Key west, Florida
The highlight of the Florida Keys Islands, Key West is situated at the very end of Florida’s Overseas Highway. Here’s what to do in Key West to have an amazing trip.
Popular for its sunny days, quirky residents, wild nightlife, pastel colored homes, and beautiful coral reefs — Key West, Florida is the perfect road trip destination from Miami for people looking to escape winter.
First explored by Ponce de Leon in 1521, Key West became a US territory in 1822, and has since been an island home to greats like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.
The self-proclaimed Conch Republic is probably the best known island of the Florida Keys. After multiple trips to the Florida Keys, I’ve found that there are many cool things to do in Key West that most people miss…
If you’re planning to spend some time in Key West, I wanted to recommend some of my favorite fun and unusual things to do, no matter what time of year you visit.
Best Things To Do In Key West Guide
1: Ernest Hemingway House & Cats
Built in 1851 in the French Colonial style, the home of the famous author Ernest Hemingway is located near the Key West Lighthouse at 907 Whitehead Street. It was turned into a museum after his passing and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.
Hemingway owned a polydactyl (six-toed) cat named Snow White, given to him by a ship’s captain. These days the house is full of 6-toed descendants which can be seen lounging around the grounds!
Visiting the house, and these odd cats with six toes, is one of the most popular things to do in Key West.
2: Climb The Key West Lighthouse
Built in 1848, visiting the Key West Lighthouse and climbing up the 88 steps to check out the view from the top is one of the top things to do in the Keys. When it first opened with a female lighthouse keeper, it was quite a 19th century rarity.
While it hasn’t been used as a functioning lighthouse since 1969, the museum stands testament to the maritime heritage of the island. And you can visit the Keeper quarters which are now home to a museum.
3: Take A Sunset Sailing Cruise
One of the most popular activities to do in Key West is book a sunset sailing cruise, and have a few drinks while sailing around the harbor watching one of Key West’s legendary colorful sunsets.
You can join a large catamaran style party boat, or charter a private experience on a smaller sailing yacht. Either way, it’s a worthwhile experience. Some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, like my photo above, were here in Key West!
4: Ride The Conch Tour Train
This world famous train starts at Front Street Depot and the train engineers delight guests with popular legends and stories on a 75-minute journey through Old Town Key West.
Running since 1958, the train is one of the most popular things to do in Florida Keys. It’s a bit cheesy, but you learn a lot about the history of the area.
5: Eat Like A Local
Florida is the home some delicious food like oranges, Key Lime Pie, Conch Fritters, Stone Crabs, Dole Whips, and fried Gator Bites. Which is why you can’t skip eating any of these popular foods while in Key West.
Some great restaurants in Key West you’ll definitely want to check out include:
And make sure you don’t miss the Key Lime Pie Company. Or just take one of the local Key West Food Tours that give you a taste of seafood and Cuban food at the old ‘mom and pop’ type eateries.
6: Check Out Fort Zachs Beach
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, locally called Fort Zachs or Fort Taylor is a historic landmark from the Civil War era named after US President Zachary Taylor.
Built between 1845 and 1866, the fort is home to excavated armaments and other Civil War exhibits. It’s also home to a beach that’s perfect for snorkeling and a large park covering 54 acres.
Other popular beaches in Key West include:
- Smathers Beach is the largest Key West beach at half a mile long, it’s also the most crowded, but perfect for water sports and biking.
- Higgs Beach is where you’ll find the African Refugee Cemetery. 294 refugees were buried here after being rescued from slave ships in the 1860’s.
- Rest Beach (or CB Harvey Memorial Rest Beach) is a 300-yard strip of beach backed by some sand dunes and vegetation. Parking is free, and there’s shade!
7: Bar Hopping Duval Street
If you ready to party and experience Key West’s famous nightlife, Duval Street in Downtown is where to go. This popular street in Key West Downtown is filled with local shops, restaurants, bars and live-music clubs.
One of the most popular tourist activities in Key West is spending time bar hopping on Duval Street. The nightlife here is legendary, with amazing live music and some weird & funky bars.
- Sloppy Joe’s Bar was a favorite hangout for Ernest Hemingway. First called the Blind Pig, then the Silver Slipper, it opened on December 5th, 1933 — the same day prohibition ended in the United States.
- The Green Parrot
- Schooner Wharf
- Bull & Whistle Bar (Garden of Eden)
- Bourbon St. Bar
- Hog’s Breath Saloon
8: Mile Marker Zero
You can’t visit Key West without stopping to get your photo (along with thousands of other people) with the Mile Marker 0, which marks the end of the 2,369 mile long US 1 Highway.
Stretching from upper Maine to Key West, US 1, known locally as the Overseas Highway, connects most major cities in the eastern U.S. The highway officially starts here, in Key West!
9: Harry S Truman Little White House
Built in 1890 and located in the Truman Annex section of Old Town, the house has been home to President William Taft, and later a vacation home to President Truman. Even Thomas Edison stayed here while contributing to the WWI efforts.
The house has also hosted the likes of General Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Carter, Colin Powell, President Clinton, and more. Nicknamed as Florida’s only Presidential Museum, you’ll be able to see many historic records and photos.
10: Dry Tortugas National Park
About 109 km west of Key West, seven islands form Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s home to beautiful coral reefs, abundant sea life, tropical birds, and some submarine banks. It was named Tortugas by Ponce the Leon in the 16th century because of the number of turtles or ‘tortugas’ found on the islands.
The highlight of the park is the unfinished Fort Jefferson, that covers 16 acres on Garden Key and is made of over 16 million bricks. The park is a great place to go picnicking, swimming, diving, snorkeling, boating, bird watching, or hiking.
To get here, most people take the Yankee Freedom III high speed ferry from Key West. But if you’re looking for an even more unique adventure, arriving by seaplane is also an option!
11: Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum features exhibits on piracy and the slave trade, along with a collection of artifacts from 17th century shipwrecks of the Spanish slave ship Henrietta Marie and the treasure ship Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
Artifacts from other ships such as the Guerrero & Nimble, Santa Margarita, and Santa Clara are also present. The onsite conservation lab also offers tours showing how items recovered from wrecks and other artifacts are preserved. It’s pretty cool!
12: Sunset Parties At Mallory Square
Mallory Square is another popular hangout in Key West. It’s perfect for shopping for crafts and souvenirs, or relishing food at the local eateries.
Every evening there is a sunset celebration where crowds gather to watch some of the best sunsets ever over the Gulf of Mexico.
Try to get to the square about two hours before sunset to watch live performances from musicians, clowns, magicians, jugglers and other artists from across the globe.
13: Visit The Southernmost Point Buoy
The line to get photos at this red, yellow and black colored buoy are pretty long. Why? This concrete “buoy” is the Southernmost point in the continental USA, and everyone wants evidence that they’ve been here. Go really early to skip the lines.
The signage on the buoy reads “The Conch Republic, 90 Miles to Cuba, Southernmost Point Continental U.S.A., Key West, F.L., Home of the Sunset”.
14: First Legal Rum Distillery
Originally started as Jack’s Saloon in the year 1900, the people at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery consider themselves chefs first and distillers second. Apart from “Chef Distilled” rums, they also sell mouth-watering rum cakes. Take a tour here to taste their Cuban Coffee Rum, Vanilla Brûlée Dark Rum, and the famous Key West First Legal Rum.
Other rum distilleries you can visit include the Papa’s Pilar Rum Distillery to taste Papa’s Pilar, the rum that Hemingway drank; and the Key West Trading Co for their famed Temple Pent’s Revenge Blacklisted Rum.
15: Attend Key West Fantasy Fest
Fantasy Fest is a weird and wild annual costume festival held in Key West that attracts thousands of people every year. I attended a few years ago, and it was one of my favorite festivals ever!
It’s basically a 10-day costume party that’s like a combination of Burning Man, Mardi Gras, and Halloween on a tropical island. Body painting and elaborate costumes are on show, along with a lot of skin… its definitely an adult celebration.
16: Visit The Key West Aquarium
The Key West Aquarium is home to many species of fish, alligators, sting rays, jelly fish, turtles, and sharks. If you’re traveling with kids, the Touch Tank has sessions where the kids can pet conchs, sea stars, slate pencil sea urchins, sea cucumbers, giant hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs.
17: Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden
The only “frost-free” tropical garden in the US, this garden also serves as a wildlife refuge and arboretum. Called the “keeper of the trees”, it opened in 1936 and covers 63 hectares on Stock Island.
You can stroll through 2 butterfly habitats and 2 wetland habitats, and see exotic trees and tropical as well as subtropical plants, Neo-tropical birds, and other rare finds.
18: Explore The Historic Seaport
A sailor’s delight, the Key West Historic Seaport is home to hundreds of yachts and boats. The marina is full of shopping stores and restaurants such as the Schooner Wharf where you can enjoy a meal.
There are also rental stores where you can rent boats for whale watching, cruising, sailing, or hire equipment for fishing, parasailing, jet skis. It’s a lively place, and well worth spending some time wandering around.
19: Go Snorkeling Or Scuba Diving!
Right beside Key West you’ll find the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, making it wonderful destination for snorkeling and scuba diving. Scuba diving is a big deal around here, and many divers come down specifically to dive the famous Shipwreck Trail.
The Shipwreck Trail includes 9 historic shipwrecks scattered along the coral reefs and buried in the sand a few miles off shore. The best snorkeling in Key West can’t be done from the beach, you’ll need to book a boat to take you out to the local offshore reefs.
20: Fort East Martello Museum & Gardens
The Fort East Martello Museum opened in 1862 and displays exhibits of military effects, Cuban and early settlement artifacts, sponging and fishing exhibits, junk art by Stanley Papio, and local folk art.
The museum is also home to the haunted Robert the Doll which used to belong to eccentric artist Robert Eugene Otto. The doll is said to have moved voodoo figurines around a room, caused car accidents, broken bones, and other misfortunes.
If you’re truly up for a challenge, go on one of the Haunted Museum and Civil War fort ghost tours.
21: The Oldest House In Florida
Called the Oldest House in South Florida, it was built in 1829 by Captain Francis Watlington, a famous wrecker. Wrecking is the practice of taking valuables from shipwrecks, which there were many of around Key West.
These days the home is a museum that showcases life in the 19th century through portraits and furnishings as well as colonial architecture found in the Caribbean. At one time, Key West was the richest city in the United States!
22: Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden
Key West local Nancy Forrester has been rescuing and caring for orphaned parrots for 35 years in her backyard garden. Visitors can interact with, feed, and pet the bright and colorful parrots and other birds while learning more about them.
23: Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is home to about 60 species of butterflies and 20 species of exotic birds. Walk through a magical and inviting environment filled with hundreds of the most beautiful winged creatures in nature (including pink flamingos!)
Their “Wings of Imagination” art exhibit offers original works by artist Sam Trophia. Acrylic shadow boxes depict the butterfly’s beauty preserved and suspended in art form in a spectrum of colors, shapes and sizes.
24: Ghost Hunting In Key West!
Key West is filled with ghost stories. From lost lovers to ghastly murders, the island has a long history of haunted tales. The most famous is probably Robert The Doll. A gift from a Bahamian servant skilled in voodoo, the doll is said to have turned over furniture, screams, and talks.
Captain Tony’s Saloon has a long history of death. The former site of a morgue, the building has seen many hurricane deaths, and the tree growing in the middle of the bar has been used for 17 hangings. They say a Lady in Blue, who was hung from this tree, still haunts the Saloon to this day.
Transportation Around Key West
Most people get to Key West by driving down from Miami, Florida. It’s an awesome little road trip on the overseas highway through multiple islands in the Florida Keys. However there is also a ferry, as well as a small airport.
The best site to book your car is with Discover Cars. They search both local and national car rental companies to help you find the best possible price. This is the easiest way to rent a car and drive down to Key West from Miami.
Renting a car offers the best flexibility to explore more remote and less touristy spots in the Florida Keys. It’s my favorite way to get around!
Taxi Or Uber
You can book taxis in Key West using Uber, Lyft, or TaxiASAP.
The main attractions in Key West are very close to each other, with most of them within a 2 mile radius of Old Town. So you could get almost everywhere walking.
If you don’t want to take a cab, but don’t want to walk either, bicycles are the perfect answer. The most popular variety are the one-speed bikes locally known as Conch Cruisers.
These bicycle rickshaws are often seen in Old Town areas, but are a tad expensive at about $1.50 a minute.
There are trolleys that run through different areas in Key West and cost above $20 for a day-pass.
Run by the city, these pink and blue colored buses circle historic stops in the Old Town quarter and are free to hop on and off.
Where To Stay In Key West
Key West has tons of accommodation options available for tourists, everything from budget backpacker hostels to luxury hotels. Below you’ll find suggestions for good places to stay during your trip to Key West depending on your budget.
BEST HOTELS IN KEY WEST
COOL AIRBNB’S IN KEY WEST
Key West Travel Tips & Advice
- Pick up a Key West Sightseeing Flex pass for deals on water sports activities like jet skiing and paragliding.
- Download the Florida Stories App created by the Florida Humanities Council and take one of their free walking tours around the island.
- If you need one, pick up a free paper map of Key West from any of the Visit Florida tourist centers.
- Try to avoid traveling to Key West during Spring Break – usually March and April. Unless you want to deal with drunken college students creating havoc.
READ MORE FLORIDA TRAVEL TIPS
I hope you enjoyed my guide on what to do in Key West! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
Have any questions about things to do in Key West? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!