The southernmost city in the contiguous United States, captivating, sun-kissed Key West lies surrounded by the shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Connected to the Florida Keys and mainland by the Overseas Highway, the isolated and idyllic isle is renowned for its natural beauty, interesting historic tourist attractions, and raucous nightlife.
Closer to Havana than Miami, the island exhibits an amazing mix of cultures with American, Afro-Caribbean, and Spanish influences on show. Besides visiting its many museums and historic landmarks, other things to do in Key West include basking on its beaches, enjoying watersports and exploring its rich marine life and nature reserves.
As the sun slowly and spectacularly sets, Key West takes on another identity as people head to its bars and clubs and a carnival-like atmosphere takes over the town.
In this post, we'll cover:
17. Higgs Beach
A pleasant place to sunbathe, swim, and generally hang out is Higgs Beach, one of the island’s most visited waterfront areas. Lying along the southwest shore of Key West, it has a park, picnic areas, and playgrounds for guests, with snorkeling and sailing also on offer.
Besides lounging on the beach, visitors can play tennis and volleyball or stop by important historic sights, such as the African Refugee Cemetery and West Martello Tower. In addition to its recreational opportunities, Higgs Beach boasts beautiful views over the Atlantic Ocean from its sandy shores and two prominent piers.
16. Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum
Home to an extensive array of artifacts and exhibitions, the excellent Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum is found by the Old Town’s waterfront. Named after the diver Mel Fisher who discovered several shipwrecks in the area, it offers a fascinating look at the history of the island and the waters that surround it.
Its well-presented galleries contain gold coins, jewels, and cannons from several Spanish ships that were uncovered over the course of a couple of decades and innumerable dives. As well as these valuable treasures, the museum has interesting exhibits on underwater archaeology, diving, and the Transatlantic slave trade.
15. Key West Aquarium
A stone’s throw from the museum is the wonderful Key West Aquarium, which is home to all kinds of colorful fish and corals. One of the first open-air aquariums to be established in the States, it was built between 1932 and 1934 with extra exhibit spaces added over the years.
Since then it has delighted countless generations with its shimmering shoals of fish and amazing marine animals; alligators and jellyfish are on show alongside sharks and sea turtles. One of the aquarium’s most popular features is its touch tank where visitors can stroke stingrays and starfish and see other fish swimming by.
14. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum
A short stroll to the south of the aquarium is another of the island’s top attractions: the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum. Now docked at Key West Harbor, the white ship served for over fifty years before finally being decommissioned in 1988.
The only Coast Guard Cutter to be awarded two Presidential Unit Citations, it saw action in both WWII and the Vietnam War. Nowadays visitors can learn about its captivating history by exploring both above and below deck. As well as acting as a National Memorial, the USCGC Ingham was also recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1992.
13. Dry Tortugas National Park
Although it is the most inaccessible of all America’s national parks, Dry Tortugas is not to be missed for its incredible marine life, outstanding outdoor activities, and the huge historic Fort Jefferson. As the small archipelago of coral islands lies nearly 70 miles west of Key West, they can only be reached by either boat or seaplane.
The largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere, Fort Jefferson’s sturdy defenses are amazing to explore and contrast delightfully with the shimmering waters surrounding it. Most of the national park’s treasures, however, lie beneath the waves with unforgettable snorkeling and scuba diving to be had amidst colourful corals, shoals of fish, and atmospheric shipwrecks.
12. Key West Cemetery
More convenient is the sprawling Key West Cemetery, located in the heart of the Old Town. Established in 1847 after a hurricane washed away the island’s earlier cemetery, it is thought to be the final resting place of 100,000 people, many more than currently live on Key West.
Besides impressive tombs and mausoleums, you can also find sections dedicated to Cuban freedom fighters and US Navy sailors, among others. While a sombre place, the quirkiness and humor of the island’s inhabitants shines through with epitaphs such as ‘I told you I was sick’ and ‘I’m just resting my eyes’ inscribed on some of its gravestones.
11. Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Also set alongside the Key West Harbor is the fun and family-friendly Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Home to all kinds of animals and exhibits, it offers a fascinating look at the rich marine environments of the Florida Keys.
Since opening in 2007 it has been a firm favorite with locals and tourists thanks to its tanks of tropical fish and colorful corals. Accompanying its aquarium are countless interactive exhibits and short films that teach you everything there is to know about the Key’s plants, fish, and animals. One of its main features is a replica of the Aquarius undersea laboratory that highlights how scientists study marine life at sea.
10. Sloppy Joe’s Bar
One of the best places in Key West to grab a drink, dance or listen to live music on the island, Sloppy Joe’s Bar has been a mainstay of Key West’s entertainment and nightlife scene since 1933. A very lively yet laid back place, the atmospheric bar’s name was actually inspired by Ernest Hemingway—one of its early and favorite patrons.
At its current location, the corner of Duval and Green street since 1937, the infamous rowdy and slightly rundown saloon now has a restaurant and retail shop for guests to stop by. Most people however head to its curved bar to enjoy a drink and listen to bands with the popular establishment impressively open every single day of the year.
9. Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum
The Key West Lighthouse was built in 1848 after the Great Havana Hurricane destroyed the previous one two years earlier. Decommissioned over a century later, once new technology had rendered it obsolete, its blindingly bright white tower now offers phenomenal views out over the island and its surrounding waters.
In addition to climbing up the 72 feet tower, seeing its Fresnel lens and basking in the views, visitors can also check out the charming Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Full of artifacts and photos, it looks at the history of the lighthouse and its keepers, the first of whom was a woman, which was very unusual for the time.
8. Smathers Beach
While Key West isn’t really known for its beaches, Smathers is the largest and most popular and has gently waving palm trees lining its soft white sands. Set along the southern shore of the isle, it offers great sunbathing, swimming, and watersports for visitors, as well as epic views out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Stretching under a mile in length, the beach’s inviting sands attract both locals and tourists alike with plenty of shade and amenities on offer. Although it can get crowded during Spring Break, Smathers Beach is usually quite peaceful and has volleyball nets and food trucks.
7. Southernmost Point
One of the most popular and photographed places in Key West is the colorful buoy which marks the Southernmost Point of the continental United States. Although this claim to fame doesn’t quite hold up, as a couple of other sites both in Florida and even Key West itself lie further south, many people still flock here to take photos at the landmark.
Erected in 1983, the painted buoy is now a lively spot with street food vendors and souvenir sellers found alongside street performers. Located at the corner of Whitehead and South street, the tourist site makes for some great photos with ’90 miles to Cuba’ emblazoned on its side.
6. Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Occupying the western end of the island is Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, which is home to everything from beaches and green spaces to the fantastic fort itself. Due to all this, the park is a very popular place to visit and lies just a short stroll from many of the Old Town’s main tourist attractions.
Built between 1845 and 1866, it served during both the Civil War and Spanish-American War with tours around the fort highlighting its fascinating past. Besides this, visitors can lounge on its white sand beach, go swimming and snorkeling in the sea or enjoy a divine sunset as evening falls.
5. Duval Street
Running from one side of the isle to the other is the loud and lively Duval Street; Key West’s main strip and most renowned road. Lined by art galleries and historic mansions, as well as bustling shops, restaurants, and bars, it is the main place to drink, dine, and go out on the island.
While the south end of the street is calm and quiet in comparison, the northern end around Mallory Square and Sloppy Joe’s often takes on a carnival atmosphere as revelers attempt the ‘Duval Pub Crawl’.
Besides all its famous drinking establishments and excellent restaurants, Duval Street also has several souvenir shops and unique boutiques for visitors to check out.
4. Harry S. Truman Little White House
Although it lies just five minutes’ walk off of Duval Street, the scenic and serene Little White House couldn’t feel further away. Used as a winter holiday home and retreat by President Harry S. Truman, the beautifully preserved building now acts as a museum and is full of interesting photos, displays, and personal possessions.
Originally a naval command headquarters, not just for the Spanish-American War but World War I and II as well, the property later became a popular retreat for presidents. Aside from Truman who vacationed here numerous times over the course of a decade, it also housed Eisenhower and Kennedy, as well as the Clintons in 2005.
3. Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Set at the southern end of Duval Street is another picturesque place for you to visit: the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Home to over fifty species of beautiful butterflies and around twenty kinds of exotic birds, its lush gardens are a treat to explore, with incredible, colorful creatures, and magnificent plants wherever you look.
A magical place to wander around, the glass conservatory’s winding paths take you past cascading waterfalls and fragrant flowers with pink flamingos and colorful canaries to be spotted here and there. Flitting about its lovely gardens are almost two thousand butterflies, which add to the feeling that you’ve stumbled into a tropical paradise.
2. Mallory Square
Formerly a warehouse area, Mallory Square is now one of the most popular places to head in Key West once the sun starts to set. Lying just off of Duval Street, the wide waterfront plaza looks out over the glittering Gulf of Mexico with its daily ‘Sunset Celebration’ now being the stuff of legend.
A couple of hours before sunset, people start to congregate at the square which takes on a carnival-like atmosphere with jugglers, magicians and musicians putting on amazing shows. On top of this, there are arts and crafts stalls and food carts to visit as you take in the revelry and stunning sunset.
1. Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Aside from its incredible nightlife, the island’s most popular attraction is undoubtedly the excellent Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Key West’s favorite and most famous former resident, the renowned author lived here for just under a decade, penning parts of some of his best novels such as ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘A Farewell to Arms’ in this time.
Built in 1851, the charming Spanish Colonial house was inhabited by Hemingway and his second wife Pauline between 1931 and 1939. Now a museum, it contains lots of interesting artifacts and exhibits, as well as personal possessions that shine a light on the author’s life and works. Surrounded by lush grounds, the historic house and museum are definitely not to be missed when in Key West.