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Key West Cruise Port: Tips, Attractions, Weather

Most ships dock in Key West by Fort Zachary. © 2023 by Scott S. Bateman
Most ships dock in Key West by Fort Zachary. © 2023 by Scott S. Bateman

The Key West cruise port in Florida is closer to Cuba than Miami, but visitors will experience a unique blend of cultures, attractions and lifestyles.

This remote island at the southernmost tip of the United States is growing in popularity as a cruise port because of expanded port facilities as well as the island’s history and attractions.

Even though it isn’t in the Caribbean, it is a fairly common stop on western Caribbean cruises, especially ones that embark from Tampa and other Florida ports such as Miami.

Cruise passengers don’t disembark at an actual cruise terminal. Instead, they will disembark right onto the docks at Fort Zachary cruise pier or the Mallory Square Dock next to Mallory Square Plaza in the heart of the town.

Anyone who disembarks at Fort Zachary can take a free shuttle into town—or walk one and a half miles if they have that kind of time and energy. We chose the shuttle.

Quick Travel Tips

  • The highly commercial town center is the main attraction.
  • Free shuttles take cruise visitors around the city.
  • April and May are the best months to visit because of weather.

Where is Key West?

Key West is both a city and an island in the Straits of Florida. It is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States. The city has a population of about 25,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Key West is about 160 miles southwest of the Miami cruise port on the eastern coast of Florida. It is about 240 miles from the Tampa port on the western coast of Florida.

Attractions and Shore Excursions

Walking Around Attractions

Key West Cruise Port Map

Key West has plenty of attractions and points of interest to see on foot. On a busy cruise day, the town center is packed with people, starting with Mallory Square.

Mallory Square is a plaza with daily shopping and nightly entertainment and sunset watching. The amount of entertainment varies with each night. It is next to the Key West Aquarium and Duval Street, which is the main tourist drag.

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene Street, is hard to miss. It has many shipwreck displays including a 77.76 carat emerald and other valuable items from a 1622 fleet of Spanish treasure galleons. It also has educational exhibits and laboratory tours. The museum claims it is the only fully accredited museum in the Florida Keys. Tickets are $17.50 per person with discounts for children.

Visitors will find the former homes of such famous people as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council says. They are scattered throughout the city and usually open to the public.

The two closest to Mallory Square are the Harry S. Truman Little White House at 111 Front Street, known as Florida’s only Presidential museum, and the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, 205 Whitehead Street.

The Truman house served both Truman as well as Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. It was lightly attended on the day of our visit. The house has a small free area while a tour costs $22.95 per person with discounts for children.

Audubon House and Tropical Gardens is the restored mansion of the Geiger family, which lived there for 110 years. The Museum commemorates the 1832 visit to Key West of artist John James Audubon and displays his artwork throughout the mansion. The gardens often have more than 200 orchids in bloom along with a koi pond, cook house and herb garden. Tickets are $15 with discounts for children.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is at 907 Whitehead Street, which is less than one mile from each of the cruise docks. It is a long walk on a hot day. Visitors may want to take the free shuttle instead. Tickets are $18 per person with discounts for children.

Fort Zachary Taylor protected the Florida Keys during the Civil War. This state historical park also has a beach, fishing, snorkeling and picnic grounds. It is about one mile from Mallory Square on the southwest tip of the island.

Fort Zachary Taylor
Fort Zachary Taylor. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons license

The Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center, 35 East Quay Road, has more than 6,000 square feet of exhibits educating visitors about the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The sanctuary is one of 14 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System. Exhibits include a mock-up of Aquarius, the only underwater ocean laboratory in the world. Entrance is free.

Shore Excursions

The Key West cruise port doesn’t have many shore excursions outside of touring the town or some of the typical water excursions such as snorkeling, sailing and kayaking.

Anyone who wants to tour the area without walking much on a hot day can take a shore excursion. The Conch Tourist Train is a trolley that drives along Duval Street and makes various stops including Old Town, the waterfront and the Hemingway house. The “train” and Old Town Trolley are the two main motorized tour services on Key West. Prices are $30 to $35 per person.

Anyone with enough time can take a ferry on a 70-mile trip to Dry Tortugas National Park. It has Fort Jefferson, a Civil War fort that is the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. The ferry ride is two hours and 15 minutes each way and includes breakfast and lunch. Visitors can spend about four hours exploring the fort and get back to Key West at about 5:30 p.m. The cost is $180 with discounts for children.

Otherwise, the handful of snorkeling, sailing and kayaking excursions cost about $50 to $150 per person depending on the length and whether they offer amenities such as food or beverages.

Beaches Near the Cruise Port

Despite being a Florida island, Key West isn’t much of a beach destination. The majority of cruise visitors head straight to town for the attractions there.

Still, anyone who wants some beach time may find the best choice is the 54-acre Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Anyone who lands at the Fort Zachary Taylor cruise pier can walk to the beach at the park. They also can tour the historic fort, which dates back to 1845.

Our ship docked by the Truman Annex of the Key West Naval Air Station. It also has a beach, but visitors need to go through a military checkpoint and show a photo ID.

Getting Around / Transportation

Key West has some of the best public transportation of any Caribbean port we have ever visited. And we have visited a lot of them.

The free shuttles that pick up passengers right at the docks follow a standard route from the docks to the town center. But they can stop at various points along the way to pick up or drop off passengers.

The Conch Tourist Train is a trolley that drives along Duval Street and makes various stops including Old Town, the waterfront and the Hemingway house. The “train” and Old Town Trolley are the two main motorized tour services on Key West.

Taxis and rental cars are almost non-existent. Nor do any cruise visitors need them unless they plan to tour all of Key West island along with nearby connected islands.

Weather / Best Time to Go

Key West monthly temperatures
Key West average monthly temperatures. © 2023 Scott S. Bateman

The average high temperature in Key West ranges from the mid 70s Fahrenheit in January to the high 80s Fahrenheit in the summer, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

The island has a dry season from November through May when the average rainfall is two to three inches a month. The rainy season peaks in September with an average rainfall of nearly seven inches.

The best time to go for a combination of warm temperatures and low risk of rain is April or May. The worst time to go is the rainy season, especially September and October.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. He is the author of four books about cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexican Riviera.
November 10, 2023

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