The final stop in our Florida Keys adventure was Key West. I don’t know what I expected Key West to be like, but I was still way off. Key West is a city. It’s a beach city, but it is still a city. The good thing is, there are LOTS of things to do in Key West. It’s one of those places you will never have enough time to do it all, no matter how long you stay!
Key West as a Whole
First of all, Key West is VERY expensive. It’s a tourist town, but it’s also at the end of the road. The very end. Our mediocre hotel cost about 150% more than it would just about anywhere else. Fuel is almost as bad. Make sure you price everything before you go so you won’t be shocked.
We visited in a season when most schools are still in session, so we didn’t see many other families with kids. Still, we found the vast majority of Key West to be very family-friendly. Of course, we also weren’t out and about past 8 pm so there’s that to consider too.
Something else we noticed was how dog-friendly the whole town is. It felt like every other person had their dog with them. Businesses often had a water bowl outside their door for the dogs passing by. Shops and open-air restaurants allowed them nearly everywhere. It wasn’t an option to bring our Harry man on this trip, but he would have loved Key West!
Getting Around Key West
Parking in Key West is atrocious. If we didn’t already have a car, I think we could have easily done without one. If you do have a car, your best bet is to get a free parking spot early in the day and just leave your car there. The good thing is, the majority of the city is totally walkable and bike-friendly. Bike, scooter, and electric car rentals are everywhere, but finding a kid’s size bike is difficult and the electric cars still have to be parked somewhere. For the most part, we were able to walk everywhere. When it was too far, we used the hotel shuttle or hop-on/hop-off tours.
Most hotels have a shuttle that runs regularly and into the night, but they generally have fewer stops. Our favorite way to get around with kids was with the Conch Tour Train. This is an open-air “train” with 4 convenient stops where you can get on and off throughout the day. The driver narrates throughout the tour, pointing out interesting sights and telling a bit of the history of the island. Several of the following activities were things we learned about on this tour.
Other options include the Old Town Trolley Tour, similar to the Conch Tour Train, Uber/Lyft, or a taxi. We found out our last day there is also a free bus service, the Duval Loop, that runs every 20-30 minutes and has 18 stops throughout the city. Again, it’s free!
One more thing to note: If you’re driving into Key West, be sure to fill up your tank in Marathon (the town you pass before Key West) or before. Gas prices get more expensive the further south you go.
Key West Beaches
There are beaches in Key West, but they aren’t miles and miles of sugary-soft, white sandy beach. Actually, a lot of the sandy beaches throughout the Florida Keys are man-made because the coasts are actually made up of rock.
One interesting fact about the Florida Keys is that there are no real waves to speak of. This is because the ocean waves break on the coral reef a few miles offshore. The reef and lack of waves are also the reason most sand in the keys is a bit more coarse than other beaches.
The best 2 beaches we found in Key West were Smathers Beach and the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. We visited during cooler weather (which is all relative, I know) so we didn’t spend much time at either. Both beaches are fairly narrow, but with a little sand and sun and beautiful blue water, you still have all you really need.
I’d say to get there early or late in the day for either because parking is difficult. Smathers beach looked a little easier to park but still definitely packed.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
This park has more than just the beach so there’s more to talk about. First of all, Fort Zachary Taylor beach is where the famous directional sign is located on Key West. As I said, the beach isn’t huge so it’s not hard to find.
Aside from the fort and the beach, there are also hiking and biking trails, and every water sport you can imagine. If we had bikes for the kids we would have ridden them into and all over the park to avoid the parking situation!
In addition to the beach, there are also plenty of things to explore, like the fort itself. Built in the 1800s to protect the harbor, the fort was used in several different wars. It’s great fun for the kids to explore, but as an adult, you can just imagine the events that went on there. Wandering the grounds it feels like you’re walking straight through history. It’s a beautiful and almost eerie experience.
You have to take a picture by the southernmost buoy. I think it is a requirement when visiting Key West. Otherwise, did it really happen? There is a line almost all the time, but first thing in the morning it’s not too bad. While you’re there, look for the Southernmost house and the Southernmost Southernmost house. The Conch Tour Train tells you a great story about those two.
Mile Marker 0
I assumed this sign would be at the end of the road, but no. Still, it makes a great picture and it is another spot you have to visit in Key West.
Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
Every single night there’s a little party that goes on in Mallory Square. Don’t worry, it’s all family-friendly. There are a ton of vendors, street performers, and open-air shops all around the square. Boats of all shapes and sizes (no really, all shapes and sizes) head out from the harbor and the people watching opportunities are aplenty. But the main event is the sunset and you have to claim the prime viewing spots early.
There’s just something about taking the time to sit and watch the sun go down. Some days may be a better show than others, but every single day it is an event worth celebrating. And they know how to celebrate in Key West.
Sample the Conch Fritters from the Conch Fritter Stand
You can really get them anywhere, but we heard THE place to get conch fritters is from the Conch Fritter Stand just outside Mallory Square. I have to agree they’re delicious, but I have also never met a fried food I didn’t like! The owner was there the day we went and he was quite a character. He applauded me for getting cinch fritters for breakfast… at 11:30 am. I told him I’ve got kids. We had breakfast hours ago!
Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters
There’s just something romantic about a lighthouse and though the kids may not appreciate that, there’s plenty for them to love about a lighthouse too. The Lighthouse in Key West is just across the street from Hemingway Home and arguably a lot more interesting for kids.
The 88 stairs to the top are definitely a climb but completely doable. Our kids loved the echo as we spiraled our way up. From the top, you get a 360-degree view of the island and can see just how small it really is. The grounds would also be a great spot for a picnic lunch if you happen to think ahead.
You can buy tickets at the gate, but they’re cheaper online (link above). They also have a sunset option, which isn’t cheap at all, but would be an amazing experience!
I know this is a major tourist attraction for the island, but quite frankly I’m not a big Hemingway fan and I knew the kids would be bored to literal tears, so we didn’t do the tour. I did take a picture of my budding writer in front of the Hemingway house and maybe one day we’ll come back… or maybe not. Either way, at least we saw it!
One thing everyone mentions about the house is that the descendants of Hemingway’s cat still live in the house and grounds. And these are no ordinary cats. They have 6 toes. I absolutely would have taken my kids to see the funny-footed cats, but there’s a barn cat at a stable near us that has 7+ toes, so we just talked about him and left it at that. His name is Henry, by the way. I feel like they really missed the mark with that one.
Books & Books
Speaking of writers, Judy Blume owns a cute little book store right in the heart of Key West, called Books & Books. If you’re lucky you might just run into her stocking the shelves. We bought a few of her books and she was happy to sign them for us, as we saw she did for several people. She recommended (among other books she didn’t write) her series about The Pain and the Great One – books about a sibling rivalry between a big sister and little brother. Sure does sound familiar…
Harry S. Truman Little White House Presidential Museum
Originally built as Navy quarters, several presidents spent time here as recently as Bill Clinton. Truman spent many of his working vacations here giving it the name the Little White House. This was another must-see attraction that I knew our kids wouldn’t be interested in, but I made them go anyway. They’ll thank me one day. We did not, however, do the tour. You can visit the grounds and see the free Truman exhibits inside, and that was plenty for our 9 and 4-year-old.
Water Sports in Key West
We visited Key West in February, during a cold front, so the weather was in the high 60s to low 70s. That’s not exactly warm enough for water sports in my book, but I still say we had perfect weather.
There are several companies that offer a variety of water sports and activities, like scuba diving and snorkeling. You can also rent jet skis, go parasailing, or go out on a glass-bottom boat tour. One of my favorite things to do on a beach vacation is to take a sunset sail and there were plenty of opportunities for that too. If you don’t happen to have kids with you, there is even a company with little floating tiki bars!
Key West Rum Distilleries
Okay, I know we had kids with us but we were in Key West and we really wanted to tour a distillery… so we did. Most distilleries allow kids, they just don’t get to do the taste testing. Obviously.
There are a ton of different distilleries and I’ll be honest, I don’t know why we chose this one, but we visited Papa’s Pilar. We didn’t go to his house but at least we toured the Hemingway family’s distillery!
The whole process is really interesting to me and our tour guide was hilarious! We probably would have picked an older rum company had we realized how young they are, but now, having done the tour, I’d totally do this one again.
Things we didn’t get to do:
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
We love butterfly museums, we just didn’t make it to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. I could tell it was very popular though because everyone around town had these butterfly sticker things they give out (like, the wings kinda stick up and flutter). It made me want to go just for the sticker! Marketing genius!
Key West Shipwreck Museum or the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
I read that both have actual treasure recovered from shipwrecks. As you can imagine with a huge reef just a few miles offshore, shipwrecks were aplenty before all the modern technology ships have these days. Mel Fisher’s story is actually pretty interesting. He and his team searched for 16 years for a Spanish galleon full of millions of dollars of treasure. Eventually, they found it. Guess you’ll just have to tell me what they have in the museum!
Take the Ferry to Dry Tortugas
I was so sad we had to miss this one. This national park is made up of 7 small islands and is accessible only by boat or seaplane. In addition to the beaches, there’s also great snorkeling and scuba diving in the Dry Tortugas. This park is also known as the home of Fort Jefferson, one of the largest US forts ever built. Book your ferry tickets early because this one sells out months and months in advance.
Key West is clearly a favorite for the retired set, but it is equally friendly to families with small children and everyone in between. No matter how long you stay or how many times you visit, you’ll never be bored because you’ll never be able to do it all. Still, we intend to go back and try!!
Check back for more posts on our Florida Keys road trip from Miami to Key West, like Splashing with the Dolphins at Theater of the Sea, and be sure to subscribe to stay up to date on my little corner of the internet!