For easy, breezy island and beach life, there’s no better destination than Key West. The local residents – the Conchs – will greet you with enthusiasm and welcome you to their carpe diem lifestyle on the sea. Live it up on Duval Street, go shopping on Mallory Square, tour Ernest Hemingway’s home or just lounge for hours on the beach. It’s all about what you want, when you want it, in Key West. Here are the answers to your Key West questions and what to see and do while you’re there.
What Is the Best Time to Go to Key West?
For great weather and fewer tourists, visit Key West between March and May. The hotel rates have come down a bit and it’s still about 70 or 80 degrees during the daytime. Wintertime is the high season – the busiest and most expensive.
How Many Days Do You Need to Visit Key West?
Really, as long as you have. If you have three or four days, great, you’ll get a real feel for the island and have a quick, but relaxing great. If you have six to eight days, all the better. Settle for five and you’ll have enough to explore Key West, Key Largo and the surrounding area.
What Is the Best Location to Stay in Key West?
Key West is divided between the newer, residential New Town and historic Old Town. You’ll likely spend most of your time in Old Town, so it makes sense to base yourself here. Look for accommodations in Downtown, Casa Marina and Historic Seaport. It’s easy to get around, thanks to the free Duval Loop shuttle, trolley tours that allow all-day hop-on and hop-off and simply by walking.
New Town, closer to the airport, has a decidedly different personality than the charming Old Town area. You’ll find more contemporary shopping and amenities here. There are a few waterfront hotels that come in a bit more budget-friendly than the Old Town options.
If you love exploring a destination on foot, stay in the Heart of Old Town, where you’ll love the colorful wooden architecture dating back to the early- to mid-1800s and delightful bed-and-breakfasts. Don’t miss the historic cemetery and the parrot sanctuary. Other neighborhoods are just a short walk from here.
If you’re into history, stay in the Truman Annex – where you’ll find the Little White House, formerly the winter home of President Harry Trauma. Today, the neighborhood is a private, gated community convenient to Mallory Square, the Historic Seaport, the Key West aquarium, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and the Audubon House. The Little White House is now operated as an American history museum – nearby, you’ll find the USCGC Ingham Maritime Museum.
If you’re a boating enthusiast, stay in the Historic Seaport. Venture out into the ocean by chartered yacht or sailboat, take a sunset cruise or take a day trip to search for dolphins or snorkeling.
If you plan to dance the night away, stay on Duval Street in the heart of Downtown. There are live music acts at Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, Irish Kevin’s and more, jazz and blues at the Green Parrot and the labyrinthian Rick’s – eight bars in one.
If you’re a foodie, choose a hotel in the Historic Seaport or Bahama Village. The go-to eateries include Blue Heaven for brunch (and famous Key Lime Pie), Santiago’s Bodega and El Meson de Pepe’s.
If it’s the beach you crave, stay at Casa Marina (and possibly the historic hotel of the same name). This area is close to several public beaches, including Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach and Dog Beach. In the other direction, you’ll find the locals’ favorite, Zachary Taylor State Park Beach. Don’t miss the flamingoes at the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
Is Key West Expensive?
Here are some numbers to aid in your budget-planning for your Key West vacation. Visitors typically spend about $170 per day. Average hotel prices for a couple are around $200 a night.
Some ways to save money on your Key West vacation include visiting during September and November (but realize you’ll be taking a risk on the weather since this is hurricane season), shopping around for accommodations and being flexible on location and seeking out casual dining.
What Is the Best Way to Get Around Key West?
Look down – your own two feet are the best way to get around Key West. You can also rent a moped or bicycle, but the mopeds are admittedly dangerous. If you’ve had a margarita, or two, opt for one of the taxis or use the public bus system. Uber and Lyft services are on the island as well.
What Are the Different Parts of Key West?
The Keys can be broken down into these main areas:
Key Largo: The largest and northernmost of the Florida Keys, easily drivable from Miami and known for its water sports. (This is the easiest destination if you’re taking a Florida Keys road trip.) Ample accommodation options are available, from smaller family-owned properties to large resorts. The key features part of a national marine sanctuary, a national park and two state parks. The perfect destination for scuba diving, snorkeling, sport fishing, dolphin encounters, beaches and eco-tours.
Islamorada: Spread out over five smaller keys and less crowded than other areas of the Keys. The six island that make up this area, between the Everglades National Park and the Florida Strait are Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and the offshore islands of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key. Backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing are wildly popular here.
Duck Key: Small, secluded and home to the family-friendly, one-stop-shop resort Hawks Cay.
Marathon: Ten-mile-long, family-friendly island community spread out over several keys like Islamorada and a favorite for fishing and visiting turtles at the Turtle Hospital. The main keys are Vaca Key, Fat Deer Key and Grassy Key. If there’s a seafood festival going on, be sure to attend to enjoy the delicious fresh fish, lobster and stone crab claws.
Stock Island: North of Key West and home to local residents, for the most part, but with a few affordable hotels.
The Lower Keys: Quiet islands that include two national wildlife refuges, a national marine sanctuary and a state park. The islands are connected from the west end of Seven Mile Bridge at Sunshine Key to Stock Island. While you’re here, ride a bike through Key Deer country, go fishing or snorkeling out beyond the reef.
Is Duval Street Safe?
Most areas in the Florida Keys have low crime rate, but you should still use common sense and take personal safety measures at night, particularly around busy Duval Street and Mallory Square.
What Should I See and Do in Key West?
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Visitors flock to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park for its clean, clear water, perfect for swimming, snorkeling and fishing. The sand isn’t particularly soft, so invest in some beach shoes to more comfortably make your way across the rocks. It’s worth it, though, for some fantastic snorkeling. As the name implies, there’s a fort here too – from the mid-1800s – that was used during the Civil War and Spanish-American war. You can take a guided tour – they’re offered twice a day.
Take a Boat Tour
It seems only natural that you would take a boat tour of an area surrounded by water. Venture out with one of the many local operators who offer sightseeing cruises, sunset cruises, sailing excursions, snorkeling and kayaking tours, dolphin-watching tours and more. Snorkeling tours will most likely take you to the Florida Keys Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in North America and great for beginner snorkelers. Also fun: paddling through the quiet mangrove islands of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
Have fun with flitting butterflies at this 5,000-square-foot, glass-domed aviary. There are more than 50 species of colorful butterflies, as well as 20-plus species of exotic birds and 3,500 different plants.
One of the best sunset views in Key West is from Mallory Square, the social hub of the island. This is a lively spot with a lot going on, and usually pretty crowded. There is a free, nightly arts festival that takes place every evening two hours before sunset. Don’t miss it, though, to enjoy the many restaurants, shops, theaters, museums and live entertainment options.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Atop many a Key West visitor’s bucket list is a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Old Town. This National Historic Landmark celebrates the life and work of the literary icon and journalist – it is here in this house that he wrote A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Take a tour of the home, then stroll through the lovely gardens. Fun fact: There are about 40 to 50 cats that live on the museum grounds, all believed to be descendants of Hemingway’s white, six-toed cat, Snow White.
Key West Cemetery
Add this one to your must-see list in Old Town. The quirky cemetery dating back to 1847 features above-ground graves and tongue-in-cheek inscriptions such as “I’m just resting my eyes.”
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
Take a step back in time to the colonial days and enjoy the lush greenery and period architecture of the estate named for naturalist John James Audubon. Look for Audubon’s works throughout the house and enjoy quiet time in the garden, brimming with orchids, herbs and other flora. The period-specific antiques inside the home are particularly notable.
One of the most bustling of Key West beaches, Smathers Beach is second only to Fort Zachary Taylor. Its waters are also clean and clear and the ambience is peaceful (except for spring break!). Do note that it’s close to the airport, so you’ll be hearing and seeing the planes take off and land throughout the day.
Don’t leave Key West without a selfie or family photo at the buoy that marks the southernmost point in the United States. You’ll find this colorfaul landmark at the intersection of Whitehead and South streets. When you’re standing here, you are just 90 miles north of Cuba.
On Key West’s Atlantic coast, Higgs Beach Park is one of Key West’s most popular waterfronts. Snorkel in the shallow waters or venture out farther by kayak. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available to rent. There is a fort dating back to the Civil War era that you can tour, or the pretty Key West Garden Club to visit.
What Should I Eat in Key West?
Key West Pinks
These locally harvested pink shrimp are in season March through May and you’ll find them in a variety of dishes – you can also enjoy them alone. They’re particularly delightful when wrapped with bacon or stuffed with crab.
These shrimp are larger and more flavorful than their pink sisters and slightly salty, as opposed to sweet. They’re in season March through June. They’re so flavorful that you can simply peel and eat.
Deep-fried bites of goodness, conch fritters can be traced back to Bahamian immigrants. Dip them in key lime aioli for a treat you’ll keep coming back to. Look for conch prepared in a variety of other ways, including ceviche and chowder.
You may think you love lobster, but have you tried spiny lobster (aka rock lobster or sea crayfish). These are smaller creatures than your typical Maine lobsters and hailf from the warmer waters found in the Bahamas, Key West, California and Australia. They’re in season in late summer.
Anything French or Cuban
No one knows quite why, but French cafes and bakeries can be found throughout the Florida Keys. Take advantage and order up a flaky pastry or decadent Croque Madame. Then, move on to Cuban culinary specialties – a holdover from the late 1800s, when half of the area’s residents were from Cuba. Try Cuban sandwiches and ropa vieja.