Things to know before you go: Key West. What to do in Key West, tips for visiting Key West

12 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Key West

I’ve been to several areas of Florida over the years, but I only recently had a chance to travel to Key West. And let me tell you, it’s like a whole other world!

Key West was hands down the best spot in Florida for a family vacation But there are so many things about Key West that make it different from the mainland (aka the rest of Florida).

So before you pack up the family and head out, Here are some things you need to know before visiting Key West, that will help you be prepared for one of the best vacations ever!

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Getting To Key West

Key West is an island and the furthest island of the Keys from the mainland of Florida. Getting here isn’t the east, but you do have a few options.

Flying: You can fly directly into Key West. They do have an airport there, but flights can be few and far between and are often a lot more expensive.

You can also fly into any of the airports in South Florida. Miami International, Fort Lauderdale Airport, and Even West Palm Beach International Airport are all good options. If you fly into any of these airports, you will most definitely need to rent a car to get to Key West.

But don’t worry, driving the 3-4 hour drive from the south tip of Florida, to Key West, is one of the best drives you’ll ever take. We’ll go over that in a minute!

Driving Around Key West

Even though you’ll most likely need a car to get there, Key West is not a place you will enjoy driving around.

The roads are old and very narrow. The town allows street parking which makes the roads even more narrow when trying to drive through. Even with an average-sized SUV, we felt driving was tough.

Some roads were so narrow, you had to wait to drive down them if another car was coming the opposite way. 

So I have a few tips for you!

Number One: No matter where you stay, whether it’s a hotel or an Airbnb, make sure they have designated parking! I had a friend make this mistake once and they often had to park several blocks away from their hotel every night.

Numer Two: Find alternates to driving. As soon as you get to Key West, you will realize how easy it is to get around this tiny island without a car. First of all, it’s not very big. Literally the whole island is 2 miles by 4 miles.

In Key West, you can rent everything from a golf cart (a great option for families with young kids), Scooters (you’ll need a valid driver’s license for this), or even bikes.

Number Three: Use Uber or Lyft. Key West also has plenty of Uber and Lyft drivers around. Whether it was down on Duvall Street, or out near the condo we rented, an Uber was always less than 5 minutes away. And since the island was so small, we could take an Uber from one end to the other and it never cost more than $10.

So even though we had a car with us, we found it much easier to Uber to Duvall Street or other restaurants. Not only because driving was tough, but parking is even worse!

Parking Around Key West

Any article you read on Key West will tell you that parking is obnoxious and almost nonexistent.

Sure, if you plan to park around 7 am then you’ll have no problem finding a parking spot. But by mid-morning, parking is almost impossible to find, and the majority of parking in Key West is parallel parking on the street.

So if you do plan to drive and park in Key West, make sure you have great parallel parking skills because the spaces are tight! 

Even restaurants that have parking lots are often full very early on in the day.

Fort Zachary Park has, in my opinion, one of the best beaches in Key West to visit. And they luckily have plenty of parking. Most of the other beach areas have very minimal parking (mostly just street parking). So using an Uber or Lyft is always your best bet.

Key West is BUSY

Key West is probably one of the smallest, yet most popular places in Florida to visit. So when you take a ton of people and put them all in a tiny area, it becomes very crowded.

Places like Duvall Street are so busy at night, but even in the middle of the day, you’ll encounter crowds everywhere you go.

The line to see the Ernest Hemingway Home was wrapped around the block to get in by mid-morning, and this was on a Tuesday. The line to have your picture taken by the southernmost buoy is even longer.

Be prepared to wait a while to get your picture taken there. I drove by at 8 am looking for a good coffee spot and the line wasn’t too bad, but there was still a line.

And if you want to visit Mallory Square at sunset, better get there early! It becomes so packed, it’s almost hard to walk through. And parking is nowhere to be found. We had success at Fort Zachary in the afternoon with a parking spot but the beach was pretty packed as well.

Excursions book up weeks and even months in advance, so make sure you plan your vacation well and book the activities you really have your heart set on. 

Find all the Best Key West Excursions and Activities HERE!

Key West Is Expensive! 

If you are planning to visit Key West, one thing you really need to know is how expensive it is!

Like any small island, touristy town, Key West is a pricey place to visit. The food is expensive, but also worth it. You’ll find tons of restaurants with fresh fish and seafood. Blue Heaven even has an amazing Lobster Eggs Benedict.

If you want an easy way to get around, you can rent scooters and golf carts, but renting those could cost anywhere from $50-$100 each day. That’s more than most rental cars! 

And while Duvall Street is a fun place to go shopping with its many souvenir and boutique stores, expect to pay a lot of money for that cute outfit in the window. 

Cook your Own Catch

One thing we found so fun and unique in Key West was cooking your own catch! If you go on a fishing excursion, you can take the fish you catch and have a restaurant cook it for you.

It takes a little research to find restaurants that offer this and not many advertise it. I recommend Schooners off Duvall Street or Hurricane Hole on Stock Island. Hurricane Hole is located right on the water where most of the fishing excursions dock.

So we didn’t even have to take our fish anywhere. We got off our boat, and our guide filleted the fish we caught right there. And we walked over to the restaurant and had them cook it for our dinner.

You can choose to have it grilled, blackened, fried, or cooked in panko bread crumbs (which was my favorite). 

Enjoy the Drive To Key West

Even though you can technically fly right into Key West and avoid the 4-hour drive from Miami to the Keys, I wouldn’t recommend it. Driving back and forth on that long highway over the ocean was one of the highlights of our trip.

Even though 4 hours seems long, it actually goes by really fast because there are a ton of beautiful sites to see and even a few fun things to do along the route.

On the way down, we stopped at the first key, Key Largo, and had lunch overlooking the water, and got our first sight of manatees swimming around.

As we continued our drive, we stopped in Islamorada at Robbie’s because I heard that feeding the Tarpin was a fun experience. And I was blown away! Robbies is a really cool resort right on the water that I swear you can spend the whole day at. We only stayed for a small bit to feed the Tarpin (which was SUPER fun!) but they also offer boat rides, and jet skis, and have a full restaurant, bar, and even some shopping. Don’t miss it!

Another place we absolutely loved was the Bahia Honda State Park. We could also have spent all day here while visiting Key West. It had the most gorgeous beaches.

There are so many places you can stop along the route to Key West. There are several state parks. Numerous restaurants. And even things like a turtle hospital, or seal and dolphin show.

We could have easily spent an entire week just exploring the route from Miami to Key West.

The Water Is Nice and Warm

Maybe I’m used to California water, or even further up the East Coast, so I was expecting chilly ocean water. But it wasn’t!

We went to every beach we possibly could while visiting Key West and each and every time, the water was so warm, which made it easy to snorkel and swim.

We even took a snorkeling excursion out in the ocean and that water there was pretty warm too! So if you want to go swimming in Key West, or are traveling with your kids, dont worry! They will love the warm, calm waters.

Visit Duvall Street During the Day if You Have Kids

Duvall Street is undeniably the most popular place in Key West. On this main street, you’ll find most of the restaurants and pretty much all of the shopping.

There are also several bars, art galleries, and more.

Which also makes Duvall Street very very busy, especially at night.

If you are traveling with kids, you might want to experience Duvall Street during the day, when it’s more tame. At night, it becomes a very rowdy place with a lot of people drinking. We saw several grown adults become very drunk on Duvall Street.

You can literally find bars just lining the street, like actual walk up bars. So you can order drinks just walking down the sidewalk. Jello shots can be bought anywhere you look as well.

And while this might appeal to the adult crowd looking for a good time, it might be a lot to handle for young kids.

walk up bar in Duvall Street
Walk Up Bay on Duvall Street

Mallory Square is Worth It

Everyone you talk to about Key West will tell you that you HAVE to visit Mallory Square for the sunset. And yes, the sunset is magnificent here. But really, there are dozens of other places you can catch the sunset in Key West.

However, you need to visit Mallory Square for other reasons. Every night, crowds gather to watch the sunset. But as soon as the sun is down, the performers come out!

There are several different street perfomers that come out and play it up for the crowds. Kids love watching these shows and sometimes even get to volunteer!

Besides that, there are several booths selling homemade art, jewelry, and other things. And you’ll find food carts and snacks as well.

While we enjoyed the sunset at Mallory Square, the entertainment after was the best part.

Street Performer at Mallory Square

The Beaches are Amazing

When we booked our flights to Key West, several people said “Key West doesn’t really have any good beaches”. Since it’s such a small island, there really isn’t space. The shores are very rocky, etc.

They are WRONG. Key West has some amazing beaches. We visited several beaches while in Key West and each and every one was absolutely gorgeous.

The sand is soft and powdery white. The water is calm and warm, making it good to swim or snorkel in. And most beaches have picnic tables, or lounge chairs and umbrellas you can rent. So dont miss out on the tropical beaches of Key West and make sure you plan a full beach day to enjoy one.

Fort Zachary Beach

Key West Has a FREE Bus

One great way to get around Key West (and avoid all the parking nightmares) is to hop on the free bus!

There is a hop-on/hop-off bus you can pay money for, but Key West actually has a free bus that circles the island and allows you to see all the highlights without having to drive or pay for parking.

They even have an interactive map on their website so you can see exactly where the bus is and when it will arrive at your stop.

You can find more information about the Duvall Loop Free Bus HERE!

Visiting Key West

Finding a beach vacation for my daughter’s spring break was a top priority this year! And since we couldn’t get her a passport we had to look in the US and Key West seemed like the perfect spot.

We were not disappointed!

Key West brought us great beaches, fun adventures, great food, and a colorful and vibrant town to explore. If you’re looking to visit Key West on your next family vacation, make sure you check out these 12 things you need to know before visiting Key West!

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