Popular Key West Shore Excursions
One of Key West's treasures and one of the easiest stops to make is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Walk through the Spanish-styled home built in 1851 and out to the swimming pool (the first one in Key West). The preserved estate features about 40 extremely well-cared for, free-roaming cats, descendants of the six-toed felines that lazed on Hemingway's lap while he wrote. Tour guides know each cat by name. (907 Whitehead Street; 305-294-1136; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Across the street from Hemingway's old digs and 88 steps up a circular iron stairway is the top of the Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum, offering spectacular views of the island. Opened in 1848, the lighthouse became known for having a woman as its first keeper -- unheard of in the 19th century. The U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1969. (938 Whitehead Street; 305-294-0012; open daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Souvenir shops are plentiful downtown, serving up conch shells, T-shirts, cigars, watercolor paintings and the must-have Mile 0 magnets (U.S. Route 1 has its southern terminus in Key West), shot glasses and bumper stickers. For more discerning keepsakes, Key West offers art galleries of various prices and genres and feel-good boutiques and shops: Besame Mucho (315 Petronia Street) is a fabulous store, with an apothecary and housewares like Moroccan tea glasses. Key West Aloe (416 Greene Street) features locally made goodies. Key West Hammock Company (717 Duval Street) is a hammock haven. The not-so-local favorites include dressmaker Lilly Pulitzer (600 Front Street) and the Tervis Store (431 Front Street) selling insulated tumblers.
Named for the painter and bird expert James Audubon, the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens is a nonprofit opened in 1960 by a Key West native. The gardens are lovely, and in addition to tours, a gift shop and gallery offer a host of Audubon prints. (205 Whitehead Street; 305-294-2116; open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Stroll the two-mile Harbor Walk, which runs from Front to Grinnell streets at the city-owned historic seaport. Shops and restaurants line the harbor, which is home to schooners, catamarans and other sightseeing vessels.
A reliable attraction on the island is the Key West Aquarium, worth seeing for its "Touch Tank," where visitors may hold sea stars, conchs, giant hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs. Tours and feedings start at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., and often include close-up feedings of sharks. (1 Whitehead Street; 305-296-2051; open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Harry S. Truman Little White House was originally built as officers' quarters for those stationed at the local Navy Station. In 1946, President Truman made it a winter respite for working vacations, as did Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy in later years. Today, it's a living history museum and meeting place for government leaders. (111 Front Street; 305-294-9911; open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
If you are serious about sightseeing, you can purchase a Key West Island Passport. It includes the Conch Train or Old Town Trolley, the aquarium, the Hemingway Home and Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum, the Little White House as well as some shopping discounts.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum showcases treasures salvaged from the 17th-century Spanish galleon "Nuestra Senora de Atocha," shipwrecked in the waters off of Key West. (200 Greene Street; 305-294-2633; open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends)
History lovers will enjoy the Key West Cemetery for offbeat headstone inscriptions such as "I Told You I Was Sick" and "At Least I Know Where He's Sleeping Tonight." You can browse on your own with the provided self-guided tour maps. (701 Passover Lane; 305-292-8177; open dusk to dawn daily)
If you don't want to dive, check out the waters while sailing along on a huge glass-bottomed catamaran. The reef that surrounds the city is the only living coral reef in North America and is chock-full of exotic fish, including spiny lobsters and snapper. The Fury Catamaran Glass Bottom Boat cruises at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., with sunset cruises at 4:30 p.m. (Departs at the end of Duval Street, between Ocean Key Resort and Pier House Resort; 877-994-8898)
One of Key West's most treasured historic landmarks, the San Carlos Institute was founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles as a center for education and civic pride. Today, it's a museum, library, art gallery, theater and a site for community college classes. (516 Duval Street; 305-294-3887)
Best Party Beach: Smathers Beach, off South Roosevelt Boulevard, features shallow water, so it's good for little kids, too. There are food concessions and restrooms. Equipment rentals include chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, windsurf boards and other water sports.
Best for Quiet Time: Rest Beach near the White Street Pier, at about 300 feet long, is a locals' favorite. So is the pedestrian and bicycle-only fishing pier, where glorious sunset-viewing and people-watching are free gifts of the island. Amenities are few, but restrooms are just down the road at Higgs Beach.
Best Gay-Friendly Beach: Higgs Beach at the end of Reynolds Street offers chairs and snorkel equipment rentals, tennis courts, volleyball courts, kids playgrounds on both sides of the road, a beachside restaurant, outdoor showers and a spacious dog park -- with separate space for little dogs -- across from the beach.
Best for Snorkeling: Fort Zachary Taylor State Park's beach at the end of Southard Street requires a daily entrance fee. The beach offers sparkling blue and green waters, a snack bar, snorkel and chair rentals, shady picnic areas with grills and tables, and the best public restrooms and showers on the island. There is also the historic fort and a Civil War Museum.