The unique confluence of history, climate, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture and unabashed romantic appeal cloak the island of Key West in mystery.
Residents and visitors to Key West actively participate in sightseeing, outdoor and maritime activities, and shopping by day, then yield to the transition toward evening, when flame swallowers, tightrope walkers and shopping-cart balancers strive to show up a more captivating performer – the fiery sun settling into the Gulf of Mexico.
Located closer to Cuba than to Miami, Key West is Florida’s independent and irreverent southwestern subtropical paradise. The island’s balmy climate, historic structures and anything-goes ambiance have long provided a tropical refuge for writers, artists and free-spirited folks yearning for a place to unravel the mind, body and soul.
Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the famous who discovered solace and inspiration in the island city. So too did Bahamian wreckers, commercial fishermen, spongers and Cuban cigar makers.
Key West’s Bahamian and Cuban heritage is evidenced throughout the island in restaurants and cigar shops, museums and accommodations.
For intimate lodging, the island provides a bounty of bed and breakfasts with architectural qualities evoking eras past, while lavish resorts offer modern services and amenities amid grander surroundings.
Visitors to Key West can pet a shark, tour a cemetery, visit Hemingway’s former home and experience the riches of a spectacular salvage expedition. Island beaches offer ample sunning and watersports opportunities, while beneath the surrounding turquoise and cobalt waters, historic shipwrecks, a living coral reef and myriad marine plants and animals entice those eager to explore.
For anglers, billfish beyond the reef and permit and tarpon on the flats are just a few of the local game fish that offer spirited and sometimes acrobatic displays of strength.
At night, the stars illuminate assorted entertainment opportunities including jazz clubs, piano bars, dance clubs, drag shows and saloons. Theatrical stagings at three area playhouses feature Broadway-quality performances November through May.
Bahama Village is a revitalized neighborhood showcasing Key West’s Caribbean heritage through a Bahamian marketplace, shops, ethnic restaurants and galleries. The Lofton B. Sands African-Bahamian Museum and Resource Center in Bahama Village spotlights the island’s African-Bahamian history;
At the north end of the island some 100 land- and sea-based waterfront businesses bring Key West’s seafaring heritage to life at Historic Seaport at Key West Bight. Along a half-mile harbor walk are shops, restaurants, bars and a 156-slip working marina that is home to tall ships, ferries and catamarans which provide dive, snorkel and sunset cruises. At Mallory Square, Mallory Pier, street performers take center stage each evening as visitors flock to Key West’s internationally renowned sunset celebration.
Key West Aquarium
The Key West Aquarium showcases the diverse marine life that inhabit the waters of Key West; visitors to The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory can observe between 750 and 1,200 butterflies from 30 to 50 species; and the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens contains original Audubon engravings from 1832, when the artist and ornithologist visited Key West and sketched 18 new species for his “Birds of America” folio.
Harry S Truman Little White House
The Harry S Truman Little White House was the late United States president’s former tropical retreat, with family quarters, poker porch, living and dining rooms open to the public. Prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion, President John F. Kennedy held a summit meeting here; photographs of Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower also are displayed. Self-guided tours are offered through the lush rainforest habitat of Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden. Palms, orchids, rare and indigenous plants, and exotic tropical birds are among the attractions.
Among the museums are The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the late author’s home and second-story writing studio; The Key West Lighthouse Museum; The Key West Museum of Art & History in Key West’s restored Custom House building; the Turtle Kraals Museum where visitors can learn about turtles and their preservation; and The Oldest House/Wrecker’s Museum which is furnished with artifacts and antiques recalling Key West’s rich wrecking heritage.
Fort East Martello
The museum and gallery at historic Fort East Martello is filled with unique artifacts and memorabilia, along with the works of renowned local artists Mario Sanchez and Stanley Papio. Artifacts, historic film footage and still photographs at Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway Historeum commemorate Henry Flagler’s construction of “the railroad that went to sea”, connecting Key West with the mainland for the first time. Mel Fisher Maritime Museum showcases the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere – including the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
San Carlos Institute
The San Carlos Institute, founded in 1871 to preserve Cuban culture and promote the freedom of Cuba, is today a museum affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, with a library, art gallery, theater and school classes centering around Cuban history and the Spanish language.
The Civil War-era Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park, is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, incarcerated for providing medical assistance to President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. Fort Jefferson is accessible via the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry and by seaplane. Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site, constructed between 1845 and 1866, remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War and was later used during the Spanish-American War. The fort’s collection of Civil War cannons is the largest in America.
Built in 1896 overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the The Southernmost House epitomizes the grandeur of the island city’s historic heyday. The public rooms feature an extraordinary array of political and literary memorabilia – including letters handwritten by Ernest Hemingway – collected by the house’s owner. A larger-than-life buoy marks The Southernmost Point at Whitehead and South streets. the southernmost spot in the continental United States – only 90 miles from Cuba. It’s the setting for a Kodak moment for virtually every visitor to Key West.