The Small Island With The Big Crowds – Key West, FL
I have to admit that Key West wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I guess I had a rather nostalgic image in my mind, heavily influenced by old black and white photos of Hemingway hanging with his 6-toed cats at his limestone house retreat. I somehow imagined things to be much the same today -> streets lined with old 1850’s houses, hole-in-the-wall Tiki bars and local folks hanging around on Island time. It seemed so remote, all those many miles down Hwy 1 and we seemed to have traveled so far to get here, so I romantically (and rather naively) thought the place would reflect that.
I guess I expected a sleepy little Island paradise. What we found was quite different.
Key West Crowds Can Be Insane
The daily traffic on Hwy 1 should have been my first sign. I mean we’ve seen crowds of cars along that highway ever since we entered the Keys and the flow never seems to stop. The traffic here can get seriously bad, and most of it is heading to the end of the road at Key West.
But there’s even more to it than that.
Key West has an airport which hauls in around 400,000 passengers per year from all over the US, and can handle airplanes as large as 737’s. Plus it’s a super popular Cruise Ship stop. Massive, honking, ginormous Cruise Ships, up to two of which dock at Key West almost every day and unload around another ~600,000 passengers per year. And Key West is only around 1 mile wide and 4 miles long, so basically three major transportation arteries (road, air, sea) all funnel down into this teeny, tiny little island every single day!!
The result is much to be expected. At peak times the crowds along the main drag (Duval Street) are insane, the parking is a nightmare, the restaurants are packed and the tourist sites are heavily over-run. Between it all I have to admit that we found Key West a tad overwhelming.
But There Are Tricks To Make It Better
Part of it was admittedly our own fault. We made some newbie mistakes in our visits and even though my sleepy island dreams were crushed it wasn’t all bad.
We learned a few visit tricks, discovered a few spots that were lesser visited and actually managed to catch some of that old-style Key West charm in between it all. A lot of it had to do with timing and choosing when and how to visit the sights. We ended up visiting twice (once with Polly and once without) and learned quite a bit more each time. Given a bit longer I think we might finally have “cracked” the secret, but with the little time we had we learned a few key tips that might help you blog readers when you get your own “beasts” to the area.
Visit On Days Without Cruise Ships & Schedule Your Sights
Without a doubt the biggest mistake we made was bad timing. Both times we went to Key West we got there a little late (by around 11AM) and both times there were Cruise Ships in port. This was a big no-no.
There’s no doubt our experience would have been more pleasant if we’d chosen to visit on days with NO Cruise Ships in port. Going mid-week (as opposed to the week-end) on a day with no Cruise Ships would have been even better. The Cruise Ship Calendar is published online so it’s super easy to check and chose your visit days accordingly. We didn’t know this before we went, but it’s something we’re absolutely going to do before we ever go back.
In addition we would have enjoyed it more if we’d driven in earlier and scheduled our visits better. The big sightseeing spots seem to get crazy crowded as the day goes on so it’s best to visit the in-town sights (Hemmingway House, Duval Street, Southernmost Point etc.) as early as possible. Then you’ll want to escape downtown for lunch somewhere away from Duval Street, followed by a leisurely afternoon visit to Fort Zachary (which seems to be the least-visited of everything in Key West). By early evening, the cruise ships have all left so that’s the perfect time to head back to Duval Street and enjoy some of the spots there.
Based on our 2-visit experience this would avoid most of the craziness and allow us to see the coolest spots with the least amount of people. At least that’s my best guess 🙂
WHAT ABOUT VISTING WITH DOGS? For those with doggies you’ll have to pick and chose and where you go in Key West. Duval street, Mallory Square and most of the restaurants/bars with outdoor spots allow doggies. Plus there’s actually a lovely dog park and a really small, but legit dog-beach on the southern side of the island. Unfortunately very, very few of the historic sightseeing spots allow dogs, so you might have to schedule a day without doggie to see these. We went one day with Polly and another without.
You Can Stay Closer Too
Another little trick to enjoying Key West is undoubtedly to stay closer. We day-tripped from Marathon Key which was just over an hour away. It wasn’t bad, but getting my butt out of bed to get there earlier required a near-herculean effort. There are only a few RV parks close to Key West, but they’re worth looking at if you’re willing to spend the $$$. Here are my top 3 picks:
- Bluewater Key RV Resort – This is one of the absolute fanciest and nicest places you can stay in the Keys, so if you want to splurge and do it in style, this is your spot!! Waterfront sites have personal tiki huts overlooking the water and sites are huge. Plus you’ll be only 20 mins from Key West. Rates $133-$200/night in season. Click HERE.
- Geiger Key Marina & RV Park – We’ve had friends who’ve stayed at the waterfront RV sites here and loved it. But it’s popular! We called more than a year ahead and couldn’t get in, so you might have to rely on last-minute cancellations. Only 20 mins from Key West. Rates $125/night in season. Click HERE.
- Boyd’s Key West Campground – This is a tight park but it is THE closest location to Key West, only ~10 mins from downtown. Rates $110/night in season. Click HERE.
ONE more tip -> If you’re in the Military or traveling with friends who have that connection you can stay at the supremely inexpensive ($13-$25/night) & awesomely located Key West Naval Station. The absolute best deal in the Keys, hands down.
Top 5 Sightseeing Spots
Despite the crazy crowds we did get to hit most of the “must sees” and discovered a few spots that we really enjoyed. Also, as I mentioned above most of the historic sights don’t allow dogs, so we did have to visit a second time (without Polly) to see them. In the end there were some clear favorites and a few unexpected disappointments. Here’s how it went down:
Hemingway Home & Museum
As a big Hemingway fan (and an avid cat-lover) I was super excited to see his Keys House.
Hemingway lived in a Spanish Colonial House in the heart of Old Town Key West from 1931-1939. Not only is the house rather beautiful, constructed of local limestone (with indoor plumbing no less) but it’s still inhabited by 40-50 six-toed (polydactyl) cats that freely roam the property. These unusual creatures are all descendants of a cat that Hemingway was given by a ships captain while he lived here and it’s one of the few (only?) places in the world you’ll see so many of them in one place.
Sadly our visit here was one of our disappointments, not because the place isn’t gorgeous but because of the insane crowds! By the time we arrived (~11 AM) the line to pay for entry was already queued down the road, and once we actually got into the house it was so over-crowded with people and tours that we could barely walk around. It was so bad I actually got claustrophobic and had to leave. So I’d say it’s definitely worth a visit, but you need to get here much earlier than we did!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Open 9AM-5PM daily and costs $14 to visit for adults (kids are cheaper). No dogs allowed, sadly. Click HERE for more info.
Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
The Butterfly Conservatory was not originally on my list of places to visit, but Jil picked up a brochure at the airport and it looked interesting so we added it to our “list”. It’s a glass-enclosed tropical habitat that showcases 50 to 60 different butterfly species from around the world as well as various species of birds. It’s incredibly lush and humid, and when you go inside you’re surrounded by hundreds of colorful, fluttering species. It’s like entering a magical butterfly fairytale! It was a total positive surprise and ended up being one of the favorite things we did in Key West. A definite recommend!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Open 9AM-5:30PM daily and costs $12 to visit for adults (kids and senior rates are cheaper). No dogs allowed, sadly. Click HERE for more info.
Key West Lighthouse & Museum
You know I can’t go anywhere there’s a lighthouse and not see it, so this was no exception. The Key West Lighthouse is actually in a really odd location, right opposite the Hemingway Home around 1/2 mile inland from the sea, and as you can imagine it’s not the original structure.
The first Key West Lighthouse was built on the southernmost part of the shoreline in 1825 and survived several major storms before it collapsed in a hurricane in 1846. The structure was subsequently moved and re-built, followed by several renovations over the years to enlarge it. The current tower is 73 feet (22 m) tall and although it’s no longer an active lighthouse, it’s been wonderfully preserved and it’s a super cool experience to take the 88 steps to the top and enjoy the view.
There is lots of other interesting stuff here for lighthouse nutters, including several original Fresnel lenses on display, as well as the captivating history of the lady lighthouse keeper Barbara Mabrity who faithfully tended the light for 32 years after her husbands death in 1832. Also, considering its proximity to the Hemingway House (which was over-flowing with people) there was almost no-one here. A very pleasant and recommended visit!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Open 9:30AM-4:30PM daily. Costs $10 to enter. No dogs allowed, sadly. Click HERE for more info.
You can’t talk about Key West and not mention the “main drag” of Duval Street so if you go you kinda have to see it. It starts at the north end by Mallory Square (apparently quite the buzzing place at sunset) goes past the infamous Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville, and ends ~1.25 miles down at the Southernmost Point. In between you’ll find no end of tourist shops, bars/restaurants and places where you can pet sharks and visit the old Cigar Shops. And of course you’ll no doubt encounter the famous Key West roosters which run wild pretty much everywhere here. We took Polly on our trip here and enjoyed a walk down the street, but found all the restaurants & shops waaaay too crowded, so admittedly we didn’t spend long. It was OK, but not one of our highlights.
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ If you’re driving into town there are several paid parking lots at the north end of Duval Street (rates $3-$4/hour). The street is free to visit and dog-friendly. Lots of outdoor bars/restaurants that accept dogs here too.
Fort Zachary Taylor
This was the last thing we visited in Key West. We went in the afternoon and it was by far the least crowded and most relaxed thing we did in town.
The fort was one of a series built in the mid-1800s to defend the nation’s southeastern coastline. It was completed in 1866 and played important roles in both the Civil War and Spanish-American War. Several old batteries here and lots of space to roam around and enjoy the history. Plus once you’re done with the fort there’s a lovely beach where you can swim/hang/snorkel too. Definitely worth it!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Open from 8AM-sundown daily. Cost $6 to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed in the historic Fort or on the beaches, but are allowed on all trails and day-use areas around the park. Click HERE for more info.
What we missed? We missed visiting the Truman Home (Little White House). It looked really interesting, but didn’t allow dogs and since we had Polly with us at the time we decided to give it a miss. Something for our next visit…
What didn’t make the top 5? The Southernmost point. We did see it, but it’s nothing more than a concrete buoy and unless you go super early there is always a long line of folks waiting to take their picture (see the “live webcam” here). It’s not really the southernmost point either. The actual southernmost point is 10 miles away at Ballast Key, but that’s a privately owned island so it can’t be used. We went, we saw, but we didn’t want to wait 30 mins to take a selfie so that was that.
We only had limited time in town, so I can’t even pretend to claim we know where the best spots are, but we did enjoy a few specifics that I can share.
We had two lunches, one of which was lovely (at Blue Macaw Island Eats -> nice, relaxed, dog-friendly spot a few blocks off Duval Street) and one of which was a disappointment (at Southernmost Beach Cafe -> great location, but it was crazy busy and food was so-so). We also tried but failed to get into Blue Heaven (it looked like it had an awesome vibe but also had a 50-min waiting list) and didn’t stay late enough to try any of the famous night spots. Lastly we missed the local rum distillery (so sad, I know). So we’ve got lots of spots on the “list” for when we return!
I’m sure there’s TONs more we missed. After all we only had 2 days here and it was fairly rushed both times, so if you’ve got stuff you think we should add for next time definitely comment below. Aaaaand I’m not quite done either. We’ve made it as far as we could by road, but there’s a part of the Keys you can only reach by traveling across the ocean. I’ve saved the best for last and it’s all coming in my next post. Stay tuned…:)
Useful External Links
- Visit Key West -> Visitor websites HERE, HERE and HERE
- Dog-Friendly Key West -> a list of nice spots to visit with doggie HERE and HERE
- Key West Walking Tours -> Several downloadable tours HERE
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