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Top 10 Family Activities in Key West

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Key West is an exciting place for a family vacation. This southernmost city in the continental United States is filled with colorful gingerbread cottages, pirate museums, funky sidewalk cafes and lots of cool attractions. The heart of the "Conch Republic," Key West has a magic and vibe that's all its own. This vacation destination appeals to families with kids of any age – from toddlers all the way to young adults. There's plenty to fall in love with here.

While several of the island's resorts have beautiful white sand beaches, families staying anywhere in Key West can find their place in the sun. Smathers Beach offers beach equipment rentals, food concessions and a number of water sport activities. The easy entry here makes it a good choice for those with young children. Fort Zachary Beach has a historic fort, Civil War museum, a large picnic area, restrooms and showers, and shade for families who want to get out of the sun.

For those who want to explore Key West beyond the beach, here are ten popular activities for families:

1. Ride the Conch Train: This colorful open-air train is a good way to get an overview of the city on clear days. The 90-minute tour covers all of Key West's highlights, including the Southernmost Point, but the number of stops to get on and off is limited. If the weather is bad or you'd like to make more stops, the enclosed Old Town Trolley may be the best bet. The trolley tour offers 12 stops where passengers can get on and off and features more than 100 attractions and points of interest.

2. Sail Away on a Catamaran: Catamaran cruises are a relaxing way to spend the day and get a close-up view of Key West's spectacular nearby reef and crystal blue waters. These ultra-stable, roomy boats take guests out to North America's only living coral reef. Here, you'll have the opportunity to enjoy snorkeling with tropical fish or lazing on the deck soaking up the sun. A wide variety of beverages are typically served and lunch may be provided, depending on the length of the cruise. Some catamaran tours will take families all the way to the Dry Tortugas for the day. Glass-bottom boat tours of the reef around Key West are also available for those who don't want to get wet.

3. Get Close to Nature: Walk through the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory's tropical paradise and marvel at hundreds of free-flying butterflies and over 20 species of exotic birds from around the globe. About 50 to 60 different species of butterflies can be found in this climate-controlled, glass enclosed habitat. Then visit the Key West Aquarium, Key West's oldest attraction and home to hundreds of species of local sea life. Kids will love the touch tank here. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is another excellent place to learn about the underwater world and natural habitats of the Keys.

4. Paddle Through the Mangroves: Kayaking around the mangrove islands and shallow flats surrounding Key West is a popular backcountry adventure. Participants can kayak at a relaxed, comfortable pace and learn more about the wildlife inhabiting the Florida Keys. Tour operators provide information on this unique environment as you kayak through the tranquil waters. Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures offers a variety of family-friendly outings perfect for children of all ages. His custom motorboat excursions and backcountry tours are a great way to see lots of wildlife. Make sure to bring a waterproof camera for taking pictures.

5. Cruise Around the Island: It's easy to tour Key West on a comfortable beach cruiser bike from shops like the Bicycle Center, The Bike Shop, and Tropical Bicycles & Scooter Rentals. Families can also rent "Conch Cruisers," golf cart-like electric vehicles that will accommodate 2-4 passengers, from Key West Cruisers. For those with the need for speed, mopeds are also available.

6. Indulge in Retail Therapy: Shopping is a favorite pastime in Key West. Here you'll find a wide range of souvenirs, jewelry stores, artisan studios and boutiques. Factory outlet stores, such as Coach and Birkenstock, are located here as well. Check out over 800 hot sauces from Peppers of Key West and skin products from Key West Aloe - and don't forget to try on a pair of Kino Sandals. These leather sandals are handmade in Key West and retail for under $20 a pair. Take the tropical smell of Key West home with a purchase from The Key Lime Shop, with products all made from this unique fruit. Browse through paintings and the unique gift items at the Haitian Art Company, Cuba! Cuba! and Yours and Mayan. Fast Buck Freddie's, a department store that could rival Bloomingdale's, is a local legend.

7. Soak Up Some Culture: Key West is a literary mecca. Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, and other famous writers enjoyed Key West's tropical lifestyle. Probably the area's most famous resident is Ernest Hemingway, who lived and wrote novels here. Visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where the author lived with about 50 six-toed cats and wrote some of his most famous novels including A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Affirmed "parrotheads" will feel right at home in tropical Key West. Jimmy Buffet used to hang out and perform here – and his presence is still felt everywhere. There's a Margaritaville Café on Duvall Street, of course, for those who want to visit.

8. Grab a Bite: You can't visit the Conch Republic without sampling some of its mouthwatering delicacies. El Meson de Pepe, a family owned and operated Cuban restaurant, is a divine place for lunch. Don't miss their Cuban shredded beef called Ropa Vieja and conch fritters Cuban style. Kid's menus featuring cheeseburgers, shrimp and chicken fingers are available. The Conch Republic Seafood Company offers a wide range of delectable seafood and waterfront dining, while Blue Heaven is a "don't miss" choice for breakfast or a casual bite to eat. Their pineapple and pecan pancakes are out of this world. Key Lime Pie is Florida's official dessert; so make sure to try the Key West Key Lime Pie Company's decadent Key Lime Pie on a stick.

9. Explore Key West's History: Key West has one of the largest historic districts in the United States. Here, you'll find lovely old homes and mansions like the Audubon House with its gorgeous tropical gardens, the East Martello Museum filled with historic artifacts, and even a Little White House. Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was one of Key West's most famous residents and his home is open to the public for tours. Other notable sites include the Key West Heritage House, Key West's Shipwreck Historeum, Pat Croce's Pirate Soul Museum, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. Many travelers enjoy wandering through Key West Cemetery to read the often quirky, humorous inscriptions. Visitors who climb the 88 steps of the Key West Lighthouse Museum's tower will be rewarded with spectacular views.

10. Enjoy the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square: If your family enjoys carnivals, don't miss watching the sunset at the docks at Mallory Square. This fun-tastic evening event is unlike anything you'll find elsewhere. Every night at sundown, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of the day. Here you're likely to see acrobats, animal acts, street performers, musicians, portrait artists, craft exhibitors, food vendors and more. The opportunities for entertainment and people watching are extraordinary. This event is extremely popular, so make sure to get there early to enjoy the show.

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