Locals often say that Key West -- the very southernmost point of the United States -- should be its own country, and we can't argue. With quirky shops, a laid-back attitude, and vibrant architecture, this feels more like the Caribbean than Florida. The town is so compact, you can cover a lot in one weekend, even if you're on a budget. Here, your guide on where to affordably stay, play, and eat in Key West.
Where to Stay
Key West isn't exactly known for budget accommodations, but sleeping on Stock Island offers the best bang for your buck. This area, formerly known mostly for its marina, is now being dubbed the "Brooklyn of Key West" thanks to a burgeoning hotel scene and artist studios. The new Oceans Edge Key West Hotel & Marina and The Perry Hotel Key West are the island's only hotels -- for now. Oceans Edge offers a water view with each room, along with six swimming pools, and a waterside restaurant. We found rates in June and July for $179 per night. Just down the road is the Perry Hotel, which opened on May 1. This handsome property is home to one of the finest restaurants in town (try the fried chicken) a waterside pool, and rooms with outdoor showers. We found rates in June and July for just over $200 per night for a king room with private balcony.
If you're looking to stay in the middle of the action, Ibis Bay Beach Resort offers colorful and clean rooms starting at just $149 on weeknights in the summer. The 1950s' era property is simple yet charming, and has an on-site restaurant and large swimming pool.
What to Do
The most common reason to visit the Florida Keys is for the spectacular expanses of ocean and gulf. While Key West doesn't offer traditional white-sand beaches, it's home to a handful of small, private and public beaches, along with the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. Head to South Beach, Higgs Beach, or Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, a 54-acre landmark that offers both Civil War cannons and snorkeling. Plus, it's the ideal spot for a beach barbecue.
You should also grab a bike and head to Old Town, Key West's historic district. While here, visit the The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. The grounds and house alone are worth a visit, but enthusiastic guides offer brief tours in the place where the prolific writer lived and wrote for more than 10 years ($14). Be sure to pet one of the 52 six-toed cats on the property and visit the gift shop. After, you can walk or bike to the nearby The Key West Cemetery. This small, but fascinating (and free) landmark represents this quirky city well. Here, most graves are in above-ground vaults, and some bear clever or funny inscriptions. You'll see one with the epitaph, "I'm just resting my eyes," and another that declares that the deceased was a "Dedicated Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias."
Where to Eat and Drink
You can't go to Key West and not visit Blue Heaven, a funky little eatery that serves up incredible and affordable blueberry pancakes and egg dishes. And because it's Key West, there's a rooster graveyard, live music, and plenty of cats roaming the lush outdoor patio.
For lunch or dinner, try the Stoned Crab, a Key West seafood classic. For an interactive take on the area's food scene, check out the restaurant's foodie experiences, including the Chef Distilled package. It begins at the Key West Legal Rum Distillery where guests will learn to distill and bottle their own bottle of rum. The tour also includes a bartending lesson to create seasonal, organic cocktails, and a four-course, prix-fixe seafood dinner ($270 per person).
Post dinner, you'd be remiss not to experience Duval Street, the party hub of Key West. Stroll the streets for a DIY-style bar crawl where can can visit Rick's Bar, The Porch, and Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's old hangout.