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Best Things To Do in Key West
Like other vacation locales in Florida, Key West offers plenty of ways to enjoy its coastal seat, including sailing, snorkeling and kayaking tours and several clean beaches. But beyond its outdoor pursuits, Key West also lays claim to some interesting artifacts. Once the choice vacation getaway for Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and President Harry S. Truman, the island is home to more than a few historical treasures. Museums are scattered throughout, but the most activity is concentrated on the island's western half. Duval Street is a particularly lively area for souvenir shoppers, budget dining and nightlife.
Updated July 29, 2020
- #1View all Photos#1 in Key WestBeaches, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Parks and Gardens, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
For the cleanest beach and best waters in Key West, you should head for the westernmost point of the island to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. There, you can sunbathe, hike, bike, fish and get a dose of history all in one place. Recent visitors favor this shoreline over Smathers Beach (the water is clearer, making it an ideal snorkeling spot), but travelers also warn that the sand is not soft and that beach shoes are needed to traverse the rocky terrain safely. While the beach might not be as powdery soft as some other Florida beaches, it does offer some great snorkeling opportunities, according to recent visitors. Along with your snorkel gear, pack some grilling food and charcoal: This beach has plenty of barbecue grills and rental equipment.
If you get tired of hanging out beachside, stop by the historic fort located within the park. The fort was built in mid-1800s and was used during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Guided tours are offered twice a day.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Key WestRecreation, Tours, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRecreation, Tours, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
When you're not admiring the waters that surround Key West from the beach, enjoy them from the deck of a boat. Several companies offer sailing, snorkeling and kayaking tours, not to mention sunset cruises. Danger Charters, Classic Harbor Line and Sebago Watersports all receive favorable reviews from recent travelers. There are also several tours designed exclusively for dolphin watching (the Florida Keys are a refuge for hundreds of dolphins every year) – Wild About Dolphins and Dolphin Watch are among the most popular, according to recent travelers.
If you sign up for a snorkeling tour, you'll likely sail to the Florida Keys Reef – the only living coral barrier reef in North America. Located 7 miles off the coast of Key West, the reef offers shallow waters ideal for beginners. Travelers can also sign up for kayaking tours and paddle through the uninhabited mangrove islands in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Key WestZoos and Aquariums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDZoos and Aquariums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
If you love butterflies, this is the spot for you. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is filled with about 50 to 60 species of the colorful winged creatures that seemingly float through the air in an enclosed, glass-domed 5,000-square-foot aviary. Plant enthusiasts will also find much they'll love here, as the butterflies share their home with 3,500 plants, along with more than 20 species of exotic birds.
Past visitors highly recommend a stop here, describing the conservatory as "serene" and a great place to get away from the crowds. Those traveling with kids said the kaleidoscopic butterflies and birds were a hit with the younger crowd, and the outing proved educational, too, thanks to a short film on butterfly metamorphosis.
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For a great view of the Key West sunset, head to Mallory Square at the northwest tip of the island. During the Sunset Celebration (a free, nightly arts festival that starts about two hours before sunset), this is one of the best spots on the island to catch the sun's last moments and revel in the end of the day. But because it's one of the best vantage points for watching a sunset, it's also extremely crowded, especially with cruise ship passengers.
Recent visitors were divided about the Sunset Celebration. While some loved the buskers, others felt the shops and eateries around the square were kitschy and overpriced. If you do go, most reviewers said you only need to go once to get the full experience. Keep in mind that if you sign up for a guided tour, Mallory Square will likely be one of the featured stops on the tour. Access to Mallory Square is free.
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The Little White House was originally built in 1890 as naval command headquarters during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. In 1946, President Harry Truman used this house as his winter vacation home and because he spent so many working vacations here, it became known as the Little White House. The name is fitting: Since Truman's days, many other presidents have also vacationed here, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Today, the Little White House has been restored and turned into a museum. Exhibits document Key West's role in naval conflicts, as well as the house's history – the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine were both discussed here.
Recent travelers highly recommend a visit to the Little White House, especially for self-identified history buffs. The guides and exhibits both earn high marks from reviewers. The only gripe among recent visitors concerned the admission cost, which some felt was too high for the experience.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Key WestMuseums, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDMuseums, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Literary icon and journalist Ernest Hemingway is one of Key West's best-known and well-loved "freshwater Conchs" (a resident who was not born on the island). His former home – which he lived in for less than 10 years but owned until his death in 1961 – is located in Old Town and is now a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Literature buffs take note: Hemingway penned parts of some of his most famous works, including "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," in this very residence. The grand house itself is interesting, as it was one of the first in Key West to have indoor plumbing and a pool. Inside, the rooms contain memorabilia about Hemingway's life and work.
Recent travelers recommend a visit here (despite the perennial crowds), and offer praise for the knowledgeable tour guides, who bring Hemingway's time in Key West to life. Visitors also recommend sticking around after your tour (which takes about 30 minutes) to peruse the gardens and take in the distinct design touches of Hemingway's wife, Pauline. Several of the city's top guided tours make stops here.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Key WestFree, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Located in Old Town, the Key West Cemetery has been around since 1847 and is well worth at least a walk-through. The quirkiness of the city's residents extends even to the grave. Tombstones in this 19-acre cemetery don't wear the typical inscriptions. Instead, you'll find epitaphs that reflect the island's casual lifestyle. Some of the more well-known inscriptions include "I told you I was sick" and "I'm just resting my eyes." One tombstone is actually a ship's mast. While you're here, take note that many of these burial plots actually have multiple people stacked on top of one another.
Many recent travelers compared the cemetery to those found in New Orleans, thanks to the prevalence of the above-ground graves. Reviewers also said it reflects the "eclectic" citizens of the Keys.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Key WestTours, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDTours, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Whether you're interested in colonial furniture, period architecture, tropical greenery or naturalist John James Audubon, you'll find a host of curiosities at the Audubon House &Tropical Gardens. Located in Old Town a block away from Duval Street, the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens dates back to the 1840s. The house was built by Captain John Huling Geiger, but it's named after well-known ornithologist John James Audubon, who visited the Keys in 1832. Twenty-eight of his works can be found in the house. While you're here, take a look at the house's decor and then head outside to the lush and colorful garden, which includes herbs, orchids and other tropical plants. For some, the garden was their favorite part of the house, noting that the vibrantly colored flowers make for prime photography subjects. Other reviewers remarked on the careful restoration of the house and its period-specific antiques.
When you walk into the house, you'll be greeted by a staff member who will offer a brief introduction. Many visitors remark on how friendly and knowledgeable the guides are. From there, you can embark on your own self-guided tour. The Audubon House is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Admission for adults costs $14; students (of any age) pay $10; tickets for kids ages 6 to 12 cost $5; children younger than 6 get in for free. You can get $1 knocked off the price of adult admission by mentioning the "Save a Tree" coupon on the house's website. You can purchase Audubon prints (and other souvenirs) in the on-site gift shop.
- #9View all PhotosfreeSmathers Beach#9 in Key WestBeaches, Free, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, RecreationTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Key West isn't known for its beaches. However, the most bustling one on this island is Smathers Beach, which is particularly popular during spring break. Recent travelers say the beach is clean and peaceful, with plenty of shade and amenities, including bathrooms, food trucks, and chair and umbrella rentals. Visitors also say the views are great.
You'll find Smathers Beach on the southern shore of the island, about a mile from central Key West. It's close to the airport, which can be a pro if you enjoy watching the planes take off and land, or a con if you're not a fan of the noise.
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One of the most popular things to do in Key West is to snap a photo with the colorful buoy marking the southernmost point of the United States. Sitting at the intersection of Whitehead and South streets, the striped buoy is just 90 miles north of Cuba. Next to it, you'll also find a plaque dedicated to Cubans who have lost their lives trying to reach America.
Keep in mind, though, that this isn't truthfully the southernmost point – just to the west of the buoy is a patch of land that's owned by the Navy and closed to the general public. Recent travelers say this concrete buoy is a must for first-time visitors to Key West, but they also add that the crowds can make it difficult to snap a quality photo. If a stop at the buoy is on your to-do list, heed the advice of recent visitors and get up early to beat your fellow tourists, or sign up for a guided tour – many of which stop at the landmark. Access to the buoy is free 24/7.
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If you can fend off the claustrophobia and don't mind heights, the climb up the tiny and constricting 88 steps to the top of the Key West Lighthouse is worth it for the views, say recent visitors. Once you're up there though, be patient: According to past travelers, the viewing balcony at the top is very narrow. After taking in the views (a must, according to recent visitors), take a look around the keeper's quarters, which have been around since 1848. The cozy house is now a museum that surveys the history of lighthouses in the Keys, with photographs and various artifacts. One visitor noted that the gift shop is a great place to find locally made art.
One ticket gets you access to both the lighthouse and the museum. Admission for adults costs $10; kids ages 6 and up get in for $5, while children 5 and younger can enter for free. Visitors are divided on whether the admission price is worth the local history provided in the museum, but most agree that the panormaic views seen from the top of the lighthouse are unbeatable. The lighthouse and museum are open daily (except Christmas) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Situated across the street from the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, the lighthouse is located in Old Town. Reviewers say there is a parking lot located on Truman Avenue, but most recommend walking in from town.
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