Key West is the only "Caribbean" island in the continental United States. Turquoise water, tropical setting and relaxed atmosphere combine to create an exotic place, yet its language and culture are comfortably American.
Visually Key West is quaint and lush. It’s casual, yet surprisingly sophisticated. It’s quirky, unique, interesting, friendly and fun. It’s a walking town, made for exploring. It’s easy to get to know, and easy to feel at home.
The look, feel and colorful character of Key West experienced by the visitor today stems from a history shaped by the geographic peculiarities of this 4 x 2 mile speck in the Straits of Florida: a deep natural harbor and strategic access to the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
The first permanent settlement on the once barren island, now shaded by the canopies of exotic trees, was established by a handful of hardy souls in 1822. A maritime town grew around the harbor, a strategic stop, by design and by accident, for ships from far-away places traveling the Gulf Stream trade route. By the mid 1800s, Key West was a bustling town, for a time one of the richest in the United States, a result of the wrecking or salvaging efforts. Fire raging through town in 1886 destroyed wharves, warehouses, cigar factories and homes, but the resilient community soon rebuilt through the skill of local ships’ carpenters. Their sturdily built structures, with architectural details borrowed from global ports of call, remain largely intact today, restored and transformed into a mix of stores, restaurants, bars, galleries, museums and private homes.
The result is Old Town Key West, a town with modern conveniences and the quaint look of another era. Its picturesque collection of 19th century architecture, one of the finest in America, makes Old Town a popular tourist attraction. Blocks of balanced vernacular frame houses, small in scale with touches of Victorian gingerbread, create a virtual museum of architectural gems. The visual delight of pastel hues, white picket fences, narrow yards draped in exotic plants growing with abandon, and tin roofs glinting in the sun, give Key West its distinct charm.
Spirited residents have established businesses in historic buildings along busy Duval Street, around popular Mallory Square and down small Old Town lanes. Restaurants are plentiful, most with garden or waterfront seating; music flows from walk-up bars. Specialty shops displaying colorful items open onto narrow streets alongside upscale boutiques. Interesting museums engage the imagination, art galleries delight the senses, and acclaimed professional theater entertains in intimate venues.
Today, Key West’s economy is tourism based, but it’s not just another contrived, transient tourist town. Its character, speech, food and color come from the deeply rooted local “Conchs,” for whom it has been home for generations. Many trace their heritage to Cuba, just 90 miles away, through forefathers who arrived in the late 1800s to work in the cigar industry; others to the Bahamas, where families, both black and white, crisscrossed the Gulf Stream to trade and work the wrecking trade.
The harbor continues to give the island life, bustling with water activities for visitors to enjoy. Gleaming cruise ships line docks instead of tall masted trading schooners; charter boat fishing and sunset sails have replaced sponge processing and turtle canning. Surrounding reefs, whose treacherous passage once made locals into millionaires, offer glorious snorkeling and diving. The cobalt Gulf Stream, traveled by the Spanish to transport treasure from the New World, produces the thrill of game fishing. The peaceful, mangrove-laced backcountry, where pirates once hid, offers nature to explore.
No longer isolated, Key West is reachable by land, by air and by sea. Perched at the very end of US Highway 1, literally at the end of the road, approximately 160 miles southwest of Miami, it is perceived as a place where anything is possible. It is the artist's muse, the writer's inspiration, the entrepreneur's vision and the wanderer's green flash.