Key West Vacation Guide
It’s real and breathtaking. The kind of natural beauty that doesn’t exist anywhere else. From our pristine waters to the spectacular sunset in the Florida Keys and Key West.
Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, Jimmy Buffett, and Mel Fisher. An unlikely group of four under most circumstances. But the author, president, singer and explorer all shared a common bond — an inability to resist the lure of a small island 90 miles north of Cuba. Key West Florida is the southernmost point in the Continental United States. Inviting is the tropical climate, the tantalizing blue water, the laid-back island ambiance. As the sun sets, a sea of flawless color soaks the sky above the Florida Keys.
Most people know the Florida Keys as a great getaway. One of the most unique places on earth, calm, serene, laid back. Just the right place to escape the real world and rejuvenate your spirit. Key West Florida means history, art, theatre, museums, shopping, fine dining, and entertainment. An average temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, quaint 19th-century architecture, world-class fishing, and the world’s most spectacular dive sites and a laid-back lifestyle.
Few cities of Key West’s size – it’s a mere 2 miles by 4 miles – offer its joie de vivre. All told 120 miles of a perfect balance between natural beauty and extraordinary excitement. Between relaxation and activities. Between the quaint and the classic. Key West is a part of the Lower Keys and is known as the southernmost city in Florida. More commonly known as the Conch Republic, it is a seaport and a favorite tourist destination too. The climatic conditions are mild and resemble the Caribbean islands, making the island an automatic choice for vacations. There is a huge gay and lesbian population, mainly due to the eccentric or easygoing attitude of the people here.
Key West is a place to be open and relaxed. It’s a venue to make new friends, to dress up or dress down, to play from dawn to dusk or luxuriate in laziness. Above all, it’s the prime destination to enjoy carefree days and nights on an irresistible, live-and-let-live tropical island unlike any other.
Famous Duval Street Key West Florida
Most of the sights are located in Old Town, where you’ll find ginger breaded Victorian homes and charming bed-and-breakfasts, Key West Florida Key lodging commingling with packed bars and countless souvenir shops. The main drag is Duval Street, which is crammed with restaurants, galleries, and shops. Duval street is a good landmark to use to figure out where you are and where you’re going. The southeastern end of Duval Street is near the Southernmost Point (a requisite photo op for all visitors).
From there, you can stroll north on Whitehead Street, which passes several popular attractions. These include the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and the Key West Lighthouse. Further north is the historic Audubon House and the Mel Fisher Museum (artifacts recovered by the famous underwater treasure hunter). At the far-northern end of Whitehead, you’ll find Mallory Square, home of the not-to-be-missed sunset celebration. Head a few blocks east of Duval street to explore the Key West Cemetery, a must-see collection of aboveground graves that capture the island’s quirky character. You will have a great time in our famous Duval street Key West Florida.
Key West Beaches
Swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling are ideal at most beaches in Key West. Lifeguards are not present at beaches, so swimming is at your own risk. Topless and nude bathing is illegal. Fishing is allowed off the piers at most beaches. Check fishing license requirements.
FORT ZACHARY TAYLOR
An 87-acre state park with a pre-Civil War Fort. Wonderful sunset views. One of the best beaches in Key West, though a bit rocky. Public restrooms, food/drink kiosk, chair rentals, picnic tables, and BBQs. Admission charged. Entrance through Truman Annex at Southard Street.
A favorite of locals. Nice sandy beach with shallow waters and a concrete pier. No restrooms or facilities. Located at the end of Duval Street on the Atlantic Ocean.
A canine favorite though rocky and slippery. No restrooms or facilities. Located next to Louie’s Backyard (Vernon and Waddell)
Wide sandy beach with a long wooden pier. Restroom facilities, covered picnic tables, full-service restaurant, playground, chair rentals, rafts, and watersports rentals. End of Reynold’s Street.
Soft sand and natural vegetation. Home of the White Street Pier where you can enjoy some great fishing. Wheelchair accessible. Yoga deck with nightly classes. Restrooms within walking distance. Picnic tables. White Street on the Atlantic Ocean.
A half-mile stretch of sandy man-made beach. Restrooms, ample parking, concession stands, chair rentals, bike paths, picnic tables, volleyball nets, watersports rentals – jet skiing, parasailing, and windsurfing. South Roosevelt Boulevard.
Key West Parks
DRY TORTUGAS & FORT JEFFERSON
Ponce de Leon discovered the Dry Tortugas in 1513 when he caught over 100 sea turtles there. Subsequently, the islands were referred to as the “Tortugas” (turtles). During the 1600s and 1700s, the area around these islands was used by pirates as a base for attacking merchant shipping in the Gulf.
After the War of 1812, a group of forts from Maine to Texas was envisioned to provide defense for the United States of America. Fort Jefferson was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River. The fort was planned to be the greatest of these.
During and after the Civil War the fort began to be used as a prison for deserters and other criminals, most notably Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was sentenced to life in prison for his part in President Lincoln’s assassination. In 1908 the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture.
Today Dry Tortugas National Park is open for day trips or overnight camping. It’s a fascinating place, and the sparkling water offers excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities. Sleeping over is a unique experience: so close to the hubbub of Key West, but blissfully peaceful. The Yankee Freedom is a fast ferry that runs between Garden Key and Land’s End Marina at the foot of Margaret St in Key West. Key West Seaplane Service will also get you here. If you love camping, you will have the most romantic starry night camping in Dry Tortugas National Park.
- The Dry Tortugas feature camping, fishing, birdwatching, snorkeling, and swimming.
- Daily Tours are given of the Fort.
- The Dry Tortugas is located three hours from Key West. Ferry service is provided by Sunny Days Catamarans and Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry.
- The island can also be reached by seaplane, Seaplanes of Key West.
FORT ZACHARY TAYLOR
The park covering a total of 87 acres is a National Landmark that played a significant role in the early history of Florida. The fort, built in 1845, served as an important Union outpost in the Civil War. The Fort was again used during the Spanish American War.
- The west side of the park is ideal for fishing.
- Shaded picnic areas are available as well as tables, BBQs, outdoor showers and restroom facilities.
- Guided tours of the fort are available daily.
Entrance through Truman Annex at Southard Street entrance.
The area around Bahia Honda is one of the deepest channels in the Florida Keys. Bahia Honda is unique among other Keys because it has long sandy beaches and deep waters that offer excellent swimming and snorkeling. The park was originally part of Henry Flagler’s railroad holding. Part of the railroad bridge still remains.
- Snorkeling, swimming, fishing, camping, boat ramps.
- Sand and Sea Nature Center
- Nature trails, rare animal and plant life.
Located at Mile Marker 36, Big Pine Key, Florida. (45 minutes from Key West).
Art Galleries/Antique Shops in Key West
333 Simonton Street Key West, FL 33040
ANTIQUES, ARTIFACTS & UNIQUE DECORATIVE ACCESSORIES. The China Clipper has been offering the finest in Asian art, antiques, artifacts and gallery-quality reproductions for nearly 20 years.
BURNING BREAD GALLERY
US ONE and MM 15 Key West, FL 33040
Baby’s Coffee customers over the years have become familiar with Olga’s astounding work – painting, multi-media, construction and more!
712B Duval Street Key West, FL 33040
Home of the psychedelic island gecko and a gallery for local artists, the Island Store features one of the largest collections of handcrafted Haitian metal sculpture in the U.S. New artists welcome. Shop securely online at islandEstore.com. Located at 712B Duval Street (right under Crabby Dick’s). Open 10am – 10 pm daily (Summer 10am – 6pm)
Hemingway House, Audubon House & Gardens, Mel Fisher’s Museum, Mallory Square, the Key West Aquarium, Schooner’s Wharf, Sloppy Joe’s, Capt. Tony’s, Hog’s Breath Saloon, the Green Parrot, the Bull & Whistle (and just about everything else), are within easy walking distance in Key West.
Probably the second-most popular activity in town (after bar-hopping) is laying around on some peaceful (or not) stretch of sand. There are three city beaches on the southern side of the island: City Beach and Higgs Beach are more family-oriented, while Smathers Beach is popular with the jet skiing and parasailing vroom crowd.
The diving opportunities in Key West aren’t as plentiful as in some of the more northern Keys, but they are definitely here. Most companies, many of which are located around Mallory Square, take you west, to sites including Barracuda, Boca Grande, and Marquesas Keys. In some of the dive sites – especially around the Marquesas – non-divers can go along and snorkel.
Other outfitters can take you kayaking into Great White Heron or Key Deer Refuges, or on bicycling tours around the Keys, or you can just rent your own and give it a whirl. If you just need a little adrenaline, skydiving is an increasingly popular attraction.
- Rent a Bicycle or Scooter
- Visit the Audubon House & Gardens
- Ride the Conch Tour Train & The Old Town Trolley
- Enjoy a Wild Dolphin Adventure
- Visit the Ernest Hemingway House Museum
- Spend the day at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
- Enjoy a stargazer cruise on the Schooner Western Union
- Schedule a Sunset Sail
- Scan the wines of The Key West Winery
- Browse for sea life at the Key West Aquarium
- Ride a Glass Bottom Boat
- Find a treasure at Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum
- Shop for Key Lime Pie
- Yum, even more, Key Lime Pie from Blonde Giraffe
- Snorkel the Reef
- Have your photo taken at the Southernmost Point
- Experience deep dives, wreck dives, and outer reef dives
- Discover The Shipwreck Museum
- Charter a Fishing Boat
- Kayak the Mud Flats
- Take a Seaplane to the Dry Tortugas
- Jet ski around the island
- Catch a show at the Red Barn Theatre
- Shop ’til you drop
Places You Will Enjoy
The island is a host to beaches, parks, and resorts. The list of attractions runs long. Starting from the Ernest Hemingway museum, there are a lot of places to visit. You can also take the ghost tour. You can hardly miss any place, as the island is a small one.
Coming to the beaches, you can choose a busy one like Smathers beach, which provides water sports and volleyball games facilities. There are beautiful gardens, ball fields, and tennis courts.
Fishing and kayaking are good activities for more adventure–loving people. For those who love the arts, there are movie theatres – the Tennessee Williams, which stages live performances of dance, concerts and plays and movies. You can choose a trolley or train tours. There are several ancient buildings, which have been renovated and remodeled, like the Mansion Inn, Donkey Milk House Museum, Casa Antigua, Audubon House, and Gardens, Robert Frost Cottage, Hemingway House and more.
There are also historical buildings, like the Old City Hall and Wrecker’s Museum, Old Customs House, Shipwreck Historeum and more.
There are a lot of other pastimes too. There is a golf course – a public 200-acre 18-hole course, located amidst beautiful scenery. The Key West Aquarium was built in 1935 and claimed to be the world’s first open-air aquarium.
There are industries that manufacture cigars, fabrics and aloe products.
Events to Cherish
To add more color, there are plenty of events scheduled throughout the year and more so in the peak season of January – June. The prominent among the celebrations is the Fantasy Fest – a weeklong party. Every day the sunset celebration is held at the Mallory Dock, with live performances done by the street artists, jugglers, musicians, and all others gathered there.
A trip to the Florida Keys will be complete only if you visit Key West. Even though it is a tiny island, it holds most of the history behind the Keys. The principle adopted by the people here is unity in diversity, which is clearly seen when you walk down, for example, Duval Street. Here, the cultural influence of the neighboring areas is clearly seen.
True to its history of being the second oldest city in the Florida Keys, Key West abounds in natural beauty and historical monuments too.
Key West FAQ
Where is Key West?
Key West is the last island in a chain of islands extending southwest of Miami FL that one can drive to. Key West is 159 miles SW of Miami and 90 miles north of Havana. The three hour drive through the Florida Keys is surely America’s most unique motor journey. No other place in America combines the scenic ocean views of the Overseas Highway with a tropical blend of beautiful waters, exotic foliage, wonderful restaurants, and lodging facilities and history-enriched attractions and activities.
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What is so great about the Florida Keys and Key West?
Where else can you drive off that one side is Atlantic and other is the Gulf of Mexico? Key West is the only frost-free and one of the most scenic drives American Caribbean Island in the nation. Florida’s famed coral reefs are the largest in North America and the third-largest in the world. Florida Keys – Escape the “real world” and come for unbelievable sunsets, greens and blues from the crystal waters, coral reefs and coconut palms gently swaying in the warm trade winds in the tropical paradise waiting for you, and their culture. And then, there is the famous magic of these islands … and this, I can’t explain.
How big is Key West?
The island is quoted by several sources as being either a 1 mile by 3 miles island, or 2 by 4 miles, or 3 by 5 miles. The differences vary depending on if some adjacent islands are included, such as Stock Island, Fleming Key, and Dredgers Key.
Why should I go to Key West rather than Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean?
If you want big hotels, lots of people around and an ordinary vacation, then the Florida Keys is not for you. The coral reef off the Keys is one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse on Earth. Besides, nowhere else in the world can you wake up in an abandoned Civil War fortress, snorkel along spectacular reef, see the adorable but endangered Key deer, watch the juggling and acrobatic nonsense of the Sunset Celebration and finish off the evening at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. After all, you are spending your dollar in your own country and it comes back to you. Our dear Canadian folks also welcome to the keys and spending their dollar in a country where each country depend on each other for economic growth.
Is it expensive to vacation there?
Accommodations in the Florida Keys and Key West are plentiful and run the scale from top end to economy. There are large and small hotels, motels, inns and guesthouses throughout the Keys. You can also bring your own RV, boats and use our fabulous campgrounds right on the water.
What about the food?
Not surprisingly, seafood is the mainstay in Key West, and much of it is fresh from nearby waters. Florida lobster and stone crabs are good choices, as is conch, a chewy shellfish best served in soups or in fritters (deep-fried in a spicy batter). Many of the restaurants have been influenced by Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and serve what is known as Floridian-style cuisine. For dessert, try — what else? — Key lime pie, which has a tart custard filling and a graham cracker crust.
What about the weather – what can I expect and when should I go?
‘Just another day in paradise’ is probably the best way to describe Key West’s weather from October to June: It rarely gets below 65°F (18°C) or above 90°F (32°C). This makes it a summertime weekend destination for overheated Miamians, and a year-round attraction for the rest of the world’s population, all of whom seem to be here during the tourist season (December through to April).
What about bugs or insects?
The only bugs you could encounter are mosquitoes and flies, or sand flies in more remote beaches. It all depends where you are on any island, and it can vary within 50 feet. Most resorts treat their grounds and you may not come in contact with any insect. Garden Bungalows, private guest houses are likely to have mosquitoes, Beachfront possibly. It really is not a problem that an occasional application of repellent would not take care of. You are also likely to see geckos (small lizards) on the walls, waiting to gobble-up mosquitoes and any insects nearby. They are totally harmless and very useful but can be noisy at times with a frog-like croaking.
I want lots of activities – what can I do?
Lots of water activities! Fishing, snorkeling, canoeing, windsurfing, bicycling, hiking, snoozing in the shade, diving, scooter rental, Jet Ski, parasailing, etc. After all, the best party island in the Caribbean.
I want to go there with my children, is it suitable?
Not many families there, but kids love it. Calm, warm water with pretty fish, “cool” beaches, water activities, etc.. Most of the hotels welcome children. Please don’t bring children in Key West during Fantasy Fest in late October, it is mostly for adults.
I don’t speak Spanish. Is this going to be a problem?
No, everyone speaks English. Key West is a part of the U.S.A. There are a lot of local folks who speak Spanish.