Key West – Gateway to the Dry Tortugas

Key West is the gateway to Dry Tortugas National Park for most visitors and offers a number of attractions to enjoy before or after your trip to the park. If you are headed to the area, plan for at least an extra day to enjoy the history and nightlife of Key West. We rushed in and out as part of a Florida trip (including the Everglades) and definitely regretted not having more time to explore this unique destination.

Things to Do in Key West:

Key West is known for its nightlife, entertainment, shopping, watersports and sunsets.

Key West Sunset

We only spent about 24 hours in the Key West area when we went to Dry Tortugas National Park, but we managed to catch the sunset twice, including once while driving across the Keys on US-1 the night before our ferry departe. The Dry Tortugas ferry returns in the afternoon and there is plenty of time to get into position to watch the sunset for the evening. We walked around a bit, grabbed a drink at Margaritaville and then headed to our dinner reservation where we got to close our day with a spectacular Key West sunset.

Southernmost Point of the Continental United States

One of the famous Key West landmarks is the buoy marking the southernmost point, which is technically nearby but no one objects to its location. The buoy replaced in 1983 a sign which kept being stolen. The designation is qualified because Hawaii is located farther south than Key West. The buoy indicates that it is 90 miles to Cuba and Key West, Florida is the home of the Sun Set.

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

The Ernest Hemingway House was the home of Hemingway beginning in 1931, although it was built in 1851. It is across from the Key West Lighthouse and was designated a US National Historic Landmark in 1968. The address is 907 Whitehead Street. Some of the cats on the property are descendants from the famous six toed (polydactyl) cat owned by Hemingway. Hemingway left Key West for Cuba circa 1940.

Mallory Square

This waterfront square with restaurants and shops located in the historic Old Town is known for its sunset celebrations.

Duval Street

This world-famous street is known for its bars, restaurants and shops. It runs 1.25 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean through Key West and is named for William Pope Duval, the first territorial governor of Florida.


This restaurant on Duval Street is inspired by the lyrics of singer / songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who first travelled to Key West in 1971 and released his hit song Margaritaville in 1977. Buffett opened his Key West Florida restaurant in 1985.

Fort Zachary Taylor

This is the southernmost state park in the Continental United States and contains the red bricked Fort Taylor which played an important role in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

Key West Lighthouse

This lighthouse was originally built in 1825 with the current version standing since 1848. It was decommissioned by the US Coast Guard in 1969 and is now a museum dedicated to the maritime history of Key West. Visitors can tour the grounds and climb the 88 steps for a scenic view of the city and the surrounding ocean.

Key West History

In addition to its status as a beach town great for partying, Key West is a great place for exploring history. It was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1521 during his search for the Fountain of Youth. Key West was claimed by the United States in 1822 shortly after Spain ceded Florida to the US in 1819. Explore the 1891 Custom House, the city’s historic forts and other historical attractions.

Key West Snorkeling

Some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving is located a short boat ride from Key West on the Florida Reef, which is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. It is approximately 358 miles long from the Dry Tortugas to the Atlantic Ocean coast near Palm Beach. There are a number of half-day and full day boat trips to the reefs for snorkeling. If you are only taking a day trip on the ferry to the Dry Tortugas, you may want to add on some additional time separately for snorkeling once you have returned to Key West.

Key West Beaches

If you did not book far enough ahead to stay overnight in Dry Tortugas National Park (or simply prefer the amenities of civilization to an overnight adventure far from medical attention), you can still enjoy a swim at a Key West beach.

Smathers Beach is the largest sandy beach in Key West with a two mile long shoreline. It is a public beach that is known to be great for families with kids.

Higgs Beach is located in the county owned Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach Park. It is the end of the Florida Overseas Heritage Trail and is the only shore-accessible underwater marine park in America. There are a number of other attractions here including a civil war era fort, the largest African Refugee Burial Ground in the western hemisphere and the largest AIDs Memorial in the country.

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach is located at the southen end of a Florida State Park that protects Fort Taylor and the largest cache of Civil War armament in the world. It sits in the southwest corner of Key West.

Key West Hotels

Most people that depart for Dry Tortugas National Park are going to stay in the Key West area at least the night before and the night after. The ferry departs for Fort Jefferson in the morning and you will want to stay within a short drive to the dock. There is time to leave the Florida Keys after you return on the ferry (as we did after dinner in Key West and found a room in Homestead) but

The average daily price for a Key West hotel room is between $200 and $400 with the lowest prices in the summer and early fall, and the highest prices in December through April.