Julie United States 38 Comments

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Key West? Gorgeous sunsets from Mallory Square? Bar hopping on Duval Street? Lounging on the beach in the shade of a palm tree? Key West may be a small place, but there’s a lot here to keep you busy. In this guide, we cover the best things to do in Key West.

Our most recent trips were in February 2018 and December 2021. We tend to visit Key West frequently, since it is a great wintertime destination. The weather is warm all year long, making this a great spot to go to the beach, and spend some time on the water, even in January and February.

Interesting Facts about Key West

Key West is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States (Hawaii is located farther south than Key West). It is located along the Florida Straits, a coral reef that runs from Dry Tortugas National Park to Miami. This coral reef system is the third largest in the world.

Route 1 ends in Key West (or begins here, depending on how you look at it). This highway is 2,370 miles long and runs to the Canadian border.

Route 1 Key West

Many famous people once called Key West home or vacationed here frequently. Ernest Hemingway is probably Key West’s most famous resident, but Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein, and Jimmy Buffet once resided here. President Harry S. Truman had a winter house here, and touring it is one of the best things to do in Key West.

People born in Key West are referred to as “conchs.” People who are born elsewhere and move to Key West are called a freshwater conch once they live here for seven years.

Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba then Miami. In fact, Key West sits just 90 miles north of Cuba. There are a lot of Cuban influences in the food and drinks in Key West…mojitos, Cuban coffee, roasted pork, Cuban sandwiches…another great thing to do in Key West is to dine in Cuban restaurant or take a food tour.

Best Things to Do in Key West

1. Visit Mallory Square

Mallory Square is located in the heart of Key West. Every evening hundreds of people gather here to watch the legendary Key West sunset. The Square becomes a hive of activity, as street performers, musicians, and food vendors gather to provide food and entertainment. It’s a very festive atmosphere and essential thing to do, if it is your first time in Key West.

If you like the idea of watching the sunset from Mallory Square with a drink in your hand, go to Bistro 245 on hour before sunset. This restaurant and bar sits next to Mallory Square. Stay for just a drink or have dinner here.

Mallory Square Sunset

Mallory Square at Sunset

2. Ernest Hemingway’s House

Ernest Hemingway called Key West home from 1931 to 1939. His house is now a historic landmark, and a visit here is one of the most popular things to do in Key West.

During your visit, you will not only learn about Ernest Hemingway, but you also get a nice dose of Key West history. Included with your admission fee is a 20 to 30-minute tour of the property.

Just be prepared to see a lot of cats. And check out their tiny paws…the cats that roam the Hemingway property are famous for having six and seven toes!

Hemingway House

Hours: 9 am to 5 pm, 365 days per year
Cost: $17 for adults, $7 for children 6 – 12 years old, children 5 and under are free, cash only
Reservation: No reservation required
Website: hemingwayhome.com

3. Take in the View from the Key West Lighthouse

Just across the street from the Hemingway House is the Key West lighthouse. Climb 88 steps to the top for one of the best views over the city.

Key West View

Hours: 10 am to 5 pm daily, last admission at 4:30 pm
Cost: $17 for adults, $8 for youth 7 to 18, children under 7 are free, active military are free; there is a slight discount if you purchase your tickets online in advance
Click here to visit the official website.

4. Bar Hopping on Duval Street

For many in the over-21 crowd, bar hopping along Duval Street may be one of the best things to do in Key West. In fact, many people travel to Key West to simply partake in endless days of bar hopping and partying.

Sloppy Joes Bar

Sloppy Joe’s is Key West’s most famous bar. It opened in 1933, the day after Prohibition ended. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor here.

One of our new hang outs is Hank’s Hair of the Dog Saloon. They have live music all afternoon and into the night. Behind the saloon is Garbo’s Grill, a food truck that serves tacos and burritos with an Asian twist and is one of Key West’s best cheap eats.

We also really like the Rum Bar. This bar has an extensive list of rums and they also make great Rum Runners.

Key West Rum Bar

The Rum Bar

Other popular spots include the Hog’s Breath Saloon, the Green Parrot, the Bourbon St. Bar, and the Bull and Whistle Bar.

Bars in Key West

If you like the idea of watching a drag show (it’s a big thing here in Key West!), the best clubs are Aqua, La Te Da, and Bourbon St. Bar.

One more idea…how about a guided pub crawl along Duval Street?

5. Visit the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory

This place is wonderful! Wander through a small but lovely greenhouse, filled with tropical plants, birds, and of course, butterflies. We loved watching the two flamingoes, Rhett and Scarlett, who were in the midst of a mating ritual. Their squawking was hilarious.

Butterfly House

Butterfly

Note: If you do not like the idea of butterflies landing on you, you might want to skip this. The butterflies, and the flamingoes, seem to be attracted to aqua and blue colors. I was wearing a bright aqua colored shirt and the butterflies would not leave me alone.

Hours: 9 am to 5 pm daily, last admission at 4:30, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas
Cost: $15 for adults, $13 for locals, $12 for seniors 65+ and military, $11 for children 4 to 12, children 3 years and under are free
Website: keywestbutterfly.com

6. Visit a Rum Distillery

If you want to learn about how rum is made and do a tasting, you have several options in Key West.

The Key West First Legal Rum Distillery opened in 2013 and offers free tours throughout the week from 12 am to 5 pm. Tours run every 20 minutes and last 15 minutes. On Fridays and Saturdays, they also offer a mojito class.

Papa’s Pilar, a newer game in town, crafts rum named in honor of Ernest Hemingway. On our most recent visit to Key West, this is the distillery that we toured, since we are fans of the dark rum. The distillery tour lasts 45 minutes and costs $25 per person. They also offer cocktail classes that look like a lot of fun. Make your reservation in advance because they sell out early!

Pilar Rum

Pilar Rum Distillery

Inside the Pilar Rum Distillery

7. How About a Ride on a Floating Tiki Bar?

This is one of our favorite things to do in Key West.

If you are looking for something fun and unique to do, how about a ride on a tiki boat? Cruise around beautiful Key West, all while seated at a tiki bar and sipping on tropical drinks.

There are a variety of cruises you can choose from. There are mangrove tours, sunset tours, and swimming tours. You can take a private tour on a tiki boat (with a max of 6 people) or reserve a space and make new friends with other visitors.

We have done this on our past two visits to Key West. It’s a great thing to do if you are visiting Key West as a group, because you can all split the private charter fee.

Prices vary depending on the cruise you choose, ranging from $60 or more per person. Visit the Cruisin’ Tikis Key West website for more information on their tours, updated pricing, and to reserve your spot. 

Tiki Boat Key West

Tiki Boat View

Cruisin Tikis Key West

Key West Sunset

Sunset views from the tiki boat.

8. Lounge on the Beach

A visit to Key West just would not be complete without a visit to one of its beaches. Some are more beautiful and more secluded than others. Here’s a quick run down.

Smathers Beach

This two-mile stretch of white sand is Key West’s most popular beach to visit. It is located on the south side of the island near the airport.

This a beautiful beach and you can rent beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, paddle boards, and Hobie sailboats from vendors on the beach. There are also several beach volleyball courts.

Best Things to Do in Key West

Smathers Beach

 

Smathers Beach

Beach volleyball on Smathers Beach

 

Best Key West Beaches

At this stand you can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas, paddle boards, and more.

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

This beach is in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. To enter, it is a $6 fee per vehicle with cheaper prices for motorcycles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. It is open from 8 am to sunset, 365 days per year.

Sunbathing, snorkeling, and swimming are several of the most popular things to do here, but you can also take a yoga class on the beach, go kayaking or paddle boarding, go fishing, and tour the fort.

The Cayo Hueso Café serves drinks, snacks and small meals and it is located right on the beach. There is a hut that rents chairs, umbrellas, and snorkel gear.

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach

 

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

There are lots of palm trees and pine trees that offer shade at Fort Zachary Taylor Beach.

Higgs Beach and Rest Beach

These pretty beaches sit side by side. From here, you can walk out onto the Edward B. Knight Pier, a great place to watch the sunrise and sunset.

Higgs Beach

Higgs Beach

9. Edward B. Knight Pier

This pier sits next to Higgs Beach. We walked out onto it and thought that the views were just OK, at least midday. I think it is only worth adding on to your Key West to do list if you have a lot of time here.

Pier View

View from the Edward B. Knight Pier

10. Harry S. Truman Little White House

This historic building served as the winter White House for President Truman beginning in 1946. He spent 175 days of his presidency here, and documents issued from the Little White House read “the White House, US Naval Station, Key West, Florida.”

Since then, it has been used as a retreat for other US Presidents, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Clinton.

On a visit here, your admission includes a tour of the Little White House, which is offered every 20 minutes. You can also take a VIP White Glove Experience tour, to go beyond what you see on a typical, but it has a price tag of more than $500.

Harry Truman House

Hours: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, last entry at 4 pm; open 365 days per year
Cost: $24.67 for adults, $10.75 for children ages 4 to 12; there is a slight savings if you purchase your tickets online in advance.
Website: trumanlittlewhitehouse.org
Guided Tour of the Truman House: This guided tour of the Little White House gets great reviews.

11. Visit the Shipwreck Museum

Sitting next to Mallory Square is the Key West Shipwreck Museum. At this museum, you can learn about the 1985 discovery of the wrecked vessel Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856.

Our favorite thing about visiting this museum is for the view of Key West. Climb the tower for aerial views over Mallory Square.

Shipwreck Museum View

Cost: $17.19 for adults, $9.66 for children 4 to 12; there is a slight savings if you purchase your tickets online in advance
Website: keywestshipwreck.com

12. Visit the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha was a Spanish galleon laden with gold, silver, copper, and gems. It sank during a hurricane in the Florida Keys in 1622. For years, Mel Fisher and a team of treasure hunters searched for years for the sunken ship. In the 1970’s, the Atocha and its treasure was found.

In 2014, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was added to the Guinness Book of World Records for the most valuable shipwreck to be recovered.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum recounts Fisher’s treasure hunting quest and some of the recovered treasure.

Mel Fisher Museum

Hours: 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday, last entry at 4 pm
Cost: $17.50 for adults, $8.50 for children
Website: melfisher.org

13. Eat your way through Key West

One of the best things to do in Key West is to eat. Key lime pie, conch fritters, Cuban food, coffee, fresh seafood, lobster rolls…the choices are endless.

On our visits to Key West, we have racked up quite the list of great restaurants to try. Here are a few of our favorites. You can get the full list in our Key West Restaurant Guide.

Blue Heaven. For breakfast and brunch, this is a must-visit. Dine outdoors in this quirky, creatively decorated restaurant that serves amazing food. Get here early or be prepared to wait up to an hour for a table.

Blue Heaven

 

Cuban Coffee Queen. We had one of our best meals at this outdoor food stand. Located near the Key West Historic Seaport, this small restaurant serves Cuban cuisine and the best coffee that I had in Key West.

Cuban Coffee Queen

Latitudes. This is fine dining restaurant that is located on Sunset Key. The food is wonderful and this is another prime spot to watch the sunset.

Santiago’s Bodega. Tapas, anyone? Again, this place is soooo good. Dare I say the best food on the island? If you like the idea of small plates of gourmet food, put this spot on your list.

Tapas Key West

Better Than Sex – A Dessert Restaurant. If you like the idea of eating decadent desserts in an intimate setting, consider this unique restaurant. It’s another one of those uniquely Key West experiences. You will be seated in a semi-private booth and can order desserts with names like The Morning After, Italian Stallion, and Cookie Nookie Pie. Tim and I shared the Peanut Butter Perversion and it was delicious. The atmosphere of the restaurant is rather unique, but in some ways it did have the feeling that we were in a strip club. I think I’d take the kids elsewhere.

Take a food tour of Key West. On this small group walking tour, sample iconic Key West dishes such as Key Lime pie and conch fritters, and explore the cultural neighborhoods of Key West.

For a longer list of where to eat and drink in Key West, click here to read our Guide to the Best Restaurants in Key West.

14. The Southernmost Point

Ok, this really isn’t one of the best things to do in Key West, unless you like waiting in line, but it seems like I couldn’t ignore it, because it is such a popular thing to do.

Midday, expect a long line of people. Worth it? That’s for you to decide.

Southernmost Point

 

But if you go in the morning (we did this at 8 am on our most recent visit), you can walk right up and have your photo taken. No line, no waiting.

Southernmost Point

15. Stroll along the Key West Historic Seaport

This is a pretty spot to visit. Hundreds of boats and yachts are docked here. Restaurants and bars line the harbor. While you are here, belly up to the bar at the Schooner Wharf or grab a cup of coffee at the Cuban Coffee Queen.

Seaport

16. Day trip out to the Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas National Park is a collection of seven small islands that sit at the end of the Florida Keys. The reefs that surround these islands caused numerous shipwrecks. The United States used these reefs to its advantage, establishing one of the most strategic harbors in US history.

Most of the park is water, but it is also home to coral reefs, bird nesting grounds, and historic Fort Jefferson. While you are here, the things to do at the Dry Tortugas includes snorkeling or swimming, tour Fort Jefferson, and you can even camp on Garden Key.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson

You can get to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane, ferry, or private charter. We went by seaplane and the views of the Florida Keys are spectacular!

A day trip to the Dry Tortugas ranges from 4 hours (half-day trip by seaplane) to a full day experience (full day trip by seaplane or by taking the Yankee Freedom ferry).

17. Go Kayaking through the Mangrove Swamps

Paddle through tunnels of mangrove trees, and look for nurse sharks, sea stars, tropical fish, and aquatic birds. Kayaking and paddle boarding tours are run by Lazy Dog and last 2 hours. Prices start at $50 per person.

Lazy Dog also rents kayaks and paddle boards. You can even take a SUP yoga class. If you are here during Halloween, check out their Haunted Kayak Tour!

And if you are wondering, mosquitoes are generally not an issue in these mangrove swamps. We took the kayaking tour in December and didn’t see any mosquitoes.

Mangrove Kayaking

Tim holding Jellyfish

Tim holding a jellyfish

18. Get Out on the Water

There are numerous options for getting off dry land and touring Key West and the nearby sea by boat. For thrill seekers, a sunset tour around the island by waverunner is a blast. Tim and I did this way back in 2000 and it is still one of our favorite memories of Key West.

You can take an Eco Tour of the mangroves, take a SUP tour, go on a dolphin cruise, or take a sunset catamaran cruise.

And don’t forget about the tiki boat! 🙂

 

More Ideas of Things to Do in Key West

Taking a Conch Train Tour and learning about the history of Key West is a popular thing to do.

You can also visit the Key West Aquarium, take a ghost tour, or take a guided bicycle tour of Key West.

Things to Do in Key West: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

How to Get to Key West

The quickest way to get to Key West is to fly into Key West International Airport.

You can also get to Key West by road tripping down the Florida Keys. If you have a week or more, you can also visit Miami and Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. Learn how to plan a 7 to 10 day road trip through the Florida Keys, visiting Miami, Key West, Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Parks in our Florida Keys Itinerary.

We also have a guide to things to do along the Florida Keys. It takes a full day to drive from Miami to Key West, hopping through the Keys and visiting state parks, beaches, snorkeling sites, breweries, restaurants and bars, and animal conservation centers.

Key West Sign

How to Get Around Key West

Key West is a very walkable town. Many of the best things to do in Key West are located around Mallory Square, along Duval and Whitehead Streets, and down towards the Southernmost Point.

The Key West Trolley can be used as a hop-on hop-off bus to get around Key West.

Bicycling is a great way to get around, plus you can take advantage of the cheaper entrance fee into Fort Zachary State Park.

I don’t recommend driving from place to place in Key West because parking can be challenging and expensive. If we have a car, we tend to keep it parked at our hotel and then we walk, cycle, or use Uber to get around.

You can also rent a golf cart to get around Key West.

Best Time to Go to Key West

The best time to visit Key West is from November through March, when the weather is a bit cooler, and you don’t have to worry about hurricanes disrupting your vacation.

December is a festive time to be here. Christmas lights and decorations cover the city. In early December, people decorate their boats for holidays. You can see them at the Historic Seaport before they head out into the harbor and sail past Sunset Key and Mallory Square (the Lighted Boat Parade). In 2021, this was on December 11.

During the summer months, the Florida Keys are hot and humid. This is a quieter time to visit Key West, since it is so warm, and you also have the possibility of a tropical storm or hurricane disrupting your travel plans.

Where to Stay

For recommendations on where to stay, read our Key West Hotel Guide. This guide has recommendations on where to stay in Key West, organized by budget and location.


If you have any questions about the best things to do in Key West, or if you would like to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to Florida:

Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.

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