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
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this blog post may be affiliate links, so, if you click on the link and make a purchase, I will receive a commission. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. WheelingIt is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Sue Malone says
So much fun to read you take on Key West. We did it two ways. Once at a B and B in 2010 and once with the MoHo at Sigsbee in 2014. (Both stories are on the blog). We discovered that while Sigsbee is a great benefit and the best option for a motorhome if you have that ability, the very best way to see Key West is on foot. We flew to Miami, rented a car, and stayed just a block off Duval. It was a fabulous vacation and we would never again try to go there in the MoHo. When we got back in our car at the end of the week, it was covered in dust. We saw Duval in the morning dark before sunrise, no traffic. We walked all those charming streets you mentioned, at the right times, and retreated to our fabulous charming and quaint b and b when we needed to do it. Yeah…just tell RV people that maybe they could leave the rig somewhere and take a vacation away from it for a week to really enjoy Key West to the fullest. We loved it.
That makes TOTAL sense! I had a feeling that evenings and early mornings would be lovely there…no cruise ships or day-trip tourists at those times. And staying in town is definitely the ticket. I remember reading your posts about it too, but somehow I’d managed to forget those details. Cheers for chiming in.
Michael Blanco says
Wonderful post Nina! We love those close ups.
As a fan of Hemingway and his work I too have seen at least 100 of those old Hemingway black and white photos…his home, his fishing trophies and those “Hemingway Cats”. Strange, that my vision of Key West is that of a black and white town. I was born when Hemingway published “The Old Man and the Sea”…so pics and the tube were what I saw growing up.
Checking the Cruise Ship Calendar is a great idea! Does Key West have an off season…or just busy year round? You mentioned the Key West Naval Station, can you park a motorhome there? Or are your posted rates for accommodations?
You know I’m not entirely sure if there’s a low season in Key West. From what the locals tell me crowds in the Keys start to fall off around April and summer visitation is pretty light, so perhaps then?
And YES, you can park an RV at the Naval Station. It’s a military campground and exclusively for authorized military folk (e.g. Active, National Guard, Reservists, Retired, 100% DAV, DoD Civilians, DoT civilians working for Coast Guard, NATO allies on orders to the US etc.), so you can’t just walk in there if you don’t have any legitimate ties. But if you are eligible, it’s the absolute best deal in town. Read reviews here: http://www.rvparkreviews.com/regions/florida/naval-air-station-key-west/naval-air-station-key-west-campground
Jimmie Allen says
Hello and thanks for your detailed experiences…and your comments and funny asides! Photos are lovely, clear and vividly colorful. One question: what camera do you have/use?
Continue takin it easy!
Jimmie in Georgia
I use 2 cameras, a simple pocket point and shoot Canon, and a larger SLR Nikon. The really close-up butterfly pictures were taken with my SLR and my cheap extension tubes.
Here’s my full camera gear: https://www.wheelingit.us/2016/02/05/my-camera-accessory-gear-the-full-wheelingit-2016-set-up/
And how I do those close-up shots: https://www.wheelingit.us/2011/01/13/capturing-the-perfect-shot-cheap-macro/
Pamela Wright says
We stayed at Bluewater Key Resort a few years ago in early Dec which really is the best time to visit Key West. The weather is perfect, the bugs haven’t come out yet, and no one is on vacation. We went in to Key West on non cruise ship days and the town was empty. We also took our bikes so we could park for free a few blocks away and cover a lot more area easily. This time of year is the worst because you have spring break which goes on for several weeks in March and April. So between the spring breakers and cruise ships, the place is overwhelmed. Thanks goodness the cruise ships only come in on certain days. It sounds like you did manage to make the most of the busy time of year:)
That’s great info Pam! We were here right around Spring Break so there’s no doubt that added to the craziness. I’m happy to hear December is much better, and that the town is mostly empty on non-cruise ship days. Clearly we’ve got to come back and try it again on a quieter day.
Really enjoyed this post, and have been waiting for it…
I’m a true member of the Conch Republic, born in Key West in early 50’s as a soon to be Navy Brat. I remember it well, via pictures, as I was the ripe old age of 3 months – when my Father was transferred to San Diego. (I believe remember the gators of the glades, the mist of the New Orleans Swamps, the steer horns and jackalope of Texas, some alien looking spaceship of New Mexico and of course the shining gold of the Lost Dutchman Mine on our way thru Arizona – as we headed West in a non AC cooled Desto to San Diego…
Have been back only once, saw our home (parents sold this in the early 70’s, always thinking they would return), Malory Square’s excitement and the crowds toasts to the sun set. And we did this 27 years ago in a rented Haul 32′ Southwind RV. No reservations anywhere… We pulled off onto the beach just south of the close point to Cuba. Wife sitting in the water in a beach chair, BIL and myself out with my 6 year old daughter as she snorkeled for the first time in her life. A very nice Police Sargent stopped by at the end of his shift. Asked where we were staying? Said we had no idea, and pointed to the street my parents house had been on… He went to his car, made a call on his radio. Upon returning he gave me his business card, with a note on it, and said to give it to any office that might visit us in the night – and to please head back North the next day…
A magical time for my wife, daughter, BIL and myself — Key West!! So glad that you and Paul see and understand it’s charm, despite the heavy commercialism of it all…
GREAT POST! Super pictures, and great narrative of Key West… Many thanks, and best,
What an awesome story! I’ve heard so many folks describing their experiences camping down in the Keys back in the day. Sounds like the perfect, relaxed, laid-back place I imagined in my mind. I think I’m here ~30 years too late LOL. Thanks so much for sharing that story. What a great memory!
Linda Sand says
We stayed at Boyd’s so as to be at Mallory Square for the sunset. Lots of street performers there. Wish we’d realized there was a season as Boyd’s prices went down the day we left. 🙁
There’s a vehicle size limit in Old Town. We rented a car from Enterprise and they picked us up at Boyd’s.
Good tips. I drove by Boyd’s and it seemed to be in a great location. Nice and quiet too, considering how close it was to town. We’d certainly consider it as a base for exploring Key West.
exploRVistas - Diana and Jim says
We did luck out at the Hemingway House, as it wasn’t as crowded as you described. We also had an amazing tour guide who made the tour extra special. We didn’t make it to the lighthouse or the fort…we will have to do that next time! I’ll bet I know what your next adventure is …a thirsty turtle, perhaps? Can’t wait to read about it!
I was so bummed about the crowds at his house because I had been looking forward to visiting ever since we got to FL. Really bad luck and timing on our part. I’d love to go back for a guided tour on a quiet day. There’s so much we missed while we were visiting because we rushed through. Next time!
It sounds like you had quite the experience in Key West. We have visited several times over the years. I have to say it was much more enjoyable before they started having cruise ships stopping there. Before we had the RV we stayed in town and that was more enjoyable than driving from Marathon. You get to enjoy the quiet times and can imagine what it was like when it was a sleepy little town at the end of the road. November is a good time to visit too. Although it will depend on when the weather breaks. We ended up there over the Halloween craziness. The first time was the opening ceremonies and activities. The second time was Halloween. Not so great. We stayed at Blue Water Key and didn’t go into town that night. You need to watch when the festivals are too. We got the experience of the parrot head convention. As much as we enjoyed Key West over the years we don’t even bother going there now. We stay in the middle keys when we get the urge to hang out.
I’m totally with you on those Cruise Ships. I could hardly believe it when we saw two of them docked the first day we arrived. I’m sure they’re great business for the shops and restaurants, but it’s a lot of traffic load for such a small place. Next time we’re coming down on a day without the ships, and will probably stay closer too.
We enjoyed Blue Water. When we were there some of the residents were fighting with the other owners on how the rentals were being done. Some sites were nicer than others. Ours was nice, but pretty much bare bones compared to the other sites.
Interesting. I’ve heard that same comment from others. Since Blue Water is mostly an ownership park (folks own the lots and lease them out) there can be quite a lot of variation in how the sites are built up. Totally depends what the owner has decided to add to their particular site. It’s a super fancy park, but there’s still some variation. Cheers for sharing that.
Sue Lutz says
We were in the Keys from March 19th thru the 28th. We stayed at Sunshine Key Rv and Marina which was 38 miles to Key West. A lot of sights went unseen because of the spring breakers and cruise shippers. Lesson learned. We rented a golf cart one day and it was worth the money! Hemingway’s Home was one that we did see only because my daughter wanted to see the polydactyl cats so bad and the Southern most point as well as 0 mile marker. Blue Heaven was a must do but with a 1.5 hour wait, it had to wait. Blue Macaw satisfied our hunger just fine. If you go back and didn’t try it before, The Bucktooth Rooster restaurant and Babys Coffee on Hwy 1 is a MUST! Happy trails!
YES! Baby’s Coffee. I’m so glad you mentioned them. We stopped there in our way back to Marathon from KW and they were fabulous! Great coffee and maybe the only place I’ve seen to buy locally roasted beans? Totally forgot to mention them in the post, but they are a definite recommend!
Karen Lueck says
Thanks for the recommendation on the Bucktooth Rooster. We’re here in the Keys now and have driven by it many times. I guess we’ll have to stop and try it.
Ron Seitz & Mike Platt says
Ft Lauderdale was our home base before we went FT and we visited KW 3 or more times a year. If you stay at Bluewater Key (mile marker 14.5) after season May 1, you pay for 6 and get 7 so we ended up paying $85 night which was well worth it. Having our own floating dock to fish from, a tiki hut and more this was Rum Heaven for us! B 4 the RV we had a favorite place to stay and that was almost $300 night off season! Also in May kids are still in school and the cruise ships are much more limited. A 20 min or so drive to town with bikes on the back of Jeep and we were Happy Campers in KW! If u go to our website the password is Gaylord, our cockers name.
Off-season rates have increased quite a bit at Bluewater Key RV, as they have everywhere down here but it’s still a savings. According to their website the off-season rates (May to Oct) are now $90/night (cheapest inside lots) to $150/night (waterfront premium). There are other places which offer deeper discounts (e.g. Boyd’s offers a ~$1600 monthly rate in summer) so it’s definitely worth shopping around if you plan to come in the low season.
Cheers for sharing your experiences.
RON SEITZ says
We found an owner online to rent from and this was last May 2016! It was waterfront but don’t think premium.
Ah, so probably a sub-lease deal off the main system. Good to know that’s possible. Their published rates are definitely higher.
Karen Lueck says
August and September are miserable. You could probably get good rates though!
Rick Morgan says
Our first visit was probably 25 years ago and a very different experience than our vist 5 years ago when we were able to stay on one of the military base campgrounds with friends of ours – that was closer to the experience you describe.
Two visits 20 years apart. I bet you saw a huge difference! Paul’s memories of the area, just 30 years ago, are also very different from what he’s seeing now too. A lot of it has to do with increased access…the new highway, the airplanes, the cruise ships…and of course the fact that Key West was “discovered”. Sometimes I wish I had a time machine 🙂
Herb Alexander says
I lived in and around Key West in the 70’s first in a 20′ Shasta travel trailer on Big Coppitt Key then on a 40′ Shucker sail boat built in Cape Coral on Geiger Key, and sure do miss “old” Key West. It was more like the Barbary Coast back in those days and there were only two kinds of people, those that were smuggling Marajuana and those that wish they were. Jimmy Buffett before he was “Jimmy Buffet” sang and played at the Old Anchor inn on Duvall and mayor Capt Tony held city council meetings in front of his bar. No cruise ships to block the sunset view of Christmas Island, now covered with condos. Went back a few years ago and stayed one night, couldn’t wait to get away as to not spoil the real KW I remembered. By the end of the century it will be no more, a victim of climate change and rising sea levels. Glad I got to live it when it “was”.
Really wish I could have seen it as it was back in the day. There’s still some of that history left, but a lot of that original KW magic has been overwhelmed with tourism. Your memories are precious!
Brenda Lopez says
We have seen different “versions” of Key West over the years. We had not been for many years and happened to take a cruise with Hector’s family that stopped there one day. I was so disappointed! I hated it – T-shirt shops everywhere! But when we returned a few years ago we found that there is still some of the old left when you leave Duval and go to the back streets. We would typically park our car on the outskirts and take our bicycles in – we left Angel behind for a few of those short stints including a bicycle “tour” of the back roads with a crazy guy that was super fun (it’s on the blog). We still love Geiger’s – the kayaking there was awesome!
I think that’s the Key -> go in slow times, stay off the main “drag” and explore the back roads. We really wanted to get into Geiger Key, but there just wasn’t any availability.
Bobbie A says
I haven’t been to Key West in 20 years either, but don’t remember it being that crowded in mid summer. The one thing I have heard is a great day is a trip over to Ft Jefferson. I do remember it being so very hot mid summer which might have discouraged so many people. The Fat Tuesday drinks were like a little piece of heaven in the heat if there is no breeze. So sorry Blue Heaven was such a long wait, it is a neat place (or was 20 yr ago). So sorry to hear it’s that crazy now, maybe spring break crowd. Cruise ship calendar is a great tip. I have seen some VRBO rentals in Key West, wouldn’t want to stay as far up as marathon. It’s a tiring drive after a day of being with a crowd of tourists. It’s almost an every 20 year trip, tough drive, but did fly down once when in laws lived on Ramrod Key. Good memories.
Herb Alexander says
When I worked in the boat yards there, we didn’t work from one to four, siesta time.
A sensible approach!
Jodee Gravel says
Enjoyed your wonderful pics as always. Thanks for the tricks – we dread the crowds, but sometimes they just can’t be avoided!
Mona Liza says
It looked like the Kissing Sailor that we saw in San Diego has moved to Key West replacing “Time for Fun” sculpture. In January, the crowds were manageable and thank God there were no cruiseships on that day. I enjoyed this post for this brought lots of fond memories there.
Karen Lueck says
We have been spending our winters in the Keys for several years and are learning how to “do” Key West. We have a RV lot on Cudjoe Key at Venture Out, which is another consideration the next time you come. It’s a mixed use resort community, with rv lots and houses mixed in. Lots are privately owned like Blue Water and can be rented out through a few local Realtors. Nice amenities and close to Key West.
You missed the nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square and in my opinion one of the best things in Key West. Not so much with the spring breakers though. We just got back here the first week or March and unfortunately it’s been full of spring breakers ever since we got here. They seem to start in March and are here throughout April. It’s not just college kids, but there are a lot of families with kids too and the sunset celebration is pretty much too crowded to even see the setting sun. Mallory Square is an amazing place to be at sunset though. There are amazing street performers, there are sailboats going back and forth between the pier and the setting sun, which make for some amazing photo opportunities. It’s truly a magical time when it’s not quite so crowded. Unfortunately, once the winter crowds leave, most of the good performers leave too. However, the sun stays and sets every night!
We normally don’t go out much at night, but we have actually stayed in Key West until midnight or so a few special nights!
There are lots of old homes and buildings and a lot of history. We have stumbled on a lot of interesting things as we walked around. We’ve been coming here every year since about 2011 and we find more new cool things to see every year.
We used to stay at Sunshine Key so we didn’t venture into KW too often. Now we’re 20 miles away and between groceries, sunrises, sunsets, happy hours, and shopping we go about every day.
As much as we like the nightly sunset celebration, sunRISE in Key West is also very special. We had never made it to the southernmost point until last year early one morning and finally there wasn’t a line! A little secret we’ve learned is parking is free before 8am and before NOON on Sundays! We love walking around Old Town and seeing all the amazing old homes and trees. There are few people, it’s cool and the city is just waking up.
Did you get to see the Wyland mural on the building by the Waterfront? It’s by a paid parking area so we park there often. Did you see the Turtle Museum or the tall masted ships down on the pier? Did you see the huge tarpon feeding as the fishermen clean their fish? Lots of very cool stuff that has taken us years to discover. You will have to come back. I would also suggest you get to Geiger Key restaurant/bar for lunch and have fried hogfish. It’s our favorite fish and delicious! They have the best hogfish in our opinion and it’s a lovely waterfront restaurant. Dogs are welcome.
There is a local band here and one of their hit songs is “Magic in Key West.” There truly is a lot of magic in Key West, but it takes a while to discover it. We have grown to love it more and more over the years. Feel free to contact us if you are still here and have any questions we could help you with.
All great tips! I knew there were secrets to the KW enjoyment and it was just a matter of spending a little more time there to figure them out. Cheers for sharing your expensive knowledge of the area!
Ed Hackenbruch says
A couple of years ago we stayed at Jolly Roger with our bus and went to Key West on a Saturday and went to the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum which was the main reason i wanted to go to Key West. Was going to go to the Hemingway house after that but the crowds in town were more than we could handle so we left and came back on Monday when i thought it would be quieter…..it was worse. We didn’t even stop, just worked our way back out of town. Didn’t know about the cruise ships until later.
Sounds very much like the experience we had. There certainly seem to be right times and wrong times to visit Key West. Sounds like we both hit on a really crowded day.
Have to agree with Karen Lueck on a few things. You need time and walking around to discover all Key West has to offer. Also, you really should try to go to a nightly sunset celebration while there. Lots of fun.
And Blue Heaven restaurant.
However, its been 20 years since I was there so I dont remember it being as crowded as you are saying.
I guess I was lucky to experience Key West back then. I spend 5 months in the keys in my 20 foot winnie. Boondocking a lot. Altho , I bet that is nearly impossible now.
Had a great time down there. Loved Key West. Sounds like it has gotten way more crowded tho.
Things have certainly changed in 20 years. There is No Overnight Parking anywhere in Key West anymore, so no more boondocking. You can’t even sleep in your car or on the beach either (you’ll get fined for “hammocking”). They’ve clamped down on all of this pretty seriously.
I do want to go back and experience the sunset show at Mallory Square and maybe (with a bit of luck) get into Blue Heaven. It really did look cool, but 50 mins was too long for us to wait for a table.
Herb Alexander says
Was taking my future wife on the Hemingway house tour in the mid seventies and a tour guide grabbed us to stand up for a couple getting married there that day, Been friends ever since.
What a fabulous story!
Key West is on my list, I retired from the Coast Guard so I have a place to stay when I finely make it there.
I actually spent an afternoon there in the early 80’s, I was in Miami with the CG at the tail end of the Cuban Mariel boatlift & we drove down. I’ve wanted to go back since that time… I remember the color of the water on the drive down.
If you’re interested in the crowds on Duval St there is a web cam. http://www.liveduvalstreet.com/ it’s in front of Sloppy Joes. My other favorite is at the bar in Hog’s Breath Saloon, http://www.hogsbreath.com/keywest/index.php/hog-cam-raw-bar-cam/
NICE tip on those live web cams. Cheers for that.
Frank Putnam says
EJ, my wife, and I were discussing just the other day how fortunate we are to have visited places before they were “discovered”. Key West was one of the places we mentioned. Back in the 80’s they were a few popular bars, Sloppy Joes, Hemingways, and Capt Tony’s. Mallory’s Dock was a small wooden dock where folks gathered to enjoy sunsets, fire eaters and dancing cats. There were no cruise ships and parking was not a real problem.
We returned a few years ago and were really disappointed at how commercialized and crowded it had become. But we have our memories of when it was truly a fun and unique destination.
I’m totally with you. I love the internet and how connected it’s made us all, but it’s also made places which were practically unknown gems only a few years ago into “discovered” and overcrowded attractions today. And my blog participates in that too. It’s a dilemma I live with. I do wish I could have seen KW back in the day.