Florida is famous for many things, including it’s glorious sunshine and beautiful beaches. But truly, there’s no other place in the US like the Florida Keys. I grew up deep-sea fishing and snorkeling here with my family, eating fresh fish and locally-baked Key Lime pie while watching some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Key West is the biggest of all the islands in this scenic chain, and fortunately, it’s also very wheelchair accessible. Here are some of the great wheelchair accessible things you can see and do in Key West.
1. Mallory Square. If you want to be in the middle of everything Key West, then Mallory Square is the place to go. Located on the water near the primary cruise ship dock, this plaza is filled with souvenir shops, eateries, bars–and tons of tourists. However, the biggest draw is the famous Key West sunset, which is celebrated every evening at Mallory Square with music, street performers, and the unforgettable view. Keep in mind that the square is always very crowded at sunset (often with drunk and clumsy revelers), and the celebration starts around two hours before the sun goes down.
2. Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Pretty much everyone who grew up in coastal Florida (like me) has heard of Mel Fisher, the famous sunken treasure hunter. Fisher started his full time treasure hunting career in Vero Beach, Florida when he moved there with his wife Dolores and their family, from California in 1963. Fisher spent the next seven years successfully salvaging the 1715 Fleet, a fleet of sunken treasure-laden ships, which sank off the coastline–which is why the surrounding area got the name, “Florida’s Treasure Coast.” He then went on to discover the main pile of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha in July of 1985. This is the largest underwater treasure find in history. Fisher’s family continues the search for the remaining cargo of the Atocha today.
Archeologists and conservators immediately went to work identifying, excavating and preserving the buried treasure, much of which you can see today at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. The 1622 Fleet Exhibit is where you’ll learn the history of and see the buried treasures acquired from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita. The Henrietta Marie Exhibit tells the story of this English merchant slave ship that sunk off the coast of Key West in 1700 shortly after selling 190 captive Africans in Jamaica. In addition to the museum and its exhibits, you can also visit Mel Fisher’s Conservation Lab. Here, you’ll get a firsthand look at what it takes to conserve artifacts found through underwater archaeology.
3. Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. Known as one of the most prolific and complex writers of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway spent the 1930s living and writing in Key West. In 1931, his wife Pauline’s uncle bought the couple a house in Key West at 907 Whitehead Street, with a carriage house, the second floor of which was converted into a writing studio. Hemingway lived in this house from 1931 to 1939, years during which he wrote some of his greatest novels as well as short stories and poems. Among the most famous works that Hemingway completed in the Key West estate are Death in The Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and To Have and Have Not.
Ernest Hemingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and some of the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat, named Snow White. Key West is a small island, and it is possible that many of the cats on the island are related.
The accessible entrance is in the back of the house through the kitchen, which can be reached by paved path to the left of the main entrance. You must be part of an escorted tour group, and only the first floor–which is filled with historical pieces and even some original furnishings and decor–is accessible. However, you can watch a video in the kitchen that will tell you all about the rooms upstairs. Part of the estate grounds are paved, but much was gravel that was not passable for me in my Whill Ci.
4. Southernmost Point Marker. You can’t visit Key West without proving to the world that you stood at the southernmost point of the continental United States. Fortunately, this is easy to do by snapping a photo with the huge marker. The large painted buoy was established as a tourist attraction in 1983 by the city at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street. It is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in the United States, so there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait in line for your turn to take that selfie.
5. Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. I am constantly in absolute terror of flying insects–especially those that sting. But I could sit in the midst of swarms of butterflies for hours. This Conservatory isn’t very big, but it’s a lovely family-friendly (and accessible) way to learn about and interact with these beautiful creatures. During your breathtaking journey, you will experience an impressive collection of flowering plants, colorful birds, cascading waterfalls and trees that set the stage for the “flowers of the sky.” Witness a variety of some 50 to 60 butterfly species from around the world, along with over 20 exotic bird species, all under a climate- controlled, glass enclosed habitat.
In The Learning Center, explore the butterfly anatomy, physiology, life cycle, feeding and migratory world of the Monarch. Also get a rare close up view of a variety of live caterpillars feeding and developing on their host plants. Browse through the unique (if a bit cramped) Gift Shop offering a wide assortment of butterfly and nature related items. Wings of Imagination, the Butterfly Gallery, offers original art work by artist Sam Trophia. The acrylic shadow boxes depict the butterfly’s beauty preserved and suspended in art form in a spectrum of colors, shapes and sizes.
6. Key Lime Pie Bakery. You can find Key Lime pie all over the United States, and certainly in virtually every eatery in Key West. However, my favorite tart slice of lime heaven (and the best on the island, in my opinion) is at the original Key Lime Pie Bakery at 412 Greene Street. It’s a fun locally-owned souvenir shop with anything and everything Key Lime, but the fresh pies baked on site and sold at the back of the shop are the stars of the show.
7. Key West Aquarium. Perhaps one of the most unique aquariums in the world, the Key West Aquarium has delighted visitors since 1934. Open for business during the Great Depression, the Aquarium was Key West’s first attraction. The Aquarium was built between 1932 and 1934, and was a major part of Key West’s attempt to stage an economic recovery by advertising their city as “America’s Caribbean Island.” Today, Key West hosts millions of visitors and the Aquarium showcases marine life indigenous to the Florida Keys.
A Window of Wonder comes alive as expert guides explain the mysteries of the water surrounding the Florida Keys. Daily shark and turtle feedings and the Touch Tank offer guests hands on experience with sea life. Don’t forget to check out the Alligator Exhibit, as well as Stingray Bay, where visitors can pet and feed cow nose rays. The Aquarium features a wide variety of fish including grouper, moray eels, barracuda, tropical fish, tarpon, sharks, parrot fish, and much more. The Aquarium is small (only one story), accessible, and you can see all of it in an hour or less.
8. Basilica of St. Mary, Star of the Sea. I have visited some of the largest and most glorious cathedrals and basilicas in the world. However, there’s just something about this charming and historic Catholic church smack in the middle of Key West that captured my heart. Construction of the first Catholic Church in Key West began on the corner of Duval and Eaton Street in 1851. This would be the fifth Catholic Church erected in all of Florida and the first and foremost in South Florida. Amid great ceremony and with solemn decorum, the Church was dedicated on the 26 of February, 1852, by the Bishop Garland. The established boundaries of the Parish being bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, it was dedicated under the title of “Saint Mary Star of the Sea.”
The original wooden Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church was destroyed by fire with evidence of arson on September 20, 1901. However, due to much care over the past century in various restoration efforts, the Church has retained its inherent beauty. The Church’s exterior design represents the eclectic period of American Victorian Architecture and is reminiscent of a modified early renaissance revival building with rusticated exterior walls, round arches, and lunettes filled with transitional gothic arches, louvered shutters and colored glass windows. The stone blocks that went into its construction are in fact poured concrete made from the oolitic limestone dug from the ground on which the Church stands.
9. Duval Street. What can I say about Duval Street? I went to college in Miami, and have many memories of nights on this drag of debauchery–some of which I wish I could forget. But what’s a trip to Key West without a roll down Duval? Running north to south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, Duval Street is the epicenter of Key West’s famous party atmosphere. The thoroughfare was named in honor of William Pope Duval, the first territorial governor of Florida. This mile-long stretch of pavement draws millions of visitors from around the world who want to experience the legendary lifestyle of the Conch Republic. Whether you want to find a souvenir to bring home, grab a quick bite to eat during the day or kickback with a cocktail at sunset, “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” and Duval Street is the place to be.
This popular street is lined with famous retail shops, restaurants and nighttime hotspots like Sloppy Joe’s Bar, opened in 1933 and designated a National Historic Landmark. Even famed writer and Key West local Ernest Hemingway spent more than a few boisterous nights up and down Duval Street. A great way to describe it is the mini French Quarter of the Keys, with all that entails. It’s always crowded–with tourists by day and drunks by night. I would advise wheelchair users to see it earlier in the day during the week to avoid big crowds.
10. Key West Cemetery. I know it probably sounds weird to recommend a roll through a large cemetery. However, this historic burial place has a lot of interesting stories. The Key West Cemetery is at the center of Old Town – halfway between the Historic Key West Seaport and West Martello Tower. It has several entrances, but you should make a point to start at the northwest corner at Passover Lane and Angela Street because a small office there has excellent free walking tour guides.
The cemetery was founded in 1847 after a terrible hurricane in October 1846 washed away the old cemetery, scattering the dead throughout a forest. As a result, the oldest gravestones in this cemetery — built on the highest point in Key West — are actually older than the cemetery itself. They date to 1829 and 1843 and were moved there after the hurricane. Key West’s Cuban heritage is strongly evident, with a section devoted to those who fought and died in the 1868 Cuban revolution. There are graves with familiar names that now mark key sites in Key West — Ellen Mallory (Mallory Square is named for her son, Secretary of the Confederate Navy) and Willam Curry (the family’s Curry Mansions is a popular historic B&B). There’s also the grave of the real Sloppy Joe – “Sloppy” Joe Russell (1889-1941) who was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide and a famous Key West bartender.
11. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It might seem like a strange place to find these, but this historic Church in Key West has some of the most beautiful stained glass panels I’ve ever seen. In 1832, the widow of John Fleming, one of the original property owners in Key West, donated the land where her late husband was buried to become a church and cemetery. She only asked that the property remain the final resting place of her dear husband. And so, St. Paul’s Church came to life. The first vestry was built in 1833 and the coral rock church was completed in 1838.
About ten years later, it would be totally destroyed by a hurricane. Quickly rebuilt, the church withstood many natural disasters over the years including other hurricanes and the Great Fire of 1886. Today’s St. Paul’s church is the fourth building to date on the site, completed in 1912 and carefully renovated and well kept since. During this time, many of the beautiful stained glass windows were ordered, and installation began in 1920. Many find comfort and solace within its walls, but beware the old graveyard in the church’s backyard. You may find the ghosts of Key West’s past.
How to Get to Key West
Driving. If you’re driving to Key West, there’s only one way in and one way out – via the US-1 highway. It’s incredibly scenic, and you’ll get across the famous 7-mile bridge. However, a good chunk of the way is only a two-lane road, and it’s notorious for heavy traffic. On slower days, it takes approximately three and a half hours to drive from Miami to Key West. On weekends, holidays, or during peak tourist season, it can take hours just to travel a few miles.
Flying. Key West does have a small airport. It is typically serviced by American Airlines, Delta, Silver Airways, and United.
Ferry. Key West Express offers round-trip high-speed catamaran ferry service between Fort Myers and Key West, docking very close to Mallory Square. The lower level of the ferry is wheelchair accessible, and a round-trip ticket costs $129. Better yet, it allows you to completely bypass all of the traffic on US-1.
How to Get Around
The touristy portion of Key West is not very big, and you can easily explore all the stores, bars, and restaurants in the immediate area on wheels. With a few exceptions, the sidewalks and curb cuts are in great shape. You can take a taxi if you can’t manage walking or rolling more than a mile and a half each way between Mallory Square and the southernmost point; keep in mind that it can get very hot In Key West. Key West Taxi only has a handful of wheelchair accessible taxis, but you can call them at (305) 296-6666 to pre-arrange transportation for the day.
Another option for sightseeing is the Old Town Trolley Tour, which has many of their trolleys equipped with motorized lifts for scooters or wheelchairs. Please click on the link to visit their website and review their requirements for advance notice to book tickets for wheelchair users, and to note which stops are fully accessible.