Known as one of the top vacation destinations in Florida and famous for its party scene, Key West draws in thousands of visitors year round. As the very end of the Overseas Highway that runs from the mainland, it’s not only a cruise port but a popular road trip destination as well. However you arrive in town, you won’t want to miss these top things to do in Key West, Florida.
Top things to do in Key West, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park
Ok, so it’s not exactly in Key West, but most visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park depart from the island. This national park is located 70 miles west of Key West and is primarily accessed via ferry or seaplane with its remoteness making it one of the least visited national parks in the United States. Most visitors spend their time at historic Fort Jefferson, which was built to defend American shipping routes from the Gulf to the Atlantic. You can tour the fort or spend your time on the beaches snorkeling. Coral grows along the brick walls of its moat and tropical fish can be seen just a short distance from shore in its beautiful turquoise waters. The area is also an important area for bird nesting and some species even migrate all the way across the Atlantic Ocean annually just to nest here.
Ernest Hemingway House
Ernest Hemingway spent several years living in Key West and his home near downtown is open for guided tours. Rated as one of the top things to do in Key West, Florida, you can visit the Hemingways’ bedroom, bathroom, living room, and other areas of the house and take a peek into his writing studio. The highlight for me was the many cats that inhabit the property. Hemingway had a six-toed cat while he lived here, and that cat’s descendants still carry the gene for the extra toe. Dozens of cats wander the gardens and the house and I loved taking photos of them.
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
At the end of Duval Street, Mallory Square is a hub for activity. During the day, it’s a great spot to relax and watch ships come and go, but it really comes to life in the evening for the nightly Sunset Celebration. Beginning a couple hours before sundown, street performers, food vendors, crafters, and spectators flock to the area to enjoy the evening and watch the sun set. The lively atmosphere is pure Key West and a great way to end your evening (or start it).
Smathers and Higgs Beaches
Key West doesn’t offer as many beach options as you might expect, but Higgs and Smathers are recognized as favorites by locals and visitors alike. Both are located on the southern side of the island with Higgs Beach a bit closer to the tourist center downtown. Higgs features a nice stretch of white sand accompanied by a dog park and playground. While you’re there, pay a visit to monuments dedicated to a slave cemetery from the 1800s. Smathers Beach is located near the airport, so you can dive right in if you’re flying to Key West. It’s a much wider expanse of sand, but less built up than Higgs Beach, which is great if you’re looking for fewer crowds.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
This really cool spot is operated by NOAA – you probably mainly know the organization from hurricane tracking – and educates visitors about the diverse ecosystems of southern Florida and the Keys. Exhibits cover habitats like the mangrove shores and coral reefs common in the area. There is also a large living reef with a 2500 gallon tank full of real coral and tropical fish. Admission to the Eco-Discovery Center is free.
Take a boat tour
Key West is surrounded by beautiful ocean home to reefs, marine life, shipwrecks and more. There are numerous different water experiences you can choose from during your visit depending on what types of activities interest you. Diving tours can take certified divers out to some of the reefs or wrecks and snorkel tours are an option for visitors who don’t dive. Other operators offer glass-bottom boats so you can see below the surface without even getting wet. Other boat tours take you to areas where dolphins can frequently be seen. For a romantic option, you can book a sunset sailing. Head out on a fishing expedition to try to catch your own dinner. The choices are endless!
Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters
Due to the shallow waters and many reefs in the Florida Keys, the Key West Lighthouse played an important role in ensuring maritime safety. It was operational for over 100 years before being decommissioned thanks to new technology available for navigation. Nowadays, it’s one of the top Key West attractions and visitors can climb to the top of its tower – 88 stairs – to take in the views of the historic areas of downtown and out to the horizon. The museum also includes numerous artifacts describing the lives and livelihoods of its many keepers over the years.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
Located on the southern end of the island, Fort Zachary Taylor was once a fortification used by the US Army. In addition to being a state park, it’s also a National Historic Monument thanks to the Civil War cannons and arms that were located here. Visitors can tour the brick fort and learn about its roles in both the Civil War and Spanish-American War. For one weekend each month, Civil War reenactors don costumes and perform historic drills. And, if history isn’t your thing, the state park also has one of Key West’s best beaches, with a wide stretch of sand perfect for sunbathing, swimming, or snorkeling.
Harry Truman Little White House
Originally built as housing for naval officers, this little residence became known as the Winter White House during Harry S. Truman’s presidency when he made numerous visits. He’s not the only president to have stayed there – in fact all current and former presidents have an open invitation to stay in the house even though it’s an active museum – but it saw its most prominent use during Truman’s time. When it was ceded to the state of Florida, extensive renovations returned it to its appearance from the late ’40s and it opened to public tours. Visitors can see various rooms of the house as well as some artifacts from Truman’s presidency. VIP tours also include a ride in his presidential limo.
Walk down Duval Street
As the main road through downtown’s touristy area, Duval Street is home to lots of the nightlife and entertainment. Exploring its many shops and restaurants is one of the top things to do in Key West, and many of the other attractions on this list are located within a block of Duval Street. It’s an easy walk from one end to another, and along the way you can pop into numerous shops of both the touristy souvenir type and fancier art galleries. Restaurants and bars can be found all over, including the famous Sloppy Joe’s.
Key West Aquarium
Originally opened in the 1930s with a pause of a few years during which it was used as a shooting range by the military, the Key West Aquarium is a small collection of marine life. Sea turtles, fish, jellyfish, sharks, and more can be viewed here. Visitors can explore the tanks and exhibits on their own or attend one of the special talks held throughout the day.
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
This little butterfly house is a great option if you’re looking for things to do in Key West that don’t require a lot of time. Your visit begins with exhibits including a video about the lifespan of butterflies. Once you’ve looked at the displays you can enter the butterfly conservatory where you’ll find more butterflies than you can count swooping through the air or resting on branches. My favorites were the blue morpho butterflies with their neon blue wings. The conservatory is also home to some flamingos and other brightly colored birds.
Ok, so it’s a little cheesy, but did you really go to Key West if you don’t stop by the southernmost point in the continental US marker? While I have to slightly dispute its designation as the southernmost point as Google Maps makes it pretty clear that there is land on the island further south (part of a naval air station), it’s close enough. Try visiting in the morning for photos to avoid a line. To get there, take Duval Street all the way to the end and make a right. It’s at the corner of Whitehead Street & South Street.
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
Though he never lived in the house, this historic Key West home near Mallory Square commemorates the work of John James Audubon – famous for his drawings of birds in the United States. He visited the house during his time in Key West and when it was turned into a museum, his artwork was put on display. Outside the beautifully constructed home, you can walk through a tropical garden that was said to be the background for some of his drawings.
Shipwreck Treasure Museum
Located near Mallory Square, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum is one of the easiest buildings to spot in Key West. With its unusual wooden plank siding and tall lookout tower, it’s impossible to miss. Inside, you’ll be taken back in time to the 1800s when Key West was a haven for wreckers – people who salvaged goods from shipwrecks and sold them for profit. During its peak time, the waters around the reefs would claim an average of one ship per week. When a wreck was spotted, wreckers would race out to it to take control. Nowadays, you can relive the past at the museum with artifacts from shipwrecks, video, and costumed actors. You can also climb to the top of the observation tower to keep an eye out for any shipwrecks in the area.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
If you’re looking for more artifacts and history related to shipping and seafaring in the area, you can also visit the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Its exhibits are full of items from several shipwrecks from the 1600s, including a slave ship. Other galleries depict archeological sites from Key West, including one at the African Cemetery at previously-mentioned Higgs Beach. Visitors can also take a special Lab Tour for a hands-on experience in the fully operational conservation/archaeology lab where artifacts undergo restoration before being put on display in the museum.
Key West First Legal Rum Distillery
If you’re into rum, stop by the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery (first since Prohibition) for a free tour. The tours last approximately 15 minutes and begin every 20 minutes from noon-five. You can learn about the rum’s that are being made at the distillery and learn about the building’s history dating back to its early days bottling Coca Cola. You can also take a private mojito making class if you’d like.
So there you have it – all the best things to do in Key West, Florida. Whether you’re looking for nightlife, history, or just beautiful tropical scenery, you can’t go wrong here. Pack your bags, take that classic Florida Keys road trip, and follow Highway 1 all the way to the end – or fly or cruise if that’s more your style.