16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Key West
The southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West features a unique mixture of cultural influences. The colorful history of the four by two-mile island is filled with tales of poverty and prosperity, death and rebirth. The early economic ventures in Key West involved "wrecking," where locals salvaged the goods of ships run aground in the shallow waters, and sponge fishing.The architecture is mainly Caribbean with many houses built out of coral-rock or salvaged ship-boards, while others came directly from the Bahamas. They were dismantled and shipped, then re-assembled here. The food is Afro-Caribbean and Spanish and there is a certain tropical, laid-back feel to the town.
Key West is known for the sunsets that draw tourists from all over the U.S. and beyond. Several famous writers have called the island home including Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Tennessee Williams. Key West continues to attract artists today with its Bohemian and tolerant atmosphere.
See also: Where to Stay in Key West
1 Duval Street
Duval Street is Key West's main tourist strip, with restaurants and shops designed to entertain tourists and cruise ship passengers. This is the place to begin, or perhaps end, a day of sightseeing. Historic homes and some of the city's most popular tourist attractions can be found along Duval.
2 Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Hemingway was one of the first important writers to live in Key West. He bought this 1851 Spanish Colonial house in 1931 and lived in it until 1940. It features his lush tropical garden and the salt-water pool that he claimed nearly wiped him out financially, and contains his "last penny" pressed into the concrete. Descendants of Hemingway's original brood of house cats still roam the property. He wrote a number of novels here including "A Farewell to Arms", "Death in the Afternoon", and "For Whom the Bell Tolls".
Address: 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040-7473, United States
3 Southernmost Point
Key West's claim to fame as the southernmost point in the continental U.S.A. is made concrete in this red, black and yellow marker at the corner of South and Whitehead streets. Street vendors and performers congregate around the site to sell souvenirs and showcase their talents. The marker itself is less than inspiring but nonetheless, visitors often have their picture taken at the marker. It was erected in the early 1980s.
4 Mallory Square (Docks)
Mallory Square, a former warehouse area, is now the location of a nightly sunset-watching ritual with live entertainment. Tourists gather on the dock to marvel at the often-praised sunset, as jugglers, vendors, musicians and other street performers create a carnival-like atmosphere. The area has become one of the tourist highlights of Key West, particularly in the late afternoon. However, at other times visitors may find there is little or nothing going on. Nonetheless, there are shops and other attractions located on and around Mallory Square.
5 Editor's Choice Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is an archipelago of seven reef islands located around 65 miles southwest of Key West. They were so named by explorer Ponce de Leon due to the number of turtles (tortuga meaning turtle in Spanish) found on the islands. The "dry" part was added later, referring to the lack of fresh water on the islands. One of them, Garden Key, is home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson, built by the U.S. government to protect and control the Gulf of Mexico shipping channel. The fort operated as a prison for Union deserters during the civil war and also housed Dr. Samuel Mudd who was arrested as a co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. In 1992, George Bush changed the status of the site from the Fort Jefferson National Monument to the current park run by the National Park Service.
Boat excursions to the Dry Tortugas leave from Key West.
6 Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum tells the story of Mel Fisher who discovered the wreck of "Senora Nuestra de Atocha", a Spanish Galleon that sank 40 miles off Key West during a 1622 hurricane. The museum displays numerous artifacts from this wreck and others, including a 77.76 carat emerald and several other gold and silver religious and functional items. There are also exhibits on underwater archaeology, films and hands-on demonstrations.
Address: 200 Greene Street, Key West, FL 33040-6516, United States
7 Harry S Truman Little White House
The restored Harry S Truman Little White House was built in 1890 and served as an officers quarters. The museum was once the vacation retreat for U.S. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. The original furnishings and decor have remained intact from the Truman era. He first came here in 1946. Visitors can see Truman's piano and the desk he used during his "working vacations".
Address: 111 Front Street, Key West, FL 33040-8311, United States
8 Martello Towers
The Martello Towers are two brick fortifications, built in 1858 to protect Fort Zachary Taylor from the east. The fort was never completed and never saw hostile action although the eight-foot thick granite walls would have withstood artillery attacks. The central tower provides a spectacular panoramic view of the Atlantic coast of Key West.
The West Martello Tower and Garden Center was constructed in the 1860s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Key West Garden Club took possession of the fort in 1955 and began a cleanup and planting to beautify the dilapidated fort. Today visitors can stroll the grounds, through lovely courtyards and gardens. Romantic pathways, arches, a waterfall, and water lily pond are some of the highlights.
The East Martello Tower was originally built as a complement to Fort Zachary Taylor to protect the region. It now houses the Martello Gallery-Key West Art and Historical Museum, with a diverse collection of local art and sculpture, and other exhibits related to the development of Key West.
9 Audubon House and Gallery
This 1840's home was built by ship carpenters for Captain John Greiger, a noted harbor pilot and wrecker. Colonel Mitchell Wolfson restored it in the 1960's initiating the subsequent preservation movement in the rest of Key West. The property is noteworthy both for the house and the beautiful gardens and grounds. The house contains many 18th and 19th century period furnishings, much of it from Europe, and a substantial collection of engravings by John James Audubon, who stayed here in 1832. The gardens in the back contain a variety of tropical plants including birds of paradise, hibiscus, and different palms.
Visitors are given a guided tour the Audubon House and then given the opportunity to explore on their own and take time to appreciate the grounds.
Address: 205 Whitehead Street
10 Fort Zachary Taylor
Built between 1845 and 1866, Fort Zachary Taylor protected this part of Florida's coast during the civil war. Today it is a State Historic Park renowned for both its historical attractions as well as the beach at the southern end. The park has picnic grounds, a swimming beach, snorkeling areas, and fishing opportunities.
There are short walking trails which lead through natural areas, with tropical hammock and other native vegetation. There are also interpretive plaques along the routes.
11 Oldest House
The Oldest House in South Florida, built in 1829, was the former home of Francis B Watlington. It was originally built by Richard Cussans in a different location and later moved to Duval Street.
The house offers a chance to see and learn a little about the history of Key West. It is not as extravagant or as lovely as some of the city's other historical houses which are open to the public, but it has its own unique charm.
Within the house are some original furnishings, family portraits, and displays on the history of Key West. Ship models and information on the history of the industry in the area are on display. At the rear of the house is a garden and a cookhouse, which was typical of the period. There is also an exhibit pavilion containing additional documents of interest.
Address: 322 Duval Street, Key West, FL 33040-6510, United States
12 Key West Aquarium
The Key West Aquarium first opened its doors in 1934, making it one of the first open-air aquariums in the U.S. For practical purposes of algae control, a roof was later added and the facility was upgraded.
Exhibits include the "Atlantic Shores" and the large outdoor holding pens. A number of tanks house local marine life including puffer fish, snappers, and angelfish. There are also tanks with barracuda and sharks, and a "touch tank" which allows visitors to get up close and personal with conch, starfish and other invertebrates. During the tours visitors can watch the sharks being fed and touch a juvenile nurse shark.
Address: 1 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040, United States
13 Conch Tour Train
The Conch Tour Train is a tourist trolley which makes stops at various locations in the town and surrounding area. The tour includes the Old Town, Duval Street, Hemingway's House, and the waterfront. It offers perspective on the railroad days, the depression, and WWII, as they relate to Key West.This is a good way to learn the history and see the sights.
14 Shipwreck Treasure Museum
The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is housed in the replica of a 19th century wrecker's warehouse with exhibits tracing the history of the salvage industry in the area. Many people made their livelihoods from shipwrecks, and were known as wreckers.
Actors in period costume recount the story of the "Isaac Allerton", which sank in 1856. Artifacts from the shipwreck are displayed and visitors can also watch films and videos on the subject. A 65-foot observation tower offers good views of the surrounding land and seascape.
Address: 1 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040, United States
15 Key West Cemetery
Dating back to 1847, the headstones in Key West's cemetery mark the graves of more than 35,000 people. There is a monument to the sailors who died when the USS Maine sank in 1898 and another commemorating the Cuban martyrs who were killed during the 1870's independence movement.
Address: 701 Passover Lane
16 Key West Lighthouse and Keepers Quarters
This lighthouse was built in 1847 and stands 86 ft high. Visitors can climb up for great views from the observation deck near the top. The original lighthouse keepers house was torn down in the 1880s and replaced with the current structure. It has been well restored and today houses a museum, furnished to recreated the early 20th C. A short video provides an interesting look at the history of the Key West Lighthouse. Photos and other artifacts are also on display.
Address: 938 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040, United States
Where to Stay in Key West for Sightseeing
Key West is compact and easily walkable, but the best place to stay is near Duval Street, in the heart of downtown. Budget-minded travelers will have to search further afield to find reasonable prices. Below is a list of highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: At the end of Duval Street near Mallory Square, the Ocean Key Resort features waterfront rooms with balconies and an oceanside pool. Nearby is the lovely Pier House Resort and Spa with a private white sand beach and a pool overlooking the water. Located just a block off Duval Street, the Gardens Hotel is a beautifully appointed property, with lush gardens surrounding a pool.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Hotels in this price range tend to be a little further back from the action but still on the island of Key West. The Chelsea House is a charming boutique hotel housed in two buildings built in 1905 and 1891 respectively. The Best Western Hibiscus is in the quieter southern section of Key West. It features a very large pool, by Key West's standards, and is just a short walk to the southernmost point in the United States. A bit further out, but with a shuttle bus that runs every 20 minutes to Duval Street, is the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort. This hotel is set on large, lush grounds and features renowned tropical gardens.
- Budget Hotels: The budget options tend to be a bit older and further out from downtown. The Ibis Bay Beach Resort has a shuttle to downtown and is close to restaurants and grocery stores. Another option, three miles from downtown and featuring beautiful views out over the water, is the Bayside Inn and Suites. You'll need a car to stay here as there is no shuttle, and no restaurants are nearby.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Key West
Crystal clear waters and coral reefs surround Key West, and a boat tour is a great way to explore these habitats and the abundant marine life. Taking an organized tour also means you don't have to worry about renting a boat and navigating your way through unfamiliar waters. Below are some fun boat tours that guarantee the lowest price:
- Dolphins and Snorkeling Boat Tour: The three-hour Key West Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Cruise whisks you away from the coast on a catamaran to see wild dolphins swimming and playing in the water a few feet from the boat. After watching these gentle mammals, you have a chance to snorkel over a shallow coral reef, which is home to more than 600 different species of marine life. The tour includes snorkel equipment, unlimited sodas, and a professional guide.
- Islands Boat Tour: If you'd like to explore the islands off the coast of Key West, the Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip by Catamaran is an excellent option. This full-day adventure on a luxury high-speed catamaran visits Dry Tortugas National Park, where you can explore the military fort, relax on the beautiful beaches, and snorkel along some of Key West's best coral reefs. Included in the tour is an expert naturalist, entrance fees and national park service fees, a narrated tour of Fort Jefferson, breakfast and lunch, and snorkeling equipment.