The little island community of Key West is famous for a handful of things; things like Key lime pie and Ernest Hemingway and Caribbean sunsets – and its party atmosphere, especially on Duval Street.
But guess what? Just as New Orleans is much more than debauchery on Bourbon Street, Key West is much more than bar crawls on Duval.
If you're worried that Key West might not be a destination for you, here are all the OTHER things you can do in Key West that don't require you to visit any bars on Duval Street at all if you don't want to.
An intro to Key West
Key West is the name of both a city and the island it sits on in an island chain in the Gulf of Mexico called the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys is an archipelago of coral islands (keys/cays) that stretch for nearly 200 miles from the southern end of Florida all the way to the Dry Tortugas.
You can drive roughy 120 miles of the length of the Keys, with US-1 taking you to the literal end (or beginning, depending on how you look at it) of the road in Key West.
From Miami to Key West, the drive is only about 3 hours long on the Overseas Highway, which travels over 42 bridges and through several small towns on different Keys. Key West is perhaps the most famous city you can visit in the Florida Keys, though, and has been a tourist destination since the 1920s.
Known for its laid-back vibe, historic Old Town, and no shortage of dining and entertainment options, here are some fun facts you might *not* know about Key West:
- The name “Key West” is kind of a mistake. When the island was first visited by Ponce de Leon in 1521, he dubbed it Cayo Hueso, or “Bone Island” in Spanish thanks to the bleached limestone rock and coral that made up most of the land. In English, Cayo Hueso sounded a bit like “Key West,” and the anglicized name is the one that eventually stuck.
- Key West (and most of the Florida Keys) were only accessible by boat up until 1912 when Henry Flagler built his Overseas Railway.
- Key West has a history of marching to the beat of its own drum. So much so that the city actually seceded from the US in 1982. The mayor and city council renamed the city the Conch Republic and declared war on the United States in protest of a roadblock and inspection points being enforced by the US Border Patrol. It was mostly a PR stunt (the Conch Republic surrendered immediately), but you'll still see flags of that sovereign nation all over the island.
These days, you can get to Key West by plane, car, or boat (the city has both an international airport and a cruise port), and you need to allow at least 3-4 days to hit up all the highlights!
Top things to do in Key West
If you only associate Key West with Jimmy Buffet and Key lime pie, then the rest of this post might come as a surprise to you!
There's so much to do in Key West, from visiting historical sites to enjoying time out on the water. (And yes, we'll fit that Key lime pie in, too.) Here's everything I'll cover here:
- Top touristy things to do in Key West
- Historic things to do in Key West
- Key West food and drink bucket list
- Getting on the water in Key West
- How to learn about Key West wildlife
I'll show you all the great things to see, do, and eat in Key West that don't require you to visit Duval Street at all if you don't want to!
Top touristy things to do in Key West
Here are all the sometimes-kitschy yet still quintessential things to do during your time in Key West:
1. Visit the Southernmost Point marker
This famous photo spot sits at the southernmost accessible point on Key West. (Spoiler: the *actual* southernmost point is on the naval base, which the average person cannot visit.)
Posing for a photo at this marker is a must for most visitors to Key West, but because it's so popular I recommend going early in the morning so you hopefully don't need to stand in line to get your picture.
Fun fact: In Key West, you'll probably hear the joke that you're closer to Cuba than a Walmart. And this is 100% true! Key West is only about 90 miles from Cuba, but is 120 miles from a Walmart.
2. Ride the Conch Tour Train
As you wander around Key West, you're bound to spot the miniature yellow-and-black trains that share the road with bikes and cars. This is the Conch Tour Train, one of the most delightfully touristy things to do in Key West.
The train has been carrying visitors around Key West since the 1950s, and the narrated tour through the historic district is a great way to get to know the city.
Tickets for the Conch Tour Train are good all day, and you can hop on and off at a couple different spots if you want. I especially appreciated this option because I don't do well walking around in the heat/humidity, and it was HOT when I visited. (Book tickets here.)
(There's also a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour available here if the train isn't really your speed.)
3. Watch a sunset from Mallory Square
Each night, Key West's Mallory Square transforms into a lively street festival for the nightly Sunset Celebration. There are street performers, artists, and food vendors, and usually lots of people gathered to watch the sun set into the ocean.
This celebration can get loud and crowded, but it's a quintessential thing to do in Key West, and is worth going to at least once during your stay. The celebration starts two hours before sunset each night – and yes, people clap and cheer when the sun dips below the horizon.
Historic things to do in Key West
Prior to Florida becoming a U.S. territory in 1821/22, there was no permanent settlement in Cayo Hueso/Key West. That quickly changed within a couple years, though, meaning that Key West has 200+ years of settled history to learn about.
Some must-do things include:
1. Tour the Hemingway House
No visit to Key West would be complete without a visit to the Hemingway Home and Museum, which is where writer Ernest Hemingway lived from 1931-39. You can tour the house, see Hemingway's study where he did his writing, and explore the grounds to see Key West's first in-ground swimming pool and of course all the “Hemingway cats.”
Many of the 60+ polydactyl cats that live here are descended from a white cat named Snow White that Hemingway himself owned. The cats have the run of the house and gardens, so keep an eye out for them everywhere!
(Just note that you buy tickets here at the gate, and they only accept cash!)
2. Visit the Truman Little White House
Hemingway wasn't the only influential person who was charmed by Key West. US President Harry S Truman also took a liking to the island – so much so that he spent a total of 175 days throughout his presidency living and working from what eventually became known as the “Truman Little White House.”
The house, which dates back to 1890, was used by presidents and the US Navy after Truman, too, and was opened as a museum in 1991. Today, you can see the house as it looked back in 1949 when Truman was using it. Tours run frequently throughout the day – though note that photography is not permitted inside.
3. Climb the Key West Lighthouse
Just across the street from the Hemingway House you can't miss the Key West Lighthouse. The first lighthouse in this spot on the island was built in 1825, but was destroyed in a hurricane in 1846. The current lighthouse was built in 1848, and expanded (in height) in 1894.
Today, you can climb up 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse to see nice views out over Key West.
Your entrance ticket also allows you to visit the museum inside the old keeper's quarters, which is a fascinating look at the Key West's lighthouse's history.
Fun fact: this lighthouse was run for decades by women, which was not the norm at the time.
4. Spend time at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum mostly focuses on treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who dedicated decades of his life to finding the shipwreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish ship filled with riches that sank in 1622. He finally found the wreck in 1985.
The museum chronicles Fisher's epic search, and also has other exhibits on pirates, the science of shipwrecks, and the slave trade. Definitely plan to spend at least an hour or two here.
If you're traveling with kids, they may enjoy the nearby Key West Shipwreck Museum a little more. It's got more videos and artifacts, but still details the centuries of shipwreck salvaging that led to Key West being such a wealthy spot. (Plus, there's a lookout tower here to climb that has a great view.)
5. Visit the Custom House Museum
Officially the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, this museum is located in a beautiful historic building that used to be the island's customs office. Today, there are two floors of art and history exhibits inside.
You can see exhibits covering local history, maritime history, local artists, and more. There are even paintings by playwright Tennessee Williams (another famous Key West resident) on display.
6. Go on a ghost tour
If you'd rather spend an evening steeped in spooky Key West history rather than bar-hopping, you can go on a Key West ghost tour. This guided walking tour lasts 90 minutes, and on it you'll learn about local legends and spooky specters (including Robert the Doll), with a good dose of history thrown in. (Book this tour here.)
Key West food and drink bucket list
1. Taste test Key lime pie
Obviously no trip to the Florida Keys would be complete without at least a couple slices of Key lime pie! This tart pie is made with a creamy filling flavored by small Key limes, usually on a graham cracker crust and sometimes topped with meringue.
There are plenty of places to try Key lime pie in Key West. Try the famous pie in all sorts of forms at the Key Lime Pie Bakery, or go for a chocolate-dipped slice on a stick at Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe. The Blue Heaven restaurant makes a “Mile High Key Lime Pie” with a massive meringue topping, or you can try a Key lime pie-inspired crepe at Banana Cafe.
2. Eat fresh seafood
After Key lime pie, the food Key West is most known for is definitely its fresh seafood. Order up a plate of Key West pink shrimp, and try local fish like hogfish, yellowtail snapper, grouper, and more.
Some go-to seafood spots in Key West that I've personally tried and can recommend include Half Shell Raw Bar, Conch Republic, and Hogfish Bar & Grill, but you really can't go wrong.
3. Visit a distillery
Be sure to stop in to the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, which has been operating near Mallory Square since 2013. You can go on a short, free tour of the distillery daily, and even get free tastings of their rum. Another fun thing to do here is join a mojito class, where you'll learn how to make Cuban Mojitos.
4. Sip on Cuban Coffee
Another place you'll find Cuban influence in Key West is in the food options (go to El Siboney for traditional Cuban food), and in the prevalence of Cuban coffee. There are several places you can try the strong, sweet Cuban coffee, with the most popular perhaps being Cuban Coffee Queen's takeaway spot down by the old seaport.
5. Have a beer at First Flight
A cool place my husband Elliot and I came across in Key West is the First Flight Island Restaurant and Brewery. Not only is this spot the southernmost craft brewery in the United States, but it's also located in the building that was the birthplace of Pan American World Airways. Pan-Am's first tickets (from Key West to Havana) were sold out of this building in 1927.
Today, the brewery has kept that early aviation vibe, and also has a really nice outdoor patio for dining and beer tasting.
6. Go on a food tour or cocktail crawl
Getting on the water in Key West
Even though there's so much else you can do in Key West, most people will tell you that the best way to truly experience the island is by getting out on the water. Here are all the different ways you can enjoy the tropical waters around Key West!
1. Have a beach day
The Florida Keys are basically formed atop coral reefs and are protected by those reefs, meaning the beaches you'll find aren't going to have soft, white sand. Most beaches in the Keys tend to be rough and covered in coral bits that haven't been fully pulverized into sand.
BUT, if you want to have a beach day in Key West, you can. The three most popular beaches to visit include the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (there's remnants of an old fort here, too, as well as beaches), Smathers Beach, and the beach at Higgs Memorial Beach Park.
2. Kayak through the mangroves
Many of the islands in the Florida Keys are surrounded by mangroves, which are a really important part of the Keys ecosystem. These trees help clean the water and air, protect the islands from severe weather, and act as a nursery for baby fish.
You can book a kayaking eco tour into Key West's mangroves, which will have you paddle out into Cow Key Channel and down Key West's canal before weaving in and out of natural tunnels through mangrove thickets. This is SUCH a cool adventure!
This is a guided tour, too, so you'll learn about all the flora and fauna you see along the way from your guide. The tour lasts about 2 hours, and is a fairly easy paddle done in tandem kayaks. (Book this tour here.)
3. Take a sunset cruise
Watching a Key West sunset from Mallory Square is one thing, but it's another entirely to see a sunset from out ON the water. Several companies offer sunset cruises; I recommend going with Sebago Watersports, which offers a sunset cruise with an open bar, live music, and tasty hors d'oeuvres served. (Book a cruise here.)
4. Enjoy watersports
For the adrenaline junkie in your family, there are options to get out on the water in some thrilling ways. Including:
How to learn about Key West wildlife
Wildlife isn't usually the first thing you think of when you think Key West, but there's actually quite a bit to see!
1. Go on a dolphin-watching tour
The waters around Key West are home to hundreds of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and going on a dolphin-watching tour is a must! While there are many companies that offer these, I recommend going out with Honest Eco.
You'll sail on the Squid, a custom-built electric catamaran that's currently the only all-electric boat in the Key West harbor. Honest Eco runs small-group trips with expert guides (they almost all have science/research backgrounds), and they'll take you out to look for resident dolphins.
You'll spend some time looking for pods of dolphins and watching them, and then you'll go to a calm spot for some snorkeling where you might be able to spot stingrays or even a sea turtle.
2. Snorkel the reef
Key West sits only a few miles from the Florida Reef, which is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. This reef stretches for more than 300 miles and is the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world.
You can book a tour (like this one or this one) to head out to the reef for a couple hours of snorkeling. While there, you can see tropical fish, all different types of coral, and maybe even bigger things like sea turtles.
3. Check out the Key West Aquarium
The little Key West Aquarium may not look like much from the outside, but it was actually the very first tourist attraction that opened in Key West, all the way back in 1935!
Step back in time in this fun and colorful aquarium, which includes indoor tanks and exhibits, and an outdoor pool with native Florida fish. Your ticket here is good all day, meaning you can come and go to see/help out with the various feedings if you want. (I got to help with a shark feeding, and was a giddy as a kid about it.)
4. Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Want to visit the top-rated attraction in Key West? Then you'll want to plan to pop in to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. While technically not representing *Key West* wildlife, it is home to hundreds of butterflies and exotic colorful birds from around the world and is always a hit with people of all ages.
BONUS: Take a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park
Another unique thing you can do is take a day trip out to Dry Tortugas National Park, a small national park that sits out in the ocean roughly 70 miles from Key West. You can only reach this national park via either boat or seaplane, which makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the US.
If you opt to take the public Yankee Freedom ferry to the park, it's a full-day trip, with the boat ride taking roughly 2.5 hours each way. If you opt for the seaplane trip with Key West Seaplane Adventures, you can do it in half a day since the flight is only 35 minutes each way.
Elliot and I opted to do the half-day seaplane trip, which was seriously SO much fun. We left from the Key West airport, and flew low over a very calm ocean, keeping an eye out for dolphins, sea turtles, and shipwrecks that we could spot from the air.
We landed on the water at Garden Key, which is where you'll find Fort Jefferson, a massive military fort that was built in the mid-1800s to help protect US shipping routes into the Gulf of Mexico. You can explore the three levels of Fort Jefferson while here, and also go swimming/snorkeling in the warm, clear waters around Garden Key.
This isn't a cheap trip by any means, but I truly think it's worth it!
How many days do you need in Key West?
While you can see all the highlights in Key West in 3-4 days, if you wanted to do every single thing on this list, you'd need to allow at least 6-7 days on the island, if not longer. Key West may be small, but it's jam-packed with cool things to see and do!
Now you're armed with so much info about Key West, I hope you're ready to plan your own trip.
Have you been to Key West? If not, which of these non-Duval-Street things would you most like to do there?