Key West, FL Area Guide
Key West is as synonymous with Florida as the oranges and limes grown there; just the words “Key West” bring to mind the images of sand, surf and sunshine.
The city prides itself on its colorful character, the artistic and eclectic proclivities of its residents, and its location in what many call “paradise on Earth”. Founded as a fishing and salvage village with a small garrison during Florida’s days of Spanish colonial occupation, Key West began its life as Cayo Hueso, literally meaning “bone key”, a term which many of the island’s businesses continue to use today. Originally populated by the Calusa people, Spanish colonialist named the island “bone key” because of the large amount of bones littering the area—Cayo Hueso was settled on a Calusian battlefield or burial ground. Theories abound as to how Cayo Hueso became Key West; the most widely accepted is that simple Anglicization and mispronunciation resulted in the name changed. Affectionately called the “Conch Republic”, Key West is also known as the “Gibraltar of the Gulf”, due to its strategic location in the Straits of Florida. Pirates, poets, politicians and pioneers have all become part of Key West’s “one human family”; the island motto that shares its warm sense of community with its residents and global neighbors alike. For more information on Key West, please visit:
The Key West Chamber of Commerce
City of Key West
Monroe County Tourist Development Council Key West Information
Key West’s history is fittingly as unconventional and eclectic as the community that now calls it home. The first European visitor to Key West was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. The community of Spaniards and Native Americans populating Key West were displaced to Havana in 1761, when Great Britain took control over Florida. There was no official island resettlement following Florida’s return to Spanish control; for a number of years, though officially claimed for Spain, no nation made use of de facto control over Key West. During the American Revolution, many Loyalists and their descendents fled to the nearest Crown colony from the Bahamas. These settlers were Key West’s original “Conchs”. During America’s Civil War, though mainland Florida seceded from the Union, Key West remained under Union control due to its naval base. Many Cuban refugees relocated to Key West during Cuba’s bid for independence, adding further diversity to Key West’s cultural melting pot.
Despite being relatively isolated until the 1912 completion of Flagler’s Overseas Railway extension, Key West was Florida’s largest and wealthiest city in 1889. The “Gibraltar of the Gulf”, Key West’s location in the Straits of Florida at the northern edge of the channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean and The Gulf of Mexico has made Key West an important military post throughout history. Fort Taylor was initially built on the island. Later, a small base was added by the United States Navy—the base from which the armored battleship cruiser the USS Maine set out on its fateful voyage to Cuba, meeting its demise in the explosion that touched off the Spanish-American War in 1898. The USS Maine’s lost crewmen are buried and memorialized in Key West. The 20th century brought Key West an altogether different kind of excitement, one less fraught with revolutionary takeovers but still marking Key West and a place of fame and notoriety. 20th century Key West gave artists and writers a refuge to call home, much like the politically disenfranchised settlers of prior centuries.
Though a number of artists and writers have visited or resided in Key West during its history, there have been none who truly absorbed the spirit of the island as much as Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, during his years in Key West either wrote in its entirety or began work on the novels For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Death in the Afternoon, and short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Key West legend also holds that A Farewell to Arms was written above the showroom of a Key West Ford dealership in 1928, while Hemingway awaited delivery of a Ford Model A roadster. To Have and Have Not — Hemingway’s only novel set in the United States, uses Depression-era Key West as its backdrop. Today, “Hemingway cats”, the polydactyl descendents of Hemingway’s pet “Snowball”, live and are cared for on the grounds of the Hemingway House. Like Hemingway before him, Tennessee Williams found his sense of place and home in Key West. During his lifetime, Williams rented a series of homes all over the United States; however, the only home he ever purchased was in Key West, a modest bungalow which he listed as his permanent residence until his death in 1983. Key West’s La Concha Hotel is believed to have been where Williams drafted A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1956, The Academy Award–winning adaptation of his play The Rose Tattoo was shot on location in Key West. Though his New Town home is not open to the public, The Tennessee Williams Theatre on the Stock Island campus of Florida Keys Community College passes on his literary and cultural traditions to Key West students, visitors and the community.
From searches for the Fountain of Youth, to cigars, citrus, salvage, shark processing, sponge harvesting, shrimp fishing, inspiration for the greatest works of American literature and tourist traffic, Key West has held many colorful jobs during its history, and will live equally many more in its future. Key West has survived revolutions, wars, pirates and hurricanes and emerged as strong as the Gibraltar rock it is nicknamed for, a “Conch Republic” for global neighbors to share and become part its “One Human Family”, the island philosophy of Key West. To learn more about the history of Key West, please visit:
The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys History of Key West
Parks and Recreation
Florida’s true wealth is found in the ecology and nature specific to the area, and perhaps nowhere on earth is this beauty more accessible than in the Florida Keys. In addition to the two state and one U.S. park located in the immediate Key West vicinity, the U.S. and state parks of the entire Florida Keys system are nearby and waiting to be explored. Additionally, Key West visitors and residents have access to a number of city parks, sports complexes and public beaches to enjoy the abundant sunshine and natural beauty of the island. Bocce courts, nature trails, bird watching locations, public pools, picnic areas and playgrounds are just some of the featured amenities at the neighborhood parks of Key West.
With several dedicated sports complexes and many designated sport areas located within the city parks; both residents and visitors are afforded the opportunity to engage and play, taking advantage of Florida’s sunny weather. Pet owners will delight in the fact that many parks and destinations in Key West are pet-friendly. Key West is home to two state parks, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and Bahia Honda State Park. Fort Zachary Taylor is popular for the military history of the location; the fort was constructed in defense of the country’s southeastern coastline in the mid-1800’s. Daily guided tours are offered for visitors to learn about the important role Fort Zachary Taylor played in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. Fort Zachary Taylor is Florida Keys Green-Thumb certified, preserving the delicate balance of the natural ecology of its location. Bahia Honda State Park, located handy to Key West on neighboring Big Pine Key, is known for the beauty of its beaches and the range of nature activities and water excursions it offers. Popular things to do at Bahia Honda include snorkeling, swimming, and boating, or relax on the beach, enjoy the bird watching and visit the nature center.
Key West’s world-famous sunset is especially magnificent when taken in at Bahia Honda State Park. Dry Tortugas U.S. National Park takes a bit of planning to visit but visitors agree that the effort is well-rewarded upon arrival to Dry Tortugas. Dry Tortugas Park, a collection of seven small islands 70 miles from Key West’s coast, is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Mid-19th century Fort Jefferson was constructed to protect the lucrative shipping channel. The reefs of these islands bear the history of shipwrecks that happened prior to the erection of the lighthouses on the shores of the Garden and Loggerhead Keys. Diving and snorkeling, as well as chartered fishing excursions are just some of the outdoor activities visitors to Dry Tortugas can experience. The Research Natural Area, adjacent to the Tortugas Ecological Reserve of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is the continental United States’ largest no-take marine reserve. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the many histories of Dry Tortugas- military, marine, and ecological. Key West visitors are equally close to all the U.S. and state parks of the Florida Keys—Islamorada’s Lignum Vitae State Botanical Site and Indian Key State Historic Site are only a scenic, leisure drive’s distance away. Likewise, the stunning parks of the Upper Keys—Everglades National Park, the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park and John Pennekamp State Park—offer Key West sight-seers the full range of a Florida Keys park experience. To learn more about any of these parks, to find a list of pet-friendly destinations in Key West or to learn more about what it means to be Florida Keys Green-Thumb certified, please visit: Florida State Parks Bahia Honda State Park http://floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda/default.cfm
Florida State Parks Zachary Taylor State Historic Park
National Park Services Dry Tortugas Park
Florida State Parks Official Website
Everglades National Park
John Pennekamp State Park and Christ of the Deep
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
Indian Key State Historic Site (Islamorada)
Lignum Vitae Key State Botanical Site (Islamorada)
City of Key West Comprehensive List of Public Parks and Facilities
Florida Keys Green-Thumb Certified
The Monroe County Tourist Development Council Comprehensive List of Pet Friendly Key West
Attractions and Activities
Key West has been home to many over the years: artists and writers, politicians and pirates alike. All have adopted Key West, absorbed it and become one with the island. To promote the spirit of our rich cultural tradition, The Florida Keys Council of the Arts acts as the primary cultural liaison for Monroe County, serving the Key Largo to Key West region. The Florida Keys Council of the Arts is non-profit local arts agency that serves as a leading advocate for cultural tourism in lower Florida, creating grants, sponsoring and scheduling seminars and overseeing operation of Monroe County’s “Art in Public Places” program. The on-line cultural calendar for the Florida Keys region is also managed by the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, as well as management for the County’s Tourism Development Council arts marketing grants. As one might well imagine, this creates a community of endless activity and opportunity. From the high-brow to the low-brow and everything in between, whatever you define as “fun” is sure to be present and accounted for within the six square miles of its perimeter.
The size of Key West makes the entirety of its offerings pedestrian friendly. Walking tours exploring everything from the history to the architecture to the “ghost tours” of the Key West Cemetery offered daily. If you opt to explore the Key West Cemetery, be sure to enjoy the Key West nicknames that residents took with them, or the humor present in many of the witty epitaphs. Bicycle and moped rentals are available for travelling the island, are in themselves an enjoyable activity. Rentals are abundant, so hop on and cruise the island, enjoying the sunshine and salty breezes. Boat excursions, fishing, diving, snorkeling, swimming and all other manner or water activity are popular in Key West, so explore the options and enjoy the balmy waters off the shores of Key West.
There are lighthouse and maritime museums for those whose hearts were born at sea; landlubbers are offered the ample parks, botanical gardens, arboretums, nature conservancy centers and butterfly gardens that define the splendor of island life. The acre of lush green rainforest making up Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden is an example of the artistry of woodland gardening and not to be missed while in Key West. Or if you’re a cat fancier—pet “Papa’s” pet “Snowball’s” double-pawed descendents at The Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum. Literary seminars, theatrical performances and city-sponsored events are available on a calendar rotation that leaves no day without something to see or do.
The Studios of Key West artist community hosts a series of cultural partnerships, creative workshops and free humanities lectures that inspire audiences and artists throughout the community. Celebrating its multicultural and welcoming community, Key West’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center hosts a number of Pride events throughout the year and in 2006, opened the Key West Gay & Lesbian Museum & Archive. Duval Street and the Key West Historic Seaport at the Key West Bight are local and tourist destinations for shopping, dining and nightlife in Key West. Finally, no day in Key West or the Florida Keys is complete without honor the magnificence of the sunset over the waters at the farthest point south in the United States. Daily, locals and tourists alike gather from all over the “Conch Republic” to Mallory Square, experiencing the Sunset Celebration as “one human nation”. To learn more about the attractions listed, or to explore other activities and destinations available in Key West, please visit:
Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden
The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
Tennessee Williams Theatre
Ernest Hemingway House
Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum
Key West Cemetery
Key West Gay & Lesbian Museum & Archive at the Key West Gay & Lesbian Community Center
Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
With so many different parks, attractions, recreational activities and destinations to offer visitors, a lifetime of days in Key West would leave visitors with scant time enough to see it all. Likewise, Key West’s events calendars are jam-packed daily, leaving no visitor or resident ever in the position of finding themselves bored or at a loss of things to do. Seasonal annual events span a variety of interests: Winter in Key West offers residents Race Week, an annual Flag Football tournament and holiday parades on land and on shore, Spring brings a celebration of “Conch Independence”, food festivals, the Queen Mother Pageant and The Red Ribbon Bed Race. Summer events include PrideFest, the Cuban-American Heritage Festival and Hemingway Days. Fall in Key West hosts events such as WomenFest, FantasyFest, Bike Week and the Parrotheads in Paradise Convention, just to name a few of the major events the city of Key West celebrates. To find out more about what’s happening in Key West, please visit:
City of Key West Events Calendar
City of Key West Chamber of Commerce Community Events and Festivals Calendar
Studios of Key West
The Florida Keys Council of the Arts
Key West Literary Seminar
Art in Public Places
City of Key West Cruise Ship Calendars