Sea Critters, Sunken Treasure and Sandy Beaches Keep Key West Compelling

Even if you only have half of a day to spend in Key West on a cruise excursion, there are plenty of attractions near the port that make it easy to enjoy the island’s unique history, architecture, marine life and culture. For a quick primer, take the Conch Tour Train, which lazily winds through the side streets past the quaint Victorian homes and notable sights. In Mallory Square there are several attractions within feet of each other, like the Key West Aquarium, with its popular marine life touch-tank, and the Key West Shipwreck Museum, where costumed storytellers share the tales of 400 local shipwrecks. The nearby Mel Fisher Museum exhibits the mother lode of treasure pulled from some of those same ships.

A stroll along the scenic boardwalk of the historic seaport allows you to peruse funky shops and indulge at seafood restaurants in the ocean breezes. At the opposite end of Duval, the Butterfly Conservatory offers a magical respite with hundreds of butterflies and chirping birds in a peaceful garden. On Whitehead Street, you can hit the 1847 Key West Lighthouse and the Hemingway Home (with the famed six-toed cats), which are across the street from each other. A little more off-the-beaten path is the free Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 6,000 square feet of interactive exhibits about the dynamic Keys’ eco-systems. For a morning at the beach, rent a bike and head to Ft. Zachary State Park for a picnic on the sandy shores in the shadow of a Civil War fort.


A common misconception travelers have when planning a trip to Key West is that there will be sparkling white-sand beaches awaiting them. In fact, large natural beaches are few and far between. Fort Zachary Taylor is one of the exceptions and is blessed with a well-maintained, sandy beach with chairs, umbrellas and water sports equipment for rent. Completed in 1866, the fort played important roles in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and visitors can tour the National Historic Landmark at 11 a.m. daily. This 54-acre state park is also home to several nature trails, a stunning coral reef for snorkelers, picnic tables and a beachfront café. Fishing is permitted in certain areas. The three-story fort once held the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the U.S. (many of which are still there). Admission to the park is $2.50 when walking or biking.

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Photo courtesy of

When the museum admissions and snorkeling tours start to add up, free options are always the way to go - especially when the kids can learn a thing or two. The Eco-Discovery Center provides a look into the ecosystems of the Florida Keys. Just a step away from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, exhibits include an interactive satellite map of the Keys, a replica of the Aquarius the world's only underwater ocean laboratory and an underwater video camera used for monitoring the health of a coral reef. The real star is the Living Reef exhibit, which includes a 2,500-gallon reef tank with living corals and tropical fish. Stop in to the Center's theater to catch "Reflections of the Florida Keys," a short film on the diverse ecosystem of the Florida Keys by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot.

Just three weeks after arriving in Key West, Ernest Hemingway finished "A Farewell to Arms", and he and his wife fell in love with the island. They built their home in 1851, and it is now a National Historic Landmark. Beautiful gardens blooming with hibiscus and water lilies surround the property, along with a 60-foot swimming pool--an architectural wonder in itself. The house was the first on the island to have a swimming pool and indoor plumbing. Tours take one half hour and include many anecdotes about the writer and his life on the island. To top it off, over 50 six-toed cats roam the property. Take the guided tour which is included in the ticket price. You'll get more out of your experience. Looking into his former study, literary buffs and writers may find a little inspiration in this beautiful home, just like Hemingway did while living there.

Key West Lighthouse Museum
Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan

Key West's iconic lighthouse was built in 1847 and originally powered by 15 oil lamps that helped guide sailors to the island. Although it no longer serves as a functioning lighthouse, visitors can climb the 88 winding steps to the top for 360-degree views of the city and the ocean. Admission includes entrance to the museum (the former keeper's quarters), where audio and visual recordings are available as well as glass display cases of the previous owner's possessions. Photographs and quotes from lighthouse keepers and their families show ensure that the now obsolete way of life will never be forgotten. Note that it closes at 4:30 p.m., so don't try to wait for the sunset. While many lighthouses in the U.S. are not open to the public, Key West's tower invites visitors to explore and learn about the past.

Soothing music, birds, fish, turtles, fountains and over 80 species of butterflies make a relaxing break from Margaritaville. The entrance to the conservatory offers a wealth of interesting information about the life cycle and behavior of these stunning insects. Take a breather on a butterfly-shaped bench and try to get a close-up photo of a camera-shy Blue Morpho. You'll wind up staying longer than planned. Cocoons are on display in the glass-enclosed pupae room toward the rear that are clearly labeled with the species name. At any time, 1200 to 2,000 butterflies reside in the conservatory, and if one chooses to land on you, it's a sign of good luck. Don't miss the two pink flamingos named Rhett and Scarlett.

Back in the late 1700s, the Key West Historic Seaport had a safe anchorage and stocks of drinkable water at primitive wells ashore. Settlers of the island relied heavily on marine life as an integral part of the economy, including fisheries for sea turtles, sponges, and shrimp to supply local and distant markets. Today, the only turtles you'll see on land are at the Turtle Kraals restaurant, where visitors can witness the turtle races on Mondays and Friday evenings. The rest of the harbor is lined with shops, bars, fishing and sailing vessels, dive boats, and traditional schooners that offer sunset cruises.

Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum
Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum

Let out your inner treasure hunter at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. Fisher is famous for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha in 1985 with an estimated $450 million cache of gold, silver, emeralds and more. Rather than a flashy show, this is a real-deal museum with a collection that holds over 100,000 pieces of jewelry, coins, glassware, tools, cannons, iron shackles, and anchors that were all found on sunken ships. All of these items translate into human stories of how they were lost and found. Take your time to peruse the exhibits and soak up the air conditioning (a big plus in the warmer months). The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society is a non-profit organization that works to preserve archaeological artifacts and educates visitors on maritime history. A number of educational programs are also available including children's camps to study marine life and the environment, plus a night at the museum.

Key West Shipwreck Museum
Photo courtesy of Key West Shipwreck Museum

The stories of the 400 shipwrecks along the Florida Keys are told with all the bells and whistles at this part-museum, part theme-park attraction. Visitors are greeted with a 15-minute live story telling presentation before touring the museum. There are some actual artifacts from the 17th and 18th century (while others are just for show), as well as video presentations, audio recordings, and a 64-pound silver bar that families can lift up. Most people head to the 65-foot lookout tower for stunning views of the island and surrounding waters where ships met their final resting place. For those interested in seeing more real treasure from other shipwrecks, be sure to check out the Mel Fisher Museum.

You'll spot the Key West Aquarium off Mallory Square by the distinctive great white shark bursting from the top of its façade. Built between 1932 and 1934, it's one of Florida's oldest aquariums. While on the small side, the facility offers children the opportunity to touch and hold living starfish, sea cucumbers, horseshoe crabs and conchs. The long building is lined with tanks that showcase the other critters that populate the Florida Keys like eels, lobster, seahorses and glowing jellyfish. You'll also spot alligators, stingrays and rescued sea turtles on view. Buy tickets online to save a few bucks.

The Conch Tour Train makes a lot of top 10 lists, and for good reason. While it may feel a little touristy, it's an easy way to get acquainted with the entire island and its history. The bright yellow train has been in operation since 1958. Their knowledgeable "engineers" will give you an overview of the historic district, covering 100 point of interest such as the Harry S. Truman Little White House, Southernmost Point, the conch-style architecture and more. They also provide an entertaining commentary on the legends of the city like Robert the haunted doll, who lives at Fort East Martello.


Meet Claudia Miller

Claudia Miller has been writing about South Florida for over 17 years--seven from Key Largo. A budding photographer, she can usually be found stalking a sunset. Despite being a tad...  More About Claudia