When Florida vacation travelers ask about the top places to visit in the South Florida area including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches, we always tell them to try and make some time to head south to the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are the string of barrier islands just south of the Florida mainland which runs 120 miles from beginning to end. While South Florida is very exciting and full of amazing things to do, the Florida Keys offers a more relaxing environment and with the crystal-clear waters, is the perfect sport for all types of water sports enthusiasts.
In this article we are going to talk about some of the best things to do in the Florida Keys and Key West. From art and culture to some of the best water related activities in the United States, a visit to the Florida Keys should be on every vacationers to do list.
For snorkelers and scuba divers visiting South Florida, we consider a stop in the Florida Keys an absolute must. The waters surrounding the Florida Keys are a mostly protected with a very healthy amount of marine life. Some of the best fishing and diving throughout the United States is located in the waters off the Florida Keys.
Key Largo and the Upper Keys
Key Largo is the first major town as you enter the Keys after crossing the bridge from the mainland. It can be reached from Miami in an hour (depending on traffic or course) and from Fort Lauderdale in an hour and 45 minutes. Once the bridge from the mainland is crossed, the change in pace is noticed immediately. Travelers will find considerably less traffic and people generally just seem more relaxed in the Florida Keys as compared to the mainland.
Key Largo is a hub for snorkel / scuba diving and features a number dive shops, boats and private undersea tours. There is even an underwater hotel which was a former marine research unit that since has been converted for under-the-sea adventure.
Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park which is home to a 70 nautical square mile natural wildlife habitat extending more than three-miles into the Atlantic Ocean. And if you are going snorkeling or scuba diving, try to get out and see the Christ of the Abyss statute which a diver’s mecca.
One of the “must do” experiences when visiting Key Largo or the Florida Keys as a whole is to take a glass bottom boat ride. Check out the 75-foot luxury yacht the “Key Largo Princess” for what we hear is an amazing time. Click here for the price and more information on the Key Largo Princess glass bottom boat ride .
In the central keys Islamorada and Marathon are also top fishing and scuba locations. For those who are not into water sports, there are numerous retail shops which features work by a number of colorful local artists. One collection of shops has a giant statue of a spiny lobster out in front.
For more fun, there are two dolphin centers located in the Florida Keys. One of which is in Key Largo with another near Marathon – visitors can interact with captive dolphins at both locations. Dolphin experiences should actually be booked well in advance since they are extremely popular.
There are mile markers along the main roadway (US Highway 1) that mark each mile along the 120-mile route. Most addresses in the Florida Keys along the main highway will actually refer to which mile marker that they are located.
It takes approximately 3 hours to drive from Key Largo to the far end of Key West but more than likely, visitors will want to stop off at numerous locations along the way for shopping, photo opportunities or just to admire the scenery. The view gets better as one heads south, especially off the bridges that connect the islands. A common sight to see are locals fishing off the bridges and numerous pelicans standing on the posts like permanent fixtures. One of the most spectacular sights is the seven-mile bridge which is the world’s longest segmented bridge.
The Florida Keys are not really known for its beaches with the exception of Sandspur Beach in Bahia Honda State Park at mile marker 37 on Big Pine Key. Sandspur Beach features a mile-long stretch of white sandy beach and is considered one of the best beaches in the Florida Keys. Big Pine Key is about mid-way between Islamorada and Key West and a stop at the state park beach should be a must for any visitor to the middle / lower keys. The park features a gift shop, snack bar, kayak rentals and daily snorkeling tours to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary which is among the top snorkeling sites in North America.
Another “must do” experiences when visiting the Florida Keys is to take part in some of the water activies including fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, paddle boarding, kayaking, jet skiing and more. Following are a few options for water activities.
- Keys to the Keys Adventrues (Marathon): A guided six- or eight-hour private boat charters for fishing, snorkeling, paddleboarding and more.
- Sal Fish Scuba (Key Largo): Up to four first timers can try scuba diving experience.
- Pirates Cove Watersports (Key Largo): Enjoy a one-hour kayak or paddleboard experience for up to four people.
- Bottom Line Fishing (Key West): Up to four guests will enjoy a five-hour off-shore fishing experience.
The City of Key West at the far end of the Florida Keys is the largest community in the islands. It is more to a number of entertainment venues as well as historical sites and a visit for a few nights is well worth it. The downtown area full of restaurants, bars, boutiques and shops is a funky but fun place to visit. A number of cruise lines dock at the Key West Cruise Terminal which within walking distance to the downtown area.
There are a number of waterfront hotels as well as numerous Bed and Breakfasts and Airbnb homes in Key West. It is very easy to travel around the city as there is a very convenient bus system that runs throughout Key West and ride sharing vehicles (Uber and Lyft) are plentiful. A very neat way to tour the city is to rent scooters which are quite common in the streets of Key West. With the scooters, you can very easily tour the city to see the wonderful colonial residential homes as well as the local area historic sites including:
- Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
- The Key West Lighthouse
- Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden (parrot sanctuary)
- The Key West Shipwreck Museum
- The “Oldest House & Garden Museum”
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
- The Truman Little White House.
A visit to Key West would not be complete without a stop at the Mallory Square Market. Mallory Square if a waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment venue that hosts nightly sunset celebrations. Make sure you see the street performers which range from jugglers, acrobats, musicians and more. An evening at Mallory Square will be one of the highlights during your visit to Key West.
When visiting Key West one of the best experiences is a take short boat cruise when the sun starts to set. There is no better way to a sunset in Key West and Sunset Sail Key West offers a 90-minute sailing tour on a 33-foot sailboat for up to six people. Click here for find the price and more information about Sunset Sail Key West.
Dining in the Florida Keys
Overall dining in the Florida Keys is a fairly casual experience, even in the most elegant restaurants. The seafood is predictably very fresh in restaurants just about everywhere in the Florida Keys. Some local specialties that are not to be missed include conch, local spiny lobster and a few varieties of the local fish including snapper and grouper.
Some of the best restaurants in the Florida Keys include:
- The Fish House, Key Largo
- Square Grouper Bar and Grill, Cudjoe Key
- Prime Steakhouse, Key West
- The Gallery Grill, Summerland Key
- Ciao Hound, Islamorada
- Barracuda Grill, Marathon
- Lazy Lobster, Key Largo
Of course, one must try the real, authentic key lime pie that originated in the area. Each restaurant has a slightly different recipe but in general, the authentic key lime pie here is not as sweet as the commercial brands sometimes found in the rest of North America.
Our recommended spot for key lime pie is the Lorelei Restaurant in Islamorada at Mile-Marker 82.
Our Favorite Hotels in the Florida Keys and Key West
There are hotel accommodations that suit every budget in the Florida Keys which range from simple motels to upscale, full-service resorts. Several well-known hotel chains include Marriott, Hilton, Holiday Inn and Best Western. There are also a number of campgrounds which offer cabins, camp sites and RV spaces.
OUR FAVORITE HOTELS IN KEY WEST INCLUDE:
- Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort
- The Reach Hotel Key West
- The Pier House Resort
- The Saint Hotel Key West`
- The Ocean Key Resort
- Hyatt Centric Key West Resort
OUR FAVORITE HOTELS IN THE MIDDLE AND UPPER KEYS INCLUDE:
The Florida Keys has a way of enticing visitors back during return visits to South Florida. Its slower pace helps balance things out against the crowded and crazier styles of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches. If you are spending more than one week in South Florida, try to take a least a full day visit to the keys – you won’t regret it.