Located at the southernmost end of U.S. Route 1, the country’s longest north-south running highway, Key West is an iconic Florida town that’s particularly well-known for its remoteness, abundant natural beauty, and quaint charm and history dating back more than two centuries.
The waters off Key West are world-renowned destinations for big-game fishermen, who come to tangle with the massive Marlin that call the surrounding seas home at different times of the year.
Key West was also a haunt of famous author Ernest Hemingway, and his house and writing studio are now a museum.
Below are 15 things to do in Key West.
1. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on Whitehead Street are one of the town’s most visited historic attractions and were first the residence of Hemingway and his wife in 1931.
The home is still full of many of Hemingway’s possessions and is a mecca of sorts for literary types and aspiring writers looking for a little inspiration.
Many of Hemingway’s classics were written during his time in Key West, and the descendants of his famous six-toed cat still roam the grounds sporting the same overabundance of toes as their famous ancestor.
Stopping at the home and museum first is a great way to get your island exploration kicked-off.
2. The Harry S. Truman Little White House
Though it’s less well-known than the Hemingway Museum, the Harry S. Truman Little Whitehouse is another interesting slice of local history that’s got national appeal as well.
Back in the late 19th century, Key West was home to a naval station that played a significant role in the Spanish American War. Just after World War II ended, the building became the winter retreat of Harry Truman.
Subsequent presidents also used the home as a retreat, and it was especially popular during the Cold War years.
Now, it’s a museum that’s open to the public. For those who’d like the inside scoop, it’s wise to sign up for a guided tour.
3. Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy
The sub-tropical climate in Key West is perfect for a wide variety of both native and non-native butterfly species, and the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy on Duval Street is a perfectly serene escape destination set amidst the bars and music of the downtown area.
The conservancy is home to dozens of species of butterflies and exotic birds, as well as beautiful and aromatic flowers that provide the insects and birds with both habitat and food.
It’s near to many of Key West’s most popular attractions, making it convenient to see in conjunction with others, and there’s a great gift shop on-site too.
For fans of Jimmy Buffet and those familiar with the Florida Keys’ island culture and chill atmosphere, Margaritaville needs no introduction.
Though the restaurant is now part of a chain, the Key West location is the original and opened its doors in 1985.
It’s not the biggest or the newest, but for music lovers and parrot heads, it’s still the one-and-only. Located near lots of other bars and restaurants on Duval Street, it’s a great stop on a pub crawl, and they serve a variety of traditional bar food and seafood as well as hosting plenty of live entertainment.
5. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum
With a service life spanning more than six decades, the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham has certainly earned its retirement, and the stalwart ship is now a museum dedicated to preserving the area’s rich nautical heritage and the role the Coast Guard has played in keeping the nation’s coastline secure.
The museum’s exhibits include equipment, weapons, uniforms, and first-hand accounts of those who served on the ship during both war and peacetime. Many guests find there’s a significant amount of fascinating history that is new to them.
Most guests end up spending a little more than an hour.
6. The Vandenberg
The Vandenberg was an obsolete Navy ship that was sunk off the Key West coast in 2009 to create an artificial reef, which has since become home to an amazing variety of marine life that draws divers from near and far.
The Vandenberg served a variety of naval warfare roles and now lies in about 150 feet of water that’s part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about eight miles offshore.
A number of tour and dive options are available, but for those who want to take the plunge below the waves, you’ll need an updated SCUBA certification, so make sure you do your research before heading out.
7. Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Located on East Quay Road in Key West, the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is part aquarium and part marine sanctuary. It features a variety of native sea creatures in large aquariums that have been constructed to look like natural environments.
The Discovery Center is a big hit with visitors of all ages; even adults have noted that they felt continuously engaged while on-site and learned a lot about the natural world.
In addition to its exhibits, the center offers educational and interactive activities led by knowledgeable and fun staff, so check out their website for specifics.
8. Sloppy Joe’s
Sloppy Joe’s is one of Key West’s most iconic bars and has been a favorite haunt of Conch Republic residents since its founding in 1933.
Not surprisingly, for much of its existence, it was a favorite drinking destination for the notoriously hard-living Ernest Hemingway and his cohorts.
Sloppy Joe’s features televisions that are popular with the NFL crowd, and there’s often live music on its large stage that stays open with the bar until the 2 PM closing time.
If you’d rather avoid raucous crowds and loud music, consider an afternoon happy hour visit when the vibe is usually mellower.
Located in the heart of historic Key West, Azur restaurant is known for its vibrant Mediterranean cuisine and contemporary but comfortable setting.
There’s an indoor dining room, and for when the weather is pleasant, you can enjoy the covered terrace that’s the perfect place for a cold drink, hot entrée or both.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Azur is a slight step up from many of the area’s restaurants that tend to draw noisy drinking crowds.
Many of Azur’s dishes include fresh Florida seafood, and all items are prepared and presented with a modern twist that gives them a unique fusion feel.
10. Audubon House and Tropical Gardens
The Audubon House and Tropical Gardens on Whitehead Street have a history dating back to the 1840s and were once home to a family of wealthy Floridians.
In the mid-‘20th century, the home fell into disuse and disrepair but has since undergone several renovations at the hands of historic-minded philanthropists and local organizations. Now, it’s one of the island’s most visited attractions.
The cultivated gardens are vibrant and idyllic, and the home is filled with period art, furniture, and housewares that were opulent by the standards of the time.
Admission is inexpensive, and most guests spend a few hours.
11. Key West Garden Club
The Key West Garden Club on Atlantic Boulevard is a local attraction known for its fantastic ocean views, beautifully cultivated gardens, and the Civil War-era citadel that towers over the grounds.
Unlike many local attractions, the Garden Club is free to visit. In addition to its aesthetics and photo-ops, it’s full of history that most visitors find both interesting and enlightening.
Featuring orchids, palms, and a pond full of water lilies, it’s one of the island’s most scenic areas; there’s even a waterfall and plenty of gazebos that are great places to relax out of the sun and take in all the splendor.
12. Key West Historic Seaport and Harbor Walk
Located in a popular Key West marina near a variety of historic attractions, shops, and eating and drinking establishments, the Key West Historic Seaport and Harbor Walk is free to visit, and often ends up occupying more of visitor’s time than they’d originally allotted.
The harbor is full of commercial and private fishing and pleasure boats; many of the latter are fabulously opulent and expensive and owned by well-to-do folks from all over the country.
The Harbor Walk is a particularly popular afternoon and evening destination; you’ll often get to see the fishermen posing with their catches, and happy hour food and drink specials are offered at restaurants and bars overlooking the water.
13. Dry Tortugas National Park
Historic Fort Jefferson is the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park, and one of the most impressive surviving examples of the kind of military architecture that was common among coastal defense facilities in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At more than 60 miles west of Key West, it’s far from the most convenient of the area’s attractions, but for those with strong sea legs, plenty of time, and a yearning for sights unlike they’ll see anywhere else, Dry Tortugas National Park deserves a coveted spot on your itinerary.
Most visitors choose to see the park as part of a tour that includes round-trip transportation and a historic narration while on-site.
14. Latitudes on Sunset Key
Sunset Key is just a short boat ride from Key West, and though Key West is an escape destination itself, some visitors long for even more remote haunts. For those that do, Latitudes on Sunset Key would be the perfect place to spend an afternoon or evening listening to rustling palms and island music while sipping rum cocktails and gazing at the vast expanse of sea spread out before them.
Latitude’s dress code is referred to as island casual, which means no tank-tops, cutoff jeans, or ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirts.
Their menu is full of fresh, local seafood choices as well as steaks, soups, and salads, many of which have an island flare.
15. Sunset Pier
Few places boast sunsets as amazing as those found in Key West. For people looking to capture the essence of their visit, there’s no better place to do it than at Sunset Pier, just as the sun is slipping below the waves.
Sunset Pier is part of the Ocean Key Resort and Spa and offers guests world-class dining, pleasant walking areas, and lots of unrivaled views.
For those who choose to dine, the restaurant is known for its fresh seafood, and oysters are a particular favorite when they’re in season.
There’s often live music too, but it’s much more relaxed and low-key than many of the rowdier bars on Duval Street.