For many, though, one of the best things about Key West is also one of the most popular... Mallory Square. The centerpiece of the historic waterfront area, Mallory Square attracts visitors throughout the day, but starting about two hours before sunset, the place really livens up.
Thousands of locals and tourists wend their way through Key West's picturesque streets every afternoon to catch one of Florida's most unique "happenings"... the fabled Key West sunset celebration.
The current celebration started spontaneously in the 1960's, when hippies would gather to pick mystical shapes and significance from the glowing cloud formations lit by the sinking sun. There were restrictions (in Key West?!) on "peddling on the pier" that the first intrepid "businessmen" ignored when they saw the swelling size of the crowds.
Unfortunately, the pier was gaining the look and feel of a vagabond encampment turned into flea market, and something had to be done. The city was preparing to act when a group of performers and vendors, including Richard Bertocci and Will Soto, formed the Key West Cultural Preservation Society.
The Society contracted with the city of Key West to manage the Sunset Celebration. Since then the group has done much to regulate and promote the nightly gatherings.
So, beyond the sunset, just what is there to see and do at Mallory Square? Well, firstly, don't take the sunset itself lightly. It's simply stunning. Watching the sun dip below the waves into the Gulf of Mexico is a breath-taking experience.
The Celebration itself is part street theater, part art exhibit, and part reunion. Probably the most remarked upon elements are the street performers. Jugglers, escape artists, comedians... they're all represented.
Will Soto is a founding member of the Key West Cultural Preservation Society, and has been performing at Sunset Celebrations for over twenty years. His blend of high-wire artistry, juggling and comedy continues to thrill and entertain today.
It's not unusual for a first-time visitor to Mallory Square's Sunset Celebration to find themselves unnerved by The Silver Statue... standing mostly motionless, when he finally moves startled visitors can be seen jumping and pointing.
Bible Bill, also known as the Rev. Bill Welzein, preaches to the sinning crowds every night... and there's never a shortage of those!
"Pet human" Rick Martin and The Tricky Dogs Show bring vaudeville back to life with their family-friendly circus-style dog act. This is definitely one for the youngsters... there's nothing dangerous and even the flames are faked!
There're quite a few other characters performing at most sunset celebrations - Pat the Bike Guy, Fire Jugglers Casey Moore and Mark Riggs, Ed (yes, just "Ed") who walks and lays on a bed of nails, and Rondini the master storyteller.
In fact, they are so many performers, that the only way to see them all - yep, come to the island!
After the last rays of the setting sun have dropped below the horizon, the last fire juggler has left the Square, and you realize just how hungry you are, you'll be glad that several excellent restaurants have located just off Mallory Square!
Camille's Key West Restaurant is part SoHo cafe, and part "place where everyone knows your name." In business for over twenty years on Duval midway between the Square and the Southernmost Point, Camille's is an island favorite.
You can get Cuban Conch Cuisine at El Meson de Pepe... and their cocktails are enough to drop you to the floor! Another favorite with the locals, El Meson de Pepe is located on Mallory Square.
Try The Original, a conch fritters street stand at Whitehead and Mallory Square. If you haven't tried one of these fritters, stuffed with onions, peppers, celery and 15 spices, then deep-fried and served with Key Lime mustard sauce, you haven't lived!
Captain Hornblowers is on Front Street, not far from the Square. Another old-time Key West standard, Captain Hornblowers is also supposedly the home of the Pina Colada!
When you visit Key West, a pilgrimage to Mallory Square is a must... and, it's also more fun than most vacation spots are willing to offer! Make it a point to stop by on your first night on the island... and you'll be back every day of your visit!