An eloper's dream, Key West might be close enough to drive to (literally, via a scenic highway right over the Atlantic Ocean), but that doesn’t make it any less of a great escape. This Florida island is the southernmost city in the contiguous U.S., and its closeness to the Caribbean and tropical climate give it laid-back vacation vibes all year long. You can feel it in the food—just take the juicy jerk chicken at Blue Heaven, or caught-this-morning seafood dishes at Bagatelle—and in the carefree atmosphere. In fact, there’s a party every night in Key West. Kick off your elopement festivities by joining the regular crew of revelers in Old Town’s Mallory Square come sunset. Performers ranging from singers to musicians, to unicyclers, tightrope walkers, and comedians do their thing in pure celebration of nature’s beauty. Then, hit Duval Street for a slice of tart Key Lime Pie at Kermit’s before toasting your love with a nightcap on the chic rooftop bar at Nine One Five. At the bottom of the island, you’ll find the iconic sign marking mile 0, the very end of US 1—and perhaps the very beginning of a brand-new chapter in love.
Best Time of Year to Visit
March - May
This springtime window is sandwiched nicely between Key West’s high season for tourists and hurricane season. During winter months, an onslaught of regular snowbirds and first-time visitors seeking the heat will crowd beaches and hotels, kicking up the price-tag. And throughout the summer into fall, there’s always the risk of a tropical storm or hurricane (technically, that season runs from June to November), which is a big deal in the Keys. These islands have minimal buffer against wind and rain if a storm does hit, and in that case, evacuation is often required. As a result, spring brings the safest, savviest time for a trip. The weather is comfortably warm (70s, with highs in the 80s), there’s less likelihood for daytime showers than in the summer, and the water is calm. Soak in its crystal-clear beauty with a snorkeling or kayaking excursion, then uncover a true Key West institution in Sloppy Joe’s—its peel-and-eat shrimp, Sloppy ‘ritas, and live music will get you into the island spirit in no time.
Pro tip: If an extravagant costume party is the wild, energetic backdrop you envision for your elopement, consider a visit during Key West’s Fantasy Fest. But otherwise, steer clear of October. For ten days stretching over the two weekends before Halloween, the city throws more than 60 parties, masked marches, and street fairs, culminating in a massive parade. And make no mistake: It’s far from tame. Public nudity, X-rated costumes, and appearances by adult-film stars are the norm. If that’s your vibe, it might be just the thing to spice up your big day—but if not, consider yourself warned.
Part Civil War fort, part striking beach, and part wildlife reserve, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park comprises a 54-acre National Historic Landmark on the edge of Key West, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico meet. It’s a stunning option for a toes-in-the-sand ceremony (hit the east side for sunrise and the west for sunset), but you’d be mistaken not to devote at least an afternoon to exploring the rest of its wonders. The island’s flora and fauna are at their peak here: Trek along one of two nature trails in the area to discover native wildflowers and the area’s best bird-watching, or take in the underwater ecosystem by snorkeling atop a rainbow of coral. A short walk away, put on your history hat for a guided tour of the Park’s namesake fort, and lay eyes on the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the nation.
Back on the beach, you have options for your ceremony: Either host one with six people or fewer in the butterfly garden or the shipping channel (a rocky outcropping along the water) for a half hour at a fee of $53.75, or invite a few more people, and reserve one of the park’s prime beach locales, surrounded by Jamaican palms and sea grapes, for two hours at a fee of up to $500, plus $2.50 per person.
Walk through the lush paradise that now makes up the Gardens at West Martello—an orchid arbor, native-tree collection, swath of wildflowers—and you’d never think it was once the site of yet another Civil War fort (see Fort Zachary Taylor, above), once abandoned and in disrepair. In the 1950s, rather than allow workers to tear down this “eyesore,” representative Joe Allen rescued it, suggesting it be leased to the Key West Garden Club. Since then, it’s been reborn as a green oasis—and, unsurprisingly, as a popular wedding locale, all the more so because it backs up to Higgs Beach (below). Six distinct spots on the property are available for rental, but perhaps the most uniquely romantic for smaller parties are the white gazebo on a hill overlooking the ocean, and the birdcage, a room in the tower sporting antique brickwork and surrounded by greenery. Venue fees start at $350 for two hours and fewer than 40 people, and tick up from there.
Start your day early at Higgs, one of Key West’s less crowded beaches on the Atlantic side of the island (right next to West Martello, above), and you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise. Stroll out along its 400-foot-long wooden pier, and take a seat on one of the benches to soak in its beauty. Given that Higgs encompasses a wide, palm-fringed stretch of Florida’s classic white sand, it’s a great choice for a beach ceremony. (Not to mention, the free parking and public restrooms to make the whole shebang seamless.) You can also bring your furry friend to this spot, and then pop over to the fenced-in dog park next door (divided into sections for small and any-size pups), where he can romp around off-leash. Or, rent a couple lounge chairs and an umbrella on the beach to sit and stay for awhile.
The 24-suite Island City House Hotel is one of the oldest operating guest houses in the Keys, but its charm has only grown with time. In its quaint gardens, you’ll discover secluded seating areas surrounding two koi ponds, and in the suites of its namesake building—a converted three-story Victorian mansion—antique treasures and lace curtains. But the vibe is more vintage chic than relic of yesteryear. In the breezy suites of the other two buildings (an 1880 carriage house and a red cypress wood house built to replicate the cigar factory that once stood in its spot), you won’t feel this hotel’s age for a second. Bright island décor, rattan accents, stainless-steel appliances, and hardwood floors give each space a modern edge. For your ceremony, consider the property’s gardens, courtyard, or pool deck (reach out via this group request form)—and to keep the good times rolling, walk over to Duval Street around the corner. Then kick off your honeymoon by extending your stay and relaxing in the on-site infrared sauna or getting an hour-long couple’s massage beneath the palm canopy of the garden.
This climate-controlled, glass-enclosed habitat for hundreds of butterflies doubles as a gorgeous spot to exchange vows and take newlywed portraits. It’s filled with exotic foliage, cascading waterfalls, and the tropical birds who thrive in this environment—including the Conservancy’s most sought-after inhabitants, bright pink flamingos (get up close and personal with them by scheduling your own private “flamingle”). Typically, ceremonies begin after 5pm, once the property has been closed to the public, for privacy and full use of the space. You’ll receive butterfly-embossed champagne glasses for a post-wedding toast before wrapping up your event with a butterfly release. If you’d like to host a small reception, too, you can arrange for one on-site in the Learning Center for an additional fee. Pricing is available by emailing Jim Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mermaid & the Alligator feels like the hidden-gem Airbnb of your dreams, but with the perks of an upscale hotel—and all just three blocks away from bustling Duval Street. Its nine charming guest rooms are carved out of a renovated 1904 Victorian home, each uniquely outfitted with its own theme (think: Key Lime Room, Audubon Room). And the entire property is shrouded in a tropical oasis of palms and bromeliads with hammocks and a mini plunge pool for embracing island time. In keeping with B&B fashion, a quaint breakfast set-up awaits each morning, featuring homemade muffins. Yet unmistakably luxe touches abound, too: Each room is equipped with oversize tile showers, Turkish bath towels, and Egyptian cotton sheets, and guests have free access to beach chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. Get married in the midst of this romantic getaway, with the Mermaid’s colorful gardens as your ceremony backdrop, and then begin your newlywed celebrations with a glass of wine at the spot’s complimentary sunset happy hour.
You can’t talk about beautiful Key West beaches without talking about Smathers. Because it’s the longest beach on the island, stretching more than a half mile around its southern edge and fronting the Atlantic, it’s usually not difficult to find a quiet spot for a ceremony (even if it does tend to get crowded midday). Most of its sand is actually shipped in from the Caribbean (Key West is shielded from the kind of waves that make sand by a barrier reef), giving Smathers the shimmering white stretch of a beach you’d see on a postcard. Since it’s become popular for elopements, many of the island’s wedding-planning companies offer elopement packages at Smathers, including an officiant, 30 minutes of photography, and beach décor such as tiki torches or a bamboo archway. But it’d be easy to orchestrate an equally beautiful ceremony on your own, too. Parking is available on the street ($4 per hour), and public restrooms are located at the west end of the beach. Once you’ve said your “I do’s,” pop by one of the area’s food trucks to share your first newlywed meal. Our top pick? Leila’s Latin Food for the carne asada tacos and orange-and-cantaloupe juice.
Sail right into this new chapter of your life together (quite literally) with a ceremony aboard a sailboat, catamaran, or historic schooner chartered in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the west coast of the island. Many of the local companies that offer on-boat weddings (like Weddings on the Water, Southernmost Weddings, and Calypso Sailing) will take you out to sea in the early evening, so you can capture the sunset in rare form—and with help from the captain, who will angle your vessel just so for an Insta-ready portrait backdrop. You’ll say your “I do’s” on a breezy rooftop deck with a ceremony officiated by the captain and then continue on a jaunt along the water for up to two hours. Basic packages start around $400 and go up from there, with add-ons like fresh flowers, champagne, live music, and a catered meal available for additional fees.
Getting a license to marry in Key West is simple, requiring only that both parties are at least 18 years old and have valid photo ID (driver’s license, passport, etc.). If either of you has been previously married, bring your divorce decree or the death certificate of your former spouse to your appointment at the courthouse, as well. (And that can be either the Key West Courthouse or any other courthouse in the state of Florida.)
There’s only one small catch: If you’re both Florida residents, you’ll need to take an authorized premarital course and present the certificate of completion when you apply for your license in order to avoid a three-day waiting period before your ceremony can occur. This also reduces the cost of the license from the usual $86 (for all out-of-state residents, who are not subjected to a waiting period) to $61. If only one of you is a Florida resident and you take the course, you’re also eligible for the reduced-cost fee and can skip the waiting period.
Once you have the license, you’ll need to get married within its 60-day effective period—and the officiant for your ceremony needs to be a member of the clergy or judiciary, a State of Florida notary, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, or a Deputy Clerk. For more information, visit Monroe County’s Clerk of the Circuit Court’s website.