I’ve heard of travelers who only make a day trip to Key West from their Miami vacation, and I’m here to prove them wrong: Key West absolutely needs 24 hours, and I would have rather stayed longer! We rented a car from Miami with Iiro and Elina and drove across the breathtaking Florida Keys bridges to enjoy this cute little town on a paradise island.
11 a.m. Drive to Key West – reserve time for this!
I’d recommend setting out to Key West early in the morning, but because of flight schedules, this wasn’t an option for us. Good thing was we missed Miami’s morning traffic; bad thing was Miami has traffic no matter time of the day, so it felt like an eternity before we got to the first of the Keys, Key Largo. It’s not worth taking a “short drive” to the Keys to check out the views, because the best views are towards the end of the trip several hours away.
We got hungry on the way and stopped by Lu Lu’s Garden Grill (7435 Overseas Hwy) on Marathon Key for a quick lunch. The seafood sandwiches were excellent, and we enjoyed them on a shady garden patio. It took still more than an hour to get to Key West from here, and including the short lunch break, we were on the road for over 5 hours, which is the biggest reason why I don’t recommend Key West as a day trip.
5 p.m. Snorkeling at Key West’s gorgeous coral reef
If there’s one thing I’d recommend for anyone visiting Key West, it’s this: go snorkeling! Key West is close to Florida Reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and it’s amazing. We saw porkfish, blue striped grunts, banded butterflyfish, groupers – even a medusa! Elina, who’s snorkeled also in Thailand and Colombia, said that this was her best snorkeling experience ever, and as a first-timer to coral reefs, I was completely sold.
The catamaran took around 45min to get to the reef, after which we had a bit more than an hour in the water. The ocean was pleasantly warm, but sun was shining low enough that we weren’t afraid of sunburns.
8 p.m. Key West Sunset
Our snorkeling trip was a combined sunset sail, and on the way back we were relaxing on the deck of the catamaran, sipping on rum drinks and marveling the sunset. Key West, as its name signifies, faces west, so the sun will set into the sea with no obstacles on its way no matter where you stop to observe it. Sunset times of course vary according to seasons, and you can check out the exact time here.
If we hadn’t been on the sunset cruise, we’d have probably been at Sunset Celebration, as recommended to us by our water at Marathon. This is a nightly art fest at Mallory Square Dock that starts up a couple hours before sunset.
9 p.m. Key West Dinner
At Key West, you won’t have to worry about restaurants closing their doors too early. After sunset, we headed to Hog’s Breath Saloon (400 Front St)… not because of a recommendation, but because Iiro had spotted a tourist wearing their T-shirt at Amsterdam Airport, and the name and especially slogan – Hog’s Breath is better than no breath at all! – sounded so hilarious we wouldn’t miss it. Luckily for us, it wasn’t just the slogan that was good. Shrimp skewers and BBQed pork were our favorites, and the beer and drinks were good too!
After dinner, we headed out to Duval Street, Key West’s nightlife hub, with bars on every corner. The most famous of them is Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St), Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, but instead, we sat down at a window table at Bull’s Whistle Bar (224 Duval St) for some people watching. It wasn’t quite New Orleans, but not far from it.
9 a.m. Morning at a Key West hotel: NYAH
We’d picked NYAH – Not Your Average Hotel for our accommodation, and the choice couldn’t have been more spot on! I wouldn’t recommend this place for older couples or families with children – you have to be at least 18 to stay here – but for a young-in-spirit group of friends, this was the perfect fit: we all fit into the same room, the rooms were spotlessly clean with an en-suite bathroom, beds were comfy and each one of them had their usb charging stations to fuel up our electronics during the night, towels were given freely for use both on-site and off-site, and of course it’s a short walking distance from downtown but far enough from the noise for a good night’s sleep. A simple but good continental breakfast was part of the price, so we started our morning lounging on one of the many terraces, sipping our coffees.
The only drawback that came to my mind while I was sunbathing by the pool and reading a book was that we hadn’t had time to come earlier to enjoy the hotel already the previous day – because this place would have been really worth it. On top of everything else, the hotel has a daily happy hour at 4.20pm, which we had missed this time. I’m saying “this time”, because if I return to Key West with friends, returning to NYAH is a no-brainer.
12.00 Key West Downtown
We hanged out at the hotel as long as we could, but everything good must come to an end. By checkout time, we were walking back Downtown to check it out in daylight – that is, scorching sunlight!
We noticed soon that the touristy downtown was dividing opinions: I liked it and would have loved to tour the small shops and boutiques for a while longer, but Elina and Iiro thought it was too touristy. Key West’s famous villas were mostly East of Simonton Street in the neighborhood of our hotel, while Duval and Whitehead Streets were full of cafes and restaurants catering to an out-of-town audience, as well as kiosks selling this trip and that tour. We have Cold Beer was a sign we saw on almost every corner.
I had a couple complimentary tickets for the local museums, so we split up for a moment. Elina checked out the Key West Aquarium, which she wouldn’t recommend to anyone who cares about animals: in the aquarium, fish were picked out of the tanks and even petted, which is obviously no way to treat a fish. Iiro checked out the Shipwreck Treasures Museum, which seemed interesting and is recommended for anyone interested in the pirate history of Key West. Just make sure you have enough time, because it’s a guided tour with reenacting and Iiro had to quit the tour half way to make it to our preagreed meeting spot.
Me? I toured the city with my camera. Truman’s Little White House, president Truman’s winter home, sounded tempting, but instead I stayed out to photograph the streets, houses, boutiques and of course the Caribbean sea. After spending a couple years inland, you wouldn’t believe how much I miss the sea.
13.00 Trolley Tour
We wanted to see much of Key West in limited time, so we jumped on board the Old Town Trolley Tours, which goes all around the island. The relaxed tour guide narrated the sights we passed as well as told tales of Key West history. Ticket prices (around $30) felt a bit steep, but only because we were doing this on our last day: the tickets are valid for two days and it’s a hop-on hop-off tour, so this would have been perfect as the first thing to do in Key West, after which you can use it as a form of transportation.
14.00 Lunch at Two Friends Patio & Key Lime Pie!
We spent a moment looking for a lunch restaurant that wouldn’t be too touristy and finally found one at the end of Front Street: Two Friends Patio Restaurant served us decent-priced oysters, creamy lobster bisque and tasty fried seafood. While there, we asked the waiter about roosters and hens walking around Key West. They just are here. They can’t fly away anywhere, now can they? But does someone own them? No, they just are here until the next hurricane sweeps them away.
Our waiter promised us they served excellent key lime pie, and he surely didn’t lie. In fact, it was so excellent I completely forgot to take a photo. You don’t want to miss this while in Key West!
3 p.m. On the shores of Key West: Smathers Beach
Our time in Key West was coming to an end, because we wanted to make it to Miami before evening, but we still made one more detour… by the beach!
On our Trolley Tour, we’d spotted an opening to Smathers Beach in its Eastern end that didn’t prohibit vehicles, so we hit the beach with four wheels! Next time I need to plan on bringing a towel – and maybe also plan on spending another night in Key West. I have a feeling it would be worth it!
Sponsored by NYAH