Key West is known for being the southernmost point of the contiguous United States and having year-round sunshine, endless parties, and pirate treasures. Key West is also famous for the Florida Coral Reef, the Hemingway House, the Little White House, and the scrumptious Key Lime pie.
But that’s not all Key West is known for. In this article, you’ll discover 33 incredible things Key West is famous for.
Keep reading and by the end, you’ll know why people love Key West so much.
Let’s dive right in!
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Unbelievable Facts That Make Key West Special
Key West is famous for being its own republic. Crazy, right? It gets even more peculiar in this section, so make sure you don’t skip any of the unbelievable things Key West is known for.
- The Florida Reef. The world’s third-largest barrier coral reef is at Key West. The Florida Reef extends from Miami to the Dry Tortugas. With its 170 mi (270 km), it’s the third-longest on the planet, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Belize Barrier Reef. The Florida Reef is about four miles wide and houses nearly 1,400 species of marine plants and animals. Be sure to grab your snorkeling gear and explore the spectacular underwater world during your visit to Key West!
- The meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Key West’s diverse and unique ecosystems are a result of the convergence of two major bodies of water. You get to explore the deep Atlantic Ocean with the warm Gulf Stream current to the south, and the shallow flats of the Gulf of Mexico to the west.
- Duval Street. Key West’s main avenue is one of the most famous pub crawls in the U.S. Countless bars, shops, and restaurants line the mile-long Duval Street and invite you for a stop. The most popular locales are Sloppy Joe’s, where Hemingway loved to spend his time, the original Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Cafe, and the quirky The Flying Monkeys Bar.
- The Conch Republic. On April 23, 1982, Key West declared secession from the U.S.A. The symbolic act was a protest against the Border Patrol checkpoint at the entrance of US 1 in search of illegal immigrants and drugs. The checkpoint was a major inconvenience for tourists coming to the island and caused gigantic traffic jams. Although the secession was symbolic, the Conch Republic Independence Celebration in April is one hell of a party you mustn’t miss.
- The Southernmost Point. Key West is known for being the southernmost point of the contiguous United States. The Southernmost Buoy at the end of Simonton Street marks the Southernmost Tip of the Continental U.S.A. The simple monument is a popular spot for sunset photos. If you prefer to avoid crowds, go there in the morning.
- The beaches of Key West. Spoiler alert: the sand on the Key West beaches comes from the Bahamas. If that fact and the abundance of seaweed don’t bother you, then check out Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach, and Straw Hat Beach. All of them are located on the Atlantic Ocean coast. Some of the best accommodations in Key West also offer private beach stretches for their guests.
- The locals. The inhabitants of Key West are popular as conchs. And by “locals”, we mean people born and raised in Key West. You don’t become a conch by simply moving to the island. But if you’ve been a resident for at least seven years, some might refer to you as a “freshwater conch”.
- The U.S. Navy Pirate Fleet. This elite force was established in Key West. In 1823, the navy came to chase away the pirates using the area as a base. Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy West Indies Anti-Pirate Squadron took charge of Key West the same year. He ruled as a military dictator under martial law. His mission was to fight against the piracy and slave trade in the Key West area.
- Treasures and shipwrecks. In the 1830s, locals made their fortune by salvaging shipwrecks. Countless ships traversed the trade routes between the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea in this age. Many of them sunk because of the strong currents and dangerous reefs. Locals retrieved, auctioned, and sold the goods. 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. This ended the profitable industry.
- The 42 bridges. The Overseas Highway, which runs through the Florida Keys, is one of the most popular scenic drives in the United States. Key West connects to the mainland via42 bridges, which divide the Atlantic Ocean and the Mexican Gulf. The construction of the 113-mi (182-km) long concrete road finished in 1938. The longest and most stunning of the structures is the suitably named Seven Mile Bridge.
- The jaw-dropping sunsets. Believe it or not, celebrating the end of the day at Mallory Square is a major event. Key West is known for its gorgeous skies at sundown. Every evening, locals and visitors gather to send the day off. Musicians, street performers, and food stands provide outstanding entertainment. For the ultimate celebration, join a sunset cruise to enjoy the vibrant spectacle from the water.
The Famous People Key West Is Known for
Writers, presidents, and musicians have fallen in love with the tiny island over the years. Below, you’ll find the most prominent tenants of Key West.
- The free-roaming hens. More hens walk the streets of the Old Town than tourists explore the city. A rooster crowing at dawn, and a hen with her chicks crossing Duval Street, is a typical sight in the City of Key West. The free-roaming residents have lived on the island for decades and have become a part of the city’s unique charm.
- Ernest Hemingway. The acclaimed writer lived in Key West during the 1930s. In this period, he wrote some of his best works: “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”. You can explore the writer’s legacy at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and celebrate his works during the Hemingway Days Festival in July. Or you could just order his favorite drinks at Sloppy Joe’s.
- Prominent writers. Key West has inspired more writers per capita than any other American city. Apart from Ernest Hemingway, the list of famous authors who called Key West home includes Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Philip Burton, and Elizabeth Bishop. Perhaps the ocean breeze whispers remarkable stories to those who can listen, who knows?
- The polydactyl cat breed. Among Hemingway’s legacies in Key West is the cuddly breed of six-toed cats. On his move to the Florida Keys, Hemingway brought with him Snowball, a white polydactyl. Today, the Hemingway Home and Museum is a cat paradise. It hosts between 50 and 60 permanent fluffy residents.
- Former U.S. presidents. Many U.S. presidents stayed at The Little White House in Key West. The visits started with Ulysses S. Grant in 1880. The list includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter who have also enjoyed the Little White House. The president who traveled to Key West most frequently was Harry S. Truman. During his presidency, he visited on 11 occasions, plus 5 more times after he left office.
The Scrumptious Foods and Drinks Key West Is Known for
The Florida Keys are famous for several delectable dishes. Cuban and Bahamian flavors characterize the local food scene. Below, you’ll find the most popular dishes which you can sample in almost any Key West restaurant.
Tip: If you want to learn every spicy detail about the flavors of the Keys, join this amazing tasting tour.
- Conch. When in Key West, you have to try the dish that gives the locals their nickname. Conch (pronounced [konk]) is a large sea snail. The most common way to eat the mollusks is as conch fritters. Other tasty dishes include ceviche, a.k.a. conch salad, and cracked conch, which is a tenderized, fried conch steak.
- Stone crabs. The only part of the crab, which is harvested, is the claws. They contain almost all of the succulent meat. 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 sustainable, renewable food supply. You can eat the juicy stone crab claws warm with melted butter, or chilled with mustard sauce.
- Lobsters. The clawless, spiny Florida Keys lobsters are to die for. Their sweet and tender meat melts in your mouth. 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.
- Pink shrimp. The Key West pink shrimp is the sweetest among its crustacean relatives. You can savor pink shrimps 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, which are Naddya’s favorite.
- Key Lime Pie. The sweet-and-sour staple dessert of the Keys probably originated on boats, using the available ingredients. Sailors cooked a mixture of condensed milk and eggs together with the citric acid from Key Limes’ juice, and poured it over a stale bread crust. Today, you can treat your palate with the mouthwatering dessert in every café in Key West.
The Fascinating Museums Key West Is Famous for
We know you probably want to visit Key West for the beaches, sunsets, and gastronomy scene. However, you shouldn’t miss exploring the city’s funky museums. Below, we’ve enlisted the best museums Key West is famous for.
- The Hemingway Home & Museum. You already know one of the most famous Key West residents. 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. On his move to the Florida Keys, the Nobel Prize-winning author brought with him Snowball, a white six-toed cat. Today, the museum seduces with its 50 to 60 permanent cuddly residents.
- The Shipwreck Museum. In the 1830s, locals made their fortune by recovering goods from sunken ships. Today, you can relive the glorious era at the Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Key West. The exhibition occupies a recreation of a 19th-century warehouse. Inside, you’ll discover 400 years of shipwreck salvage through a combination of artifacts, video, and live acting.
- Truman’s Little White House. The Little White House in Key West has hosted several U.S. presidents. The most frequent visitor was Harry S. Truman. The well-preserved edifice can tell tons of unbelievable stories. For example, you’ll learn curious facts about how Truman loved to spend his free time in Key West with family, friends, and staff.
- The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Wanna discover more about how Key Westerns made their profits in the past? Then, head to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. You can satisfy your curiosity about pirates and treasures while viewing the authentic 17th-century shipwreck artifacts. To make the most of your visit, we recommend learning the story of the treasure hunter Mel Fisher before going to the museum.
- Sails To Rails Museum at Flagler Station. Near the marina at the Key West Bight, you’ll find this peculiar museum, housed 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. Join the interactive journey through Key West’s history from the age of sail to the era of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway in the early 1920s.
- Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House. A restored monumental building from 1891 houses the Key West Museum of Art & History. In the past, the magnificent red-brick structure has hosted the island’s customs office, postal service, district courts, and the U.S. Navy. It was built in the Richardsonian-Romanesque architecture, typical for Federal buildings from the late 19th century. Nowadays, two of the four floors showcase several exhibitions, weaving together two centuries of Key West history, culture, and art.
The Top Attractions to Visit in Key West
Peculiar signposts, historic structures, and quirky neighborhoods await you in Key West. Let’s discover the most famous attractions in the city.
- The Civil War forts. Key West is famous for its Civil War forts. You’ll find 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. The massive Fort Jefferson is also easy to visit on a day trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. If you only have time to go to one of them, we recommend Fort Zachary Taylor. You’ll not only enjoy the well-preserved historic attraction but also sunbathe on the secluded beach under the fort.
- The Mile 0 Marker. Mile markers are super important in the Keys. Apart from being the most sold souvenirs, mile makers serve as addresses along the Overseas Highway from Key West to Key Largo. US 1, which connects Key West to the mainland, starts with MM 0 (Mile Marker Zero) at the corner of Whitehead Street and Fleming Street in the Old Town. It’s a popular photo spot for tourists. You can also find a wide variety of “Mile 0” memorabilia everywhere in the Keys.
- The Key West Lighthouse. The 72-ft. (22-m) high lighthouse is located across the street from the Hemmingway House Museum. You can access the historic Key West Lighthouse via 88 steps. The narrow, windy staircase spirals up to the top, from where you can enjoy a spectacular panorama of Key West. Make sure to bring a light jacket, as the wind at the top might be chilly even on a sunny day.
- Bahama Village. To fully understand Key West’s turbulent history, a stroll through the Bahama Village is a must. After arriving in the 19th century, the settlers opened shops, bars, and restaurants in the area. Locals claim that Hemingway frequented the pubs to enjoy boxing and arm-wrestling matches. Nowadays, the charming neighborhood occupies 12 blocks in Key West. It boasts vibrant stores and diverse eateries where you can sample true Bahamian flavors.
- Key West Aquarium. Near Mallory Square, you’ll find the Key West Aquarium. If you’ve always wanted to touch sea inhabitants, this is your chance. The relatively small aquarium features a touch tank for a hands-on experience with creatures from the Lower Keys’ ecosystem. Other highlights of the aquarium include a shark exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a sea turtle conservation tour. You can also enjoy interactive displays and animal feedings.
- The Key West Conch Tour Train. If walking in the heat isn’t your thing, an alternative way to explore Key West is by riding the fun Conch Tour Train. You’ll not only have the chance to see all the major attractions of Key West at a leisurely tempo. You’ll also get to hear incredible facts about Key West from knowledgeable and entertaining guides. The Conch Train drives a loop through the streets of the Old Town. It takes about 75 minutes to traverse the route. Below are the four stops of the train, along with the attractions you can explore at each of them:
- 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 bathrooms.
- Sails To Rails Museum: Key West Bight Marina, Sails To Rails Museum, Ferry Terminal.
Now You Know Why You Should Visit Key West
So, there you have it – 33 stunning things Key West is known for.
Regardless of whether you’re searching for laid-back beaches and historic attractions or scrumptious dishes and vibrant nightlife, you’ll find it in this small, funky town.
But don’t be fooled by the southernmost U.S. city’s small size. There’s a lot to cover, so plan your visit carefully.
Now, tell us:
Have you been to Key West? Why do you think people love it so much?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!