Sunsets everywhere are spectacular phenomena of color and light in motion, all beautiful events with a universal resonance. But in Key West, they are all this and more. On this speck of an island at the southernmost point in the U.S., sunset watching is a ritual. Here, sunsets are celebratory gatherings. Watching the sun dip down where the horizon meets the sea in the company of friends, family and perfect strangers is ritual shared. There is a mystique to sunsets, especially here. No one tires of the experience. Locals, old timers and visitors alike are moved by the supernatural beauty of them. Sunsets are best seen from the Gulf, or west, side of the island. An hour or so before sunset, the westward gathering begins. Spent and now relaxed after a day in the sun, people begin drifting towards favorite watching spots around the island to share the experience. What evolves out of sun, sky, water and air is never the same twice. At times, the sky fires up in broad sweeps of pink orange or crimson gold; other times it’s moody and melancholy in greys and silvers; yet others, it’s soft calming purple blue, edges shaded in pink. The unknown is the beautiful part. How it turns out is totally unpredictable. Who knows, you might even be the one to see the elusive green flash!
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
Watching the sun set from Mallory Square is a celebrated communal event. While there are other places to experience the nightly ritual, this is the most popular. It’s free and funky and fun! About two hour before sunset, regardless of where they are, people begin making their way over to this spot on the Gulf side of the island. Stretching along Key West Harbor waterfront, from the large open area along Mallory Pier, behind El Meson de Pepe restaurant, the Key West Shell Warehouse, the Sponge Market, and over the footbridge behind the Key West Aquarium to the waterfront behind the Westin Resort, street performers, artists, tarot card readers, and musicians are in their places, ready to entertain. And entertain they do! There are fire jugglers, Houdini escape artists, tight rope walkers, performing cats and dogs, magicians. The crowd moves easily as one, pausing to admire jewelry, find trinkets, have their fortunes told, listening to music, enjoying a drink, and watching some outrageous and daring acts. After the sun takes its nightly bow, performers become darkened silhouettes against the cooled down sunset afterglow and the mellowness of dusk. The crowd thins. Everyone drifts away on their separate way once again to check out Key West’s nightlife.
Sailing into the sunset is a Key West thing. There is something magical and mellow about being out on the water, cruising through the harbor towards the setting sun. As it descends on its journey towards the blue sea, the quaintness of Key West drifts by. The choices of sailing vessels offering sunset cruises are many. A champagne sunset sail can be on aboard a schooner like gorgeous, sleek America which cuts through the water with ease. Families love the casual atmosphere, fun crew and great ride aboard sailing catamarans, such as Fury’s Commotion on the Ocean, where water rushes by under the trampoline-like fabric stretched between the pontoons, and on which sunset can also be seen from the air-conditioned comfort of the viewing cabin. Or, glide through the harbor, watch the setting sun while enjoying a tropical buffet dinner and dancing on their Dinner Cruise. Regardless of choice – schooner, catamaran, party boat; large or small; engine or wind-driven – Key West sunset sails are the perfect way to top off a day. Sunset sails depart from either the Historic Seaport, aka, the Bight, or from the docks behind Westin Resort. Most last two hours, offer complimentary champagne, beer, wine, or soft drinks, some kind of appetizers, and some form of live music. Kick back. Enjoy soft ocean breezes. Glide through the harbor. Take in the full colors of sunset. Look for the green flash. Feel the cares drift away.
Latitudes on Sunset Key
For a really special sunset experience, ride the launch out for dinner at Latitudes, on the exclusive island enclave of Sunset Key, just off Mallory Square. It doesn’t get better than this! It’s pricey, but ever so memorable. Romantic too. The total experience begins with a reservation (make them way ahead), a short launch ride out to Sunset Key, accessible only by boat. As the launch crosses the harbor, it’s wonderful to see Key West’s shoreline, looking like a miniature village painted gold by the sun, become smaller as it recedes. Stepping off the launch onto Sunset Key’s covered dock, something transformative happens. The walk up the dock to Latitudes, turquoise water on each side, is beautiful. Key West sparkles soundlessly in the distance, and the sun, still high, begins its gentle descent into the blue Gulf waters. Inside Latitudes, the ambience is one of subdued, relaxed tropical elegance. Seating is inside, out on the open, covered terrace, or right on the palm shaded beach. For a full sunset view, when making a dinner reservations, ask for terrace or beach seating. Be sure to get there in time to order a drink and review Latitudes wonderful dinner menu before the sun sets in its glorious colors of the day. The moment is yours! It’s magic.
Sunset Pier at Ocean Key House Resort
For a kick back, casual time, enjoy a drink, get into live island music, savor Caribbean inspired cuisine, watch the sunset sailing armada gliding towards the sun through Key West Harbor, and watch the sun set, all from one great spot – Sunset Pier. It’s a long pier, lined with long rows of tables shaded by umbrellas, jutting way out into Key West Harbor where it catches the breeze. Located at the very end of Duval Street, right next to Mallory Square, Sunset Pier is a place to see it all. Glimpse some of Sunset Celebration’s goings-on in a muffled way and watch nature’s colorful phenomenon from one of the best seats in town. Prefer watching the sun set in air-conditioned comfort? Watch it over drinks and a dinner of conch fusion cuisine at Hot Tin Roof, Ocean Key Resort’s casually elegant rooftop restaurant.
Key West Harbor docks on either side of Pier B
Looking for a place to enjoy sunset in the Mallory Square area without the celebration part? Here’s how: walk through the Sunset Celebration crowd from Mallory Square, over the foot bridge, past the Westin Resort, beyond where the entertainers are set up. Keep walking, following the waterfront around. On the left are shops on the first floor of the Westin; on the right is the waterfront. Keep walking past a more open area where the back of the red brick Custom House in sight. Continue along, keeping the waterfront on the right, past a beautiful assemblage of boats float quietly moored in their berths. Cross the entrance to Pier B walkway and keep walking along the waterfront, to the end. It’s really quiet here (except if an infrequent overnight cruise ship happens to be docked at Pier B, but that can be pretty to look layered in soft lights. If there’s no cruise ship in the only noise is the occasional muffled sound of Sunset Celebration in the distance, and the quiet chatter of charter boat crews wrapping up after a day good day of fishing. Sit on a bench. Take it all in. It’s lovely.
Fort Zachary Taylor
Located where Southard Street ends in Truman Annex, following the road to the left, stands a Civil War era red brick fort strategically constructed on a rounded point of land at the entrance to Key West Harbor. The beachfront grounds of this State park offer wonderful, natural, quiet places to sit on the beach to watch the setting sun. The trade-off: State Park rules and restrictions. There are small entry fees for vehicles, bikers or walkers, and it can be a walk to get there, depending on your Key West location. Here’s the big one – the park closes at sunset (the fort closes at 4pm). This means that once the sun touches down and the afterglow begins, it’s time to pack up and make your way out of the park without lingering! If you don’t care about not being able to linger, this is one of the most beautiful, close-to-nature sunset spots on the island.
Also at the end of Southard Street, straight ahead and on the right side of the left turnoff to Fort Zach’s entrance is a large piece of waterfront land. Looking quite barren now, it will, at some point in the future be developed into a public park. It’s not there yet. With the exception of Eco Discovery Center, USS Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, designated as a National Historic Landmark and Maritime Museum, and the USS Mohawk CGC Museum, great to visit when they are open by day, there is not much else there. However, despite the wide open, empty space, so unusual in Key West, and no amenities, it’s a good waterfront location to see the sunset. Head over to the seawall near where the two ships are moored. Walk along and find a spot to sit and watch the sun. It spectacular, free, and lingering is ok. Here’s a tip: On most Saturdays and Sundays, USS Ingham is open for boarding for sunset viewing. For $5.00 per person, it’s the most spectacular seat in the house!
Historic Seaport (“the Bight”)
The boardwalk all the way around the busy Bight is another location to get in the sky sunset views While boats, large and small, moored tightly together at the docks, and buildings hugging the boardwalk obstruct horizon views, gorgeous sunset colors paint the sky everywhere. Walking around the busy Bight boardwalk is fun. It’s a colorful, uncontrived, very much old Key West place to catch the sunset, have a drink, enjoy simple fresh seafood fare and listen to live music at one of the many funky open air bars and restaurants with names like Schooner Wharf, Half Shell Rawbar, and Turtle Kraals, tucked in along the waterfront.
White Street Pier
Over on the Atlantic, or east, side of the island, White Street Pier, juts out into the ocean so far, sunsets skies over to the west, especially in winter months, are lovely! The long pier, known locally and symbolically as the “unfinished highway to Havana,” is actually closer to Cuba than the Southernmost Point. Located at the end of White Street, which crosses from west to east, the pier lies between Higgs Beach and Rest Beach. The moving Aids Memorial is at its entrance, and the African Cemetery in the sand is on Higgs Beach just to the left. Reaching out so far into the ocean as it does, has made White Street Pier the ideal location of the annual July 4th fireworks staging and blast off point because the pyrotechnic sky bursts are visible from around the island and up the Keys a way. The walk out the wide concrete pier before sunset is really pleasant as there’s usually a soft ocean breeze. If you make it to the end, check out the large Compass Rose mural painted on the concrete deck. It’s a friendly, quiet, uncomplicated place where occasional local anglers try their luck, and dogs scamper about. The sweet surprise of White Street Pier is that it’s also the best place to see gorgeous sunrises, which, in the minds of many locals and early risers, are even more spectacular than the famous sunsets.
North Roosevelt Boulevard Promenade
A recently completed seawall , sidewalk widening and palm tree planting project along North Roosevelt Boulevard has made this busy commercial entrance to Key West a good place to see the sunset skies. Especially if your hotel is one of the several along the thoroughfare and you don’t want to take the time to go to the other side of the island just to watch the sun set. Cross the busy street at one of the pedestrian walk overs, and stroll along the promenade. Find a good place on the seawall to sit, feet dangling over the water and enjoy the painted sky. There’s an island across the way, obstructing the sun’s entry into the horizon to the west, but the sky in all its glory overhead and over the island is brilliant.