The Florida Keys – where you’re as close to the Caribbean as you’re going to get without hopping on a plane, with a string of tiny islands connected by one of the most scenic causeway drives in the world, everyone should take a trip through the Keys at least once in their lifetimes. It’s a trip I’ve taken four times, and with plans to go back, it’s fair to say I’m hooked on the laid back island life. In this post I’ll share the best things to do in Florida Keys. I’ll also give you some tip for planning your trip.
A quick tip about visiting the Florida Keys – they’re characterised by lots of small, relatively low-key (sorry, not sorry) attractions. Some of the activities on this list can be done in an hour or less. Some of them take no longer than a quick drink or the time is takes to take a photo. The best way to enjoy the Keys is slowly, enjoying the beauty and laid back lifestyle. Take time to dig your feet in the sand, stare up at the sky, take in the sea breeze, savour your sunset drinks and just breathe. Isn’t that how vacations are meant to be?
I’ve listed these activities in the broad order that you will reach them driving from Miami to Florida Keys (or coming from the Everglades). At the end of this post, I’ve included some suggested itineraries for your vacation.
1. Hit the highlights of Miami
Most visitors are going to start and end their trip in Miami, whether it’s landing at the airport or passing through the city to head south. Either way, don’t skip it. A city where beaches are as as likely to be fringed by Art Deco architecture as palm tress, there’s something magical about Miami. Even if you only squeeze in a few days at the start of your trip, Miami should be every bit a part of your trip as the rest of the sights.
How to do it: Check out my list of budget-friendly things to do in Miami.
2. Enjoy the drive (in a cabriolet) down US Highway 1
As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously said: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey; and nowhere does this feel more true that when you’re taking a road trip through the Keys. The Overseas Highway (Highway 1) is a feat of engineering. Built in the 1930s, 42 bridges and 113 miles of road were laid to connect Florida’s most southern key – Key West – to the land mass of Florida.
Driving along the Overseas Highway, you’ll be met with stretches of turquoise blue ocean on both sides. If you’re hiring a car for your trip, treat yourself to an upgrade so you can put the top down and feel the wind in your hair. Being a British tourist, I opted for the classic, clichéd Mustang and have zero regrets.
How to do it: I always hire my rental car from Sixt at Miami airport. They have competitive prices, good quality cars and I’ve never had any of those frustrating rental moments (forced up-selling of insurance or charges for mystery scratches).
3. Explore John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park – Key Largo
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is often touted as an underseas playground – it’s the USA’s first underwater park and is understandably one of the activities in the Keys. It’s also one of the best State Parks you can visit on your road trip.
If diving is your thing, then get into your dive gear. For the rest of us non-divers, there are two alternative ways to see the coral reef off the coast of Key Largo: snorkeling or taking a ride on the glass bottom boat. That picture above is the view through the glass bottom boat.
On my first attempt to visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, I planned to try the snorkeling but it turns out this activity is heavily weather dependent and was cancelled due to low visibility. The same can happen with the boat tour but I was just unlucky that first time.
You can book the snorkeling and the glass-bottom boat on the John Pennekamp website here. However, I would recommend booking only a day or two ahead so you can check the weather. I just turned up and bought tickets on the day for the boat tour and had no issues getting a spot. That said, the snorkeling and boat tours are at specific times so plan your visit around the scheduled activity times.
There is also a beach and walking trails and picnic benches at the park so take some time to explore before or after your tour. Don’t miss the iguanas (reptile experts, feel free to correct me on the naming).
4. Have lunch at Mrs Mac’s Kitchen – Key Largo
Ok, apologies if I’m being overly British getting excited about roadside-diner dining, but even so, Mrs Mac’s kitchen gets rave reviews and has an extensive menu of seafood. Mrs Mac’s serves great food in a great, convenient setting, just off the Overseas Highway and is perfect for a lunch pitstop on your drive through the Keys.
Also, if you’re putting together a list of things to do, make sure you put eating on the list. I have a few local restaurants listed in this post.
You can find details and the full menu at Mrs Mac’s Kitchen. Don’t get confused – being so popular, there are two Mrs Mac’s locations so if you miss the turning for the first one, the second one is a couple of block up the road. On my second visit to the Keys I had a very delicious lunch at Evelyn’s. It was a much smaller restaurant with a cute little patio, also on Key Largo.
5. Feed the Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina – Isla Morada
Feeding the tarpon at Robbie’s marina is a very popular thing to to do when you’re driving through the Keys. In fact, the marina website claims Robbie’s Marina has been voted the ‘No 1 place in the Florida Keys that everyone must visit’. With claims like that, I decided to go and check it out.
Perhaps my expectations were high because it seemed such a popular activity but I was pretty underwhelmed by the whole experience. Or perhaps its because I’m not a fan of unnatural human feeding of wildlife (I didn’t actually feed the tarpon). Either way, this was a much quicker activity than I expected – definitely under half an hour in your itinerary.
However, it was fun watching the pelicans hanging around hoping for a scrap of spare fish. And there is a cute little artisan market out the front of Robbie’s marina which is good for gifts (I wish I had space in my case for the pirate ship I saw).
How to do it: you have to pay a couple of dollars to enter the marina and a few more dollars for a bucket of fish if you want to feed the tarpon – they are giganitc. You can find out more on the Robbie’s Marina website.
6. Enjoy a sunset beach dinner at Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar – Isla Morada
It wasn’t until my third trip that I learned the art of slowing down and instead of bolting down to Key West, I took a leisurely stay in Islamorada. Because of that, I got to have one of the best dinners of my trip, at Lorelei Restaurant, right on the beach. It would have been a very romantic dinner if my road trip buddy wasn’t my dad. Nevertheless, it was a great spot and the food was excellent. There was even a live band plinking out some chilled tunes. We didn’t book ahead and got a table no problem.
7. Drive over Seven Mile Bridge
Sorry, Robbie’s Marina but Seven Mile Bridge (which you may know as Florida Keys Bridge) should be at the top of the list for highlights of the Keys if you ask me. Seven miles (as the name suggests) of pure causeway with stunning views each side out to the Straights of Florida.
The Seven Mile Bridge connects Knight’s Key (part of Marathon) all the way down to Duck Key. As you drive along the bridge, you’ll noticed a disused rail bridge running parallel. It wasn’t until I visited Custom House and The Sails to Rails Museums in Key West (more details on that below) that I learned that this parallel bridge, formally titled the Knights Key-Pigeon Key-Moser Channel-Pacet Channel Bridge (phew), was the old Overseas Railway.
Built by Henry Flagler, the railway ran from 1912 to 1935 and meant that visitors could catch a train all the way from New York down to the Florida Keys and, if they felt like it, catch a ferry from there on to Cuba.
Sadly, the Overseas Railway was destroyed by a hurricane on Labor Day in 1935 and was never restored.
If you’re on a drive through the Keys, you’ll come to the Seven Mile Bridge when you hit Knight’s Key. If you want to take a close look at the Overseas Railway, there is a Heritage Trail open to cyclists and pedestrians.
8. Say hello to Betsy the Lobster – Islamorada
In all honestly, I’ve never been bothered enough to stop the car so I’ve only ever seen Betsy the Lobster in my rear view mirror. What is it? A giant sculpture of…yep, a lobster, that’s on the side of the road on the Overseas Highway. The lobster actually marks the entrance to Rain Barrel Artist’s Village.
9. Support the Turtle Hospital – Marathon
This was my favourite thing to do by far. The Turtle Hospital is a beautiful local project that’s funded in part by visitor tickets. The hospital is home to turtles that have been injured in the local waters. An ambulance boat goes to pick them up and takes them to the hospital for treatment, rehabilitation and, hopefully, return to the wild. The hospital does have some permanent turtle residents who have been deemed too at risk to return to the open water. All in, it’s a lovely feel-good experience where you can see turtles reasonably close up while contributing to a good cause. Don’t worry, the hospital staff are very protective of the turtles and no interaction is allowed.
I’d really recommend booking the Turtle Hospital online. The turn up approach meant long queues and not being able to get onto the next tour.
10. Hit the beach at Bahia Honda State Park – Big Pine Key
Bahia Honda State Park got severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and was still in a state of recovery when I last visited with many of the facilities closed. It looks like they have made great leaps in rebuilding the park and many of the activities are now back in action. I took a ranger tour during my visit, which gave an interesting insight into the damage caused by the hurricane and the relief efforts. I am, however, glad to see that the main attractions – snorkeling, kayaking and the beach are back in action because this is one of the best State Parks in the Keys.
Don’t miss Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, which is another section of the now defunct Overseas Railway. You can get great views of the bridge from Bahia Honda State Park.
11. Stick a dollar on the wall at No Name Pub – No Name Key
With a name like No Name Pub on No Name Key, why wouldn’t you want to stop by? What makes this bar even more fun is the fact that it’s one of the dollar bars you’ll find scattered throughout Florida Keys. What’s a dollar bar? It’s a bar where the walls have been lined with dollar bills left by customers. They’ve all been scrawled on in some way (Jo Woz ‘Ere kind of messages) so don’t pin any great hopes of pocketing some vacation funds but it’s fun to see thousands of dollars fluttering in the blow of the air-conditioning. The food is a bit overpriced but you can forgive that for such a cool bar with a fun name in a hidden spot.
12. Keep an eye out for Key Deer
I have mentioned this directly after No Name Pub because I nearly squashed a poor Key Deer when I reversed out of the pub car park. No, I hadn’t been drinking, it’s just that the Key Deer are so tiny that I barely saw it in my wing mirror. Being from the UK where the deer are bigger than humans, it was quite a surprise to see these bambi-sized Key Deer. They are incredibly cute and definitely deserve the ‘slow down’ road signs because they’re pretty hard to spot.
Keep an eye out as you drive through the Keys, paying particular attention around the Key deer road signs. If you don’t have any joy, check out the Key Deer Refuge Center. I didn’t have a chance to go so let me know if you’d been – I’d be interested to hear what it’s like.
13. Eat Key Lime Pie – Everywhere
If you haven’t eaten Key Lime Pie, did you even go to the Florida Keys? This iconic tart tart should definitely be on you list and I’d highly recommend trying more than one so you can see which is your favourite brand. Personally, I’m a fan of Kermits but it took several pie tries (and a second Kermits pie) to properly decide (I say, loosening my waistband).
You’ll find Key Lime Pie on almost every menu you come across. I’d definitely ask where the pie is from – some are home made, some come from the bigger companies like Kermits. You’ll find a Kermits store in Key West if you’ve not found it elsewhere on your road trip.
Tip: your key lime pie should be pale yellow, not green. If it’s green, it’s been artificially coloured – bleugh – and I’d recommend giving it a miss. Wanna go wild? You can get key-lime pie frozen, dipped in chocolate and served on a stick. I think I’m still burning off that sugar high weeks later. On an eating trip? I’ve got a full list of the Best Places To Eat In Key West.
14. Take the Trolley Tour of Key West
Despite quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning of this post (it’s not the destination, it’s the journey), if there is a ‘destination’ to drive to, it’s Key West. And this final Key deserves at least a couple of nights on your road trip. For that reason, I’ve included a few of the highlights of what to do in Key West in this post. If you do want more, check out my post: 35 Best Things To Do In Key West.
For many visitors, Key West is considered the best Florida Key and you won’t be getting any arguments from me about that. When you arrive, I recommend taking the Trolley Tour. Not only does it help orient you on the island, the guide points out the main highlights of the island, and your ticket includes discounts at some of the other activities (including a free rum tasting).
How to do it: You can book Key West Trolley tour tickets online.
15. Go snorkelling or take a boat trip
Without a doubt, the best of the Keys is found in, on, around and under the water so make sure you add some water-based activities to your itinerary. There are endless options and it’s going to depend on your personal preference: snorkeling, diving, fishing, stand up paddle-boarding, kayaking, taking a sunset cruise, floating around on a tiki-hut sipping cocktails (yes, it’s a thing)…the only limit will be how much time you have.
I have already mentioned the activities at John Pennekamp and Bahia Honda State Parks, which are great places to start. Otherwise, here are some of the most popular water-based tours to take in the Keys.
Key West Double Dip – 2-Stop Reef Snorkelling – travel on a state of the art catamaran and explore two tropical reefs in one trip.
Key West Sunset Party Cruise – board a beautiful catamaran and watch the sunset away from the crowds. Price includes beer, wine, sparkling wine, margaritas, cocktail nibbles and live onboard music.
Key West Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Eco-Cruise – this boat trip has been certified as eco-friendly. If you haven’t spotted dolphins playing in the wild, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a magical experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.
16. Visit Hemingway Home Museum – Key West
Even if you’re not a book worm and couldn’t give a hoot about that guy Hemingway, I recommend a visit to his house. The guided tour is of the Hemingway Home Museum is full of fun stories including Hemingway’s six toed cats (it’s a thing) and a urinal turned into a garden water feature (it’s also a thing). I didn’t book ahead and didn’t have to queue or wait long for a tour.
- If you are a book nerd (like me), check out the small but informative Tennessee Williams museum, also in Key West.
- Speaking of Museums, I highly recommend visiting Custom house for a great overview of Key West’s history and an intro to the Overseas Highway and railway projects. If you’re really into trains (like me), add on the Sails to Rails Museum. You can read more about both in my Key West post.
For you book nerds, here’s my list of the 50 best travel books of all time.
17. Sip a Cuban Coffee at Southernmost Point – Key West
You’ve come all this way south, you may as well head to the buoy marking the most southern point of the USA. The only downside is that this is one of the most popular attractions in Key West so expect a line for photographs. That’s why I suggest grabbing a Cuban coffee for the wait. Alternatively, you can get up early when there is usually no queue (around 7 a.m.). You can find the Southernmost point on South Street in Key West. My recommendation for a Cuban coffee is Cuban Coffee Queen just off Duval Street.
18. Party on Duval Street – Key West
It’s very possible the entire purpose of your trip is so you can party on Duval Street and what a fun place to get your booze on. This iconic street is littered with bars and restaurants. Expect a relaxed bar-vibe with plenty of live music. Take a minute to check out the history of your chosen saloon – there’s a lot of fascinating stories about many of the bars lining Duval Street.
I have lots of recommendations in my separate post: Famous Bars In Key West
Tip: if Duval Street isn’t your scene, check out Mallory Square around sunset. Go early, order a cocktail and watch the hot fiery sun slip into the ocean.
19. Dine on fresh fish and seafood
The Keys is a place to eat from the sea and there are plenty of places to do it. Conch fritters and coconut shrimp are two of my favourites. Oysters are also popular, particularly in Key West (I’ve had to skip that luxury since I got oyster poisoning in Scotland that one time).
How to do it: Pick a restaurant. Order the seafood. That simple. I’ve got a list of restaurant recommendations in Key West. If you want to try a few seafood dishes, check out the happy hour food scene in Key West or eat from the street food vendors by Mallory square – both are good especially if you are trying to explore the Keys on a budget.
20. Take a day trip to Dry Tortugas – off Key West
Taking a day trip to the Dry Tortugas off the coast off Key West has got to be one of the highlights of a trip through the Keys. Just be aware, the Dry Tortugas are popular and need to be booked ahead.
Tip: Plan ahead and book your Dry Tortugas day trip. What to expect: a day of snorkelling, beach lounging and a trip around Fort Zachery.
21. Add The Everglades to your itinerary
On my first trip, I woke early in Miami’s South Beach, picked up my rental from the airport, spent a day exploring The Everglades and was in Key West in time for dinner. It was a very full day but a rewarding one. My point: you can very easily add the Everglades to you itinerary.
I would actually suggest overnighting in the Everglades or at least in one of the upper Keys instead of trying to go from Miami to the Everglades and down to Key West in one day. I’ve got tips on how to do it in my separate post Best Things To Do In The Everglades.
Where to stay in the Florida Keys
Here’s the Florida Keys hotels where I stayed during my trip. I have more details for where to stay in each of Miami, Key West and the Everglades in my separate posts.
Miami South Beach: San Juan Hotel – I’ve stayed in lots of places in Miami and this is my pick for the best balance of location, price and boutique hotel feel.
The Everglades – Ivey House – this was a cute Motel with lovely staff in sleepy Everglades City, the perfect place for taking Airboat Tours of the Everglades.
Islamorada – Sunset Inn – ok, there are prettier beach-front locations for a stop mid-way through the Florida Keys but I was searching for a decent priced, convenient place to rest my head. I was then very pleasantly surprised by the huge rooms with great decor and a lovely bathroom. If you’re after a road-side motel, a short walk to Lorelei restaurant, book here.
Key West – NYAH – Ever since I found NYAH (short for Not Your Average Hotel), I haven’t looked for an alternative places to stay in Key West. For me it’s by far one of the best places to stay in Florida Keys. NYAH is super social with a happy hour that includes free snacks, has a choice of 4 (small) pools, a rooftop sun deck, and is located in a fantastic location a short walk from but also sheltered from the crowds of Duval Street. What more do you want from you Key West hotel?
How to get to the Florida Keys
You have three main options for getting to Florida Keys:
- drive – this is my recommended way to get to the Florida keys because then you can see the sights along the way, which is half of the attraction of Florida Keys;
- fly – flights to Florida Keys land in Key West;
- take a shuttle from Miami – a good option if you don’t have your own transport. However, you will be restricted because you won’t be able to stop along the way. I have more details about how to do it in my Miami post here.
Best Miami car hire
I always rent with Sixt. I long ago got tired of ‘compulsory’ extras being added at point of sale and mysterious scratches being found upon return. I’ve never had this issue with Sixt plus the prices are good, the cars excellent and the pick-up/drop off quick and convenient at Maimi airpot.
How long is the drive from Miami to the Florida Keys
The trip from Miami (airport) to Key West is just over three hours, covering 110 miles. Do keep in mind that is a straight shot down, without stops and assuming no traffic. One thing I find stressful about the drive back to Miami airport from the Keys is the single-lane sections leaving you with one road in and one road out. I’m a chancer and usually drop my car then take my flight the same day. So far, I’ve not been caught out where the road has been closed due to an accident, but it’s a real risk so be aware when you book your flights.
Closest airport to the Florida Keys
The closest Florida Keys airport is Key West. Miami airport is your next best option, 110 miles north, and is the airport you’ll want if you’re looking for international flights to Florida Keys. Flying into either allows you to do the drive one-way if that’s all you have time for.
If you haven’t booked your flights yet, check out Skyscanner – my go-to sight for booking flights. I have yet to find a site that gives more comprehensive search results and I’ve not found cheaper flights elsewhere.
Best time to visit the Florida Keys
The best time to visit Florida Keys is between March and May. If that’s not do-able for you, October and November are also decent enough shoulder season months.
Do be aware that while Florida Keys might seem like a year-round destination, the Keys are in the hurricane zone making June to early October a bit risky (September in particular is a hurricane risk). Also, winter (December to February) can get chilly enough to require a jumper – fine if you’re escaping snow but not ideal if you’re imagining a sweltering beach break.
Here are my suggested 7-day Florida Keys itineraries from Miami. The second itinerary includes Miami, Florida Keys and Everglades.
7 days from Miami to Florida Keys itinerary – if you have 7 nights in Florida Keys, I recommend spending 2 nights in Miami, 1 night in Isla Morada, 1 night in one of the lower keys (your choice, depending on whether you want a beach resort or water activities or a motel), then 3 nights in Key West.
7 days from Miami to Florida Keys and Everglades itinerary – if you have 7 nights in Florida Keys and want to also include the Everglades, I recommend spending 2 nights in Miami, 1 night in Everglades City, 1 night in Isla Morada and 3 nights in Key West.
So, that’s my guide to the best things to do in the Florida Keys. Got any questions? Let me know in the comments below.
Like this list of the Best Things To Do In Florida Keys? Share it on Pinterest…