Do you know what I like to do when it´s winter in Germany and a fluffy onesie, a cover and two cats seem to not be warming me up enough? Yeah, a cup of hot chocolate wouldn´t be bad, by no means. But what I really like to do is to reminisce about summer destinations, hoping it will ignite some heartwarming feelings.
Key West is one of these places where it is impossible not to make such sunny memories. This once-a-fishermen´s-village is all about simple but tasty fresh seafood, heritage, pies, flip flops, salty water and sundowns. It´s a combination made in heaven that winter and cocky summer destinations will never understand! Driving down there after staying a few days in flashy Miami, Key West´s nonchalant charm won me over at the first wooden food shack with sandy sitting area I saw.
Of course there are luxurious restaurants in Key West just like in Miami. Tavern n Town and Latitudes are excellent examples of fine dining which still highlight the Caribbean food heritage of the island. Though it is very nice to indulge in a lavish dinner with drinks by the sea, I don´t think this is what Key West is all about. Having been inhabited by Native Americans, Afro-Bahamians, Cuban immigrants and also wealthy Americans, Key West is a mixture of humble elegance and graceful roughness – two qualities well translated in the old town´s casual restaurants and shacks framed by the Victorian architecture of two-story buildings.
By the way, one of the things that makes Key West such a lovely destination is definitely Its architecture. A result of the creativity of the first settlers, who had to built sturdy houses for the Keys´ weather conditions without an abundance of materials, the so called conch houses started to appear in the middle of the 19th century. The conch houses were basically house units built with sand, water and lime residue from heated up conch shells, and were greatly influenced by the Victorian style. Though they have been renovated over time with much more modern materials (wood became a common replacement), the old conch-style look remains, many with super pretty pastel colors, emphasizing the town´s beachy feels.
The nostalgic architecture and its smooth colors set the tone for the slow pace of life in the island, creating the feeling that this piece of land has been frozen in time. Let me break it to you already: you will have a hard time embarking on the journey back to modern times. The good news is that there´s enough to do in Key West that you won´t have to set sail so soon.
If you are interested in History and Literature, for example, you can visit Ernest Hemingway´s house and Tennessee Williams´ Museum. Both are equipped with many of the writers´ well preserved personal memorabilia and are very rich in details. Though the Williams´ Museum is not where he actually lived in Key West, Hemingway did live many years where his museum is now open: a very pleasant big (the biggest in old town!) Victorian manor. The condition of the property is amazing, one can see a lot of effort has been put there in order to conserve it. You can even see Hemingway´s original bed and meet some of Snowball´s (the writer´s first cat) descendants who, one can say, are now the lucky only residents of the house together with other cats. Don´t miss the free tour, by the way! It is, after all, free, and full of interesting details!
Not only writers, but also presidents were fond of the tranquil retreat of Key West. At Harry S. Truman Little White house, you can learn more about this residence that served many American presidents and saw History be made through executive orders and summits. Isn´t it interesting how such a small island inspired so many famous personalities, like presidents and writers?
There are also different exhibitions you can visit in the city. At the Custom House, an old federal building which is now a museum, you can see sketches based on Hemingway´s famous book the Old Man and the Sea and more personal items of the writer. At the old lighthouse, you can not only enjoy a beautiful view of Key West from above, but also learn about the keepers´ stories and see a collection of their items. Other points of interest are the Key West Firehouse Museum , the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and the Southernmost Point, the southernmost tip of continental USA, about 90 miles from Cuba. If you are a fan of art galleries, oh boy, make sure you have enough time to visit those too, since there are many in Key West.
Without a doubt, the place to see and be seen in Key West is Mallory Square. This is where the heart of the town is and, if you are not there for sunset, you are probably alone somewhere else, because nobody wants to miss a sundown at Mallory Square. It´s magical to witness the changing colors of the sky with sailing boats and tiki bars gliding over the calm waters….yes, cruising tiki bars are actually a thing in Key West.
If you do happen to miss the sunset, the Mallory Square market is still definitely worth a visit any other time of your day. There are many cute mobile shops and wooden stands selling gifts, decoration items, food and drinks. It is definitely a pleasant part of town to stroll around in no rush with your family! Here, you can also embark on a smooth ride around Key West on board the old town trolley or the conch tour train. If you are up to something less smooth, hop on the Ghost & Gravestones trolley and discover the haunted side of Key West.
Another loved part of Key West is the famous Duval Street, which cuts the city from east to west. Here, nobody can be bored! There are endless choices of cool themed restaurants, fragrant bakeries, artistry/gift shops and bars – including Hemingway´s favorite one during the time he lived here, Sloppy Joe´s. For those with a sweet tooth, I highly recommend the Mattheessen´s, the perfect store to get some huge cookies and yummy fudges to take back to the hotel. When it comes to bars, I´m not a big fan of Hard Rock Café – and Key West is a place where I could never imagine one existed – but, guess what, the HRC here is actually pretty cool! It is constructed in conch style, which makes it pretty pleasant to sit on the porch for a drink. If you, like me, love to bring local house decoration items back home, pay the Key West Pottery a visit, you won´t regret it.
In addition to all of this, Key West has amazing natural features. There are many companies offering snorkeling, sailing and diving tours. Some also offer dolphin sightseeing tours, but I would definitely be careful with those (click here, to understand why). You can also visit different beaches like Higgs Beach, South Beach (which has a pretty cool beach café), and Smathers Beach. But, what you really cannot miss are the national parks. Dry Tortugas and Fort Zachary Taylor are a must! The former consists of seven small islands with a huge 19th century fort surrounded by crystal clear waters and coral reefs. It is only accessible by boat or seaplanes. The latter is a big park containing a fort that became a national historic landmark for holding the largest collection of civil war cannons in the US. Apart from visiting this important fortification, you can also go for a swim in the calm waters of the park´s beach or barbecue with friends and family. Fort Zachary Taylor National Park is supposed to have the second best sundown in Key West after Mallory Square!
Though all of this can sound like the best relaxing vacation ever, make no mistake: this peaceful piece of paradise can turn into Coachella on steroids if you choose the wrong time to go (or the rightest, if you are into a not so quiet holiday!). Check the island´s event calendar and plan according to what kind of trip you are looking for. We were there last year right after the big Fantasy Fest event, and it was definitely all about relaxing with the sound of waves.
Key West is a small island with bigger attractions than Its territorial length can reveal. The first time I went there I made the mistake of booking only a one night stay, thinking it would be enough to see a place that size. I was smarter the second time though, and I hope, after this post, you will be too 😉
Stay tuned for next week´s post about where to eat in Key West!