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Just the right amount of kitsch, Key West bursts with sunlight, boasts year-round tropical weather, and some of the clearest snorkeling and most preserved coral reef structures in the world. Cruises to Key West, Florida are one of the most popular ways to see this walkable, immersive city. It’s easy to feel at home in Key West among swaying palms and small fishing boats glittering off the harbor. Key West is also famously rough around the edges. Once mostly cut off from the rest of the world, it has persevered through countless hurricanes.
When your cruise ship docks, seek out a cafe con leche and a slice of key lime pie immediately. Then set out for attractions along Duval Street or Mallory Square, both hubs for shopping and nightlife. Don’t miss the six-toed cats living at Ernest Hemingway’s famed Spanish Colonial house-turned-museum. And, of course, a photo op awaits at the Southernmost Point of the United States, a concrete buoy memorializing Key West’s geography.
No Caribbean cruise is quite complete without experiencing Key West’s day-and-night bustle. If you have enough time, book a catamaran 70 miles west for a day trip to the one-of-a-kind Dry Tortugas National Park, home to the historic Fort Jefferson.
Hold sea stars, hermit crabs, and conches in the palm of your hands in the “touch tank” of the Key West Aquarium, plus enjoy free guided tours and maybe even a shark feeding session. Open 9am to 6pm, the Key West Aquarium is a delight for the entire family.
At the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street in Key West is a concrete buoy marker of the southernmost point of the continental United States. Passengers on cruises that stop in Key West should see why this is one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the world.
Catch a Key West sunset from Mallory Square, a waterfront plaza facing the Gulf of Mexico. Mallory Square is the site of a long-running tradition to watch the sunset. Gather among locals and fellow tourists, musicians, and food vendors for a taste of Key West culture.
Even in December, the forest and plants at this botanical garden in Key West retain their leaves and lush palms. The Garden describes themselves as “frost-free,” a benefit of the tropical climate. Bring the kids for an educational tour on the native plants, and don’t miss the butterfly garden. Damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017 affected the plant life, but passionate employees are working tirelessly to bring the garden back to peak fullness.
Looking for a quick natural getaway while you’re in Key West? Head to this Florida State Park and National Historic Landmark for swimming, snorkeling, fishing, paddling, and more. Walk along the beach directly overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Stop at nearby sandwich stand Cayo Hueso for a cold drink or a sandwich.
Key West comes alive along the main drag of Duval Street, akin to New Orleans’ famous Bourbon Street. During the daytime, art galleries and outdoor cafes line the street. When the workday ends (or a little before), stop in for a drink at Rick’s Bar or Sloppy Joe’s and find live music along the way. Pub crawls down Duval are famous here, giving travelers a true sense of how fun the Key West nightlife can be.
Walk in the footsteps of famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, who lived at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West from 1931 to 1939. Come see where Hemingway wrote several critically-acclaimed short stories, plus catch sight of the six-toed cats roaming the grounds.
You can climb to the top of The Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum for panoramic views of colorful beach homes, signature Florida greenery, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico unfolding below you. Stop in after your visit to the Hemingway House; the museum is just around the corner.
Key West isn’t as famous for its beaches as it is for other activities, but you can still lay down a beach towel and read a book at Smathers Beach. Beautiful palm trees provide a little shade from the Florida sun. You’ll find this half-mile stretch of white sand is the largest public beach in Key West. If you have time, drive less than an hour northeast to Bahia Honda for the kind of Florida beach experience the state is famous for.
La Te Da
Address: 1125 Duval St, Key West, FL 33040
The La Te Da Hotel is also home to a restaurant and bar conveniently in the thick of Duval Street. They put an exciting spin on meatloaf and stuffed baked oysters, and offer mains like yellowtail snapper and crispy duck. Plus, stay late for the evening cabaret show.
El Meson de Pepe
Address: 410 Wall St, Key West, FL 33040
You’ll find all the popular Cuban dishes at El Meson de Pepe. Tapas, tostones, plantains, and traditional Cuban sandwiches are all available here. For dessert, indulge in the coconut flan, then catch the sunset from the outdoor seating overlooking Mallory Square.
Cuban Coffee Queen
Address: 5 Key Lime Square, Key West, FL 33040
Start your day in Key West with a cortadito, cafe con leche, or Cuban coffee. Coffee is taken seriously in Key West, just like in neighboring Miami, heavily influenced by the Cuban coffee tradition. Cuban Coffee Queen also serves hearty breakfasts, refreshing smoothies, and Cuban sandwiches to keep you going as you continue on your way through town.
Address: 1000 Eaton St, Key West, FL 33040
Find Caribbean food and classic Cuban fare at Bien, a primarily takeout spot with outdoor seating in a laid-back, casual setting. They’re known for their grill-roasted corn-on-the-cob, served with aioli, cilantro, salt, paprika, and lime juice.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
Address: 200 Elizabeth St, Key West, FL 33040
Even with limited time in Key West, it’s tradition to cut into a huge slice of key lime pie while you’re there. Kermit’s is an institution. The shop has been locally owned and operated for over twenty years. They offer a lunch menu as well, but the key lime is literally their namesake. Try a slice of key lime pie on a stick dipped in chocolate for a really adventurous, decadent take on a classic.
Cruises that stop in Key West help the world become familiar with the city’s culture and history. Key West became a Spanish territory, then called Cayo Hueso, in the 16th century. The British claimed ownership of Florida in the 18th century, expelling Native Americans and the Spanish from the area. Eventually, the United States claimed Key West in 1822.
Before the Overseas Highway was built in 1912 to connect the various Florida Keys, Key West itself was in isolation from the rest of the world. Just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West features a huge influence of Cuban culture, particularly in its food and drink.Today, Key West’s economy is driven by tourism. It’s also known for an inclusive, close-knit LGBTQ-friendly community. Maintaining its historic sites like the Hemingway House and Museum or the monument of the Southernmost Point of the United States is a critically important mission for residents as they continue to share Key West’s varied history with the world.
The Port of Key West is comprised of three docks: Pier B, Mallory Square, and the Navy Mole. If your ship docks at the Navy Mole, there will be a shuttle trolley available to take you into town. Celebrity cruises to Key West, Florida typically dock in Pier B, which is a short walk from many attractions. If you’re at a loss for what to see first, try the Key West Aquarium, the Key West Shipwreck Museum, or the Truman Little White House.
Key West is only about four miles long and two miles wide, which means tackling the city on foot isn’t such a daunting idea. But there are also a variety of other methods to see Key West, like the Old Town Trolley. This simple hop-on, hop-off trolley service runs all day. You can also rent bikes or scooters to catch the Key West breeze while you explore. By-the-minute pedicabs are also scattered throughout the town. For a sightseeing tour you’ll never forget, take the Conch Tour Train, which has been showing tourists around town since 1958.
While on cruises to Key West, Florida, you’ll find no shortage of souvenir shacks, roadside t-shirt vendors, and Florida-related memorabilia celebrating and embracing Key West’s quirkiness. Head to Duval Street for the majority of shops, independently-owned boutiques, and galleries in the city. Or shop at Mallory Square for interesting goods like sandal and surf shops or markets for seashells and sea sponges.
Key West’s official currency is the U.S. dollar (USD), and ATMs are widely available. Credit cards like VISA and MasterCard are accepted most places as well. Tipping in Key West is similar to other U.S. destinations. Leave a 15-20% tip at restaurants and bars. Don’t forget to tip your barista for your morning cafe con leche, too. Carry a little bit of cash for your tour guide or bellhop.