I’ve been visiting Key West for years. Like most people, I did all the normal tourist things on my first few visits. I walked from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic along Duval Street; stopped into Sloppy Joe’s bar to soak up the atmosphere Hemingway so loved; set foot on the southernmost point in the US. and tried to make out Cuba, just 90 miles away; spent an afternoon the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory; toured Hemingway’s house; climbed 88 steps to the top of the Key West Lighthouse for a bird’s eye view of the island; took the Conch Tour Train to learn some local lore; wandered around the historic Seaport district; and attended the daily ‘Sunset’ celebration at Mallory Square.
While all of the above are worthwhile and certainly should be done at least once, over the years I have discovered many other things to do that are just as fascinating as the hyped activities. The following is my list of the top ten Key West attractions that you probably never heard about but are absolutely worth a visit:
Little White House at Truman Annex
Little White House at Truman Annex
Historical photo of Truman family at Little White House, 1948
Eisenhower had Camp David and George Bush has Kennebunkport, but when President Harry Truman wanted to relax he came to Key West. Truman spent 11 working vacations in Key West, staying at a sprawling white clapboard house on the south side of town that eventually became known as the Little White House. The restored home, now a living museum, offers a fascinating glimpse into history beginning in 1890, when it initially served as the command headquarters of the naval station during the Spanish American War, through the World War I and World War II years.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Truman Annex, Key West
This relatively new educational facility has more than 6,400 square feet of exhibits, including a 74-seat movie theater, which screens an excellent 20-minute film on the underwater ecosystems of the Keys. Other displays include an interactive map of the Keys that shows the location of shipwrecks, coral reefs, and historic forts; a replica of the Aquarius underwater laboratory; an underwater video camera that allows guests to observe coral spawning, assess damage from a boat grounding or monitor the health of a coral reef; and a baby conch farm. Admission is free!
Heritage House Museum & Robert Frost Cottage
Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage
Hemingway wasn’t the only writer to fall in love with Key West. Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Gloria Swanson, Sally Rand, and Robert Frost are among the more famous literary figures that have been drawn to its shores. Robert Frost spent many winters in a cottage in the garden at what is now the Heritage House Museum. Visitors can sit in the same flowering tropical garden and listen to recordings of Robert Frost reading his poetry.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
Treasure hunter Mel Fisher, ever the eternal optimist, arose each morning declaring, “Today is the day.” His perseverance paid off when, after 18 years of searching, he discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha in 1985. The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum displays many of the items from the Atocha, including ropes of pure gold and fist-sized emeralds, as well as artifacts from numerous other salvaged shipwrecks around the world.
Key West Cemetery
This intriguing graveyard is tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of Old Town. Established in 1847 following the disastrous hurricane of October 11, 1846, its headstones read like a historical who’s who of Conchs. The wealthy and prominent ordered fancy stone monuments to mark their graves, while those of modest means placed grave markers of brick, cement or tile. Symbols on the graves provide insight into a person’s career, family life, participation in the community, and personal sentiments. The Historic Florida Keys Foundation has produced a Key West Cemetery Map & Self-Guided Tour that is an invaluable source of information for a walking tour of the site.
Fort East Martello Museum
Fort Martello and Tower East
Within the restored fort, displays chronicle the economic ups and downs of Key West
The displays at Fort Martello Tower East, one of three historic forts in the Key West, tell of the industries that alternately made Key West the richest city in Florida (shipwrecking, cigar making) and the poorest (sponge harvesting). The three story brick citadel in the center of the restored fort holds a collection of sculptures by Stanley Papio, known locally as “the dynamic junkman.” Papio welded together scrap metal from junk autos, appliances, beds and other discarded iron and steel to create his unique sculptures, which often represented actual people, animals or objects, and then displayed them in his front yard. Since his death, Papio’s pieces have become recognized as culturally important American artworks.
Fort West Martello Gardens
Lush tropical gardens at Fort Martello West are a lovely place for quiet reflection
The interior Citadel, surrounded by tropical plantings
Originally meant to be a twin to East Martello, this fort was never completed. By 1949, the dilapidated structure was an eyesore and would have been razed but for the intervention of the Key West Garden Club. Although still undergoing restoration, the West Martello Tower is now one of Key West’s most beautiful sites. Stroll past native and exotic trees and plants, including blooming orchids and bromeliads, all of which have been creatively planted around the original vaulted brick ceilings, partially completed central Citadel, and gun mounts. And since this fort is located in the center of Higgs Beach, it provides a cool, shady escape from the mid-day heat. Admission is free, although donations for the ongoing restoration are gladly accepted.
Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas
Aerial view of Garden Key, largest of the seven Dry Tortugas Islands. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.
Yet another in the series of forts that were originally constructed to protect against piracy, Fort Jefferson is located 68 miles west of Key West, on Garden Key, one of the seven coral reef islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park. Fast ferries provide access to this remote site, leaving daily from Key West’s historic Seaport. Once on the island, visitors are free to wander the grounds of the fort and lighthouse, take a 45-minute tour of the facility provided by the Park Service, or hit the stunning beach, where snorkeling in the crystal clear waters is a favorite activity.
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
Audubon House houses 28 original bird sketches by the famous naturalist
Named for John James Audubon, world renown ornithologist, this house was the first ever to be restored in Key West. During his visit to Key West in 1832, Audubon drew 18 new birds for his “Birds of America” folio. It is believed that many of those drawings were conceived in the Audubon House garden. In addition to displaying 28 first edition Audubon works, the The 19th-century home contains furnishings that would have been found in a prosperous Key West home during the 1800′s.
Pan American Airlines Original Headquarters
Sign tells brief history of the original headquarters of Pan Am Airways
Original headquarters of Pan American Airways is now Kelly's Restaurant, which offers delicious alfresco dining
Aviation buffs will want to visit the original home of Pan Am airlines. Although the building now houses Kelly’s Bar & Restaurant (started by the actress Kelly McGillis), numerous Pan Am artifacts are scattered around in display cases and the owners have been true to the airline theme. The bar is shaped like an airplane wing and ceiling fans look like the rotary engines of an airplane. Coops hanging over the bar are the original ones that held homing pigeons that were released when the plane reached its final destination, signaling the folks back home that it had landed safely. As an added bonus, the food at Kelly’s is fabulous, so it is a great mid-day break from touring, or end-of-the-day final pit stop.
Key West is a fun-filled destination where history mingles with revelry. Every time I think I have seen everything it has to offer, it surprises me with another intriguing discovery.
Photos not otherwise credited courtesy of Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels