Nature and history lover’s guide to Key West

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Key West has some real gems for history and nature lovers. Not a big beach enthusiast myself, I spent a lot of time in Florida exploring the natural beauty and historic landmarks on offer in Key West and the surrounding area. Key West is part of the Florida Keys archipelago and the southernmost point of the U.S. I put this nature and history guide to Key West to help you plan your trip.

Nature and history guide to things to do in Key West

Ernest Hemingway House and Museum

As a history lover, I absolutely had to stop by the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. The house is where most of Hemingway’s famous pieces were written. You’ll notice one feature of the house that is unique to the area. Ernest Hemingway’s house has a pool, which was quite costly to build at that time. The penny Hemmingway pressed to the patio signifies that it took his last penny to build.

The museum features antique furniture, a typewriter, and a collection of art owned by the writer and his family. It also home to Hemmingway’s famous polydactyl (six-toed) cats. According to the legend, these polydactyl cats are descendants of Snow White, a cat given to Hemingway by a sea captain he befriended.

Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum

Across the street from the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum is the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. The lighthouse provides the best views of the island, but you do need to climb the stairs to get there. Stop by the Keeper’s Quarters Museum on your way out to learn more about the history of this lighthouse that dates all the way back to 1848.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Although popular for its beautiful beach, this state park is also home to a historic landmark, Fort Zachary Taylor. Narrated tours are offered daily where you can learn more about the fort’s construction, history, use during the Civil War. If you plan to make it a day trip, bring some food and use one of many barbecue grills available in the park.

Water Activities

The island also offers many water activities, many of which will appeal to the nature lover.

  • You can hop on a sailboat or kayak and explore the water looking for marine wildlife such as dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees.
  • Get a fish’s perspective by snorkeling above the coral reefs!
  • Get a unique view of the island with a helicopter ride or a jet ski tour.
jet skis by Mallory Square at Key West

Southernmost Point of the U.S.

Of interest is the most popular landmark on the island, a monument shaped like a buoy that marks the southernmost part of the island – and therefore the southernmost point of the continental U.S. There’s always a line of people waiting to take pictures with it, so you won’t miss it! Cuba is only about 90 miles to the south of this marker, so you’ll notice the Cuban cuisine available on the island.

Southernmost Point of continental U.S. at Key West

Nature and history guide to national parks near Key West

Dry Tortugas National Park

One of the highlights of my Key West trip was a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park. It is 67 miles (108 kilometers) south of the Keys and is only accessible by boat or seaplane. The Key West ferry offers excursions every day, but as it takes over 2 hours to travel one way, you should expect the trip to take most of your day. I wouldn’t recommend the boat to anyone who gets very seasick, as I felt every move.

The park is comprised of seven Dry Tortugas islands with Fort Jefferson. The park offers white beaches and coral reefs and allows you to enjoy various water activities including swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

Fort Jefferson was initially built in the 19th century as a military post to protect the U.S. southern coastline. It had almost 2,000 occupants at its busiest time. The fort served as a prison during and after the Civil War, after which its use declined. Eventually, the fort became a national monument in the early 20th century and later a national park. The place itself is very peaceful and quiet. As you wander the ruins of Fort Jefferson, you might wonder what life looked like when there were hundreds of military personnel and their families stationed here.

Beach view at Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park

Everglades National Park

Since I’d never seen swamps, I decided to stop at the Everglades National Park on my trip from Miami to the Keys. Only an hour away southwest of Miami, Everglades National Park consists of wetlands created to protect the ecosystem. The park is home to many species including endangered American crocodiles, manatees, and Florida panthers.

Alligator at Everglades

I visited Everglades Alligator Farm and I’ve never seen that many alligators in one spot! Taking a guided airboat tour to explore the wildlife hidden in the swamps felt very relaxing on a hot day. I barely scratched the surface of the park. Everglades National Park has a lot to offer, especially if you come in during the cooler winter months. There’s plenty of hiking and biking trails, birdwatching, boating, canoeing, camping, fishing, and guided tours available.

The logistics guide to Key West

Hurricane season starts at the beginning of June and runs through the end of October with a peak in August and September. Flight tickets do tend to be cheaper then but consider the risk before booking.

Food in Key West

Key West, being an island, offers plenty of seafood options. Some local delicacies include conch (commonly in the form of fried fritters or a tomato-based chowder) and spiny lobster. Another great option is the authentic Cuban food available on the island, including plantains and the classic Cuban sandwich with ham and roasted pork. For dessert, consider key lime pie, a tart dessert made of key limes and condensed milk on a pie crust topped with whipped cream.

Accommodation in Key West

Key West has a wide range of places to stay, including hotels, resorts, inns, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, and campgrounds.

I stayed at an inn in Casa Marina. Casa Marina is a district in between Higgs Beach and Historic district, a bit away from the most popular tourist spots yet close enough to walk and in proximity to the beach. I loved walking to the nearby attractions and passing by million-dollar mansions of the Key West Historic District. Staying inland was peaceful and quiet.

Transportation in Key West

At 4 miles long and 2 miles wide, Key West is small enough to allow you to easily travel on foot. The city has a free bus service, the Duval Loop, that allows you to get on and off at the most popular island spots, and you can also rent bicycles and scooters.

Have you enjoyed my nature and history guide to Key West? Are you interested in beach activities in Key West? Check out this post to learn more.

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