The ultimate guide to Key West, FL

  • Post last modified:December 5, 2022
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In Key West you find six-toed cats, free-roaming chickens and nightly sunset celebrations. As winter never gets as far south, the summer is endless in Key West. The island is like no other place in Florida, the US or even the world. Visiting Key West is a quirky experience like nothing else.

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Ultimate Key West guide

There’s a lot of Key West information here. Start from the top and work your way down, or jump straight to your preferred starting point.

Key West at a glance

Key West functions as the capital of the tropical Florida Keys. Welcome to a world of blue waters, Carribbean-like islands and swaying palm trees.

In striking fashion the 113 miles (182 km) long Overseas Highway connects Key West to the mainland. The iconic drive runs key by key all the way from the Florida peninsula’s southern tip to Key West.

Literally at the end of the road you are less than 100 miles (161 km) from Cuba. That’s closer than Miami.

Down here you never have to worry about freezing. In January, the year’s coldest month, the thermometer on average climbs to 75°F (24°C) during daytime and doesn’t retreat below 65°F (18°C) at night.

The Key West summer is endless.

With such pleasant climate Key West is the perfect destination to just relax in the sun for a week. However, with all the things going on in Key West that would just give you half the experience.

Pelicans in Key West
Pelicans enjoying Key West.

Don’t miss a thing: Bookmark our ultimate Florida Keys guide too.

Top 5 things to do in Key West

The best things to do in Key West give you a great tast of the quirky South Florida island. Are you ready to discover Key West?

1. Feel inspiration at Hemingway’s Home

History buffs quickly fall in love with Key West. One of the reasons is the alluring Ernest Hemingway Home.

On Whitehead Street the historic Hemingway Home quietly sits. Hemingway himself lived in the house from 1931 to 1939, and he wrote many recognized pieces while he did so.

Touring Hemingway’s home teaches you both about the writer and Key West life back in the day. Even in an Old Town area filled with historic gems, Hemingway’s property manages to stand out.

Are you an animal lover? If so, the many six-toed cats on Hemingway’s property on their own warrant a visit.

Make it two: Across the street from the Hemingway Home you find Key West Lighthouse. Isn’t that a pretty sweet Key West combo?

2. Party on Duval Street

Duval Street is the main drag in Key West. It runs north to south across the island, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

Lined by countless bars, restaurants and shops, you have found the perfect spot for a tropical night out. Duval Street, where something fun always is going on, is known for its lively nightlife scene.

It’s the entertainment hub of the Florida Keys.

But you certainly don’t have to party to enjoy Duval Street. Boasting quirky activity, Duval Street is an iconic spot for people-watching.

3. Relax on Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

Key West has beaches too. At the westernmost part of the island Fort Zachary Taylor State Park lure visitors with its soft sand and swaying palm trees.

In the endless Key West summer, lazy beach time is as precious as ever.

Yet Fort Zachary Taylor is about the underwater experience too. Snorkel in the clear water off the beach and get a good taste of the Florida Keys’ abundant marine life.

Some claim that Key West doesn’t have any nice beaches. However, then they must have missed out on the gem that Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is.

4. Enjoy Sunset Celebration

Every evening is something special in Key West. The island’s renowned Sunset Celebration really shows that.

On Mallory Square hundreds of people gather every evening to enjoy the best show of them all. It’s a colorful spectacle enhanced by creative street performers.

When you attend, you quickly realize that you have found a favorite Key West tradition. Just sit back and sip on a cold beverage while the sun slowly sinks into the Gulf of Mexico.

5. Photograph the Southernmost Point

US Highway 1 runs for 2,369 miles (3,813 km) from Canada in the north to Key West in the south. So Key West is literally the end of the road, and a continent.

To mark out the conclusion of the continental United States a vivid buoy sits at Whitehead Street’s southern end. The Southernmost Point makes up the perfect Key West photo opportunity.

It might just be a marker, but the symbolism of the Southernmost Point is strong. It has grown to become a quintessential Key West spot.

Do you want to see the Mile Marker Zero too? The fabled Key West sign is located where Whitehead Street meets Fleming Street.

More things to do: Make sure to check our full guide with the best things to do in Key West for more inspiration.

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

Where to stay in Key West

Most of the best Key West attractions are located in the Old Town area, which makes up the western part of the island. But east of Old Town you also find Key West hotels in the New Town area.

Should you pick Old Town or New Town? Well, for the ideal sightseeing experience the choice is simple. Pick Old Town for where to stay in Key West.

When you stay in Old Town, you have most sights nearby. Then you can relax without having to think about driving or making it in time for a shuttle to get around.

In particular Duval Street is the pulsating heart of Old Town. So stay at a Key West hotel near Duval Street for the best access to the island’s restaurants, bars, shops and attractions.

1. Almond Tree Inn – Tropical oasis

Almond Tree Inn is a place to stay that highlights the best of Key West. Its location in Old Town is extremely convenient, and after a day out exploring, Almond Tree Inn, offering a peaceful tropical vibe, is just where you want to be. It’s nothing less than a remarkable Old Town base.

2. Douglas House – Lush gem

Douglas House sits just meters from Duval Street, the island’s main drag. Yet the elegant Key West inn, elevated by its lush landscaping, is sheltered from noice. Welcome to a hidden gem in Key West.

3. Blue Marlin – Low-key lodging

You don’t have to break the bank when you plan your dream Key West getaway. Blue Marlin is located in a quieter area at the southern end of Old Town. From here you in particular easily reach Key West Butterfly Garden and the Southernmost Point.

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

Main Key West streets

The two main streets in Old Town, Duval Street and Whitehead Street, showcase both top sights and stark contrasts. As you get to know them, you get to know Key West.

Duval Street and Whitehead Street are parallel, but they offer very different vibes. While Duval is the buzzing street, the more low-profile Whitehead highlights another side of the defining Key West quirkiness.

Feel the buzz on Duval Street

Duval Street, running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, is the centre of attention. When you stroll down Duval Street, you walk in the heart of Key West.

On Duval Street you find a wide selection of eateries, watering holes and souvenir shops. The road is only 1.25 miles (2 km) long but full of terrific places to eat and drink.

Among them all the most famous place is Sloppy Joe’s Bar. It’s the watering hole that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent, and it has been found on the same spot on Duval since 1937.

But Sloppy Joe’s first opened up across the street from its current position. There the bar happily served its customers until a one dollar rent increase, a big change at the time, forced relocation to today’s spot.

Past Sloppy Joe’s drinks and live music the Duval experience continues. Restaurant after restaurant and bar after bar show you a good old time.

The expression that it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere feels as valid as it possibly can on Duval Street. Here you always find reasons to sit back and enjoy yourself, no matter what time of the day it is.

Key West villa surrounded by greenery
A villa along Duval Street in Key West.

Tour the quiet Whitehead Street

If Duval Street is the heart of Key West, Whitehead Street is its soul. One road in the western direction Whitehead Street is much quieter but at least as appreciated.

Whitehead Street is one of the best reasons to visit Key West.

Here you don’t find the attention-seeking shops, restaurants and bars everywhere your eyes go. Instead Whitehead Street is humble and lined by old-fashioned bungalows in lovely bright colors.

But don’t let that far-away-from-it-all tranquility fool you. Whitehead Street is where you find many of the best Key West attractions.

Hemingway’s Home and Key West Lighthouse are located across the street from each other. As the story goes, Hemingway often needed to follow the lighthouse’s light to make it home from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s.

The famous Mile Marker 0 is another Whitehead Street attraction. It’s the conclusion of US Route 1, which runs from the Canadian border all the way south to the tropical setting in Key West.

If you want a drink, the Green Parrot Bar is ready to serve you something refreshing. The bar, which has called Whitehead Street home since the Second World War’s end, is cherished by locals and visitors alike.

At Whitehead Street’s southern end you find the Southernmost Point. It means the end both of Whitehead Street and the United States. Shaped like a buoy, the monument marks the continental US’ southernmost spot.

Lighthouse in Key West
Whitehead Street in Key West.

Beaches in Key West

The world’s third longest barrier reef protects Florida Keys from big ocean waves. That’s great news for the diving enthusiast. However, for the sandy beach lover that could be negative.

Without big waves the mechanism that creates sand in a natural way is missing. Hence Key West is not known primarily as a beach or surf destination. But do not despair as there still are a few nice Key West beaches to choose from.

The best beach in Key West

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is often ranked as the best beach in Key West. The well maintained beach is located in the western end of Key West, approximately a 20 minute walk away from the always busy Duval Street.

As the Key West beach is part of a state park, there is a small fee to enter. But right at the beach there is a café, picnic tables, grills and restrooms in case you need a break. In other words the Key West beach has what you need to spend a full day there.

At Fort Zachary Taylor Beach you also find the iconic mile marker sign that reminds you about that Key West is situated closer to Cuba than Miami.

Sign on FLorida Keys beach warning that no lifeguard is on duty
Fort Zachary Taylor Beach in Key West.

Other beaches in Key West

There are free beaches to visit in Key West as well. Higgs Beach is one of them that’s conveniently located near Duval Street. Another free Key West Beach is Smathers Beach, which is located a bit further away from Old Town attractions.

On top of the public beaches there are also many private beaches in Key West. These are attached to hotels or private homes.

Key West beach sign during daytime
The mile marker sign at Fort Zachary.

Beaches higher up in the Florida Keys

You find some beach gems in the other parts of Florida Keys too. Bahia Honda Beach is located about 35 miles (56 km) and a little less than 1 hour away by car. Even further up in Florida Keys you find Sombrero Beach, which is another great Florida Keys beach.

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

Sunsets in Key West

Admiring the sunset is an appreciated Key West activity that both locals and tourists participate in daily. “See you at Sunset” is a commonly heard phrase on the island. Every time the sun sinks into the Gulf of Mexico is something special.

Key West sunsets at Mallory Square

The most famous place to watch sunsets in Key West is Mallory Square. There hundreds of people gather every evening to participate in the Sunset Celebration.

In the front row at the Mexican Gulf the welcoming Mallory Square is the most iconic way to enjoy a Key West sunset. As the sun sets into the horizon, a wide range of performers contribute to a quirky and friendly atmosphere.

If you want liveliness, there is no better place to watch a Key West sunset than Mallory Square. It’s also a proud tradition and a must on most Key West bucket lists.

Mallory Square sunset celebration in Key West.
Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square.

Key West sunsets at Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor State park not only has what again and again is referred to as the best beach in Key West. It’s also a fantastic sunset location in Key West if you prefer a more quiet scene.

There is no entertainment at Fort Zachary Taylor like there is on Mallory Square. But for the days you want to escape the crowds to more privately take in the Key West sunset it’s the perfect spot.

As you walk along the Fort Zachary Taylor shoreline, there’s nothing that distracts you from the beautiful sunset. For peacefulness Fort Zachary Taylor offers the best sunsets in Key West.

Sunset in Key West
Key West sunset at Fort Zachary Taylor.

Take in a Key West sunset from the water

Mallory Square and Fort Zachary Taylor are both excellent Key West sunset spots. But after all there’s nothing quite like watching a sunset in Key West from the water.

A sunset sail shows you another side of Key West. Sailing into the sunset, with amazing views and refreshing beverages, is a spectacular way to end a day in Key West.

Sunset cruise in Key West.
Sunset cruise in Key West.

Best time to visit Key West

If you ask ten locals when the best time to visit Key West is, you probably get ten different answers. That’s because Key West is a year-round destination. But depending on what you kind of weather you prefer there are better and worse times to visit Key West.

Visiting Key West in winter (peak season)

Winter is often referred to as the best time of the year to visit Key West. December, January and February is the peak period of the year when most tourists flock the streets of Key West.

In January, the coldest month of the year, Key West’s average daytime temperature reaches 75°F (24°C). Even at night it doesn’t on average get colder than 65°F (18°C).

So when most of the northern hemisphere is freezing, Key West remains warm and comfortable. To escape cold temperatures winter is the perfect time to visit Key West.

Visiting Key West in spring (shoulder season)

Spring is a very attractive time to visit Key West as well. March, April and May bring fewer visitors to Key West but warmer temperatures, compared to the very busy winter months.

April means average daily high temperatures of 83°F (28°C). At night the temperature on average only goes down to 74°F (23°C).

The climbing temperatures makes spring one of the best times to visit Key West if you want warmer temperatures. Spring is warmer than winter but not hot and humid like summer. As a bonus the lodging rates also go down after the popular winter period.

Visiting Key West in summer (hot and humid season)

Summer means that the weather gets both hotter and wetter. Often in June, July and August a clear morning is followed by a thunderstorm in the afternoon.

In July the temperature on average reaches 89°F (32°C) during daytime before it retreats back to 81°F (27°C) at night. But have in mind that the temperature feels even hotter in the humid South Florida climate.

Therefore if you can’t stand hot temperatures, summer is the worst time to visit Key West. But if the temperatures don’t deter you, summer is a great time to enjoy Key West.

Visiting Key West in autumn (hurricane season)

Florida’s hurricane season peaks in the autumn. A hurricane is certainly nothing to wish for. Yet if you time it well, September, October and November could be the best time to visit Key West.

Although September is generally rather hot, the temperature retreats back to an average daily high of 85°F (30°C) in October. The average low in October is a comfortable 77°F (25°C), which is just perfect for strolling Duval Street.

With a combination of hurricane season, hot temperatures and kids going back to school September is the ideal month if you look for the cheapest time to visit Key West. But in general autumn is a great time to snatch that awesome Key West deal.

The last Florida island along US Route 1
The quirky Key West.

How to get around in Key West

The size of Key West is perfect for a laid-back vacation. If you stay in Old Town when visiting Key West, you have walking distance to all the things to do on Duval Street and Whitehead Street. Therefore using a car when visiting Key West isn’t necessary or even optimal.

Instead you can easily walk, bike or take the Old Town trolley tour when you explore Key West. The latter is a hop-on and hop-off trolley that takes island visitors to most Key West places of interest.

Southern part of Duval Street
The southern part of Duval Street.

Driving to Key West

The Overseas Highway is US Highway 1’s southernmost part. It takes you the scenic 113 miles (182 km) from mainland Florida all the way down south to Key West.

Driving the Overseas Highway is a spectacular way to travel to Key West.

Along the impressive highway there’s a lot to do apart from just enjoying amazing views. Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and the Lower Keys offer great stops on the Miami to Key West road trip itinerary.

Key Largo

The Key Largo area is known as the gateway to Florida Keys. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the African Queen Canal Cruise are attractions not to miss in the area.

Islamorada

Islamorada is the halfway point between Miami and Key West. Popular things to do in Islamorada include exploring Indian Key Historic State Park and feeding the giant tarpons at Robbie’s.

Marathon

Marathon is situated in the heart of Florida Keys. In the central Florida Keys region Sombrero Beach is one of the best beaches in the Keys. Marathon is also where you find the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital.

Lower Keys

The Lower Keys are the final islands along US Highway 1. In National Key Deer Refuge the tiniest member of the North American white-tailed deer family lives. In addition the Lower Keys is home to Bahia Honda State Park, which encompasses an iconic beach.

Bridge in Florida Keys surrounded by blue water
From island to island to Key West.

Visiting Key West FAQ

Here you find the answers to some frequently asked questions about visiting Key West, FL.

Is Key West worth visiting?

While endless summer alone is a great reason to travel to Key West, there is much more on offer than just the warm weather. The island offers interesting places to visit and a unique quirky atmosphere. It’s always five o’clock somewhere, and five o’clock is best spent in Key West.

How many days do I need in Key West?

Key West is such a small and compact place that you could explore the main attractions on the island in 2-3 days without hurrying around too much. However, to fully unwind during your stay more days are recommended. Also add time if you want to do activities on the water, such as a day trip to Dry Tortugas.

What is the best month to go to Key West?

As Key West is a year-round destination, the best month to go to Key West depends on what weather you prefer. In general winter is the most popular time of the year to visit Key West. Then the visitor count skyrockets and the island is as busiest.

What is the coldest month in Key West?

January is the coldest month in Key West. In January the average daily maximum temperature is 75°F (24°C). At night the temperature remains comfortable as it on average only goes down to 65°F (18°C).

Do you need a car in Key West?

In Old Town you find most of the island’s attractions within walking distance. Therefore the average visitor who stays in Old Town doesn’t need a car to explore Key West. But if you plan to visit other parts of the Keys, you need a car to get there.

Can you walk everywhere in Key West?

An appreciated thing about Key West is that the island is walking friendly. You can walk from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, or from Mallory Square to the Ernest Hemingway Home. Most attractions in Key West are accessible by foot.

Are beaches free in Key West?

There are free beaches in Key West for visitors to enjoy. Free Key West beaches include Higgs Beach and Smathers Beach. In contrast Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is part of a state park, and therefore there is a small fee to enter.

Why is Key West called Conch Republic?

In 1982 the city of Key West declared itself Conch Republic as a protest against a blockade set up by the US border patrol on US Highway 1, at the beginning of the Florida Keys. Since then Key West residents proudly call themselves Conchs, pronounced as “KONKS”.

Can you see Cuba from Key West?

You can’t see Cuba from Key West. Although Cuba only is about 90 miles (145 km) away from Key West, it’s too far away for you to be able to see it. But if you still want to try, Key West Lighthouse is the tallest building on the island.