After buying a Frontier $58 round trip ticket for Las Vegas to Miami last November during a 99% off flash sale, I had the brilliant idea to ask my octogenarian parents if they wanted to join me for a 5 day trip to Florida.
What was I thinking?
Florida seemed like an opportunity to make up for missing a family gathering in Hawaii in December. In retrospect, I think this was the first time I traveled on a road trip alone with my parents since the 1970s without my sisters or my wife accompanying us.
We logged many thousands of road miles as a family across the USA and Europe when I was young. Every single year I was in grade school from kindergarten to 10th grade we moved from state to state including California, Alabama, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Virginia. We spent three years in Germany on two different military bases near Stuttgart and Mainz with lots of road tripping around Europe too. My parents settled down on the Monterey Peninsula after my father retired from the U.S. Army, where I attended my final 1.5 years of high school.
My parents had been to Key West once before about 10 years ago. Apparently I booked them a room at the Sheraton Suites Key West for their trip. All I really knew about Key West is my mom said it was a city where a lot of people hang out in bars drinking and Sheraton Suites was too far to walk to Duval Street for the bar scene.
If you have been to Key West, then I have little insight to offer. But if you have never been to Key West, then here are some of my impressions and a few tips for the first time visitor.
End of the Road in Key West – U.S. Route 1, Mile Marker 0
Key West impressed me as the most enjoyable place I have been in Florida. The town has many of the attributes I like in European cities with frequent and even free public transportation service, a concentrated series of bars and restaurants along Duval Street with lots of live music and people/animal watching opportunities. And plenty of interesting characters.
Three days in Key West barely allowed me to scratch the surface of entertainment, dining and drinking in this city at the end of the road – the southern terminus of U.S. Route 1.
Tips from a first-time visitor in Key West
Tip 1: Ditch the Car. Walk, bike and Duval Loop free bus.
Duval Loop is a free bus shuttle around the west end of Key West.
Parking is $4 per hour in the entertainment area of Duval Street. We stayed at Best Western Hibiscus (link to my hotel review) at the south end of Simonton Street. Mallory Square, the 100 to 200 block of Duval and surrounding streets are the main tourist entertainment center of the city with dozens of bars and restaurants around the north end of Duval Street.
The advantage of having my parents with me was my dad’s disabled parking sticker allowed us to find free parking around Mallory Square and other streets in Key West, however, even with the advantage of free parking, finding an available parking space was challenging at times.
Duval Street is about 1.25 miles long from the north end of the street with the largest concentration of bars in Key West and ending at South Beach pier.
There are bars all along Duval Street for most of the 1.25 miles, along with retail stores, art galleries and dining.
Tip 2: Happy Hour drinks and food 3-6pm.
Key West has some cheap drink opportunities. There are many places with 3-6pm happy hour drinks and other drink specials. We passed one Irish bar somewhere in the center of the city a few blocks from Waldorf Astoria Casa Marina with 12-2am happy hour.
Tip 3: Open containers on Key West streets is tolerated, but actually not permitted by law
In the party area of Key West around the 100-200 block with a high concentration of bars there is plenty of open container drinking on the streets. All along Duval Street I saw people walking the street with beer and drinks. From what I read, police generally do not bother people about public drinking on Duval Street and around bars as long as you are not creating a public nuisance.
Tip 4: Book a hotel on the west end of Key West if you want the party scene.
Hyatt Centric Key West, Waldorf-Astoria The Reach, Crowne Plaza La Concha and Best Western Hibiscus are some of the chain hotels available for points on the west end of Key West. These hotels are all within walking distance of Duval Street bars and the Duval Loop bus. Duval is a north-south street about 1.25 miles in length.
Hotels on the east end of Key West are more than two miles from Duval Street.
Loyalty Traveler Key West 15 Chain Hotels Google Maps
Many of the chain hotels are on the east end of Key West a few miles from Duval Street. Fairfield Inn and Hilton Garden Inn Key West are near the bridge on the east end of the island and about 2.3 miles from Duval 100-200 block, which is the center of the bar scene. Check your hotel to see if they offer shuttle service.
Tip 5: Watch out for Key West ‘gypsy chickens’ on the streets
One of the quirkier aspects of Key West are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ‘gypsy chickens’ roaming freely along the streets.
Bicyclists and chickens are road hazards to watch out for when driving.
Tip 6: Winter Sunset seen from Key West South Pier
We went to Mallory Square to watch sunset our first night with crowds of people gathered around the docks.
Turned out the sunset view was better from South Pier near our hotel.
Have you been to Key West with other tips to share?