loud horns to warn passing ships of danger.
Address: 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon 97103
Phone: (503) 325-2323
10. St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum — St. Augustine, Florida
The view from the top of the 219 steps of this historic lighthouse overlooks the harbor of America’s first seaport. While you rest your tired legs, you can read about the transformation of this centuries-old Spanish tower into a reliable lighthouse. Dating from 1824, the lighthouse is manned by storytellers who are ready to share their knowledge of the area’s violent weather, legendary conflicts, and terrible shipwrecks. Stories come to life via displays of antiques, model ships, and archeological diving finds. With a wooden boat for climbing and scavenger hunts for discovering, children can let their imaginations run wild in the play area. “Dark of the Moon” tours take brave visitors to haunted areas and let them explore on their own at night with just a flashlight.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum also has a traditional wooden boatbuilding program carried out by a dedicated team of volunteers. Heritage Boatworks is committed to keeping this maritime tradition alive by constructing wooden watercraft. The boatbuilders’ work also aids Lighthouse archaeologists with the interpretation, reconstruction and experimental replication of archaeological boat and ship remains.
Address: 81 Lighthouse Avenue, St. Augustine, Florida 32080
Phone: (904) 829-0745