One Day in Key West Travel Guide Pins 4

Wondering what you could do if you only had 24 hours in Key West?

How about:

  • Swimming in the waters of the Mexican Bay AND the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Admiring one of the most stunning sunsets on the planet.
  • Partying on a mile-long pub crawl.

These are just the most obvious things to do in Key West.

But did you know you can explore a bunch of unique museums or dive into the third-largest barrier reef in the world?

If you’re ready to check what else you can do in just one day in Key West, let’s jump right in!

Dip Your Toes in the Deep Atlantic Ocean

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach Key West
Arguably the best beach of Key West is the one under Fort Zachary Taylor

One of the coolest facts about Key West is that both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mexican Bay wash its shores. The Key’s diverse and unique ecosystems are a result of the convergence of these two major bodies of water.

If you’re looking for sandy beaches in Key West, have in mind that the sand is imported from the Bahamas.

The following public beaches on the Atlantic coast will welcome you:

  • Smathers Beach: the sand stretch is perfect for playing volleyball, renting jet skis, and wind surfing.
  • Rest Beach: this white-sand beach is great for sunbathing, picnicking, and collecting sea shells.
  • Higgs Beach: the clear waters of the small sandy beach invite for surfing, kayaking, and snorkeling. The beach also features an 1860 African Cemetery.
  • Straw Hat Beach: that’s probably the most secluded Key West beach. It doesn’t offer amenities or a paved road but is great for escaping the crowds.
  • Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park: the park features arguably the best Key West beach. Apart from spending time on the sand, you can walk the nature trails and explore the pre-Civil War fortress.

Some of the hotels on this side of the island also offer private beach access. For example, Casa Marina, which is adjacent to Higgs Beach, and The Reach both offer private white-sand beaches and spectacular views over the Atlantic Ocean.

Splash in the Shallow Waters of the Mexican Bay

The Florida Keys separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. The shallow flats of the Gulf of Mexico lie to the west of Key West.

This side of the island offers no sandy beaches. However, you can explore the bay on a boat tour, as well as from one of the resorts’ private piers.

The boats and the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park (more info below) start from Key West Bight Marina.

Explore the Florida Keys Barrier Reef

Key West Snorkeling at the Florida Reef
Snorkeling or diving at the Florida Reef is a must-do activity in Key West

The third-largest barrier coral reef in the world is at Key West. This is one of the most mind-blowing facts about the Florida Keys.

The Florida Reef extends north towards Miami and west to the Dry Tortugas National Park. With its 170 mi (270 km), it’s inferior only to the Australian Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef.

The Florida Reef is about four miles wide and houses nearly 1,400 species of marine plants and animals. It is also the only living barrier coral reef of the continental United States.

Additionally, 23 artificial reefs exist in the waters of the Keys. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is the sole national marine sanctuary which has approved artificial reefs. Since 1981, they’ve been deliberately sinking ships to grow reefs around them.

So, be sure to grab your snorkeling or diving gear and explore the spectacular underwater world during your visit to Key West!

Tip: For a complete list of everything you need to prepare for an unforgettable vacation, grab our battle-tested Travel Checklist.

Next to the stunning underwater wildlife, you can also search for sunken treasures at the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. It consists of nine historic shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean, from Key Largo to Key West.

The Amesbury is the closest to Key West. It is a U.S. Naval destroyer escort, locally known as Alexander’s Wreck, built in 1943. Currently, she rests five miles west of Key West.

The best way to explore the underwater treasures of Key West is by joining this spectacular snorkeling tour.  

Get Lost in the Streets of the Old Town

Mile 0 Overseas Highway
The Mile 0 Marker of the Overseas Highway with a huge Kapok tree in the background

Wandering the streets of Key West’s Old Town is a great way to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the southernmost American town.

Vibrant Victorian mansions line the main Duval Street and the surrounding area. In the buildings, you’ll find shops, cafés, restaurants, and pubs.

Several quirky museums will also invite for a visit (more on this in the next section).

Here are the most interesting – Instagramable if you wish – spots you should check out:

The Mile 0 Marker

Mile markers are a big thing in Key West. You’ll find a wide variety of “Mile 0” souvenirs and memorabilia practically everywhere in the Keys.

The Overseas Highway US 1, which connects Key West to the mainland, starts with MM 0 (Mile Marker Zero). It stands at the corner of Whitehead Street and Fleming Street in the Old Town. Mile markers serve as addresses along the Overseas Highway.

Get your photo with the Mile 0 marker, then check the giant Kapok tree just a few feet from it.

The Civil War Forts

Fort Zachary Taylor Key West
Cannons in the pre-Civil War Fort Zachary Taylor

Key West is home to three Civil War forts:  

  • Fort Zachary Taylor at the west tip of the island,
  • Fort East Martello near the Key West International Airport, and
  • West Martello Tower next to Higgs Beach.

If you have time to visit only one of them on your day in Key West, we recommend Fort Zachary Taylor. You’ll not only enjoy the well-preserved historic attraction. You’ll also have the chance to walk the trails and sunbath on the beach under the fort.

The Key West Lighthouse

Key West Lighthouse
The historic Key West Lighthouse

When walking around Key West, you can’t miss the 72-ft. (22-m) high lighthouse.

The historic Key West Lighthouse is accessible via 88 steps. You’ll find it across the street from the Hemingway House Museum (see below).

The narrow, windy stairs spiral up to the top. From there, you can enjoy spectacular views of Key West. Note that it can be very windy at the top.

A cool fact about the lighthouse is that the staircase was designed after the staircase of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.

Southernmost Point
Naddya at the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.

The simple monument stands at the Southernmost Tip of the Continental U.S.A. and is exactly 90 mi (145 km) north of Cuba.

The buoy is a favorite photo op and especially busy at sunset. People line to take their picture with the monument. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, visit the southernmost point before noon.

Oldest House & Gardens Key West

As the name suggests, that’s the oldest house in Key West. In fact, it’s also the oldest in South Florida.

Build in the 1820s, the house was expanded in 1829 to accommodate Captain Francis Watlington, his wife, and their nine daughters. Their descendants occupied the property until the 1970s.

Nowadays, the historic house displays family portraits, original furnishings, and a peaceful garden.

Bahama Village

A stroll through the Bahama Village is a must, even if you’re only spending one day in Key West.

After arriving in the 19th century, the settlers opened shops, bars, and restaurants which locals loved and frequented. Legend says that Hemingway visited many of the pubs to enjoy boxing and arm-wrestling matches.

Nowadays, the charming area stretches for 12 blocks. It boasts vibrant stores and diverse eateries where you can taste true Bahamian flavors.

Tip: If you feel like one day is not enough to see everything in the southernmost town and you decide to spend the night, Bahama Village is one of the best areas to stay in Key West.

Visit Key West’s Unique Museums

Shipwreck Treasure Museum
The Shipwreck Treasures Museum

For its small size, Key West packs an impressive number of extraordinary museums. Check them out below.  

Note: Despite small, some of the museums feature fascinating collections. They might enchant you to the point that you completely lose track of time. Make sure you don’t spend your whole day in Key West in just one of them!

The Shipwreck Treasures Museum

In the 1830s, locals made their money by salvaging shipwrecks.

Many ships traveled the trade routes between the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. Due to heavy shipping, strong currents, and dangerous reefs, ships sunk on a weekly basis.

Locals salvaged, auctioned, and resold the treasures.

By 1889, Key West was the biggest and wealthiest city in Florida. It even became the richest American city per capita. However, in 1921, the wrecking courts closed, ending the profitable industry.

Today, you can relive this glorious era at the Shipwreck Treasures Museum in Key West.

Sails To Rails Museum at Flagler Station

Sails To Rails Museum Key West
The Sails To Rails Museum in Key West

Located near Key West Bight in a restored rail depot, Sails To Rails at Flagler Station features interactive exhibits, raw footage, unique artifacts, and the only scale model of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

The museum will take you on an amazing, interactive journey of Key West’s history. It begins at the age of sail when tail ships plied the treacherous waters of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and continues to the early 20th century, the era of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Mel Fishers Treasures
Mel Fisher’s Treasures in Key West

You can learn more about the profitable shipwreck industry at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. It displays a collection of artifacts from 17th-century shipwrecks.

You can satisfy your curiosity about pirates and treasures while viewing the authentic artifacts. To enhance your experience even further, we recommend learning the story of the treasure hunter Mel Fisher before visiting the museum.

The Hemingway Home & Museum

Hemingway House and Museum
Hemingway House and Museum

You’ve probably heard that one of the most famous Key West residents was Ernest Hemingway.

The acclaimed writer called Key West home in the 1930s. During this time, he wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, “To Have And Have Not”, “Islands in the Stream”, and “Green Hills of Africa”.

Nowadays, you can explore the writer’s legacy at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.

The house was the first home in Key West to have luxuries such as running water and a swimming pool. It is also a cat paradise.

Among Hemingway’s legacies in Key West is the famous polydactyl. On his move to the Florida Keys, the Nobel Prize-winning author brought with him Snowball, a white six-toed cat. Today, the Hemingway Home and Museum has between 50 and 60 permanent six-toed cuddly residents.

Truman’s Little White House

The Little White House Key West
The Little White House in Key West hosted numerous U.S. presidents

The Little White House in Key West welcomed several U.S. presidents.

The visits started with Ulysses S. Grant in 1880, followed by Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. After them, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter have also stayed at the Little White House.

However, the president who visited Key West most frequently was Harry S. Truman. He stayed at the house a total of 175 days on 11 occasions during his presidency, plus five more times after he left the office.

The beautifully preserved house can tell more than a few surprising stories.

For example, during the guided tour of the presidential museum, you’ll learn that Truman not only worked there but also loved to grill. He had the Navy build him a grill in the corner of the yard. He would fire it up for his family, friends, and staff. How many people do you think can brag the U.S. president cooked them dinner?

Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House

Custom House - History Museum Key West
The monumental Custom House hosts the Key West Museum of Art & History

The restored monumental customs building from 1891 houses the Key West Museum of Art & History.

Originally, the magnificent red-brick building was home to the island’s customs office, postal service, and district courts. It later housed the U.S. Navy.

The imposing structure is an example of the Richardsonian-Romanesque architecture, typical for Federal buildings from the late 19th century.

Nowadays, two of the four floors host several exhibitions, weaving together two centuries of Key West history, art, people, and events.

Audubon House & Tropical Gardens

The restored residential building with peaceful vibe features the works of the American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter John James Audubon, his tropical garden, and a gift shop.

The house displays a fusion of curious history and art. You can enjoy beautiful originals and high-quality reproductions of the masterpieces of Audubon. You can also purchase some of the timeless images.

Interact with Butterflies and Birds at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory

Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Observe huge, colorful butterflies in the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory

The glass-enclosed conservatory offers interactive walks among numerous species of birds, butterflies, and tropical plants.

It is hard to articulate the joy you’ll feel when you walk into a room filled with fluttering butterflies. Thousands of the glorious, glittering creatures, as well as vibrant birds, will surround you at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.

The lush garden also houses a couple of pink flamingos. The majestic birds love interacting with people, so expect them to come over and inspect you up close and personal.

Touch the Sea Inhabitants at the Key West Aquarium

Next to Mallory Square, you’ll find the Key West Aquarium.

The small aquarium features a touch tank for a hands-on experience with creatures from the Lower Keys’ ecosystems, a shark exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a sea turtle conservation tour.

You can also enjoy interactive conversations, as well as animal feedings.

Count the Key West Chickens

Key West Chickens
Free-roaming chickens in Key West

A rooster crowing at dawn and a hen with her chicks crossing Duval Street.

This is a usual sight in the City of Key West. The free-roaming chickens have been on the island for decades.

A crazy fact about Key West is that there are more hens in the city than there are residents.

We challenge you to try and count how many chicks you encounter on your day in Key West!

Ride the Fun Key West Conch Tour Train

If walking isn’t your thing, an alternative way to immerse yourself in the vivid atmosphere of Key West is by riding the Conch Tour Train.

You’ll not only have the chance to explore all the major attractions of Key West in a leisurely tempo but also gain inside information from the knowledgeable, entertaining guides.

The Conch Train drives a loop through the streets of the Old Town, which it finishes in 75 minutes.

Here are the four stops of the train, along with the attractions which you can explore from each one:

  • Front Street Depot: Key West Aquarium, Shipwreck Treasure Museum, Mallory Square, Memorial Sculpture Garden, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Little White House, Audubon House
  • Truman & Duval Depot: The Lighthouse, Hemingway Home & Museum, Southernmost Point, Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
  • Conch Tour Train Station: Duval Street and amenities
  • Sails To Rails Museum: Key West Bight Marina, Sails To Rails Museum, Ferry Terminal

Devour Scrumptious Foods and Drinks

Florida Keys Lobster
Florida Keys’ clawless lobsters have scrumptious, tender tail-meat

The Florida Keys are famous for several delectable dishes. The local food scene is characterized by the influence of Cuban and Bahamian flavors. It also features many sea creatures.

Below, you’ll find the typical dishes which you can sample in almost any Key West restaurant:

  1. Smoked fish dip: You can try the staple appetizer of the Keys in every restaurant. Locals are almost as passionate about it as they are about the Keys’ staple dessert (see below). The dip may incorporate any fresh fish species. The most widely used are mahi-mahi, cobia, Spanish mackerel, wahoo, and kingfish.
  2. Conch: When in Key West, you have to try the dish which gives the locals their nickname. Conch (pronounced [konk]) is a large sea snail. The Queen Conch is the namesake of the Florida Keys Conch Republic. The most common way to eat the mollusks is as conch fritters. Other tasty dishes include ceviche, aka conch salad, and cracked conch which is a tenderized, fried conch steak.
  3. Stone crabs:  The claws contain almost all of the succulent meat, so this is the only part of the crab harvested. Once the fishermen remove the claws, they return the crab to the sea. In the next two years, the claws regenerate. This makes stone crabs a renewable resource. You can eat your portion of juicy stone crab claws warm with melted butter, or chilled with mustard sauce.  
  4. Lobsters: Clawless spiny lobsters are to die for. The Florida Keys lobsters have sweet and tender tail meat. Steamed, boiled, or grilled, top them with melted butter, and your taste buds will skyrocket to heaven. Another exceptional dish that’ll make you drool is the Lobster Reuben sandwich.
  5. Pink shrimp: The Key West pink shrimp is the sweetest among its crustacean relatives. You can savor them sautéed in scampi, battered and fried, atop a salad or pasta, or simply steamed and served with savory sauces. We highly recommend you try the shrimp burgers!
  6. Key Lime Pie: The sweet-and-sour staple dessert of the Keys probably originated on boats, using the ingredients on hand. Sailors cooked a mixture of condensed milk and eggs together with the citric acid from the Key lime’s juice and poured it into a stale bread crust. Today, you can treat your taste buds with the scrumptious dessert everywhere in Key West.

Celebrate the Sunset

Key West Sunset at Mallory Square
The gorgeous Key West Sunset, viewed from Mallory Square

Celebrating the jaw-dropping sunset in Key West is a major event.

Every evening, locals and visitors gather in the Mallory Square to send the day off. Musicians, street performers, and food stands will properly entertain you.

Another popular spot for sunset photos is the Southernmost Tip Buoy. The vistas from the corner are magnificent. However, have in mind that the spot can get jam-packed with tourists.

Alternatively, you can join a sunset sail to enjoy the vibrant spectacle in style from the water.

Have a Blast in Key West’s Legendary Nightlife

Duval Street Bar
Duval Street really comes to life at night

If your one day in Key West doesn’t end at sundown, you should dive into the nightlife as well.

The famous Duval Street hosts a mile-long pub crawl.

The street comes to life as the sun sets. Countless bars, shops, and restaurants invite you for a visit. We’re sure you’ll find your kind of place as the choice is enormous.

Even if you’re not searching for a place to party, explore the 1.25-mile street with unique atmosphere. It runs from coast to coast and is lined with Victorian mansions, featuring Bahamian and Spanish influences.

The most popular locales include:

  • Sloppy Joe’s, the place where Hemingway loved to drink his cocktails and rum.
  • The original Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Café with nightly live music shows.
  • The lively Flying Monkeys bar which serves arguably the best frozen cocktails in Key West.

Alternatively, explore the parallel Whitehead Street. It also houses numerous famous bars, such as the Green Parrot Bar. This historic watering hole has been an institution since 1890.

Visit the Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip from Key West
The Dry Tortugas National Park is an easy day trip from Key West

In case you’ve been to Key West before and already done everything on the list, you can go on a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park.

You can reach the least-visited U.S. National Park via the high-speed Yankee Freedom III ferry. The journey takes approximately 2:30 hours in each direction and costs $190 for the whole-day trip.

Most people don’t realize that Key West is not the western-most key. The Florida Keys extend further 70 mi (113 km) west to the Dry Tortugas National Park.

You can explore the uninhabited islands of the park and Fort Jefferson on a day trip or an overnight camping adventure. The park offers the most stunning beaches of the Florida Keys and is definitely worth a visit.

Note: Have in mind that the trip will take up your whole day in Key West.

Helpful Tips for Your One Day in Key West

Victorian Mansions in Key West
Victorian Mansions line the streets in the Old Town of Key West

How Much Time to Spend in Key West

After you’ve read the previous sections, we’re sure you’ll agree that one day in Key West isn’t enough to cover everything.

However, we decided to include activities not only for first-timers but for returning visitors as well.

We recommend spending at least three days in Florida Key’s capital. But if 24 hours is all you have, choose your activities wisely.

How to Get to Key West

Key West is easily accessible by plane, car, or shuttle via the mainland. Please consider that not all options will give you enough time to explore, so choose your transportation method carefully.

By Plane

Key West Airport serves the southernmost U.S. city. You can catch a non-stop flight from the following cities:

AtlantaDallasNashvillePittsburgh
BostonFort LauderdaleNew York CitySanford
ChicagoHoustonOrlandoTampa
CincinnatiMiamiPhiladelphiaWashington DC

Calculate carefully all transfers and waiting times to make sure you’ll have enough time to explore Key West.

By Car

Seven Mile Bridge Florida Keys
The Seven Mile Bridge is the longest of the 42 bridges connecting the Florida Keys

If you want to visit Key West for a day by car, here’s what you should know:

The only road which connects the city with the mainland is US 1. The 42 bridges of the Overseas Highway will take you from Miami to the last inhabited island of the Florida Keys in about 3:30 hours.

Although long, the drive is extremely scenic and worth making.

By Tour

If driving yourself to Key West isn’t an option, you can also join a full-day group tour from Miami.

When is the Best Time to Visit Key West

With year-round sunshine and temperatures always above freezing, it’s always a good idea to visit Key West.

It is one of the few places in the U.S. that never gets frost or snowfall. The lowest temperature ever recorded was 41°F (5°C). And it’s happened just twice, on January 12, 1886, and a century later, on January 13, 1981.

So, chances are, whenever you decide to visit Key West for a day, you’ll walk in shorts.

To escape the crowds, avoid traveling during the holidays, Spring Break, and Lobster Season.

One Day in Key West – How to Have a Blast

Key West Sunset Cruise
The best way to end your day in Key West is onboard a sunset cruise

One day in Key West won’t be enough to immerse yourself in all the great activities the southernmost city of the United States offers.

However, this ultimate guide provides you with options regardless of whether you’re a first-time or a returning visitor.

You can do everything on the list, or just choose the things that interest you the most. And don’t forget that if you enjoyed Key West for a day, you can always return for more exploration!

Now, tell us:

What would be the first thing you do when you go to Key West?

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Naddya

Naddya has been road tripping on four continents in altitudes from 0 to 4,655 m. She spent 12 years in Germany studying, working, and partying. In this time, she visited approximately 253 European cities by planes, trains, and automobiles. Her favorite activity is to get lost and then find her way again. Fun fact: Naddya has a love for islands and a hatred for tan-lines.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hung

    Beaches, sure. Amazing weather, uh-huh. Great food and drinks, nice. I’m most excited about that hemingway house with the 6-toed cats!

    1. Naddya and Svet

      Cool choice, Key West hosts some pretty unusual residents and attractions 🙂

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