Key West, Florida

The Florida Keys are an archipelago that stretches approximately 120 miles off of the southern coast of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. Key West is Florida’s southernmost point in this chain of tropical islands and is famous for its unique combination of lively nightlife, historically significant architecture, culturally diverse entertainment, and a naturally beautiful environment. The contagious energy of this paradise can be felt by day or night, especially when the palm-lined streets hum with live music and entertainment. Despite being a little over 7 square miles, Key West boasts a plethora of land, water, and air activities, which is why it isn’t difficult to understand why it continues to be a coveted spring break destination. In fact, this serene atmosphere was where, many famous writers and entertainers, like Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffet, and Tennessee Williams, sought solace and inspiration for their craft. Here are some of the ‘hot spots’ when visiting and photographing this island nirvana:

Duval Street – Duval Street is Key West’s famed traffic vein that is lined with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in the heart of Old Town Key West. It stretches north to south for 1.25 miles, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, and is considered the entertainment epicenter of the town. It is best known for its nightlife with attractions such as Sloppy Joe’s and Green Parrot, which are live music and dancing bars. Despite the stimulating nightlife, Duval Street is just as appealing during the day with its offerings of boutique shops, outdoor cafes, and historical buildings. A stroll along this main thoroughfare makes it is easy to see how visitors are lulled into contentment by the laidback island lifestyle that the area is famous for.

*Side Stop* Cuban Coffee QueenAn 8-minute walk northeast from Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street will take visitors to the Cuban Coffee Queen on Margaret Street. Here you will find a “Welcome to Key West” mural that has been painted on the side of the coffee shack and is a worthwhile photo opportunity.

*Side Stop* – Mile Marker 0Located at the intersection of Fleming and Whitehead Street, just off of Duval Street, is the Mile Marker 0 landmark sign. The sign represents the beginning/end of U.S. Highway 1, the longest north-south highway in the United States. The other endpoint of the freeway is in Fort Kent, Maine, at the Canadian border. There are two photo opportunities at this intersection: the southeastern side’s marker is the official terminus, while the sign on the southwestern side denotes the beginning of the scenic highway.

Mallory Square – Mallory Square is a waterfront plaza that is renowned for its nightly congregations of visitors waiting to watch the sunset. It is situated at the northwestern tip of Key West and is the best spot on the island to marvel at the shifting colors in the sky as the sun dips below the Gulf of Mexico. Since the late 1960’s, Mallory Square has hosted the Sunset Celebration where art exhibitions, food carts, and an eclectic group of street performers apply their trade for amused onlookers. The festivities are free and begin roughly two hours before sunset, so it is recommended to arrive at least 30 minutes before sundown to fully appreciate the incredible cultural atmosphere. Adjacent to Mallory Square is the Sunset Pier, a dockside eatery where locals and visitors congregate to enjoy a drink as the day comes to a close. A great perspective to photograph Sunset Pier is from the side walking path of One Duval as it juts into the Gulf of Mexico.

Southernmost Point – The Southernmost Point is an anchored buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental United States. The brightly painted buoy is at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets and is Key West’s most photographed landmark. The striped marker is adorned with the town’s conch shell insignia and three inscriptions: 90 miles to Cuba, Southernmost Point Continental U.S.A., and Key West Florida – Home of the Sunset. There are often long queues of visitors waiting their turn for their picture in front of the hefty concrete attraction, so it is best to arrive early. The site of the buoy is another great spot to watch a sunrise, sunset, or the waves crashing against the shore on a stormy day.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park – Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is a 19th-century coastal defense fortress that was built to defend the nation’s southeastern coastline. Often referred to as Fort Zach, the fort played a significant role in Florida’s early development during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Besides its rich history, the serene grounds are also home to what many consider to be the preeminent Key West beach with its glimmering azure water, ideal snorkeling conditions, and shaded picnic areas. The operating hours of the grounds are from 8am to sundown and Fort Zach is open to the public from 8am to 5pm with narrated tours offered daily at 11am. The entrance fee is based on method of transportation, so cars are $6.50 per vehicle (2-8 passengers) and pedestrians and bike riders are $2.50 per person. Due to its location, tucked away from the main road on the southwestern corner of Key West, the state park is often overlooked; however, this seclusion makes it a wonderful place to unwind and enjoy the native wildlife and vegetation that surround the fortress.

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum – The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is located at 907 Whitehead Street and was where the beloved author lived and wrote for over ten years. Today the house is a museum where visitors are treated to a tour of the lavishly furnished interior, well-landscaped gardens, and stunning in-ground swimming pool. While on the tour, guests are provided with anecdotal stories about Ernest Hemingway, like the one about his polydactyl (six toed) cat, Snow White, and how many of the polydactyl cats that live on the property are said to be her descendants. The guided tours are available from 9am to 5pm, 365 days a year, and are $14 per adult (cash only).

Harry S. Truman Little White House – The Harry S. Truman Little White House was formally a naval officers residence that was converted into the 33rd President’s winter White House. During his tumultuous presidency, Truman visited this Key West retreat on 11 occasions and stayed a total of 175 days. Now owned by the State of Florida, the Little White House was restored and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the state historic house and museum is open to the public where professional docents provide educational and entertaining tours of the residence where Truman worked, lived, and relaxed. During the tour, visitors are shown items such as President Truman’s briefcase, books, and “The Buck Stops Here” sign that are still at his desk. The house and museum are open from 9am to 4:30pm, year-round, with free admission for any locals and is $17.20 for all other adults.

Key West Lighthouse – The Key West Lighthouse is an 86-foot conical tower that was constructed in 1847 after the original 65-foot structure was destroyed during the Great Hurricane of 1846. The primary purpose of the lighthouse was to safely guide ships through the waters off of the port of Key West, especially during the Civil War. Although the newly constructed lighthouse was 15 feet shorter than the original structure, an extension in 1894 would eventually raise its height to 86 feet to allow the light to be seen from a greater distance. The Key West Lighthouse remained in operation until 1969, when it was deactivated after being deemed to be obsolete due to technological advancements. Today, the historical landmark is now open to the public from 9:30am to 4:30pm, where visitors can walk up the 88 steps to the top of the light and learn about Key West’s maritime heritage. General admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for children or students with ID, and free for kids 6 and under.

Smathers Beach – Smathers Beach is nearly a mile of sandy coastline on the southern side of Key West, along the Atlantic Ocean, and is one of the largest beaches in Key West. It is considered by most to be the preferential public beach because of its assorted recreational activities, nearby food truck vendors, pedestrian promenade, and designated free parking. Although the white sand appears to be a natural feature, many visitors are surprised to learn that it is manmade. In fact, the natural shores in Key West are filled with crushed coral and small stones instead of sand, but the fine sand of Smathers is bought and imported from the Caribbean. This, coupled with the lush coconut palms and warm ocean water, embodies the typical features that are associated with a soothing beach environment in the Florida Keys.

OTHER FLORIDA KEYS ATTRACTIONS:

The Turtle Hospital – Mile Marker 48.5 – The Turtle Hospital is a non-profit organization in Marathon, Florida (mile marker 48.5), that rehabilitates and releases injured sea turtles, while educating the public through their outreach programs. Guests visiting the Turtle Hospital are invited to take a guided educational tour of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehabilitation area. This educational experience lasts approximately 90 minutes and provides a presentation on sea turtles as well as a behind the scenes look at the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. At the end of each program guests are permitted to feed the permanent residents. The hospital is open from 9am-6pm with educational Programs run daily at 9am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm.

Old Seven Mile Bridge – Mile Marker 47-40 – The Old Seven Mile Bridge is the longest expanse of overwater roadway that is located in Marathon, Florida, between mile markers 47 and 40. Before the new Seven Mile Bridge was opened in 1982, it served as the primary means of transportation connecting the Keys. Today, the bridge is utilized by pedestrians and bicyclists because, as it has since merged to be section of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. As of 2016, the bridge has undergone structural repairs to secure its foundation and will not reopen until 2021. The parking lots at mile markers 47 and 40 are still open so that visitors may stop and take photographs of this impressive architectural feat.

Bahia Honda State Park and Beach – Mile Marker 37 – Bahia Honda State Park and Beach is an award winning beach starting at mile marker 37 on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. One of the main features of Bahia Honda is its historic 1912 Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, a relic from Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway. Sections of the bridge were removed after it was decommissioned in 1972, but a nearby footpath leads visitors to an overlook that offers the same panoramic views that travelers would have seen during their crossing. Another aspect of the park is how it is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and is broken up into three different beaches: Calusa, Loggerhead, and Sandspur. Each beach is the perfect outdoor escape for recreational activities such as swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, biking, beachcombing, and fishing, just to name a few:

Calusa - Calusa is located on the northwestern side and is the smallest of the three, but it is the most scenic beach with a spectacular view of the Bahia Honda Rail Bridge.

Loggerhead - Loggerhead is on the southwestern end and is the shallowest, which is perfect for non-swimmers who enjoying wadding in the water towards its offshore sand bar.

Sandspur - The third and largest of the beaches is Sandspur, which is located on the narrow coastline of the southeastern side.

* A FUN SIDE TRIP: DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK *

Dry Tortugas National Park – Dry Tortugas National Park is an open water national park that is comprised of protected coral reefs and 7 islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the seven islands, only two of them show any signs of human development or impact: Garden Key and Loggerhead Key. The first, Garden Key, is home to beautiful sandy beaches and the impressive Fort Jefferson, one of the nation’s largest 19th-century forts. The fort is a prominent feature of the national park with its unique shape and 65-foot brick, conical lighthouse, known as the Garden Key Lighthouse or Tortuga Harbor Light, which sits atop the fortification. The second, Loggerhead Key, is the largest key and is the site of shipwrecks, the Loggerhead Lighthouse, and an abundance of Loggerhead sea turtles that frequent its shores. The remaining five islands serve largely as nature preserves and nesting sites for rare seabird populations like the sooty terns, frigates, and other fauna. Off of the coast, the archipelago’s protected coral reefs are the least disturbed of any reefs found in the Florida Keys due to their seclusion.

Initially, the remote islands and reefs were designated as the Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, but were later reclassified as Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992. It is often referred to as America’s ‘most isolated national park,’ because of how it resides closer to Cuba than the United States mainland. In order to get there, visitors must purchase passage via sea plane, personal/private boat, or the Yankee Freedom III ferry. The ferry is the most common means of transportation, since it is run by the National Parks Service and includes a ranger-led tour of the magnificent Fort Jefferson. It is a 5 hour round-trip journey, which gives visitors spending the day on the island approximately 4-5 hours to explore the lush coastline and aquamarine water of this dramatic oasis.

Recommended Local Eateries:

*Old Town Bakery – Fresh, made-from-scratch breads, pastries, and sandwiches. They serve traditional sandwiches like tuna, Italian, vegan, and vegetarian, or a build your own option. Breakfast options are available from 7am-11am and include the breakfast burrito or an egg breakfast sandwich on a brioche bun.

*Harpoon Harry’s – A cash-only diner that proclaims to serve the best breakfast in Key West. Along with breakfast, they offer an assortment of hearty American comfort food. Try the Cuban Egg Sandwich without meat and with jack cheese; add onions, jalapenos, and tomato.

*B.O.’s Fish Wagon – This cash only restaurant resembles a seaside, driftwood shack, which serves some of the most mouth-watering eats. Their grouper sandwich and conch fritters are a must!

*Caroline’s Café – A casual restaurant with an array of food options, from seafood and salad to burgers and sandwiches. Order the Veggie Quesadilla (jack and cheddar cheese, jalapenos, peppers, onions, and tomatoes) and the Bittersweet Salad (endive, spring mix, blue cheese crumbles, candied pecans, and a light vinaigrette dressing). For an adult beverage try the Key West Lemonade (orange vodka, Key Lime rum, pineapple, orange, and cranberry juice) or the Rum Punch (rum, coconut rum, and orange, cranberry and pineapple juices)

*Bad Boy Burrito – A small grab-and-go eatery that specializes in massive build-your-own tacos, burritos, and juices. Try the Big Ed’s Spicy Veg (veggie phattie – roasted pineapple habanero, pico de gallo, sharp cheddar, sour cream, cabbage, jalapenos, and cilantro), the Naked Peter (seasoned tofu-veg-mushroom naked style (in a bowl over beans and rice, not a tortilla), roasted pineapple habanero, and all dairy free toppings), or a Build Your Own (mixed mushrooms, verde salsa, sharp cheddar, chopped onions, shaved cabbage, grilled green onions, sour cream, jalapeos, cilantro, and avocado slices).

*Fisherman’s Cafe – Timeless favorites and fresh ingredients. Try the Egg & Cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, red onion, avocado, Swiss and white cheddar cheese. They also have a black bean burger and sides like mac and cheese, sweet potato fries, and siracha parmesan fries.

*Waterfront Brewery – A lively atmosphere that serves beer and American dishes within a 2 story building.

*Blue Heaven – Best known for their delicious key lime pies, which are made on a graham cracker crust and are piled high with meringue.

OTHER FLORIDA KEYS RESTAURANTS:

*Hobos – MM 101.5 – Known for their burgers.

*Lorelie Restaurant and Cabana Bar – MM 82 – Bayfront restaurant with seasonal seafood, live music, and spectacular sunset views.

*Bob’s Bunz – MM 81.6 - Freshly made pastries and phenomenal cinnamon rolls.

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