Key West is the beach town I never knew I needed in my life. Part of me is actually kind of sad about it, because it’s too far away to visit every weekend! I call it a “beach town,” but I feel like that title actually does it somewhat of a disservice. While the beachy vibes are alive and well, Key West has a quirky culture that extends well beyond its sandy strips.
Picking up from where we left off in Everglades National Park, I drive down to Key West from the ‘Glades in the afternoon, stopping at No Name Pub on Big Pine Key for dinner, before arriving at my campsite in Boyd’s Key West Campground that evening. Boyd’s is a campground like no other I had ever stayed at, mainly because I don’t RV. It felt more like I was staying as a guest in a loud neighborhood where the residents are all permanently on vacation. It was also the first time I was given a Wi-Fi password upon check-in to a campground. The sites were small and very close together, but this actually ended up being a blessing. I got to know my neighbors, who not only fed me a dinner of fresh-caught fish, but also accompanied me to a local bar on my last evening there!
I pitched my tent and quarantined myself inside it just in time for a big thunderstorm to roll in and really test my rainfly for the first time. I was very relieved to find myself dry in the morning!
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Just like in the Everglades, I had given myself only a day to squeeze as much as I could out of Key West. As the Ernest Hemingway Home was at the top of my list of things to see, it was my first stop of the day. After my very early morning the day before, I allowed myself some extra sleep (I would be getting up at the crack of dawn again the next day), and it was mid morning by the time I arrived at the house.
The Ernest Hemingway museum admission is currently $14 per adult and cash only.
The museum offers guided tours every half hour, and you are really shooting yourself in the foot if you choose not to participate! The museum without the tour is, in essence, just a period home. That is, unless you are a personal expert in the life of Ernest Hemingway. The man lived quite an eccentric life, and many small anecdotes of his life are still evident on the grounds of this Key West home, such as the urinal-turned-fountain in the yard.
Of course, my personal favorite part was the 50+ six toed cats that are descendants of the felines originally in his possession (and are expertly cared for, might I add). Besides Hemingway being an extremely influential individual of his time, this museum is a reminder of a delightfully quirky life, and kept me smiling as I played I Spy with the menagerie.
Give yourself at least half an hour for the tour, plus a little extra time to meander the home on your own time. It’s not a particularly huge museum, which makes it a great addition to your day if you don’t have a lot of time.
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
I went full-on tourist and opted for a pineapple smoothie from a street vendor, which I enjoyed as I walked over to my next stop of the day: the butterfly conservatory. Key West is not a big place, so many of the attractions there don’t have much space to spread out. Unlike museums in a big city like Chicago, you don’t need a full day to really get the lay of the place. If I had been going at a more leisurely pace, most of the things I did in Key West would make a great pit stop after lunch, when the sun is a little too hot to be out on the water. The butterfly conservatory was small, but quite magical.
When I arrived, I was the only guest in the butterfly room, and it is hard to capture the wonder of it in a photograph. The place is home to hundreds of butterflies that flutter around you on a path full of all kinds of flora. They play this ethereal music that is supposed to be peaceful and request that you keep you voice low (which not everyone respects), in an effort to keep the atmosphere as serene as possible. It’s kind of like a library, but instead of being surrounded by books, you’re surrounded by flowers and butterflies. Not a bad trade.
Oh yeah, and flamingoes! There are also two flamingoes that live in the conservatory, and they put on quite a show for me! Mating season brings out the best in all of us.
You can spend as little or as much time as you would like here—seriously, you could see it in ten minutes, or you could sit and relax for two hours. It’s really up to you and your personal level of interest. The conservatory also offers a butterfly identification card for purchase, which I happily picked up.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
I left the butterfly conservatory with the intention to amble back in the direction toward my car. Key west is so pretty that just walking up and down the streets is a pleasure in and of itself. I swung by the famous buoy—you know the one—the buoy that “marks” the lowest latitude in the continental United States. It received a facelift after hurricane Irma in 2017, and was looking as bright as ever…if you could see it from the back of the ridiculous line of people waiting to take a picture! The line was comical. I could maybe justify standing in a line to take a photo with the buoy if I was in Key West for a whole week, but there was no way I was wasting my time that day. Instead, I hopped up on a low wall, snapped a quick selfie, and continued on my way.
I could tell that I was starting to get a little cranky at this point and needed to find somewhere to sit and recharge. Instead of walking straight back to my car, I actually walked past it to Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe. I had scouted out key lime places ahead of time, and read that this was the place to be. Man, was I not disappointed! Not only was it the best key lime anything I’ve ever had, but also you could literally buy key lime ANYTHING. From hot sauce to salt water taffy, take your pick. I ordered chocolate covered key lime pie on a stick and a drink for myself to enjoy on the patio, and then went back in later to pick up some taffy to take home.
Kermit’s will also ship pies almost anywhere in the United States…consider yourself warned!
West Martello Tower
Once I felt sufficiently recharged by my afternoon snack, I grabbed my car and headed southeast toward West Martello Tower. By now it was late afternoon, and most of the attractions I’ve outlined here close around 5:00pm. I parked at the park near the Key West Wildlife Center (which I walked through for only five or ten minutes) and walked down to the tower.
Admission is free, and the Tower is quite beautiful. One of two towers built in conjunction with Fort Taylor (construction on the towers beginning in 1863), West Martello Tower is now owned and operated by the Key West Garden Club (Fort Taylor is now a state park). I only had about 30 minutes to look around before they closed for the evening, and would recommend at least that much for anyone. Luckily, the free admission helps justify a short visit.
I befriended an elderly fellow in that short time, who enthusiastically pointed out flowers to me that I would have missed, and a framed photograph of the Dry Tortugas, where I would be voyaging toward the following morning.
Back home for the evening
Edward B. Knight Pier is right next to West Martello Tower, so I walked down the pier before heading back to my campground. After hanging out with my neighbors, we walked down to Hogfish Bar and Grill for the evening. Looking back, I would have tried to extend my time in Key West a little longer, so that I had an evening to experience the nightlife on the island. Nonetheless, I still had a grand time at Hogfish, and was able to face very choppy swells at 8:00am the next morning.