Photograph by Ian Dagnallm, Alamy Stock Photo
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Cyclists pedal by St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Key West, Florida.

Photograph by Ian Dagnallm, Alamy Stock Photo

Everything to Know About Key West

Here's how to plan the best possible trip to this island city.

There is no city like Key West. Newcomers venture to the country’s southernmost city for the weather but return for this salty city’s quirky charm. Where else can you find world-class art galleries, Hemingway’s old haunts, and stores selling literal pirates’ treasure all on the same block? Although it’s less than a day’s drive from bustling Miami, Key West is just isolated enough to feel worlds away.

When to Go

Key West is most popular in the spring, for good reason. February through May temperatures are warm enough to escape the northern chill, but not as hot as the summer. Try July if you are looking for lower prices and can handle humidity, but avoid prime hurricane season, August to October.

Celebrate

Fantasy Fest is Key West’s most notorious bash, known for its rambunctious parades, themed parties, and intricate clothing (or lack thereof). This 10-day extravaganza happens every October and draws hordes of locals and tourists alike. Partygoers take their costumes very seriously, so come prepared. If you’re looking for something a little tamer, Hemingway Days draws literary lovers and Hemingway lookalikes to the island for a celebration every July.

What to Eat

You can’t leave Key West without tasting something with key lime. Commercially grown in the Keys since the 1830s, this small citrus fruit adds a crisp tartness to any dish. The classic, of course, is key lime pie—and the “best” key lime pie recipe is hotly debated throughout the Keys. But the versatile fruit shows up in a variety of dishes, including ice cream, tacos, cookies, and margaritas. It’s a flavor that’s uniquely Florida.

Souvenir to Take Home

Bring the Florida heat home with a hot sauce from Peppers of Key West. Take a seat at their tasting bar and sample flavors from a mild mango jalapeño to a tear-inducing scorpion pepper. With names like “Mad Dog Inferno” and “Satan’s Ghost,” these hot sauces will be conversation pieces long after your trip is over. Looking for more sweet than spicy? They have fruit spreads and preserves, too.

Sustainable Travel Tip

Although it’s tempting to take a piece of the ocean home with you, avoid sea life souvenirs like dried sea stars, conch shells, and coral. Often the animals sold in shell shops were alive when collected, then dried to be sold to tourists. Collecting large numbers of shells can have major impacts on the health of the shore ecosystem, and in some cases, the shell trade can push animals toward extinction.

Instagram-Worthy View

Visitors flock to Mallory Square every evening for a reason—it offers the island’s best sunset view. Arrive well before sundown to secure a spot on the railing. For a quieter experience, head to Higgs Beach at sunrise to get a shot of the old pier in the morning light. And no Instagram feed is complete without a photo of the brightly painted Southernmost Point buoy, which marks the southernmost spot in the continental United States.

Erin Spencer is a marine ecologist who studied invasive lionfish management in the Florida Keys. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.