I’ve sailed on many cruise ships in the Caribbean, and one of my favorite ports of call ever is Key West in the Florida Keys. As a US port, it’s a nice stop where you can turn on your cellular service, use US dollars, and even stop at an American pharmacy if you need any refills. But, it’s also a beautiful, walkable town with so many activities that are great for families and cruise ship passengers.
While some frequent cruisers skip getting off the ship at ports in favor of spending more time on the ship, I highly recommend leaving the ship in Key West. At a minimum, it’s great to walk around, shop, and have a delicious meal before going back to the ship. It’s an easy port to explore.
There are three different docks in Key West where your cruise ship may dock. These include Mallory Square Dock, Outer Mole Pier (owned by the U.S. Navy), and Pier B (which is privately owned and is in front of the Westin Resort). Our recent Virgin Voyages cruise (as well as my last Disney Cruise Line Key West sailing) docked at Mallory Square, which seems to be most commonly used by cruise ships.
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Guide to Sailing to the Key West Cruise Port
It’s important to note that there has been some talk of local ordinances and changes to cruise ship rules in Key West. During the cruise shutdown, Key West voters to limit cruise tourism in the area.
The proposed ordinance would limit the number of ships based on the number of passengers. While smaller vessels could still be allowed, larger ships would not be permitted. While the Key West residents did approve this, it hasn’t been implemented.
In looking at the cruise calendar for all of the cruises in Key West, it’s clear that not all of the cruise lines have returned to the port of Key West. For instance, we didn’t see any upcoming Disney Cruise Lines or Royal Caribbean ships on the schedule. So keep an eye on these proposed changes if you’d like to visit this popular port of call.
Excursions or Going Solo
If your cruise ship is going to stop at Key West for a day, you’ll want to consider whether or not you’d like to book an official cruise ship excursion. Unlike some other ports, this is really a place where you can easily comfortably head off on your own. But there are lots of excursion options to consider if you’d prefer to do something scheduled.
These are likely to vary based on availability and can differ by the cruise line. On my last sailing to Key West, offerings included a bike tour, wildlife safari, a trolley tour, parasailing, a catamaran tour, a snorkel trip, a walking tour, a pub crawl, and a rum tasting tour. You may also be able to visit Fort Zachary Taylor State Park or Dry Tortugas National Park.
In general, excursions should be toured in advance, because they may sell out. Booking a cruise-sponsored excursion is typically the safest option – you’ll be refunded if the ship can’t stop there for some reason, and you’ll be sure to be back on the ship in time at the end of the evening.
You can also opt to walk off the ship and do your own thing for the day. It’s fairly easy to get around, and getting back to the ship at the end of the day probably won’t be too difficult. There are several options for getting around. You can walk around, or even rent a golf cart to drive yourself around the town.
On our first visit to Key West, we opted to purchase tickets to the Conch Tour Train. This adorable train makes three stops around Key West, while also offering narration and information about the town. It stops at the seaport, the Southernmost Point, and the Hemingway House.
It was nice to get a ride to those destinations, while also learning about the history of Key West. The Conch Tour Train offers a nice balance between all of those. Tickets can be purchased online in advance, but you can also buy them once you arrive at the port.
There are also walking tour options, which can be a great way to see the town and learn more about the history.
Hemingway Home and Museum
We chose to visit the Hemingway Home and Museum on our first visit to Key West. After visiting the Southernmost Point, we walked down to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. While kids may not know much about Ernest Hemingway, they will certainly love the 40-50 six-toed cats that make the house/museum their home.
It’s important to know that the Hemingway Home is cash only, so make sure you have some with you. Guided tours are offered at no additional cost on a set schedule. We had just missed one and decided to skip it. You can easily walk through the house yourself, reading the exhibits. No reservations are required for your visit.
Southernmost Point of the United States
The most popular photo opportunity in Key West, the Southernmost Point marker is definitely a must-see and one of the best things to do in Key West. Go early, because a line forms as tourists want to take their photo by the marker. It’s a gorgeous area on the waterfront as well. We found that everyone in line was friendly and willing to take photos of the group in front of them, so you can all be in the picture.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a nonprofit maritime museum located in Key West. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the door. It’s open 7-days a week, and exhibits include both permanent and rotating traveling exhibits.
Key West Aquarium
If you are visiting with young children, you may consider visiting the Key West Aquarium. It’s a short walk from the Mallory Square pier, and it’s located among shops and restaurants.
Tickets for the aquarium can be purchased online. Combination tickets, including tickets to tours in Key West like the Conch Tour Train and the Old Town Trolley Tour, are also offered.
Exhibits at the aquarium focus on the local marine life, including sea turtles and sharks. A Sea Turtle Conservation Tour, a jellyfish exhibit, a shark exhibit, and a touch tank are among the popular attractions. Check out their schedule online before you go to see the times of the Shark Feeding and Conservation Tour.
Shopping and Eating in Key West
While there are some fun points of interest and excursions in Key West Florida, during this past visit, I enjoyed just walking around the town. We had a few places in mind to visit, and armed with Google maps, just walked around on our own.
As soon as you walk off your ship, you’ll be faced with souvenir shops and cafes. If you are looking to have a slice of that famous Key Lime pie, there are ample opportunities throughout the town (including at the port). You’ll also see some kiosks where you can book some last-minute excursions if you’ve made a last-minute decision to do one.
We started our journey at the nearby CVS, to pick up a few forgotten items. Then, we walked to Books & Books at the Studios, the bookstore co-owned by famed young-adult author Judy Blume. This is a great place to pick up the latest beach read, especially if you need a book to read on your cruise. They have lots of wonderful books, including staff suggestions if you aren’t sure what to purchase.
Attached to the bookstore is the Studios, a beautiful space with several visiting art galleries. It’s definitely worth visiting after picking up some books.
We then headed to Duval Street, the most popular and busy street on Key West. This is where you’ll find most of the shops, bars, and restaurants – many offering live music.
Most of the restaurants are casual and don’t require reservations, so you can even choose a restaurant just by walking by. Two of the most popular ones for tourists include Sloppy Joe’s and Irish Kevin’s. During our most recent visit, we ate at Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant, which also has other locations. We really enjoyed the atmosphere as well as our meals and drinks.
Before going back to the ship, we stopped at Mallory Square, an area with some great souvenir shops and kiosks. We made sure to visit the Cuban Coffee Queen, a coffee shop in the indoor building adjacent to the square. It’s a great place to pick up a cup of coffee or a snack before heading back to your ship.
You can really have your choice of experience at the Port of Key West – from adventure excursions to the casual walking around that we did. Just keep in mind that if you do want to participate in an excursion, it’s always best to book those in advance.