Located closer to Cuba than to Miami, Key West is Florida’s southernmost subtropical paradise, a unique confluence of history, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture and romantic appeal. If you have never been here before, you are in for a real treat. Key West is one of the most unique and dynamic places in the United States, and though a small island there is plenty to keep you entertained.
Top 12 Things to See and Do in Key West
If you have never been here before, you are in for a real treat. There is something for everyone. On the water you can encounter dolphins dolphin encounters, kayak the canals and coastline, dive and snorkel, or rent a boat to explore on your own. On land, shopping, museums, art galleries, tours, theaters and fun times await you. If you want to take it a slower pace you can simply relax at one of Key West beaches, or on Duval Street with a cocktail in hand.
1. Cruise Duval Street
Duval Street is where the heartbeat of the city comes to life in a diverse array of restaurants, shops, world famous pubs and attractions. Day and night the main artery through old town Key West is always buzzing with sights, sounds, and people from all over the world.
2. Soak Up The Sun at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Fort Zachary is a gorgeous state park with plenty of walking trails, and one of the best beaches in Key West with picturesque sunset views. With activities, watersport rentals, and food there is plenty to do for a day of leisure at this island park.
Tip: This is a more secluded and less crowded beach than Smathers Beach.
3. Catch Some Wind at Smathers Beach
Key West’s largest beach runs along the southern shore of the island for almost 2 miles, Smathers offers the largest and sandiest space to relax on the island. The beach can often get crowded in the high season, and should be avoided in the summer months due to seaweed build up. Beach activity ranges from lounge chairs, volleyball, and watersport rentals.
4. Soak Up The Local Culture at Mallory Square
Located on the waterfront in Key West’s historic Old Town, adjacent to the cruise ship port, Mallory Square is a popular place to shop and soak up local culture in Key West. This is also the location of the “Sunset Celebration”, which is considered one of the main tourist attractions of the city which involves hundreds of tourists who arrive each night to view the sunset.
5. Watch the Most Beautiful Sunset
Sunset Celebration is a nightly arts festival at Mallory Square consisting of arts and crafts exhibitors, street performers, food carts, psychics and of course the thousands of tourists from around the world who visit this Key West art show. Each night around two hours before sunset masses of people, both locals and tourists alike, flock to the water’s edge to experience a multicultural happening and to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico.
6. Trek to the Southernmost Point
The Southernmost point buoy is an anchored concrete buoy in Key West, Florida marking the southernmost point of the United States. The monument serves as a great photo opp. Make sure to get there early in the day as there tends to be a long line of people waiting to get their photo taken.
7. Visit The Little White House
Year after year vacation guests rate this as one of the top Key West Florida attractions. Built in 1890 as a base home for the Naval Commander, the residence served many purposes until it became President Truman’s winter home. Tours are led by knowledgeable guides that share information about Truman’s life in the home, his presidency, and the history of the Little White House.
8. Climb the Key West Lighthouse Museum
If you’re up for a climb, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Key West and the ocean. The Key West Lighthouse was built in 1825 to help the many ships entering the port avoid the hazardous reefs.
9. Check Out the Key West Aquarium
Perhaps one of the most unique aquariums in the world, the Key West Aquarium has delighted visitors since 1934. Experience the beautiful indigenous sea-creatures of the island and the Florida Keys.
Tip: Enjoy daily shark and turtle feeds, guided tours, and a hands-on experience at the Touch Tank.
10. Take a Tour of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Ernest Hemingway lived here from 1931 to 1961 and wrote many of his acclaimed novels including To Have and To Have Not, which was set in Key West during the depression. Take the guided tour and learn all about Hemingway, his life and career, his adventurous past and the six-toed cat he loved.
11. Experience the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
At the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, hundreds of butterflies of every size, shape and color live in a tropical haven. Learn about how the butterflies are bred in captivity and many other interesting facts about these graceful creatures.
12. Get Your Heart Pounding With Some Watersports
Key West watersports do not disappoint and include:
- jet ski
- waverunner rentals
- reef snorkel
- scuba dive
- small boat rentals
- dolphin encounters
- kayak tours through the backcountry mangrove island
Get a Bite and Have a Drink in Key West
Key West is teeming with tasty restaurants and lively bars. Numerous Key West restaurants line the world-famous Duval Street while other eclectic places are tucked into quiet side streets. In Key West you will find savor freshly caught local seafood, local specialties, gourmet food, and ethnic flavors. Many Key West bars feature live bands, tropical drinks and local characters. The best are list below!
Sloppy Joe’s Bar
No stop to Key West is complete without a visit to Sloppy Joe’s. A Key West tradition, Sloppy Joe’s dates back to the 1930’s, where the bar was open 24 hours a day. Ernest Hemingway helped make the popular Duval bar a stable of Key West, and look alike contests are still held annually today.
On the corner of Duval and Front Streets, The Hogs Breath Saloon has been a popular watering hole for 25 years with great food, cold drinks and a daily lineup of local and national bands. You can sit inside or out and enjoy a balmy ocean breeze and a cocktail, while you dig into an exceptional meal.
Tip: If you’re a fan of peel-n-eat shrimp (I mean, who isn’t), the best in Key West can be found here.
Fat Tuesday is the perfect place to go for fun in or out of the Key West sun. Open everyday from 10am until late night, Fat Tuesday has been serving great drinks and great times in a colorful, upbeat atmosphere since 1990.
“A last little piece of Key West” located on the Historic Seaport, Schooner Wharf is a great place to drink, eat, or relax. Live, daily and entertainment showcasing some of the best bands in all of the Keys. Schooner is also great place to get lunch, serving the best Mahi Mahi on the island.
Getting Around Key West
In Key West, you can visit a host of historic attractions by convenient public transportation, taxis, pedi-cabs, tour trains, trolleys, bicycles or even your own two feet. The island is not large and easy to get around on your own.
Scooter and Bike Rentals: Rentals are relatively inexpensive, a quick way to get around the island, and will enrich your Key West experience with easy transportation.
Tip: The BEST way to get around is a bike. I couldn’t recommend renting one more!
A Brief History of Key West
The history of Key West began when Florida’s Calusa Indian tribe was forced to migrate south to Key West as the New World was settled. English settlers called the island Key West, thinking that Cayo meant Key and Hueso West. Over the years, ownership of the island has changed hands several times between the Spanish and the English.
Key West became a major shipping area, but the coral reefs caused several shipwrecks. So, salvaging became a major area industry, making the island the richest area per capita at one time. Fishing, turtling, sponging, cigar making, and salt manufacturing were the other major industries of the island. And when Henry Flagler provided Key West access from the mainland by building the Overseas Railroad which was completed in 1912, the island grew wealthier. But, Key West ended up in bankruptcy thanks to the Great Depression and the hurricane of 1935 destroyed the railway.
Still, bankruptcy could not detract from the lure of Key West. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and several other notable people visited or resided here which in turn attracted others to the island. In 1938 the Overseas Highway replaced the Railway making the island more accessible once more.
In 1982 a group of Key Westers seceded from the Union of the USA and formed the Conch Republic. The mainland barricaded the entrance to Key Largo in response so that tourists and supplies could not get through. Unable to replenish supplies, especially rum, they surrendered. Still, visitors can see the Conch Republic flag proudly hanging up in several places around the island.