Depending on the direction in which you travel, Key West will either be the first or the last of the Florida Keys you get to on a trip between Miami and Key West. U.S. Highway 1 connects the more than 800 keys between these two points, crossing more than 42 bridges on a 180-mile stretch with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
In gorgeous Key West, the largest inhabited community of the Keys, you’ll find the famous Mile Marker 0. It’s also home to the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, great entertainment on Duval Street, and the daily sunset celebration at Mallory Square.
But like the other Florida Keys, Key West is best known for its fantastic beaches and water sports. Key West’s beaches are all different, and each has its particular attractions. The choice is yours! Here are eight of my favorites.
1. Smathers Beach
Located on the south shore of Key West, Smathers Beach is the island’s longest and most tranquil beach, where you’ll find nearly 2 miles of white sand, palm trees, and a sea that barely seems to ripple. Each year, hurricanes sweep a good part of the sand away, so it needs to be replenished… from the Bahamas, as local rumor has it.
You can swim, sunbathe, play volleyball, or snorkel, but don’t expect to see any spectacular fish. There are facilities and vending trucks where you can purchase snacks and drinks. Access is free. This beach is ideal for a sedate day of sand and sun.
2. Dog Beach
Generally, dogs are not allowed on Key West’s beaches, but there is a place where your pooch can frolic in the water, too: Dog Beach. This 20-foot-wide beach is not easy to find. It’s at Waddell and Vernon, tucked away next to Louie’s Backyard. Visit this beach to give your canine companion a good time in the water; you'll find rocks, clumps, and seaweed on the small stretch, but that won’t make a difference to your dog -- just don’t expect to have a swim yourself.
However, after your dog has had its fun in the water, you can reward yourself with a drink or some great food at Louie’s, where leashed dogs are also welcome.
3. Rest Beach
Located at the end of White Street, Rest Beach, also known as C.B. Harvey Park, is one of the smaller beaches in Key West. It’s also rather narrow, but the sand is white and fine, and there are some picnic tables and benches around. At the end, you’ll find the Edward B. Knight Pier, worth walking out on for a view of the Atlantic Ocean. The sunrises and sunsets from this beach are spectacular. If you don’t fancy the crowds of the daily sunset celebration at Mallory Square, you could always head to Rest Beach instead.
4. Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach Park
Not far from Smathers Beach at the end of Reynolds Street, you’ll find the Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach Park adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria Casa Marina Resort. Tropical vegetation surrounds the beach, which has fine, white sand and shallow waters.
There is a lot more to this place than the beach, though. The park features the only shore-accessible underwater marina park in the United States and is the end point of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. Free parking and all kinds of water sports are available, as well as loungers and deck chairs. You can book water sports rentals at good prices at Tropical Water Sports.
For a change from swimming and sunbathing and for a bit of history, head across the road to the West Martello Fort, a Civil War-era fortification featuring a tower. The fort is surrounded by lovely gardens and is today home to the Key West Garden Club.
At the end of the beach, you’ll find a long and recently renovated wooden pier at the foot of which stingrays can often be observed. And, while dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, there is a dog park across the road.
5. Fort Zachary Taylor Beach
This beach, which forms part of a state park, is a paradise for divers and snorkelers. It’s made up of ground coral and is part sandy and part rocky, so it’s a good idea to have water shoes on hand. Admission costs $6, but parking is free.
Completed in 1866, Fort Zachary Taylor provides a fascinating look back at the Civil War era. The beautiful brick arches were built by British and Irish craftsmen, and the surrounding park features one of the nation’s largest collections of Civil War armaments. Tours of the fort are available daily, but you’ll need to book in advance and be accompanied by a ranger.
There are also two trails that you might want to explore: the Sand Hog Trail and the Fort View Trail.
For refreshments, you’ll find the Cayo Hueso Cafe near the beach.
6. South Beach
As the name indicates, South Beach is located at the southernmost end of Key West, closest to Cuba. It’s also at the end of the famous Duval Street.
Not as long as Smathers Beach but with very shallow water and fine, white sand, South Beach is a place to relax, swim, and work on your Florida tan. There are a few beach bars and restaurants, but no facilities. Eating and drinking on the beach is not allowed, but that’s what the beach bars are for. Your grandkids will enjoy splashing in the water while you watch the world go by.
Since this beach is at the end of Duval Street, if you come at night or early in the morning, you might find crowds of revelers who have done the Duval Crawl and are quite tipsy. If you are one of them, South Beach is an ideal place to recover from a hangover -- just don’t take your beers with you.
7. Sunset Key
For a whiff of luxury, consider spending the day on Sunset Key, just .3 miles offshore from Key West. You will be taken by ferry to a resort with a private beach plus luxury cottages. It’s worth splurging for a night at the resort, because that’s the only way to get access to the exclusive, fabulous beach.
Round it all out by making a reservation for lunch or dinner at the award-winning Latitudes restaurant. Ocean breezes and a view of the Gulf of Mexico accompany cuisine that’s always in season. The freshest fish, tropical fruit, cocktails, and more are on offer.
8. Casa Marina Resort And Beach
The Higgs Memorial Beach Park is adjacent to the Casa Marina Resort and its beach. Consider a visit there -- or even better, a stay for a night or longer. It’s a Waldorf Astoria resort that features the only private beach on Key West. Established in the 1920s, Casa Marina offers beach fun, spa treatments, and fine dining with a good dose of history.
You’ll find pools within the resort and directly on the beach, water sports of all kinds, and an atmosphere of tranquility and luxury that’s far from the noise of Duval Street. On the other hand, the resort isn’t far from that area of Key West and all the key’s other attractions, including the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the Truman Little White House, the lovely Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, or -- my favorite -- the historic Conch Cottage, Key West’s oldest building.
What To Know Before You Go
Kay West’s beaches are different from those you might have encountered on Caribbean islands. They’re smaller and somewhat rougher, since many are a combination of sand and rocks, so be prepared with the appropriate gear, especially water shoes.
Key West beaches are great for lounging and relaxing, and if you’re traveling with your grandkids, they are ideal because most of them have shallow water.
Just avoid the hurricane season, which peaks in August and September.