Connected to mainland Florida by the Overseas Highway, Key West and its neighboring islands lie closer to Cuba than to Miami, about 150 miles/241 kilometers north. “Key West” is both the name of the city and the island on which it is situated, and holds the distinction of being the southernmost city in the continental United States. As part of the Florida Keys, the island lies close to the third-largest barrier reef in the world, making it a prime destination for scuba divers. Its southern location makes for year-round highs in the 70-80sF (21-27C) and lows that have only twice dropped so far as 42F/5C.
Native-born residents are known as “conches” (pronounced “conk”), and their propensity for outrageously decorating vehicles of any type has given rise to the term “conch cruisers.” Other island eccentricities are showcased in the daily sunset celebration, held in Mallory Square, and the free-roaming chickens and roosters that often act as local alarm clocks. Jimmy Buffett refined his beach-bum identity while a Key West resident, and although the “Margaritaville” singer has since pulled up stakes, some still refer to his brand of music as the “Key West sound.” Arts have played a long role in the local history, with numerous writers and fine artists—Shel Silverstein and Tennessee Williams, among others—taking up residence for short stays and permanent residencies.
More than 50 species flitter about at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy, also home to colorful birds. The famous polydactyl cats are themselves an attraction at the former home of Ernest Hemingway, whose book To Have and Have Not takes place in Key West. Local flora and fauna are the focus of the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, which also features a mockup of the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory, Aquarius. East Martello Museum offers insight into the area’s history, while the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum displays treasure from Spanish galleons that once plied the seas. Water activities, including scuba diving and deep-sea fishing, are popular among both visitors and locals.
Most of the western half of the island is part of historic Old Town, easily explored by foot or by trolley. The historic district is home to a glut of Key West’s most popular attractions, as well as numerous bars and restaurants, including Captain Tony’s Saloon, whose barstools bear the names of its famous patrons. Water tours of most any kind can be arranged at the Historic Seaport, also home to a seasonal turtle museum and a rum distillery that offers tastings and tours. Visitors to Dry Tortugas National Park enjoy camping, snorkeling, and visiting Fort Jefferson, used as a prison during the Civil War.