Key West is special — colorful, quirky, diverse, historic, laid back and FUN. This travel guide to Key West answers all those questions you may have about what to do, where to eat and where to stay (trust me, I do a lot of research when I travel), and, since this is primarily a book blog, it also includes books set in Key West and other fun literary treats, mostly inspired by famed resident Ernest Hemingway.
Key West Books
Below are three great books set in Key West followed by some of the works that resident Ernest Hemingway wrote while in Key West.
Key West Island Books
The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
Best for fans of historical fiction and author Beatriz Williams
One of Bustle’s Most Anticipated Books of Summer 2020
The Last Train to Key West takes place amidst the historic 1935 hurricane and weaves together the stories of three women. First, a Cuban woman has an arranged marriage to an American man, and as they honeymoon in the Keys, the husband’s illicit business threatens her life. Second, Elizabeth Preston travels to Key West to save her once-wealthy family after the Wall Street crash, which leads her to the camps occupied by veterans. Third, Key West-native Helen Berner yearns to escape an abusive marriage.
If you are doing a 50 States of America reading challenge, this also makes a great book for Florida.
Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton
Best for fans of Ernest Hemingway
In 1936 Key West journalist Martha Gellhorn meets Ernest Hemingway in a dive bar, and their friendship then blooms in Madrid while they’re covering the Spanish Civil War.
Island Affair: A Fun Summer Love Story (Keys to Love) by Priscilla Oliveras
Best for fans of modern romance
- Most Anticipated Books of April on Goodreads, Bookish, & Glitter Guide
- Most Anticipated Romances of 2020 in Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, Booktrib, & Smexy Books
- Frolic Book of the Week
Social media influencer Sara Vance, in recovery from an eating disorder, enlists Luis Navarro—a firefighter paramedic and dive captain willing to play her fiancé— to attend a family trip to Florida. Luis’s big Cuban family has been in Key West for generations. As they participate in family dinners, bike tours, private snorkeling trips, their “faux-mance” may develop into something bigger.
Ernest Hemingway Key West Books
This wouldn’t be a literary tour guide to Key West without mentioning some of the books of famed resident, Ernest Hemingway. While you may know him best for The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, he wrote some of his other works in Key West: the books Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not (which is set in Key West), and the short stories ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (See The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway).
And a trip to Key West simply isn’t complete without touring Ernest Hemingway’s home, which is famously inhabited with six toed cats. It’s one of my favorite places I have visited, and the upside down, island living cat below is still one of my favorite pictures I have ever taken:
Key West Tourism Guide
Besides Ernest Hemingway’s home (which is a must-do), below are some activities we did in Key West that I would recommend:
Tour President Truman’s Little White House
The Harry S. Truman Little White House has been used by six American presidents, but its most important usage was as the winter White House of Harry Truman, who spent 175 days of his presidency there from 1946 through 1952. It’s a memorable yet educational place to visit, and I definitely recommend it.
Tour the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory is a great way to spend an hour indoors. Below are some of my favorite wildlife from our visit:
Climb the Key West Lighthouse
The Key West Lighthouse is another great way to spend an hour in Key West and get the best views of the island.
Visit the Southernmost Point of the United States and the End of Route 1
The Southernmost point of the United States is probably the most photographed spot in Key West (go early to avoid a line), so you will definitely need to get a picture there!
You may also want to keep an eye out for the end of Route 1, which runs 2,369 miles (3,813 km), from Key West north to Fort Kent, Maine, at the Canadian border, making it the longest north-south road in the United States.
Explore the Statues of Key West
Littered around Key West are numerous statues of people, which are also fun to find and take pictures with. It’s all part of what makes Key West such a unique place.
Visit Fort Zachary Taylor and the Public Beaches of Key West
We rented a golf cart and took a short drive to Fort Zachary Taylor and the public beaches of Key West. The Fort is a National Historic Landmark, with a military history dating back to the Civil War through post-World War II. There’s a lot to learn there, and the nearby public beaches are beautiful and relaxing.
Shop Key West
One of my favorite things to do on vacation is shop for local and handmade finds. Key West has a few great staples — natural sponges, Key Lime everything, Cuban cigars and handmade seashell and nature art (for example, I purchased a hand-painted starfish ornament and an ornament of an angel made out of seashells). The best place to shop is all along Duval Street, the main road, and around Mallory Square, at the end of Duval Street, where there is a lot of local shopping.
Watch the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
The sun setting over Key West in an actual celebration — not to be missed. At the end of Duval Street, at Mallory Square, vendors from food to artists to performers set up at night and a crowd forms to watch the glowing sunset over the turquoise waters. The celebration is as joyous and welcoming as the island itself.
Stumble Upon Nature and Art
Key West is a place where chickens roam free, colorful murals surprise you and trees beg to be climbed. Have fun simply stumbling upon them!
Key West Restaurant Guide
We had very good food in Key West! Some of the Key West staple foods you may want to try are conch fritters and key lime everything (including frozen key lime pie on a stick, covered in chocolate). A few places we enjoyed, after doing some research and talking to people who had been there before, were:
- Banana Cafe – A good restaurant with a terrace for fresh breakfast food, right on Duval Street.
- Nine One Five – A great spot for modern dining., also right on Duval Street.
- Sloppy Joe’s – You should definitely stop into this classic Key West bar on Duval Street for a drink. It’s been open since 1933 and was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar.
- Captain Tony’s Saloon – Captain Tony’s is another classic Key West bar, and it was the favorite watering hole of such legendary authors as Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Shel Silverstein. And with the best of quirkiness you can only find in Key West … it’s decorated with women’s bras.
- Sunset Pier – This is a great spot for a waterfront lunch overlooking the most turquoise water your eyes may ever see.
- Little Room Jazz Club – A cozy little spot for live jazz every night.
Now, let’s talk about the restaurants you absolutely must visit in Key West:
Blue Heaven is an extremely popular spot known for having wild chickens wandering around. Its courtyard is reminiscent of Peter Pan (at least, to me it is), and its indoors are filled with colorful murals. While the food is good, it’s the “experience” that’s a must.
Latitudes on the Sunset Key
Latitudes on the Sunset Key was one of the best dining experiences we have ever had, period. To get to this private island, you must take a short ferry (just a few minutes) from Mallory Square. I checked the sunset time for our last night there, then booked a reservation for about a half-hour prior to sunset.
The restaurant and resort in which it operates feel utterly Caribbean and exclusive. I honestly felt like a celebrity being there, and my husband felt like he was in a James Bond movie! And it’s simply the best place to watch the beautiful Florida sunset while enjoying the most delicious fine dining. We were so overwhelmed by the beauty of this full experience.
Hotels in Key West with Beach Access
Not all hotels have beach access in Key West. In fact, it’s pretty rare. Most beach access is at the public beach, which is a short drive from the center of town (we rode there on a golf cart we rented).
We stayed at The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton because it had private beach-front access and was near Duval Street. While it didn’t meet our expectations of a luxury hotel, it met our expectations of a mid-range hotel. We enjoyed the outdoor bar, pool and hammocks along the beach, and our room was clean and had a nice courtyard view.
If this travel guide to Key West doesn’t convince you to immerse yourself in the literature and culture of Key West, I simply don’t know what will! It’s truly one of the most colorful and unique places to visit with all of the relaxing island vibes of happy, welcoming people.
Pin this travel guide to Key West to Pinterest so you can refer back to it when you visit Key West (because you really must visit).
In the meantime, it’s time for me to head out in style on the perfect ride I discovered in Key West…