When to visit
- Very Favourable
What to do
- Worth the detour
- Must see
Key West is the highlight for anyone visiting the Keys. Located in the Gulf of Mexico, only 140 kilometers from Cuba, it is a small and very well-developed island that is actually closer to Havana, Cuba than to Miami! It is without a doubt the southernmost destination in the United States. Did you know that this part of Florida is also great for a USA RV road trip?
Even today, many authors, poets and painters seek inspiration here in the middle of winter, lulled by the sea and the sunny landscapes. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were among the first to come here to reconnect with their art.
This historic district has the greatest number of attractions to visit. Here are a few suggestions:
The city's main thoroughfare is always very lively with its many restaurants and cafes, attractions and shops. In the evenings, the music from the bars lining the street give it a festive atmosphere.
San Carlos Institute
The San Carlos Institute was founded by Cuban exiles in 1871 as an educational, civic, and patriotic center. The magnificent Baroque-style building dates from 1924, built after the preceding buildings were destroyed by fire (1886) and a hurricane (1919). The institute was closed for almost two decades and the building was condemned before being completely restored in the late 1980s. Since 1992, this dynamic centre houses a school, a theatre, a library, an art gallery and a museum. Admission is free and you can see exhibits on Cuba's history and the history of the Cuban-American community in Florida.
Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
US 1 Mile Marker 0
501 Whitehead Street is the starting point for US Highway 1, which runs along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States to Maine, right to the border with Canada. Many people come here to take a photo in front of the iconic US1 mile marker zero sign.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
This magnificent Spanish colonial style Episcopal church was built in 1919. Go in to enjoy a quiet moment and admire the superb ocean-themed stained-glass windows, which contrast with the whiteness of the walls and rich wooden ceiling.
Open every day from 7:30 a.m. until sunset.
The Oldest House Museum
This is the oldest house on the island, built in 1829. It was the home of the wrecker Captain Francis B. Watlington, his wife and nine daughters. Like many buildings in Key West, it had to be moved 7 years after its construction from Whitehead Street to its present location on Duval Street. You can visit the house (which has a splendid collection of model ships), the cookhouse (the oldest surviving cookhouse in South Florida) and the exhibition pavilion overlooking the garden featuring, among other things, wood sculptures by local artist Mario Sanchez.
Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Harry S. Truman Little White House
This house was originally constructed in 1890 as naval officers housing and was used during the First and Second World Wars. It is best known as the winter White House of former American president Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the United States, who spent 175 days of his presidency there from 1945 to 1953. The house was also used by other important figures including former presidents Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy. It is now a museum where you can learn about the history of the Little White House and Truman's life and presidency and see items that belonged to him.
Tickets can be purchased online at a discount. The price includes a guided tour lasting about 30 minutes. Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Getting around in Key West
This is a city that can be easily explored on foot, but here are some more options:
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
Audubon House was built in the 1840s for wrecker Captain John Huling Geiger and his family, who lived there for more than a century. It was saved from demolition in 1958 by the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation and completely restored. This restoration sparked the preservation and restoration movement in Key West. After two years of work, the house was dedicated as a public museum commemorating the famed naturalist John James Audubon's visit to Key West in 1832 to study and sketch the birds of the Florida Keys for his "Birds of America" folio. Furnished with antiques and objects that belonged to the Geiger family, the museum proudly exhibits numerous original Audubon engravings. One of the highlights of the visit is wandering the paved walkways of the property's lush tropical gardens. The gardens contain a fascinating replica of the 1850s cookhouse, built in 2012 based on photographs of the original. The cookhouse is completely furnished with antiques of the period and even has a herb garden.
Open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. (the gift shop closes at 5 p.m.).
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
Mel Fisher was a great scuba diving enthusiast and spent years searching for the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in Florida waters in 1622 carrying a mountain of treasure. After finally discovering the wreck in 1985, he opened several museums and donated 20% of the found treasure to the state. This museum houses exhibits on shipwreck salvage operations and artifact conservation, with displays of the equipment used to carry out this dangerous work as well as fabulous treasures. The collection contains some 100,000 artifacts such as gold and silver coins and ingots, ceramics, glassware, jewelry, navigation instruments, personal and trade items, chests, weapons, and much more.
Open Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday and holidays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This waterfront plaza is in the northwest of the island facing the Gulf of Mexico. It has an interesting array of shops and restaurants, as well as the Key West Aquarium and the Key West Shipwreck Museum. Mallory Square also boasts the most beautiful sunsets, and is the location of the Sunset Celebration, a daily celebration that starts two hours before sunset and has been attracting crowds since 1960.
Visitors from around the world join the magicians, jugglers, clowns, psychics, local musicians, artists, and food vendors who come together for a moment of beauty and an incredible cultural experience.
Key West Shipwreck Museum
This museum tells the 400-year history of the wreckers who made their living by salvaging shipwrecks off the coast. They literally watched and waited for ships to run aground on the reef, then claimed salvage rights, retrieved everything that was good on board and sold it at auction. As the operation was extremely perilous, the seller was able to charge a considerable profit, to his great advantage! Be sure to climb to the top of the lookout tower for a stunning view of Key West.
Open every day from 9:40 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Key West Aquarium
Since 1934, the Aquarium has been teaching visitors about the rich marine life of the Florida Keys and exotic creatures from other parts of the world. You will see American alligators, sharks, jellyfish, sea turtles, stingrays, giant isopods and much more.
Open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Elsewhere in Key West…
The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
Hemingway and his then-wife, Pauline, ended up in Key West somewhat by chance in April 1928, when a new Ford Roaster that Pauline’s uncle had generously purchased for the newlywed couple was delayed in transit. During their 3-week wait, Ernest and Pauline got to know the town and its inhabitants, forged new friendships, and became quite attached to the place. They moved into the Whitehead Street house in 1931 and stayed there for almost ten years. Hemingway remained the house's owner and continued to visit until his death. He wrote several novels there and became one of the most respected authors in the country. This magnificent home, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, is filled with the famous writer's furniture and possessions. The house and its grounds are also inhabited by 40-50 cats, many of which are polydactyl (6-toed). Legend has it that the cats are descendants of a 6-toed cat given to Hemingway.
Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you would like to walk in Hemingway's footsteps, pay a visit to Sloppy Joe's Bar (201 Duval Street), where he was a regular, and Captain Tony's Saloon (428 Greene Street).
Key West Lighthouse & Keeper's Quarters Museum
When it was inaugurated in 1848 to assure the safety of both military and commercial vessels navigating the shallow, reef-laden waters off the Florida Keys, the lighthouse had a woman as its keeper, which was nearly unheard of during the 19th century. The U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the Key West Lighthouse in 1969, since there was no longer a need for a full-time keeper due to technological advancements. It later became a lovely museum dedicated to Key West’s maritime heritage and to the men and women who bravely kept the light burning. You can climb the 88 steps to the top of the light as well as explore the belongings, photographs, and words of the lighthouse keepers and their families who lived a now obsolete, yet never forgotten, way of life.
Open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
Take a stroll through a tropical paradise in this huge climate-controlled greenhouse filled with more than 50 species of butterflies from around the world, flowers and colorful exotic birds: it's a one-of-a-kind experience! You can also learn all about the physiology, anatomy, diet, life cycle and migration of the majestic monarch butterfly.
Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (admission until 4:30 p.m.; hours may vary on holidays).
Visit the southernmost point in the continental United States and have your picture taken next to the giant buoy that officially marks the spot. You may have to be patient, because the site is visited by more than 1 million people each year! Nearby, at 1400 Duval Street, you can see the superb Southernmost House, built in 1899 by Judge J. Vining Harris, which is now a hotel.
Corner of Whitehead Street and South Street, Key West
Eco Discovery Center
This discovery centre in the heart of Key West offers a journey into the world of the native plants and animals of the Keys, both on land and underwater. It features 6,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, a replica of a unique underwater laboratory, and a short film on the ecosystem of the Keys. Admission is free.
Open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Season: Open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset. The fort closes at 5 p.m.
Admission: $6.50 per day for a vehicle and its occupants (up to 8 people). For walk-in visitors, the admission fee is $2.50 per person.
This Florida state park is a National Historic Monument housing the largest cache of Civil War armament in the world. Built to guard the harbor of Key West, Fort Zachary Taylor played an important role in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the First and Second World Wars. Brochures and interpretive panels explain the history of the fort and how the soldiers lived as they defended the nation’s southeastern coastline. You can walk the red-brick corridors of the fort, past cannon and gun ports, and visit the small museum and collection of seacoast guns. Guided tours are offered every day at 11 a.m. The park is also a magnificent place to have a picnic, birdwatch, relax on one of the most beautiful beaches in Key West, swim and snorkel. You can buy food and refreshments at Cayo Hueso Café (every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), souvenirs and items such as sunscreen at the small gift shop, and rent snorkeling gear, bicycles, chairs and more (every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Bahia Honda State Park
Season: Open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset.
Visitor Center: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Houses an exhibit on the different ecosystems. The Concession Building is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and houses a snack bar, a gift shop, kayak rentals and snorkeling trips to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.
Admission: $8.00 per day for a vehicle and its occupants (up to 8 people).
***Please note: the park was damaged by hurricane Irma and some areas may still be closed.
This Florida state park is said to have the most beautiful natural beaches on the archipelago! The shallow waters and white sand make it a beautiful and safe place for families with young children.
Calusa Beach is on the northwest side, near the marina, the picnic area and the Concession Building. It is one of the most photographed beaches, as it has the Old Bahia Honda Bridge in the background. Loggerhead Beach is right across from Calusa Beach, on the southwest side of the park. The longest beach, Sandspur, is on the southeast of the island, and looks like the Caribbean with its palm trees and turquoise waters.
The 500-hectare park also offers some of the best snorkeling sites, including Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, a reef teeming with ocean life about 20 km from the park. Daily 90-minute snorkeling trips depart from the park at 9:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and/or 4:45 p.m., and depths vary from 5 feet to 15 feet. Children are allowed as long as they are good swimmers. It is possible to rent snorkeling gear (mask, flippers, snorkel) and wetsuits if necessary. Reservations are required at 305-872-3210.
The following activities can also be enjoyed in the park if you have the necessary equipment: kayaking, canoeing, biking, fishing, swimming and hiking.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Season: Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.
Visitor Center: There is a visitor centre at Fort Jefferson, but if you would like to learn more about the site before visiting, you have two options:
Admission: $15/person, valid for 7 days. Admission is free for youth aged 16 and under. Purchase the America the Beautiful Pass for $80 if you plan to visit 2-3 parks during your trip.
***Warning: If you are planning a trip to the national park, be aware that you must be completely self-sufficient for the entire day in terms of water, food and any other necessary items, as the park offers very limited services.
Once you reach the park, there is no cell phone service, no public telephone, no Internet, no bathrooms (except at 10:30 a.m. when the bathrooms on board the Yankee Freedom ferry can be used), no water, no food, no garbage cans or other basic services.
Dry Tortugas National Park is about 112 kilometres west of Key West and can only be reached by boat or seaplane.
It is made up of seven small sandy islands that are home to a large population of giant sea turtles, hence the name "Tortugas". “Dry” reflects the fact that no fresh water is available on the islands.
The main attraction of Dry Tortugas National Park is Fort Jefferson, the largest maritime fortification in North America, built in 1846 by the U.S. Army on Garden Key Island and designated a National Monument in 1935.
In addition to visiting the fort, you can go swimming and snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters and along the fort's coral-encrusted walls as well as birdwatching.
Note that it is best to book your ferry or seaplane tickets ahead of time to avoid being disappointed, as a limited number of visitors are admitted each day. The ferry ride aboard the Catamaran Yankee Freedom III takes about 2 1/4 hours and leaves from the Key West ferry terminal at 100 Grinnell Street (1-800-634-0939).
Where to eat
- $ Inexpensive
- $$ Moderate
- $$$ Upscale
- $$$$ Fine dining
Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe ($)
Kermit's has been making rich and creamy lime pie on a classic graham cracker crust for over 20 years. They also make a wide range of Key lime flavoured products such as candies, cookies, sauces, jams, teas, body products and much more. You can also taste the famous Key Lime Pie Bar—a frozen slice of Key lime pie dipped in Belgian dark chocolate—and, right next door, you can have a bite to eat at Kermit's Kitchen Café, which serves breakfast all day long as well as salads, sandwiches and a few house specialties.
Open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The shop is open every day from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
If you'd like to escape the crowds, this small low-profile Caribbean and Latin food restaurant is well worth a visit! You place your order inside and eat at one of the tables outside, or take it to go. The sandwiches are the stars of the menu, served on toasted baguette with aioli, jalapenos, caramelized onions, lettuce and coriander and stuffed with a choice of juicy meats. Don't miss the grilled corn and the seafood in red sauce, served with jasmine rice, garlic tapenade and coriander. Vegetarian options available.
Open Wednesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Blue Heaven ($$)
Welcome to this surprising bit of heaven created by Suanne and Richard in 1992. The colourful tropical decor is as eclectic and funky as anyone could wish for, and cats and chickens roam freely. The restaurant features canopies of tropical foliage, improvised art, and even has a rooster graveyard. The menu features American and vegetarian cuisine with a Caribbean twist, and there is live music daily for lunch and dinner.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Little Pearl ($$-$$$)
This small neighborhood restaurant is the perfect place for an intimate dinner away from the bustling downtown streets. Guests love the warm ambiance and the creative gourmet cuisine, prepared with the highest quality ingredients. The menu features a fine selection of wines, as well as exquisite fish and seafood dishes. When available, the Bangkok octopus starter is always a hit. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Open daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prime Steakhouse Key West ($$$$)
If you're in the mood for a good piece of prime beef and impeccable service, you have come to the right place! Prime does not skimp on providing its guests with the best possible experience in a warm setting. The beef is cooked to perfection in ovens nearing 1,000 degrees, and the menu also includes lobster tails, daily fresh fish specials, a nightly pasta special, and more. The most popular appetizers include filet mignon carpaccio, garlic butter escargots, and crab cakes. Reservations recommended.
Open daily from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Marathon and Lower Keys
Keys Fisheries ($-$$)
Keys Fisheries is not only a restaurant, but also a seafood market and marina. In addition to sampling house specialties such as lobster bisque, grilled mahi-mahi, seafood paella, jumbo stone crab claws, stuffed lobster and much more in a casual seaside atmosphere, you can also leave with some of the ultra-fresh delicacies for which they are famous.
Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Square Grouper ($$-$$$)
Located on Cudjoe Key, in the Lower Keys between Marathon and Key West, Square Grouper is masterfully run by owner/chef Lynn Bell and her team. The exterior of the restaurant may not make a good impression, but step inside and treat yourself to one of the numerous choices on the menu. Square Grouper is considered by many to be a must-visit restaurant for its large selection of innovative small plates and ever-changing specials. If you're in the mood for a cocktail and some delicious tapas, make your way upstairs to the My New Joint lounge for an enjoyable experience.
Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
*** Hours may vary ***
Where to sleep ?
- Very Favourable