Key West is a tropical island city in Florida. It is the westernmost island in the Florida Keys, connected by a highway. With port and airline services, and a vast array of activities both on water and on land, Key West enjoys many tourists annually. But it is more than just about their sandy coastlines and sparkling sunshine. Their rich history and vibrant local culture are gems to discover as well.
Key West is known for its colorful beach parties and thrilling water activities. Its position at the Straits of Florida, the dividing line between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, allows it to enjoy the warmest ocean waters in winter, so nothing could stop visitors from enjoying their stay.
The Old Town and the Famous Key West Residents
The oldest Key West neighborhood is aptly called the Old Town. It hosts the classic home structures, from bungalows to majestic guest mansions, with historical sites stuffed in between. It is also where Ernest Hemingway lived between 1931 and 1939, and President Harry S. Truman enjoyed his winter White House. Most of the old buildings are well-preserved, and they now serve as important landmarks that tourists can explore to learn more about the city’s rich history.
The Ernest Hemingway House and the Penny at the Patio
The Ernest Hemingway house was a wedding present from the writer’s wife’s uncle Gus Pfeiffer. The husband and wife built their family there and called it a conjugal home until they divorced in 1939. Between 1937 and 1938, they made a swimming pool within the property, which set them off for $20,000. Hemingway did not expect the high cost, prompting him to throw a penny at the wet cement at the north end of the pool, saying, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got!”.
The Majestic Little White House
Key West has hosted several presidents since 1880. Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, and Franklin D. Roosevelt visited and stayed at the first officers’ quarters. During Harry S. Truman’s presidency, he spent 175 days through a total of 11 visits to the building, mainly during winter. Truman’s frequent and well-documented stays earned it the name Harry S. Truman Little White House. Other US presidents who stayed at the Little White House include Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.
A Tale of Another Famous Writer
Tennessee Williams, a popular 20th-century screenwriter and playwright, also built a house in the Key West in 1949, following frequent visits and extended stays at La Concha Resort nearby Duval Street. The Tennessee Williams house, his primary residence until he died in 1983, is in the New Town, at 1431 Duncan Street. Unfortunately, the modest cottage is not open to the public as it is now privately owned. Apart from Hemingway and Williams, other scribes who called Key West home once in their lives include Robert Frost, Shel Silverstein, Elizabeth Bishop, John Dewey, and Wallace Stevens.
From Cayo Hueso to Key West
Key West is a misnomer. The city’s original name was Cayo Hueso, a Spanish term for Bone Island, alluding to the remains of the Calusa Indians, the earliest inhabitants of the Florida Keys. Ponce de Leon gave it its name in 1521 when he discovered it during his Florida expedition. But American-speaking settlers picked it up as Key West because that’s how it sounded to them, and the name stuck.
The Key West “Conchs”
Can those who built a home in Key West be called a “conch”? They used the term at the onset of the 20th century to pertain to those who reside in the city. If you have lived in Key West for at least seven years, you can be referred to as a “freshwater conch” because those born in the city are called “saltwater conchs.” But the original meaning of the slang term applies only to Bahamian immigrants with European ancestry. When babies are born, they place a pink seashell at the home front.
Why Conch? The Reason’s Far Deeper Than You Think!
How come they refer to Key West natives as conch? Here’s the story: The Americans loyal to the British crown fled to the Bahamas. Unfortunately, the government taxed them for food. The Bahamians stood their ground and said they would rather eat conch than pay taxes, which they did, giving birth to 27 different ways of consuming the sea snail. The locals take pride in being nicknamed conchs; they even declared the city the Conch Republic in 1982 as an act of protest for the blockade set up at Highway 1 by the US Border Patrol.
The Key West Chickens are Roaming Free
There is a healthy population of roosters crowing at dawn and hens roaming around with their chicks in the island city. They are noisy and colorful, representing the Caribbean’s jungle fowl descendants. And they are as much a Key West symbolism as the sun, the sand, and the sea. They are practically everywhere, and whether the locals (and tourists) like it or not, they are not going anywhere.
The Key West Lighthouse is Now a Museum
The first and oldest in the city, the Key West Lighthouse became operational in 1825. However, when the Great Havana Hurricane wrecked the structure in 1846, it took two years to get to work again. Another hurricane damaged later, and due to trees and buildings growing taller, they increased the tower’s height, which stood at 30 meters above sea level. In 1969, when it was decommissioned by the US Coast Guard and leased to the Key West Arts and Historical Society, it became a museum displaying the city’s maritime heritage and tribute to the great men and women keepers.
The First Key West Library
Another significant Key West landmark is a public library established in 1853 at Simonton Street. When a hurricane destroyed it in 1919, it hopped onto several locations across the island until it found a permanent home on Fleming Street in 1959. Until today, the Key West Library serves the city with its expansive 70,000 collections, including a 1984 letter from Jimmy Buffett, which contained, among other things, the singer/songwriter’s gratitude for the library’s inspiration that helped him write some songs.
The Southernmost Point Monument
Nothing is more appropriate to become Key West’s most heralded attraction than a concrete buoy replica bearing the statement “Southernmost Point” to mark the claim that it is the southernmost point in the contiguous United States. Initially, only a basic sign stood on the spot until the city government erected the buoy in 1983. It has since become one of the most photographed tourist sites in Key West and the Florida Keys. So when the devastating hurricane Irma of 2017 damaged the monument, they quickly restored and repainted it to regain its glory.
From Tank Island to Sunset Key
One of Key West’s most heralded tourist destinations is this resort island accessible only by boat, being 500 yards off the coast. It boasts a private neighborhood with luxurious homes featuring elegant architecture and a luxury resort. Surprisingly, Sunset Key was artificial and was once called Tank Island by the US Navy during the Cold War. These days, it hosts an exclusive getaway that lets you arrive in style and bask in serenity at sea.
The 42 Bridges and the Seven-Mile Bridge
If you are after a scenic drive, Key West is the best place to be. Going over the Overseas Highway is a treat, all 113 miles of it. There are 42 bridges to link you across the islands to the mainland, and the most astonishing of them is the Seven Mile Bridge, skipping across the breezy straits and a string of coral islands.
The World’s 3rd Largest Barrier Coral Reef is in Key West
The Florida Reef runs 170 miles, placing third among the World’s longest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. It is about four miles wide and forms a great arc, housing over 6,000 individual reefs in the system. It is home to over 1,400 marine life species, offering spectacular underwater explorations.
Savor the Key West Sunset at Mallory Square
Even the simplest thing could mean a lot when you are in Key West. In this tropical paradise, watching the sunset deserves a festival. The Sunset Celebration takes place nightly, as tourists come in droves to watch the sunset and participate in a fun exhibit of food, arts, and good times. If you are done with the exquisite lineup of shops, food hubs, and art galleries that populate the square, you can cruise an extra mile or two to view the Key West sunset from a different view.
Duval Street is the Best Place to Be for Pub Crawlers
If Mallory Square is for sunset watchers, Duval Street is for pub crawlers. It has a mile-long lineup of chillout sites than you can count, offering different brands of fun for everyone. Among the most popular joints include Sloppy Joes, where famous writer Ernest Hemingway used to hang, and the Flying Monkeys Bar, the home of the best-tasting frozen beverages. As if the pubs are not enough of a treat, you can have a glimpse of Victorian mansions as you run the 1.25-mile road from coast to coast.
Halloween Out, Fantasy Feast In
Halloween is obsolete in Key West. What they do before October ends is a 10-day extravaganza filled with parties, parades, costume contests, and more. The Fantasy Feast started in 1979, and since then, the festivities grew, with the number of attendees coming in at a hundred thousand or more. Around this time, you may also explore the many spooky spots in the city and scare the hell out of you.
The Haunted Tales of Key West
Speaking of spooky spots, did you know that ghost tales haunt the city? Get a glimpse of Key West’s dark past by hopping on a Ghosts & Gravestones tour. Aboard the Trolley of Doomed after sunset, you will experience the gloomy side of the Bone Island in a fully narrated sightseeing tour. It will take you past the Captain Tony’s Saloon, African Slave Cemetery, the Key West Cemetery, and the Key West Shipwreck Treasure.
Making Money for Salvaging Shipwrecks
One of the earliest sources of income for Key West locals is salvaging shipwrecks and selling and auctioning treasures. During the city’s golden age of sail, about a hundred ships sailed on the treacherous waters of Key West and would have at least one shipwreck per week. The regular occurrence gave birth to salvage operations that turned in significant amounts of money for the “wrecking master” and the rest of the crew. To relive the wrecking era of Key West’s past, you can check out the Shipwreck Treasure Museum.
Get Out in the Water, the Best Adventures Await
Nothing beats the amount of fun you can have in the Key West waters, from sun up to sundown. You can stroll, lounge, cruise, swim, fish, snorkel, kayak, parasail, paddleboard, and more, then do it all again. The fun in the crystal blue water never stops. It only gets better as Key West offers widely varied tours for every type of tourist.
The Key Limes are Imported, Not Locally Sourced
It may seem off-topic, but we have to clear that while Key West is supposedly the home of the original key lime pie, they do not have fruiting lime trees and have sourced their supply from Mexico since the early 1900s. The locals did try commercial farming, but it did not take long for them to realize that fishing and accompanying tourists are far more profitable.