The best things to do in Key West, FL

  • Post last modified:December 6, 2022
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Key West, anchored deep into the Florida Keys, is a place where the summer never ends. But if you thought Key West is all about its warm climate, think again. The best things to do in Key West reveal an island with plenty in store, if you ever want to leave the sun lounger.

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1. Enter Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West from 1931 to 1939. During his time in the southernmost city of the continental United States he wrote many of his most famous pieces.

Today visiting Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where the iconic writer lived and worked, is both one of the most educational and entertaining things to do in Key West.

Hemingway himself beautifully stated that: “every man’s life, told truly, is a novel”. When you hear the amusing novel about the writer himself, you also learn some of the story about Key West.

An additional element at Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is the property’s cats. These cats, famous for being blessed with six toes, freely roam in and around the Hemingway house just like back in the days.

Ernest Hemingway House as one of the best things to do in Key West
Ernest Hemingway House and Museum.

2. Take in lovely views at Key West Lighthouse

The perfect attraction to combine with Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. These two Key West sights are located just across the street from each other.

Key West Lighthouse opened in 1848 and was long essential in assuring safe arrivals of ships. But in 1969 it was decommissioned due to technological advancements.

Although the lighthouse isn’t in operation any longer, it nowadays proudly stands as a symbol for the rich maritime heritage of Key West.

From the top of the lighthouse, it’s 88 narrow steps to get there, you enjoy breathtaking views. These views alone make climbing the lighthouse one of the best things to do in Key West.

But the adjoining Keeper’s Quarters Museum adds more depth to a visit. Here you can learn more about the history of the lighthouse, including its role for Key West and Florida, and its heroic keepers.

Lighthouse, blue sky and green bushes during daytime
Key West Lighthouse.

3. Celebrate sunset on Mallory Square

Mallory Square is situated at the northern end of Old Town. At this spot, on Key West’s Gulf side, hundreds of people gather every evening to watch and celebrate the awe-inspiring Key West sunset.

Sunset Celebration is the perfect way to end a day when visiting Key West.

As the sun starts to drop, Mallory becomes a melting pot with musicians, street performers and vendors. The creative performers really let the quirky side of the southernmost island loose.

With the ultimate backdrop the Sunset Celebration is a spectacular show. It’s just something special about those golden Key West sunsets.

Mallory Square performer
Mallory Square’s Sunset Celebration.

4. Relax on a Key West beach

Key West can brag about endless summer and warm days even in winter. In such balmy climate lazy beach days certainly are appreciated.

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is a favorite Key West beach. Loctated the very western end of the island, 20 minutes by foot from Old Town, it doesn’t tend to get as crowded as many of the other Key West beaches.

Say hello to relaxing days in the sand and sun.

Even though not as famous as Mallory Square, the beach is also a great spot to enjoy a colorful Key West sunset. At Fort Zachary Taylor the sunset is as pretty, but without the liveliness of Mallory Square.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.

5. Shop, dine and drink on Duval Street

Duval Street, the island’s main drag, cuts through Key West from the Mexican Gulf to the Atlantic side. The must-see street is vibrant and packed with shops, restaurants and bars.

No matter if you hunt for a trinket, need something to eat or just want a drink to sip on, Duval Street is the place to be in Key West.

Yes, Duval Street is a legendary party street where it at times can get pretty wild. Still exploring Duval Street, always full of quirky activity, is a fun thing to do in Key West for everyone, partygoer or not.

Bar with dollar bills on ceiling
Willie T’s on Duval.

6. Tour Harry S. Truman’s Little White House

Ernest Hemingway is not the only famous inhabitant that Key West has had. Another prominent Key West resident was the American president Harry S. Truman.

What later became Harry S. Truman’s Little White House was built in 1890 and used as headquarters for naval command during World War II.

But from 1946, spread out over 11 visits, the building functioned as winter office for the president. In total Truman spent 175 days of his presidency at the Florida White House.

From Key West he could work and unwind in a warm and relaxing setting far from the hustle and bustle in Washington DC.

When you visit today, the Florida White House looks just like it did during the Truman era. Truman’s piano and working desk are only two of the many remarkable artifacts in the historic house.

7. Act landing strip at Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory

At Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory you step into a magical world of butterflies. The tropical paradise holds more than 50 butterfly species and over 20 exotic bird species.

Best of all is that you here, inside the butterfly garden, can walk directly among hundreds of butterflies. If you look inviting enough, they might even land on you as you stroll through.

You can also indulge in the science of butterflies when you visit the conservatory. Its learning center teaches you all about the butterfly anatomy, feeding, life cycle and much more.

Visiting Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is one of those things to do in Key West that truly appeals to all ages. Who doesn’t like the presence colorful butterflies?

Butterfly in Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

8. Line up at the Southernmost Point

Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States. To celebrate and mark that out a large red, black and yellow concrete buoy proudly sits at Whitehead Street’s southern end.

Visitors line up as early as dawn to photograph the famous buoy. From breakfast until sunset a line of tourists appears on the block, all wanting a photo with the iconic Florida Keys monument.

It’s the ultimate Instagram spot.

A map shows that a few Key West points are located even further south than the Southernmost Point buoy. But regardless of its exact placement, it’s amazing to be in the continental US’ southernmost town.

Concrete structure in form of a buoy at the ocean.
The Southernmost Point.

9. Reflect at Mile Marker Zero

US Highway 1 runs for 2,369 miles (3,813 km) from the Canadian border all the way down to Key West. In the tropical context on Whitehead Street the Mile Marker Zero sign marks out its southern conclusion.

Welcome to another unique Key West photo opportunity.

Compared to the Southernmost Point, this Key West attraction doesn’t get a lot of attention. So thanks to that you usually don’t have to queue for a nice picture with the humble but legendary US road sign.

Mile marker zero
Mile Marker Zero.

10. Cruise on the Key West waters

Key West is surrounded by blue water and an endless amount of other Florida Keys islands. Land based Key West activities is one thing, while Key West things to do on the water is another story.

Out there you get a different perspective of Key West.

The marine wildlife is a highlight for nature lovers. Dolphins thrive in the Key West waters. On a dolphin cruise you get to see them play around in their natural habitat, which can be a memory for life.

But taking a sunset cruise stands out as a romantic thing to do in Key West. As you enjoy the colorful Key West sunset from a boat, preferably with a cold one in your hand, it’s hard not to feel in love.

Dolphins in Florida swimming in the ocean during daytime
Florida dolphins.

11. Dive into Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas National Park might be the most unique national park in America. Located 65 miles (108 km) west of Key West and only reachable by boat or seaplane, the park is home to seven remarkable reef islands.

Garden Key is Dry Tortugas’ main island. Here you find Fort Jefferson, a historic military fort built to protect the Gulf of Mexico.

Another man-made Dry Tortugas gem is the charming lighthouse on Loggerhead Key.

Yet what you see above the water’s surface is just the start. Beneath the surface marine life, including corals, turtles and colorful fish, greatly reward visitors who are willing to get wet.

Trip info: There is no lodging on the remote Dry Tortugas islands. Instead Key West, where Dry Tortugas boats and seaplanes depart, is the best option for where to stay near Dry Tortugas National Park.

Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park
Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park.

12. Step back in time at Audubon House

The Audubon House was built in the 1840s by captain John Huling Geiger, who became rich through the lucrative shipwrecking business. His family would then go on to live in the Key West house for more than a century.

When visiting the historic home, you get an understanding of how it was to live in Key West in the 1800s. All the furnishings in the house reflect the extravagant life of the prosperous Geiger family.

Stepping into the Aububon House is like entering a time machine.

Its garden, with orchids, bromeliads and tropical palms, adds another dimension. This tropical oasis is said to have inspired the artist John James Audubon in his extensive works of local birds.

13. See Key West from the saddle of a bike

Most of the best things to do in Key West are concentrated to the island’s two main streets, Duval Street and Whitehead Street. This makes Key West an incredibly walkable Florida destination.

But by bike you easily expand your scope.

Past Old Town you find New Town. It’s an area, located east of Old Town, with fewer attractions and tourists. Here, off the beaten path, you find a less manicured Florida island.

Or why not effortlessly pedal over to the best beach in Key West? By bike you go between Mallory Square and Fort Zachary Taylor Beach in less than 10 minutes.

Exploring the best things to do in Key West by bike
Key West by bike.

14. Enjoy the Historic Seaport of Key West

Key West has for more than 200 years provided safe anchorage for boats in the region. A natural bight, or bend, on the northern end of the island creates a naturally protected harbor.

Just strolling through the Historic Seaport of Key West is pleasant. Often you find fancy yachts to lay your eyes on.

Is there a celebrity in town?

The Historic Seaport of Key West is also a venue to sit down and relax. It’s home to several places where you can grab a bite or something to drink while you enjoy the salty seaside setting.

Key West Historic Seaport as one of the best things to do
Key West Historic Seaport.

15. Have a refreshing drink at Sloppy Joe’s

Among all bars on the island, Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street is on top of the list. The Key West institution was founded already in 1933, and Ernest Hemingway soon made it his favorite watering hole.

But Sloppy Joe’s original position was across the street from its current location. The move to today’s spot was made in 1937 when the owner moved the establishment to avoid a rent increase.

A raise from three to four dollars a week might not sound as much to fight about today. But back in the days it was a significant amount of money.

Luckily, Sloppy Joe’s managed to find another spot. The historic bar contributes to the Key West buzz with refreshing drinks and happy live music. At Sloppy Joe’s you can party the night away, just like in the Hemingway era.

Sloppy Joe's in Key West
Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street.

16. Drive the Overseas Highway

It hops from island to island for 113 miles (182 km) from Florida’s mainland all the way to Key West. For road trip enthusiasts it’s one of the American bucket list drives: the Overseas Highway.

When you day trip north from Key West on the Overseas Highway, you don’t have to go far to find unique stops.

Big Pine Key, 29 miles (47 km) from Key West, is where the National Key Deer Refuge is located. It’s home to the key deer, which is the tiniest member of the North American white-tailed deer family.

A few islands further north Bahia Honda State Park welcomes you to one of the best beaches in Florida Keys. Overlooking the historic Bahia Honda Railroad Bridge, it’s definitely hard to disagree.

Bahia Honda State Park in Florida Keys
Bahia Honda State Park.

Trip info: Do you plan on driving the Overseas Highway? The Miami to Key West road trip itinerary includes many more stops along the scenic route.

Where to stay

Now you know all about the best things to do in Key West. But which are the best places to stay in Key West?

Key West is made up by two main areas: Old Town and New Town.

Old Town is the historic district where you find most of the best things to do in Key West. If you stay in Old Town, you have walking distance to everything you need during your Key West visit.

New Town and beyond are for visitors who feel that they don’t need this intimate access to attractions. Here you instead base yourself away from most of the top Key West things to do.

Almond Tree Inn – Old Town oasis

Positioned in the heart of Old Town, everything is within easy reach from Almond Tree Inn. As pleasant is its palm-dotted pool area, offering tranquility at its best. This is just what you wish for when you go on a tropical getaway.

Douglas House – Hidden at Duval

Douglas House, hidden just off Duval Street, is another Old Town gem. Its courtyard, surrounded by lush greenery and with an alluring pool, is great for cooling off during hot Key West days. The peaceful Douglas House aura goes hand in hand with the Key West setting.

Blue Marlin – Key West value

You can find cheaper rates in Key West too. At the low-key Blue Marlin motel you base yourself at the southern end of Old Town. It’s a quieter area that still gives you prime access to top attractions, including the Southernmost Point and Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

View over Old Town in Key West
Key West’s Old Town.

Best things to do in Key West FAQ

Here you find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the best things to do in Key West.

What are the best things to do in Key West for history buffs?

Key West is full of history to explore. Just have a look at the island’s long list of top historical attractions: Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Key West Lighthouse, Harry S. Truman’s Little White House, Audubon House, Key West’s Historic Seaport and Sloppy Joe’s. Also consider Fort Jefferson in the distant Dry Tortugas.

What are the best things to do in Key West for couples?

It’s no coincidence that Key West is a popular destination for weddings. Have fun date nights on Duval Street, take a cruise into the tropical sunset or just enjoy Key West’s romantic far-away-from-it-all ambience together.

What are the best things to do in Key West for families?

The warm South Florida climate sets a great foundation for a Key West family trip. So does the laid-back Key West vibe. Create new family memories as you relax in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, walk through Key West Butterfly Garden and head out on a dolphin cruise.

How many days do you need to tick off the best things to do in Key West?

Since Key West is such a compact place, you could tick off most of the best things to do in Key West in just a few days. But add extra time for the day trip to Dry Tortugas as well as lazy time on the beach or by the pool.