Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Key West
Key West is both a city and an island that is part of the Florida Keys and considered to be the southernmost city in the continental United States. With a laidback and slightly offbeat vibe, numerous famous writers, artists and musicians have called it home over the years. Cruise ships have been stopping at Key West since 1969 and today it welcomes nearly half a million cruise passengers every year.
Your ship will likely dock at either Mallory Square or the Truman Annex, both of which are just a few blocks from Duval Street in central Key West. If your ship docks further out at the Navy Mole, near Fort Zachary Taylor. In that case, trolleys are available to shuttle you into the Old Town.
Few things are as beautiful as a Florida sunset, so while you are in Key West, be sure to celebrate the sunset in true Key West style - at Mallory Square. Every night, starting two hours before the sunset, the square hosts its "Sunset Celebration." Arts and crafts exhibitors, street performers and food carts descend on the square providing you with fun entertainment to enjoy in the last daylight hours.
During the daytime, Mallory Square offers numerous attractions at its many restaurants and shops. While you are there, you should also check out the famous Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. Open since 1997, the garden contains 36 bronze busts of the men and women who have had the greatest impact on Key West. The most famous of these are renowned writer Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S. Truman.
Popular for both its military history and current recreational opportunities, Fort Zachary Taylor is also the location of one of Key West’s favorites beaches. Spanning 54 acres, Fort Zachary Taylor is worth a visit both for its colorful past and its attractive present. Construction on Fort Taylor was begun in 1845 and the Fort hosted active duty squadrons until 1947. During the period of the Civil War, Fort Zachary Taylor remained one of only three fortresses in Florida to remain under Federal control; it’s now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and contains the largest cache of Civil War-era seacoast cannons in the U.S. Fort Taylor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Tours are conducted daily and pamphlets for self-guided tours are available as well. Today, Fort Zachary Taylor is best known for its outdoor activities and is a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
The Key West Aquarium, located in a charming white building with blue trim and awnings, is a great place to get up close and personal with some of Key West's aquatic life. Expert guides lead tours that offer a wealth of information about the wildlife of the Florida Keys. Daily shark and turtle feedings are a fun way to see some of the animals go crazy with excitement.
One its most unique features is that it encourages a hands on experience that you wouldn't normally expect to find in an aquarium. Their touch tank allows you to interact with a wide array of aquatic life. There is even an opportunity to pet a shark! A perfect destination for people of all ages, this is definitely an attraction that any animal or nature lover won't want to miss!
The Key West Lighthouse is one of the island's oldest relics, as it was first built in 1825 to help ships navigating the dangerous reefs of the lower keys. The lighthouse had a rather rough history, as it was often destroyed and damaged throughout the years and had to be replaced and restored. The one that stands there today was completed in 1849, but has undergone several additions throughout the years. It now stands at about 100 feet (30.5 m) above sea level. As the 15th oldest surviving lighthouse in the U.S., its proud history makes it well worth seeing. Climb up the 88 steps of the circular iron stairway to access a lookout area with spectacular views of the ocean and Keys.
One of the most interesting aspects about lighthouses are the stories of the keepers who lived there. The Key West Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum is no exception. Visit the newly restored keeper's home and learn about the perilious job that cost some keepers their lives.
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.
This half mile (.8 km) stretch of pristine white sand is the largest public beach Key West has to offer. Located on the south side of the island, against the shimmering turquoise waters of the Atlantic, Smathers Beach is the perfect place to relax while in Key West.
Thrill seekers can rent out water sports gear, kayaks, and mini sail boats from vendors along the beach. There are also numerous opportunities to parasail and snorkel. If you're looking to just relax on the sand, the vendors also offer beach chairs to help make your lounging more comfortable. There are also three volleyball nets scattered along the beach. All of these attractions make Smathers Beach the ideal sport for either a day trip or to enjoy a beautiful sunset.
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.
More Things to Do in Key West
When visiting Key West there is one spot you must visit to see the sunrise: White Street Pier. Even if you're not a morning person, White Street Pier is worth a visit at any time of day.
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. White Street 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 White Street 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.
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.
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. However, Truman is not the only president and notable figure 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 President Harry Truman from 1946 -1952. Due to advances in technology, Truman 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-December and February-March, allowing the president a time of rest and recuperation.
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.
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.
With its name coming from the Spanish word for "Turtles," it's no surprise that the main attraction that the Dry Tortugas have to offer is their beautiful tropical wildlife. The abundant sea life and colorful coral reefs, along with legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures, are what draw visitors to the seven small islands off the coast of Florida known as the Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas National Park preserves the islands as well as the famous Fort Jefferson.
The park's centerpiece, Fort Jefferson, is a massive but unfinished coastal fortress that is the largest masonry structure in the West hemisphere. It is composed of over 16 million bricks. Come and marvel at the enormous structure, with its stoic, plain construction. After looking at Fort Jefferson, be sure to enjoy the beautiful wildlife the islands have to offer, whether you go snorkeling, scuba diving, saltwater fishing, or bird watching.
St. Paul’s 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.
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 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 the USS 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 the USAFS 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 movie Virus. Some of the Cyrillic lettering that was added for the movie is still visible on the ship.
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.
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