Things to Do in Key West
Overflowing with Key West quirkiness, Mallory Square draws a crowd at sunset thanks to its many restaurants, street performers, and daily Sunset Celebration. During the day, visitors come for some of Key West’s best shopping and to admire the open-air sculpture garden, which pays tribute to famous local residents.
The Key West cruise port is a gateway to America’s southernmost city, where pristine nature meets quirky culture and history. The cruise terminal is walking distance from many top attractions in the compact center of Key West and is a convenient starting point for exploring the city’s neighborhoods, beaches, and nightlife.
The Key West Lighthouse is one of the island's oldest structures. It was first built in 1825 to help ships navigate the dangerous reefs of the Lower Keys. The lighthouse that stands today dates back to 1847, and the 92-foot (28-meter) building offers some of the best views in town, as well as a maritime museum in the keeper’s house.
Nestled among towering palm trees on Key West, the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum allows you to see where one of the United States’ most famous writers and greatest thinkers lived and worked. The Hemingway Home is a National Historic Landmark and Literary Landmark, and recorded at the Library of Congress as an Historic American Building.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park spans 54 acres (22 hectares) sits on the tip of Key West and is popular for both its military history and its current recreational opportunities. It is also the location of one of Key West’s favorite beaches, a stretch of sand with turquoise water sometimes called “rocky beach.”
The Southernmost Point of the Continental USAmonument is a quick but must-do photo op while vacationing in Key West. The iconic buoy-shaped concrete marker indicates that you’re in the southernmost point of the continental United States, just 90 miles (145 kilometers) to Cuba. Snap a pic and then get busy enjoying island life in this legendary Florida destination.
When visiting the Florida Keys it is hard to miss the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as most of the water surrounding the Florida Keys is part of the sanctuary. Covering 2,900 square nautical miles, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects the incredible underwater world of the Florida Keys, where reefs and animals flourish.
During a visit to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, you have a few different options for how to experience this protected area of nature. The sanctuary is home to the world’s third largest barrier reef and is an excellent spot for scuba diving or snorkeling. There are even a series of shipwrecks you can explore as a diver called Shipwreck Trail.
If you’d rather stay above water, you can rent a boat to explore the sanctuary and possibly do some fishing. When boating it is important to use mooring buoys for your anchor as they won’t damage the reef. In addition, boaters should pay attention to the commands of other buoys in the sanctuary as they are strategically placed to protect the environment.
To learn more about the history and conservation efforts of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a visit to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is a must. Through interactive exhibits you’ll learn about the land-based and under the sea wildlife and plants of the Florida Keys. There is also a living reef tank, which has an abundance of coral and fish living in it.
Located in what is now called the Truman Annex in Old Town Key West, the Harry Truman Little White House was the winter White House for President Truman for a total of 175 days over the course of 11 visits.
The former president was not the only U.S. leader to enjoy some respite in Key West. The house originally served as the base commandant’s house for the naval submarine station at Key West. President Taft was the first to visit in 1912, and Thomas Edison resided in the house during World War I. Over the years, six American presidents have used the residence, but the most important usage was by Truman from 1946 to 1952. Due to advances in technology, he realized that he could continue to act on matters of importance outside of Washington, D.C. and thus, the Little White House became his home from November to December and February to March, allowing the president a time of rest and recuperation.
Other notable figures such as presidents Kennedy, Carter and Clinton have visited and worked in the Little White House; many continue to do so. Because of this, the property will occasionally be closed for government functions with very little advance notification.
Palm trees line this prime stretch of Key West beachfront, where you can stake out the perfect stretch of white sand, lounge in the shade, or try one of many activities. Calm water makes Smathers Beach a favorite for snorkeling and swimming, and it’s great for families looking for a day by the shore.
Situated on Key West’s Mallory Square, the Key West Aquarium brings visitors up close to some of the Florida Keys’ aquatic wildlife. Exhibits feature guest favorites such as sharks, stingrays, American alligators, and jellyfish. The Atlantic Shores exhibit houses a living red mangrove ecosystem, a critical habitat in the Keys.
More Things to Do in Key West
Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park spans 100 square miles (25,900 hectares) of open water, protected coral reefs, and seven small islands in the Gulf of Mexico only accessible only by boat or air. Dry Tortugas is famous for its blue waters, wildlife, and Fort Jefferson—a 16-acre (6.5-hectare) coastal fortress.
Duval Street, running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, is Old Town Key West’s main strip, offering a mix of restaurants, bars, boutiques, live music, kitschy souvenir shops, and theaters. Walk the street at your leisure, or plan to attend a Duval Crawl; the street hosts some of the wildest pub crawls in the United States.
A veritable ode to a bygone era, the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum helps visitors step back into time and immerge themselves in the nautical and maritime heritage of what once was the richest city in the United States of America. Unusually so—Key Westers became extraordinarily wealthy by savaging treasures and luxury goods in the numerous and frequent wreckages, a questionable habit that provided for the livelihoods of the early pioneers on the island. Wrecking masters would then control the salvage operation and later on auction off their finds in wrecking courts, with each good being awarded a profit depending on how long or dangerous the salvage operation had been.
Actors, films and artifacts tell the story of the treacherous Florida Keys reef and the many wrecks it caused, including the infamous 1838 Isaac Allerton vessel. The ship was 137 feet long and weighed 594 tons and served as merchant ship in and around the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean for almost 20 years, before it was caught in a hurricane off Saddlebunch Keys in 1856. Visitors are invited to discover the perils of shipwrecking and to climb the 65-foot lookout tower—where they can alert the authorities in case of a wreck and watch out for Spanish galleons!
No coastal city would be complete without its own shipwreck legends, and Key West is no exception. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum allows you to explore artifacts from some of the most famous ships that went down in the Florida Keys.
The shipwrecks are mostly from merchant and slave ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. The artifacts on board serve as a window to the past, revealing a great deal about trade, colonization, slavery, and even daily life from the time period. One of the most famous ships to run aground in the Keys, the Henrietta Marie, is believed to be the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the slave trade. A visit to the museum lets you view historical artifacts in an new way, as the shipwreck legacy casts an eerie and exciting feeling over the objects.
The Hard Rock Cafe is famous for its many locations in cities around the world, and its Hard Rock Key West is the Southernmost member of the chain in the continental United States. The cafe is primely located in the center of the action on Duval Street, and features the American cuisine and rock ’n’ roll memorabilia of its other restaurants — but with a tropical twist. Boots from Jimi Hendrix, a velvet jacket from Stevie Nicks, and a Les Paul guitar that was broken in concert by the band Nine Inch Nails are showcased, among others.
It’s particularly evident how special this Hard Rock Cafe is when dining al fresco on their patio, where you can feel the ocean breeze. Whether you go for a fruity cocktail or a full dinner, the Hard Rock Cafe Key West blends seamlessly into its surroundings. Accompanied by music playing from the stereo or one of the live entertainment acts, it may be the ultimate cheeseburger in paradise.
Considered a marvel of engineering when it was first constructed, the Overseas Highway connects Miami and mainland Florida to the Florida Keys. Originally stretching a total of 113 miles (182 km) with 42 oversea bridges, the highway was constructed over the bed of the Overseas Railroad, which was constructed by Henry Flagler as part of the Florida East Coast Railway. When much of the railroad was destroyed in a hurricane in 1935, the roadbed and bridges were sold to the state of Florida; thus, the Overseas Highway was completed in 1938 and gave motorists access to the multitude of coral and limestone islands that make up the Florida Keys.
While most of the Overseas Highway runs to the right of the original railroad line, some of the old bridges can still be seen as you drive along through the Keys. The portions where pedestrians are allowed are now popular fishing spots; historic bridges like the Bahia Honda Bridge and Long Key Bridge are now fishing piers.
The Highway as a whole is a destination of its own, affording views of impossibly aquamarine water, Robinson Crusoe-esque islands and plenty of examples of classic Florida kitsch in the form of roadside stands and mom-and-pop shops. The National Scenic Byways program named the Overseas Highway an All-American Road in 2009. It’s the only All-American Road in Florida and one of 30 in the entire country.
Key West Cemetery is a massive cemetery in Key West that dates back to 1847. The cemetery was created that year due to the 1846 hurricane that destroyed the old cemetery on Key West and even unearthed bodies. Since its inception, it is estimated that over 100,000 people have been buried in Key West Cemetery.
While walking around the 19-acre Key West Cemetery you’ll come across a variety of gravestones, vaults and crypts. In addition, you’ll learn that there are different sections of the cemetery, including a Catholic and Jewish section plus a section called the Los Martires de Cuba for those who died while fighting to free Cuba during the Ten Years War. There is also a monument for those who died during the USS Maine explosion of 1898. Prominent people from Key West who are buried in the cemetery include Ellen Mallory, one of the first female settlers of Key West, and William Curry, Florida’s first millionaire.
When visiting Key West there is one spot you must visit to see the sunrise: Edward B. Knight Pier. Even if you're not a morning person, Edward B. Knight Pier is worth a visit at any time of day.
Edward B. Knight Pier, also known as White Street Pier, is a long concrete pier that stretches out far into the Atlantic Sea. Walk or ride your bike to the end where you'll find the pier greatly widens, providing ample space for you to find a spot to relax for a bit and take in the view. Facing outward from the pier you can enjoy the wonder of the vast ocean, which is quite clear below the pier. Turn around and you'll have a wide angle view of Key West. Edward B. Knight Pier is known for its excellent location to watch the sunrise, but thanks to the angle of the pier you can see the sunset from it as well. During your walk along the pier you'll likely encounter several locals fishing off the side of it. There is also an AIDS Memorial at the entrance to the pier.
Imagine entering a magical world festooned with tropical plants and inhabited by what seems like a million butterflies. Visiting the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is like visiting another planet, full of brightly colored plants, birds and, of course, butterflies. With between 50 – 60 species of butterflies from around the world and more than 20 exotic bird species, a visit to the Conservatory is a memorable experience in sight and sound. Tread carefully, keep your eyes open and you might find a butterfly perched on your shoulder as you wander along.
The Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is entirely enclosed in glass and kept at a temperature of approximately 80° F (27° C); it’s also very humid, which is how the butterflies prefer it. Paths meander through tropical plants, past feeding platforms for the butterflies and alongside waterfalls. Visitors can learn about what butterflies eat, how and when they mate and migratory patterns. Stop into the Learning Center for a 15-minute film that gives a helpful overview of the life cycle, basic facts and other details of the butterfly. The Gallery displays the work of Sam Trophia, an artist whose work captures and preserves butterflies as art.
Located on the famous Duval Street, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is one of the most unique attractions you’ll find in Key West, Florida. With over 10,000 square feet on the second floor of a historic Key West historical building, the over 500 exhibits will easily keep you busy for an entire day.
Ripley first displayed his odd collection at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which was labeled Ripley’s Odditorium. The exhibit attracted over 2 million visitors, leading Ripley to take his show on the road. Today, there are franchised locations of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditoriums all over the world.
The 500-plus exhibits in Key West are showcased in 13 galleries. Ripley collected the most unusual objects and collections he could find on his global travels to create the Odditoriums. Look for featured items like a shrunken head that once belonged to Ernest Hemingway, whose own typewriter and glasses are on display as well.
The Key West Odditorium exhibits include one featuring the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow, who was 8’11” tall at only 22 years old, a completely white buffalo (odds are one in ten million) and a prehistoric Mastodon skeleton. Other interesting exhibits include an eight-foot statue of Cpt. Jack Sparrow made from recycled car parts and a landscape carved entirely from camel bone.
Don’t skip the WaxZone at Ripley’s Key West. Located on the first level in the lobby, guests can create a “wax hand.” Dip your own hand into wax, or hold hands with a loved one, and create a memento you can take home after your visit.
St. Paul's Key West Episcopal Church has an excellent location along popular Duval Street in Key West, but even without that enviable piece of real estate, the church would be hard to miss. On sunny days, its white exterior stands out brilliantly against the bright blue Key West sky. Inside, you’ll find a peaceful reverie from the bustling vibe of Key West.
The St. Paul Episcopal Church dates back to 1833 and was the first church community in the United States south of St. Augustine; however, the current church structure is actually the fourth one as hurricanes and fires ravaged the first three churches. In 1919 the fourth church was completed following the plan to construct it mostly out of concrete to make it more durable. This proved true until the 1990s when the salt and sand from the nearby beach and ocean accumulating within the walls over the decades resulted in splitting of the walls, leading to a risk of the church caving in. A major restoration totally over $1 million was conducted and the church was saved. Today, the church’s history and beauty attract visitors from all over the world.
Part of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s aesthetic loveliness comes from the stained glass windows adorning the sides of the church. These were installed in the 1920s and provide brilliant color and design to St. Paul’s. The church’s ten bells, which were recovered from the third church structure, are also a must-see as they were created by the McShane Company of Baltimore and weigh over three and a half tons.
The Key West Garden Club is a hidden gem in Key West—it’s easy to pass by and never know that it’s there. However, once you wander onto the grounds near Higgs Beach, this pocket of paradise featuring native and exotic trees and plants and sweeping ocean views might become your new favorite destination in Key West.
The Key West Garden Club is also home to the West Martello Tower, which was built as a fortification during the Civil War in the 1860s. Never used in battle, the fort fell into disrepair and became the home of the Key West Garden Club 1955. Due to efforts of the Garden Club and the public, West Martello Tower was declared a National Historic Site in 1976 and is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
With a mission to provide educational opportunities to the community, the Key West Garden Club focuses on tropical gardening and is home to many species of native and exotic flora that cannot be found in northern areas of Florida. From bromeliads to flowering orchids, guests who wander the grounds from the gazebos to the lily pond and waterfall will be delighted by the lush foliage and pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown Key West.
The newest attraction on the Florida Keys’ wreck diving trail, the Vandenberg was sunk off the coast of Key West in 2009 and rests in 140 – 150 feet (42.6 – 45.7 meters) of water. Originally christened theUSS General Harry Taylor, this 522-foot vessel originally served as a transport ship in World War II. The US Air Force acquired the vessel as a missile range instrumentation ship in the 1960s and named it theUSAFS General Hoyt S Vandenberg. The ship was reacquired by the US Navy and later retired in 1983. The Vandenberg is one of the largest ships ever purposefully sunk as an artificial reef and is considered one of the best wreck dives in the United States.
Fun Fact: the Vandenberg had a brief moment of cinematic fame playing a Russian science ship in the 1999 movieVirus. Some of the Cyrillic lettering that was added for the movie is still visible on the ship.
The wreck is fairly accessible for beginner and advanced divers; there are a large variety of divable structures between 40 and 140 feet in depth to explore including the navigation bridge deck, radar deck, two satellite dishes and most of the superstructure. As the years pass, a diverse group of ocean life is making a home on the wreck including schools of barracuda, Goliath grouper and a wide variety of coral. However, diving conditions in the Florida Keys can be highly variable. Elements such as current and visibility can play a part in helping or hindering a diving experience.
Originally constructed and dedicated in 1885, Saint Mary Star of the Sea was the first Catholic Church in Key West and the fifth Catholic Church erected in all of Florida. It has a long and storied history, including housing a convent, school and, later, a hospital. Though the original church was destroyed by fire in 1901, it was rebuilt in 1905; the exterior and interior design reflects the eclectic period of American Victorian architecture and was the first non-wooden Catholic church in South Florida.
Today, The Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea is a popular destination for several reasons. In addition to the history contained within its grounds and the tranquility felt in the church, the property is also home to a Grotto containing statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette. Built to keep Key West and its residents safe from hurricanes, it seems to fulfilling its mission; the island has not suffered from a severe storm since the Grotto was constructed in 1922. The grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes is a well-known pilgrimage site, especially during hurricane season. There is also a Stations of the Cross Garden, constructed with Carrera marble and illuminated at night, and a perpetual adoration chapel, which opened in 1995.
The Vatican named Saint Mary Star of the Sea as a Minor Basilica in 2012; it’s the first basilica in the Archdiocese of Miami and the fifth in Florida.
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