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Inside: Key West is famous for historic homes, lively nightlife, and friendly six-toed felines. Here are 7 must-sees if you just have one day to explore.
Just 90 miles from Cuba, the island of Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States and the most populated island in the Florida Keys.
Once a base of operations against pirates, Key West later rose to fame as a tropical enclave for artists and writers. Robert Frost, Winslow Homer, Tennessee Williams, and perhaps its most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway, all once called Key West home.
The Florida Keys became linked with the mainland in 1912 with the completion of the short-lived Henry Flagler’s railroad which was abandoned after a hurricane in 1935.
The railroad was replaced a few years later with the 123-mile overseas highway that still stands today.
What is Key West most known for?
Nicknamed the “Conch Republic” since its tongue-in-cheek secession declaration in 1982, Key West is famous for postcard perfect beaches, a lively nightlife scene, and historic homes built in the traditional pastel conch-style architecture.
And of course, my favorite, Key Lime pie! (Or pretty much anything that involves Key Limes…they also make a killer martini.)
The island’s small size makes it easy to explore on foot, especially for those just passing through for a day on a cruise ship.
Read More: Cruising the Caribbean with Carnival
Of course, the Conch Republic’s relaxed charm and fascinating history are likely to have you wishing you could stay much longer. So, if you can spare a night or two, Key West has several terrific hotel options. More on that in a moment. But first…
What’s the best time of year to go to Key West?
The post-hurricane season winter months are considered the high season in Key West where you’ll find dreamy temps in the 70s and low 80s. Beginning in December and peaking in March, high season starts to taper off in April and more so in May. For my money, those two months are the ideal time to visit Key West.
August is the hottest month to visit with an average high of 89 and thick humidity. While you’ll find great rates on hotels that time of year, it’s not the most comfortable time to visit unless you’re fully accustomed to a humid climate.
And speaking of hotel rates, let’s talk about some of Key West’s best places to stay!
Where to stay in Key West
The Pier House Resort & Spa – Back in the ’70s this hotel was a favorite for visiting creative types. Today, this iconic waterfront hotel still retains its eclectic vibe. Some rooms are a bit dated (think excessive rattan) but the sunset views are a showstopper and you’re just a few steps from all the action on Duval Street.
Parrot Key Hotel & Villas – If you’re looking to escape the nightlife in downtown Key West and truly get away from it all, this beautifully renovated resort is a terrific choice. With 4 pools to choose from, you’ll never want for an empty lounge chair. Rooms have a crisp, spa-like feel and the lush grounds create a truly serene environment.
The Truman Hotel – This trendy boutique hotel is one of the best values in Key West. Especially on an island where most hotels run $500+/night and up. Rooms are bright and modern and the inner courtyard features a relaxing pool area. Just a short walk to Duval Street.
But whether you spend a few days or just a few hours on Key West, here are the best things to see and do.
Top 7 Things to Do in Key West
From iconic photo spots and six-toed cats to a quirky downtown scene and delicious desserts, Key West has it all. If you’re short on time, here are 7 things you absolutely can’t miss:
1. The Southernmost Point Buoy
This colorful buoy marks the Southernmost Point in the United States, just 90 miles from Cuba. Nearby, there’s a plaque in memory of all the Cubans who have perished trying to reach America. Located at the intersection of Whitehead and South streets, a quick visit is a must.
Because it’s the most popular photo-op in Key West, the line for a photo tends to be long, especially on cruise ship days. Get there early to avoid the worst of the crowds. Access is free 24/7.
2. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
Built in 1851 in the Spanish colonial style, Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his greatest novels while living in this Key West home in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Today, the Hemingway House is a Registered National Historic Landmark and still contains his study, furnishings, and other items collected by Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, in their travels to Spain, Africa, and Cuba.
But the home is perhaps best known as the habitat to dozens of six-toed cats, the descendants of the author’s white six-toed cat given to him by a ship’s captain.
More than 40 cats still roam the estate today and approximately half exhibit the six-toed trait, though all carry the gene in their DNA.
Due to the estate’s large number of visitors, the cats are friendly and outgoing and likely to come right up and say hello when you arrive (as the one in the photo below is doing to me!).
A stop by the Hemingway home is a must for any visitor to Key West.
Tickets & Hours: Open Daily, 365 days a year from 9:00am – 5:00pm. Ticket prices are $16 for adults, $6 for kids (6 and up), and include a 20-30 minute guided tour. Note: Admission is cash only. More information can be found on the Hemingway Home website.
3. The Key West Lighthouse
Across the street from the Hemingway House, you’ll find the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Built in 1848, the lighthouse helped safely guide both military and commercial vessels through the reef-laden waters off the Florida Keys.
The lighthouse’s original Keeper was actually a woman, a true rarity in the 19th century. By 1969, technological advances replaced the need for a full-time Keeper and the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse.
Today, visitors can climb the cramped 88 steps to enjoy the best views in Key West (if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to give this one a pass!). Don’t miss the Keeper’s quarters which is now a lovely museum displaying photographs, words, and belongings of Keepers throughout the lighthouse’s history.
Tickets & Hours: One ticket allows access to both the lighthouse and the museum. Adult tickets are $17 and kids 7 and over are $8. Tickets are slightly cheaper if purchased online in advance directly on the Key West Art & Historical Society website. Open daily 10:00am – 4:00pm.
4. Mile Marker Zero
OK, like the Southernmost Point, there’s not much to see or do here. But it’s another great photo-op and a must-see spot in Key West.
The Mile Marker “0” sign marks the beginning of US Route 1 which stretches all the way up the east coast ending in Maine. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
5. Downtown Key West & Duval Street
Downtown Key West is well-known for its vibrant nightlife scene and no trip here would be complete without a stroll along lively Duval Street. Lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, Duval Street runs for a mile from north to south connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean.
Opened in 1933, Sloppy Joe’s Bar is ground zero for the party scene. But you’ll find plenty of options to pop in for a frosty concoction along the six-block historic district area.
6. Savor a slice of Key Lime Pie
Key Lime pie is everywhere in Key West, it’s the signature dessert of the Florida Keys. But if you’re on the hunt for the best restaurant or shop to try this tangy treat, head to one of these legendary spots:
- Kermit’s Original Key West Key Lime Shoppe (200 Elizabeth Street)
- Key West Key Lime Pie Company (511 Greene Street)
- Blue Heaven (729 Thomas Street)
7. Celebrate the sunset at Mallory Square
In Key West, stunning sunsets are a nightly event. And Mallory Square is the perfect place to enjoy the island’s most idyllic golden hour view. Located at the end of Duval Street, this lively, waterfront square enjoys an enviable western exposure.
The nightly Key West Sunset Celebration kicks off 2 hours before sunset and draws locals and visitors alike. From street performers and psychics to local musicians and food vendors, the daily sunset festivities are not to be missed.
It’s not just a sunset, it’s a Conch cultural experience.
For more information and to check tonight’s sunset time in Key West, visit Mallory Square’s official website.
And that’s a wrap!
Key West is a truly great place to visit whether you have just one day or a whole week to explore. If you have several days, be sure to hit the water for a snorkeling trip or a sunset cruise.
But if time is short, the five sights listed above make for a perfect walking tour and a terrific day of exploration on island time.