Experience Another Side of Key West
Experience Another Side of Key West (Photo: Florida Keys)
Sponsor Content: Florida Keys

Experience Another Side of Key West

Famous for its rowdy buccaneer history that lives on today, Key West also offers plenty of outdoor adventures and chances to disconnect

Experience Another Side of Key West

While most of the Florida Keys is known for its laid-back vibe, Key West’s colorful streets and lively culture put this region of the Florida Keys in a class of its own. Here, at the southernmost point in the continental U.S., you’ll find a rich mix of Cuban and other Caribbean cultures—Cuba is only 90 miles off the coast of Key West—that influence food, music, and architecture. The locals are as colorful as the pastel buildings that line the downtown streets. And there’s always something happening downtown: from block parties in Mallory Square to the nightlife scene on world-famous Duval Street. Of course, Key West still has plenty of opportunities to spend time in nature, too. Here’s how to enjoy the best of both worlds in Key West.

Learn more escaping the everyday in the Florida Keys.

Immerse Yourself in Culture

Walk the streets of downtown Key West, and you’ll feel more like you’re on an island in the Caribbean than on U.S. soil. Bahamian, Cuban, and Afro-Caribbean culture runs deep here—as evidenced by the authentic food, Latin music, conch-style buildings, and welcoming atmosphere. The best way to learn about the region’s rich history is on a guided tour of the city. Local guide companies offer a variety of tours through the city. Hop on a beach cruiser to pedal along downtown streets. Or venture out after dark on a ghost tour to visit the city’s most haunted landmarks and learn about a darker side of Key West’s history. Before or after the tour, fill up on delicious local food: try El Siboney for the best Cuban food you’ll have in Key West or Mo’s for Caribbean-Creole dishes. 

Tip: Mallory Square is the perfect place to catch a sunset on the water and enjoy craft markets, street performers, and live music by local bands.

Biking in downtown Key West on a guided tour
Key Lime Bike Tours will show you the top sites in downtown Key West. (Photo: Florida Keys)

Meet the Other Colorful Locals

The human residents of Key West will always show you a good time. But you’ll meet a completely different kind of local at the Key West Butterfly Garden & Nature Conservatory. At this tropical botanical garden, you’ll see more than 50 species of butterflies as well as “butterfly friendly” exotic birds and two resident flamingos. You can spend as much time as you’d like wandering the enclosed garden with hundreds of free-flying butterflies. Don’t miss the conservatory’s exhibits about butterfly life cycles and the monarch migrations, which pass through the Florida Keys each year in January to early March and again in September to early November.

Tip: Botanical gardens and other green spaces have proven benefits for mental and emotional health and are a great place for quiet reflection.

Sail the Lakes Passage

Although large cruise ships frequent the deeper water around Key West, a shallow channel called the Lakes Passage runs along the northern side of the barrier islands. These shallow waters connect Key West to a number of uninhabited mangrove islands that provide shelter to unique aquatic ecosystems. Set sail on the Java Cat—a catamaran offering kayaking ecotours out of the Key West Historic Seaport. With kayaks in tow, your local captain will navigate the passage and drop anchor in the protected waters of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Paddle around the islands as your guide points out different species of birds that nest in these remote mangrove forests. Then put on your mask and fins for a little snorkeling to see what kind of marine life seeks refuge in the shallows.

Tip: Only 30 of the nearly 1,700 islands in the Florida Keys are inhabited, which makes it easy to escape civilization for the day.

three people swimming in the ocean
Explore the shallow waters of the lakes passage. (Photo: Florida Keys)

Get Offshore

For deeper water, venture offshore to Dry Tortugas National Park. Located more than 70 miles off the coast of Key West, this remote park is only accessible by boat or seaplane. A daily ferry leaves from the Key West marina for day and overnight trips. Or you can hop on a charter plane, which is well-worth the views you’ll get flying over the Keys. The park encompasses seven islands, including Garden Key, which is home to Fort Jefferson—one of the largest American forts ever built. Combined, these seven islands account for less than one percent of the total area of the park, however. That’s because more than 99 percent of the park is water, which means diving or snorkeling here is a must. The protected waters within the park boundaries are teeming with marine life and coral reefs just waiting to be explored. 

Tip: While it’s possible to take a day trip to Dry Tortugas National park, spending a few nights camping at the park (the only option for overnight stays) is the best way to get the full experience and truly unplug.

Most people know the Florida Keys and Key West as a great getaway. One of the most unique places on earth. Calm. Serene. Laid back. Just the right setting to recharge your batteries and rejuvenate your spirits. But a getaway to the Florida Keys and Key West is much more than peace and quiet. And not just because of the legendary fishing and the world’s most spectacular dive sites. The Keys mean history. Art. Theater. Museums. Shopping. Fine dining. Entertainment. And much more. All told, 120 miles of perfect balance between natural beauty and extra-ordinary excitement.

Lead Photo: Florida Keys