Things to do in Key West
It would be simple enough to come to this island getaway and eat conch fritters, drinks margaritas and check out the sunset every evening at Mallory Square—and have a great time doing just that. But to dig a little deeper into the magic and history of this place, where are some great things to do in Key West. Take a ferry ride first: The Yankee Freedom II takes visitors the 70 miles (about two hours) from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park, then you’ll have about four hours to enjoy some of the best snorkeling in the world at Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas beaches. (You can even camp here if you bring your own gear.)
One of the most classic things to do in Key West, Papa’s House, is always worth it. The official tours start every 10 minutes and are led by a ramshackle group of stand-up comics turned literature lovers. If you don't have a half-hour to spare, see the ancestors of his cats (bred to have extra toes, also known as polydactyly) and his sons' room, where photos of the author on his many vacations (Africa, Paris, Cuba) give new meaning to his literary works. Key West has attracted its fair share of vacationing presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter among them), and the memorabilia displayed at Truman's former winter residence turned museum, the Little White House, immortalizes every presidential visit. The free two-room exhibit has photos and videos; for more, take a 45-minute tour of the president's personal quarters, furnished with his desk and custom-made poker table. One great option, if you’re wondering what to do in Key West with kids, is the 6,000-square-foot Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. You’ll learn about North America's only living contiguous barrier coral reef, and kids can get hand-son with a fun yellow submarine.
Off the beaten path in an old Armory building, this nonprofit creative arts community center serves as an artist residency to more than 40 different artists each year. Mediums include writing, hair and headdress designing, dancing, painting, sculpting, and music.
Yacht owners tie up their boats and grab seats on the wraparound porch at this marina bar and slurp Key lime–garlic oysters during happy hour (4–6:30 p.m., when starters and drinks are half-price).
This recently renovated hotel restaurant hosts its very own cabaret; men in drag do nightly impersonations of celebrities like Madonna and Cher at the Crystal Room. Skip the overpriced poolside restaurant for a fresh mojito on the black-and-white-marble patio.
Catch an art film at the nonprofit Tropic Cinema (founded, in part, by writer Jean Carper and George Cooper, a retired law professor and author).
Owned by a Key West native who stocks her well-appointed accessories boutique with candles from Diptyque and Tocca, antique clocks, spicy red pepper–flavored Belgian chocolates, and enough Dr. Hauschka and Kiehls beauty products to keep you moisturized for life.
Spend the day at the 1850s park (don’t miss the fascinating antique desalination plant). Here, you’ll also find one of the few beaches in Key West with showers and picnic tables. Tip: bring waterproof sandals—the beach is pebbly.
A popular area activity, the Butterfly & Nature Conservatory has more than 50 species of butterflies and 20 species of exotic birds all housed under the glass dome greenhouse.
This two-room bookstore feels and smells like an attic, but the collection of mostly used books is worth a visit. Peruse the teetering stacks for Cuban literature and biographies of local luminaries: Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams among them.
The famed shop produces a frozen version, dipped in chocolate and eaten from a stick, lolly-style.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum celebrates its namesake's 1985 discovery of the hull of a 1622 Spanish Galleon named Atocha, uncovered about a one-hour boat ride from Key West that divers and the Fishers still explore.
It's a shame to come to Hemingway's tropical hideaway and not take the official tour, which start every 10 minutes and are led by a ramshackle group of stand-up comics turned literature lovers.
The Yankee Freedom II takes visitors from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park. The 70-mile excursion aboard this high-speed-catamaran takes a little more than two hours, and guests have about four hours to enjoy Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas beaches.
The Museum of Art & History at the Custom House occupies a prime location on the port, but for Art Basel–quality work, head to this one-room gallery. The small collection of contemporary Cuban artists includes vibrant canvases by Luis Abreux and painted wooden folk carvings by Mario Sanchez.
Self-proclaimed environmental artist Nancy Forrester is the mastermind behind this oasis off Simonton Street. Like a patch of rainforest, it has dense foliage, squawking birds, and plenty of hidden nooks.
The National Marine Sanctuary–owned museum, devoted to the largest coral reef in North America, opened in January 2007; permanent exhibits highlight the Keys' 11 habitats, the living reef, and local weather patterns.