Key West, FL in February
December 8, 2019 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I know precious little about Key West and the Keys in general. My friends are no help as they haven't been there, either. My spouse and I are attending a sort-of last-minute planned wedding in Key West mid-February 2020 and I know NOTHING about Key West. More specifics inside...

We have 2 days of mandatory wedding-related obligations and about 4 days of freedom. We think we want a rental car to see all—or more—of the Keys than just Key West but I am open to to any suggestions. Where to stay? See? Online it is so hard to separate the authentic wheat from the chaff and there seems to be a very wide range of online opinions with no real consensus as to what is a good hotel (Old Town seems a good idea but maybe not?). Is a rental car needed?

I am looking for the opinions of those who really know Key West.

The Keys are an oft-mentioned life-long dream of my spouse and I'd like to make it a memorable and great experience for her.

We like more fully-featured hotels rather than B&Bs unless they are exceptional. We'd like to stay under $500 a night although understand that is a big limitation and could go higher. A beach would be great but not a deal-breaker. We'd love to know about great restaurant and/or bar experiences and Key-West-ian experiences that only an experienced Key West visitor or resident would know.

I will be eternally grateful for any guidance!
posted by bz to Travel & Transportation around Key West, FL (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have been to Key West several times. I am not an expert on Key West because I have only traveled there for day trips from other keys (Marathon, Islamorada, Key Largo, Big Pine Key and Tavernier). I have never stayed overnight in Key West.

If you want to travel to other keys you will need a car. Driving from the upper keys to the lower keys or vice versa takes two hours. If you are staying only Key West a car is not necessary.

I went to mostly touristy bars and restaurants in Key West and can’t remember specific names. The majority of Key West is a tourist trap. It’s still possible to have a good time. There is a lot of energy at night —and day. Mallory Square is always packed with people at sunset.

Remember that Key West has no natural beaches. Any sliver of beach you will find is going to be manmade. I can think of no beach in Key West. The whole of the Florida Keys has hardly a beach. Television shows like Bloodline show beautiful water and “beaches” but these beaches are manmade by resorts and businesses. Some of these beaches are not authentic feeling as there is not a descending grade into the water. The Keys are rock surrounded by water. If you want to enjoy the water you’re going to need to get on a boat or be content with watching it from a distance or on a lounge chair on trucked-in sand or in a tiki bar, which can be very nice. Or, drive to a real beach.

The closest natural beach to Key West is Bahia Honda. This is one of the few real beaches. I’ve been to Bahia several times as well. It has suffered some erosion, and it’s not a particularly wide or long beach, but definitely worth visiting. It’s the stereotypical lovely Florida beach where you can stroll and swim (but probably not in February unless you are in the polar bear club). I’m a Floridian and the water isn’t warm enough for me until late May. Even in the Keys. You may be tougher.

My favorite thing to do during the day in Key West is to walk and notice the tiny bits of local life. There are roads and private drives that are flanked with bougainvillea that lead to homes or schools. I try to get away from the neon gift shops and bars that thump techno dance music.

Mel Fisher museum is on the touristy side but definitely a must-see. The videos and artifacts in the museum are worth seeing. I have been to this museum a few times (the old and the new upgraded version) and the story of the treasure find never gets old. With the remodeled version they have added a wing with exhibits on the African slave trade to the Caribbean and the Key West.

Kino shoe factory is always fun. Their shoes have changed a bit over the years. I still buy a pair or two whenever I visit. They are durable and very Key West.

I recommend taking the trolley sightseeing tour even if it’s touristy because architecture and and history are pointed out that would otherwise be missed. You can get a feel for the area and then walk it.

The Audubon museum is there and sadly I have never visited. I would not recommend the aquarium on Key West. It’s somewhat dark and depressing.

Of course there is the Hemingway house and the cats with six claws that have descended from the original Hemingway cats. Judy Blume also currently lives there, at least part of the time. i would like to get a glimpse of her house.

There should be some daytime or sunset boat rides that would be nice to book.

I have stayed in private houses and resorts in the other keys mentioned above. We have done several snorkeling trips to Pennekamp in Key Largo, which is the farthest key from Key West and dive boats generally don’t go out in the Winter as far as I know. Islamorada has some fun restaurants and bars (and a couple beautiful resorts). There is not much to do in the Keys. It’s for relaxing. There are some touristy things to do in the other keys but there is not much there. It’s good you will be staying in Key West since it’s the liveliest of all of the Keys. Have a great time.
posted by loveandhappiness at 11:04 PM on December 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I visited there many years ago, and highly recommend a boat trip to Fort Jefferson. It’s a hexagonal brick fort rising straight out of the water (at least on some of its sides). Do an image search, it’s stunning. You can also snorkel there.
posted by sumiami at 11:20 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When I was there, I opted to stay in a BNB just off Duval street. I do not like having to drive or take a taxi from my hotel to the main attractions. It did not have a beach, ofcourse, but it was lovely to have an oasis of peace just a few meters from where the parties are happening. Key West has beaches, mostly on the south side, quite far from Duval Street, but I think the Hyatt, which is very close to Duval in the North, has a small beach. It may not be within budget though.
posted by Akke at 2:19 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Key West is on my list, and I plan to visit Judy Blume’s book store, Books & Books, as part of that trip. I did worry recently about that Key during a recent hurricane season (not February at.all) but they seem fine.
posted by childofTethys at 4:56 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We stayed at Casa Marina earlier this year for a wedding and it was lovely, it also had a really nice pool and a manmade beach. Go to Hemingway House, take a sunset cruise (there are lots of purveyors), if you like water activities do a Fury tour (their website will list all the possibilities, it’s really fun.) You will need to rent a car for sure. Bahia Honda as mentioned above is very nice, as is John Pennekamp park in Key Largo (although that’s about 3ish hours from KW.) If you do venture up into the middle Keys, Keys Fisheries is a great spot for lobster and crab. Be sure to eat stone crab while you’re there! It will be in season and is amazing.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 5:17 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding the trolley train tour, I wouldn't have noticed the gingerbread or several other things they pointed out, was a neat tour, albeit touristy. Also Mel fishers, shipwreck museum, aquarium. I think you can get combo tickets where you get the trolley train Tix.

Fort Zachary taylor was neat to walk around.

I didn't have time, but if I go back I'd love to visit the Dry Tortuga's, it's an all day trip by boat, or half day by seaplane($$$).

On the way down the keys, checkout the turtle hospital (reservations needed?), Wild bird sanctuary, and John pennecamp state park(coral reef for swimming, I didn't swim).

The Mallory square sunset thing was my least favorite, ooo it's a sunset with a giant crowd and bunch of street hustlers.

I stayed at Eden house, complex of a couple houses converted to hotel rooms around a pool, a ways off the main drag. It was secluded and nice, although the cheapest rooms are small. I'd go back.

The drive down the keys was amazing, but my rental car stayed parked the entire time in key West.
posted by TheAdamist at 5:26 AM on December 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think the Key West cemetery is a must see.
posted by Floydd at 5:38 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: checkout the turtle hospital (reservations needed?)

Yes! The Turtle Hospital in Marathon (about halfway down the keys) is a great thing to visit, but reservations are highly recommended since the tours are long and groups are small.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:28 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Highly recommend Cuban Coffee Queen for both coffee and sandwiches.

Also, definitely go to Books and Books -- we wandered in randomly, not knowing about the Judy Blume connection, and had the absolute delight of meeting her in person.
posted by mccxxiii at 8:00 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh my! I fall asleep for a few hours and come back to all of this wonderful information. Thank you, thank you, thank you. These insights will help me get a leg up on booking and I greatly appreciate all of your efforts. Every response is useful and are all Best Answers.
posted by bz at 8:22 AM on December 9, 2019

Best answer: Presenting my credentials - for family reasons, I've been to Key West many times and make it there a couple times a year still. I'll limit my recommendations to Key West proper since I know it much better than the middle and upper Keys. You can very, very easily fill 4 days in Key West!

If you want a hotel (rather than a b&b) and a beach is a bonus, you want the Pier House, which is fairly iconic, centrally located, and has a lovely little man-made beach for guests. Don't miss stopping off in the Chart Room.

Duval Street is what it is. The town is (obviously) welcoming to and adept at dealing with tourists, so you don't need to avoid it, but the real fun lies off Duval. If you want a fancier meal, Louie's Backyard (with a drink at the bar overlooking the water first, natch) is classic and very lovely. Less fancy but no less delicious eats: Santiago's Bodega, Two Friends, Schooner Wharf, B.O.'s Fish Wagon, The Thirsty Mermaid (this is not a comprehensive list!)

Key West is, as you might imagine, a top-notch drinkin' town and I've done some of my very best work in this arena there. The Green Parrot is a must-visit for ambience and the make-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar at Blue Macaw is really fun. Live music is everywhere. Many people like Hog's Breath for this, but I find it gets super crowded. The aforementioned Schooner Wharf and Two Friends also have comprehensive live music schedules and I think the atmosphere is often a little more relaxed, ymmv.

Stuff to do that isn't shoving delicious and/or intoxicating things into your gob that I haven't yet seen mentioned - the conch train is touristy but it's honestly not the worst introduction to the layout of town for a newcomer. The Mel Fisher Museum is a fascinating look at the history of treasure hunting and it would be my #1 recommendation for someone looking to get a feel for Key West and some of its animating forces over time. The Hemingway house is cool, but it's skippable if you're not into Hemingway. The Butterfly Conservatory takes about 20 minutes to stroll through but is lovely. The Cemetery was mentioned above and I'd like to second it - it's well worth your time.

I really love Key West and can talk about it forever, but I'll stop here. If you want more detailed recommendations, please feel free to memail!
posted by superfluousm at 8:42 AM on December 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding these recommendations:
- Hemingway House
- The cemetery
- The trolley tour
posted by cadge at 8:49 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The NOAA Eco-Discovery Center is not very big but is free.
posted by squink at 9:37 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: +1 for Eden House and the catamaran tour out to the Dry Tortugas/Fort Jefferson
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up in KW, now live in Miami, and still visit several times a year. Here's a list that I often share with friends who are visiting. As others have said, if you're going to stay in old town (which you should) you can probably walk/bike everywhere and get by without a car. Feel free to PM with questions. I hope this helps.

Driving from MIA to KW (not sure where you'll be flying into):
-Taqueria Morelia in Florida City for tacos, tortas, ceviche tostadas, and salsas.
-Also just down the street is a huge tropical fruit stand called Robert is Here. Lots of local produce, as well as great tropical fruit milkshakes--the blackberry or papaya/key lime are especially good.
-In Key Largo, Denny's Latin Cafe makes good coffee and Cuban food.
-Islamorada Fish Company--touristy, but a good fish sandwich on the water.
-Bad Boy Burrito

In the Keys, I don't really stop much when I drive, but Bahia Honda state park is beautiful for a swim and a walk on the old railroad bridge.

Places to eat in KW:
-The Cafe (veg friendly, good beer list) and their sister restaurant Moondog
-5 Brothers (Cuban sandwich shop, good coffee, Friday the lunch special is ox tail. amazing. I saw someone else recommend Cuban Coffee Queen, but 5 Brothers is the real deal.)
-Moondog - New cafe across from the Hemingway house.
-915 (Upscale small plates. pretty good if you want to splurge, and the upstairs bar/restaurant, Point5, is more casual.)
-Mangia Mangia (solid Italian, homemade pasta, great wine list)
-Harpoon Harry's (good diner breakfast)
-Blue Heaven (quintessential KW dining experience--outdoors, chickens, under the trees. Dinner/lunch can be pricey, but breakfast might be more affordable.)
-Creperie (French breakfast spot right across the street from Blue Heaven)
-BO's Fish Wagon (great fried fish sandwiches, if a little expensive)
-Fausto's (grocery store)
-Mr. Z's (great for late-night cheesesteaks)
-Keys Coffee Co - Good coffee and breakfast sandwiches
-Sarabeth's (traditional american stuff, salads, sandwiches, good fried chicken on Sundays)
-The Half Shell Raw Bar (good for oysters, local seafood, etc.)
-El Siboney (solid Cuban food)
-Bien (a Caribbean-style sandwich shop with a great roast pork sandwich, but some veg options too)
-Bad Boy Burrito (good burritos, there’s also one in Islamorada)
-Pepe's (good for breakfast or oysters)
-Flamingo Crossing (local tropical fruit ice cream; the cafe con leche ice cream/milk shake is great)
-Date and Thyme (formerly Help Yourself) (healthy, vegan, great smoothies, and a little organic market; Salt, the boutique across the street is cool too)
-Dion’s Quik Chik (good gas station fried chicken throughout the Keys and KW)

There are plenty, and several have been named already. Full disclosure: my family has been involved in the Green Parrot for a long time, so I'm partial. It really is a great spot for low-key drinks and music, though.
-Grunts (casual bar with a patio and a taco truck)
-Point5 (nice upstairs bar at 915 overlooking Duval)

-Besame Mucho (the best boutique in town for jewelry, cosmetics, and home goods. right next to Blue Heaven)
-Salt (another nice local boutique across the street from Date and Thyme)

Other KW stuff:
- Vacation Key West: a referral service for hotels and other KW stuff
-Fort Zachary Taylor state park (great for a picnic or watching the sunset or swimming)
-KW Cemetery (it's above ground, like New Orleans, and in my opinion one of the most beautiful spaces on the entire island. Definitely take a walk around.)
-Fort Jefferson is also a great way to spend a day.
-A lot of people go to Mallory Square to watch the sunset (there are lots of artists and performers down there each night too. The aquarium, Audubon House, and Mel Fisher museum are also nearby.)
-If you're interested in local history, The San Carlos Institute on Duval is a beautiful place. This is also where the KW Literary Seminar happens every year.
-Tropic Cinema is the local indie movie theater.
-Sunset sails: Hindu or Argo Navis.
-Bike rentals: We Cycle
-Spa/massage: Prana Spa
posted by 6and12 at 1:09 PM on December 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow! THANK YOU.
posted by bz at 3:17 PM on December 9, 2019

So how was Key West?
posted by 6and12 at 6:18 PM on March 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We flew into Tampa, attended a wedding and rented a car and drove to Key West—an enjoyable 6-7 hr drive—arriving Key West in the early evening.

And Key West is awesome! We really love it and wish we had twice as much time there than the 4 days we spent. Ended up staying at the Margaritaville Hotel which is somewhat expensive ($650/night) but a very good hotel in a great location. Our room was on the ground floor and we were able to walk out the patio door right into the sunset party which, for us first timers is pretty magical.

It was about 86-88°F and very humid but, as long as we walked mostly on the shaded sides of the streets it was fine.

We very much liked the busy Blue Heaven and both of us had the signature snapper dish for dinner. Coffee at 5 Brothers and ate or drank at a few other places including Green Parrot, Bagatelle, Lucy's Surf Shop, and Stoned Crab for a seafood/crab boil lunch. Had fried conch and a beer at Conch Republic Seafood Company and decided conch just isn't for us.

We walked out of Red Fish, Blue Fish as the service there was horrible.

Took in some great live music nightly outdoors at the very crowded Hog's Breath.

The rental car mostly stayed buried deep in the hotel garage but we did use it on the third day for a bit of driving all around the island just to get a lay of the land.

We flew back out of Ft. Lauderdale and, on the drive up the Keys, stopped and had lunch at Islamorada Fish Company. Fish & chips that were good and introduced us to cobia fish with which neither of us were familiar. There were even a few manatee in the cove that we could see from our table.

So, I call this a successful stay and would certainly go back. I hope the Covid-19 situation doesn't destroy the economy there.

So, again, I thank all the respondents here as you all helped a lot. THANK YOU.

Added fun fact: discovered that our iPhone batteries last 200-300% longer in Tampa or Key West, FL than they do in Seattle. Weird, huh?
posted by bz at 3:18 PM on March 17, 2020

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