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Key West home tours offer a peek into island lives

One of the great pleasures of visiting Key West is admiring the hundreds of historic homes that have been lovingly preserved and restored.

But few visitors get a peek inside those private homes.

Four weekends a year, however, the owners of some of Key West’s most interesting houses open their doors to visitors on Key West house tours to raise money for historic preservation on the island.

Key West house tours: “In Key West, you never know what's behind that gate that you walk by."
Key West house tours: “In Key West, you never know what’s behind that gate that you walk by.” (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Winter 2023-24 is the 64th year that the non-profit Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) hosted the Key West Home Tours. It is one of the oldest home tours in the country.

Tours are planned for:

  • Friday and Saturday, Dec. 29-30, 2023: Home Tours “holiday style,” spotlighting five homes festively dressed for the season, including one with six holiday trees.
  • Friday and Saturday, Jan. 12-13, 2024
  • Friday and Saturday, Feb. 16-17, 2024
  • Friday and Saturday, March 15-16, 2024

Tickets for each tour cost $55 per person ($45 for OIRF members) when purchased in advance through or $60 at the door on tour days. (You get a deal if you buy tickets for all four — $200 for nonmembers; $165 for members.)

All 2024 tours are set for 1-4 p.m., with visitors to travel between homes at their chosen speed via their own transportation. Each month’s tour features a different group of homes and a different experience for participants.

The tours feature houses reflecting the varied tastes and originality of their owners. Some showcase homes have been scrupulously restored. Others have been ingeniously renovated. Many have art collections and antiques.

Key West’s Old Town contains what is believed to be the largest predominantly wooden historic district in the United States with almost 3,000 structures. Many were constructed by shipbuilder-carpenters and cigar manufacturing barons in the 1800s, so the island’s architecture reflects the building styles and cultures of its early inhabitants.

How Key West house tours started

The first home tour was organized in 1960. It cost $2 per person and featured eight homes you could tour in three hours on a single Saturday afternoon. It was a very different era for Key West, according to Jean Shannon, a former board member of the OIRF.

“The Old Island Restoration Foundation was organized by handful of people who were really disappointed with what was happening to the island,” she said. “It was happening all over the United States, and it was called progress. Beautiful historic structures were being torn down.

“The organizers of the foundation realized they were losing their history,” she said. “If they didn’t do something, it would all be gone, replaced by gas stations and car dealerships.”

Shannon said the home tours were more than a fund-raiser: “We were opening people’s eyes to the fact that you could buy one of these homes and you could fix it up and you could save it.”

House on Key West Home Tour.
The 2023-24 season is the 64th year of the Key West house tours.

The appeal of Key West house tours today

Today, while few need to be convinced that Key West homes should be saved, education is still a major part of the tours, Shannon said.

“Once the 20 homes are selected, we research each home. We dig into the historic records and learn the background of each house. We want to give the visitor an idea of the history of island.”

It’s not all about educating visitors, however. It’s also about entertaining them.

“You’re walking through somebody’s home that has all sort of interesting features,” she said.  Volunteers are trained to point out details about the antiques, art works and architecture.

Sue Huffaker, a Key West resident for two decades who has attended more Key West Home Tours than she can recall, says that’s her favorite part of the tours – you’re not just seeing houses, in a way you’re also meeting the people who live there.

“It’s a form of voyeurism, I guess,” she said, laughing. “You get to see who people are. You see what’s important to them.

“Everybody puts out their most precious things and you get an insight into the person. This person is really family oriented with pictures everywhere. Or this person is into cooking.”

Her favorite thing, however, is to see the choice of art.

“You won’t see Cezanne or Picassos; many people have work by local artists in their homes and some of it is extraordinary,” she said. “I have found some of my favorite artists through the Key West Home Tours.”

Where does the money raised go?

The people who agree to open their houses for the home tours are motivated by helping to raise funds for historic preservation, Shannon said

The money raised by the home tours is used to make grants to local home owners and non-profits to fix up their buildings in the historic district. OIRF grants have helped preserve the Old City Hall, the Custom House, the Martello forts, the Key West Lighthouse, the Women’s Club, several churches, and more. Recently, grants helped fund repairs to historic buildings after Hurricane Irma damaged many.

The foundation also has preserved and maintains the Oldest House Museum and Gardens, 322 Duval St., which is open to the public to visit and tour.

Recruiting home owners to participate in the tour is an annual challenge. Volunteers who know about an interesting home will reach out to individuals and ask them to be part of the tour. Some years, celebrities such as children’s author Judy Blume have opened their homes.

Purchase tickets here.

Key West Home Tours logistics

Homes may be seen in any order and viewings may be split over two days. Since parking is challenging in Key West, it is best to bicycle or to combine walking with the free Duval Loop Bus. Here’s information and the route of the bus.

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:

Special places to explore in Key West

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Dave Cannon

Wednesday 22nd of November 2023

My brother-in-law's house was on the tour a few years back. He is a shipbuilder and historical architect. I will be there tomorrow, for the annual Thanksgiving potluck.

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