We often think we need to escape to The Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean to get to paradise, but the truth is that we have a paradise right at home in the U.S. The Florida Keys, made up of hundreds of islands, has several worthwhile stops to make during your visit. There are plenty of things to do on and offshore, from amazing wildlife sightings, to simply enjoying the warm temperatures and sun. Here’s our list of must-stop spots along U.S. Highway 1 for your next trip to the Florida Keys.
Key Largo is the northernmost of the Florida Keys and is located just 18 miles south of Miami. Because of its proximity to the mainland, Key Largo is a popular weekend destination for Floridians and road-trippers visiting Miami and looking for something a little calmer. The highlight of a visit to Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which includes 70 nautical square miles of beautiful Atlantic Ocean waters and the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. The park is famed for its fabulous aquatic life (and its underwater statue of Jesus Christ) and is a popular spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and camping. Lines can be long, as this is one of the most visited state parks in Florida, but the warm water, colorful fish, and possible eagle ray sightings are well worth it. There’s also plenty to see above the surface, with fishing charters, dolphin cruises, the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary, great nature trails, and — of course — spectacular sunsets. When in Key Largo, don’t forget to stop by Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for great seafood and key lime pie — you’ll need some fuel for all of that adventure, after all.
Recommended Hotel: Amara Cay Resort
Islamorada, only half an hour south of Key Largo, is a chain of six islands with a laid-back village vibe. It’s known as the sports fishing capital of the world, so for avid adventurers and water-sports enthusiasts, this is a must-stop spot. Islamorada is also well known for its reefs, making this a great destination for snorkeling and diving.
As mentioned before, fishing is king here, and Islamorada’s Atlantic waters are home to snapper, grouper, and swordfish, while the backwaters are brimming with tarpon, bonefish, and snook, making it a sport-fishing dream come true. It’s easy to see why new and professional anglers cast their lines into these waters.
While a lot of the fun at Islamorada is in the water, there’s plenty to enjoy on dry land as well. Robbie’s of Islamorada is easily one of the most popular spots in town, as guests can purchase buckets of bait to feed the famous tarpon from the docks. It’s also the spot for planning snorkeling trips and excursions to nearby Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park and Indian Key Historic State Park.
As a bonus, this small village has a growing foodie scene, which means you can try all the catches of the day without lifting a fishing rod. Try the laid-back and casual Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar as well as the upscale Chef Michael’s. Plus, you can sample local brews that pay homage to the Florida Keys at Florida Keys Brewing Company or Islamorada Beer Company. If you think you may need a break from all of that fresh seafood, you can visit the tasty M.E.A.T Eatery and Taproom on Islamorada, which has been featured on Food Network’s hit show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”
Recommended Hotel: Casa Morada
Marathon is one of those special places that blends American history with the great outdoors. This former fishing village was founded by New Englanders in the early 1800s, making it one of the most historic stops along U.S. 1, aside from Key West. Overall, Marathon is the perfect home base for folks looking to explore the region to the fullest. The island is located smack in the middle of the Florida Keys, cutting down on drive times for anyone planning to visit a combination of spots in the Upper, Lower, and Middle Keys. Traveling by boat? Take advantage of Marathon’s many wet and dry slips. Boaters can dock directly into over 2,400 slips situated at Marathon’s marinas, restaurants, and hotels. However, if you are driving, be sure to take the scenic, historic route across Marathon’s famous Seven Mile Bridge, or just do as the locals do and cast a line off the side and fish for wild, wide-mouthed tarpon.
Marathon is also a popular spot for families who prefer easy, low-key, and educational vacations that blend history, nature, activities, and good food. Top family-friendly activities include visiting The Turtle Hospital, the world’s only veterinary-certified turtle hospital that cares for injured sea turtles and offers educational tours. It’s one of the most popular attractions in the Keys. Other marine lovers visit the Dolphin Research Center to swim with and learn about dolphins.
Recommended Hotel: Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort
Big Pine Key, Bahia Honda, and the Lower Keys
Much of what the Florida Keys offers is rooted in nature, both on land and sea, though Big Pine Key and its neighboring Lower Keys are where you want to be for the most memorable nature-filled adventures. In fact, these Lower Keys have been nicknamed “the Natural Keys” because of their preserved beauty and access to natural areas. One of our favorite spots is the National Key Deer Refuge, where visitors have the chance to spot Key deer, a tiny white-tailed deer only found in the Florida Keys, and go for hikes through the refuge. There are also great places to go snorkeling along the reefs and opportunities to see manatees, Florida’s gentlest giants.
Other great nature activities include kayaking through mangrove forests and over seagrass flats, bird-watching, observing herons on the shore at the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, and seeing freshwater wildlife at the Blue Hole (keep your eyes peeled for alligators, turtles, and colorful birds). Bahia Honda State Park is one of the prettiest beaches in the Florida Keys. It has a pristine, natural vibe and there are opportunities for swimming, boating, snorkeling, kayaking, and camping.
Recommended Hotel: Casa Marina Key West
There are plenty of reasons why Key West is the most popular destination in the Keys. With everything from gorgeous historical buildings (like Hemingway’s Home) to bumping nightlife and great food, a stop here is a no-brainer. Like all of the other Florida Keys, Key West offers fantastic boating, snorkeling, fishing, and other outdoor opportunities.
Modern-day Key West is split into two parts: Old Town and New Town. Old Town is full of history, bars, and much of what most visitors to Key West have been coming to see for years, while New Town highlights some of Key West’s fresher developments and spots that nod to the city’s history. Smoke Cuban-inspired cigars and taste local rum cocktails at Rum Row, visit the cursed doll inside an old fort-turned-museum, charter a boat or hand-feed tarpon at Charter Boat Row, or soak up the sun on Smathers Beach, one of the only non-rocky beaches in Key West.
You’ll find more mainstream restaurants in Key West than you will elsewhere in the Keys, but it’s still loaded with hometown favorites like Blue Heaven and the Green Parrot dive bar. It’s also worth noting that cruise ship passengers, bachelor parties, and spring breakers often flock to the popular bar-lined Duval Street and Mallory Square’s waterfront restaurants. While Mallory Square can be boozy, it’s especially famous for its Sunset Celebration, where musicians, artists, performers, and revelers all start mingling about two hours before sunset. You can add a trip to the Little White House (President Truman’s winter home turned museum) to your itinerary, and even go nude while you drink at the Garden of Eden.
Key West is also home to a thriving LGBTQ community and has some of the anything-goes vibe you’ll find in places like New Orleans. That’s particularly true during its festivals. Fantasy Fest is the most well-known Key West festival, which takes place over the 10 days leading up to Halloween in October. In July you’ll find Hemingway Days, when the island fetes its most famous literary resident.
Recommended Hotel: Ocean Key Resort
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most underrated places in the U.S. National Parks System. Here, you’ll find seven islands that are bursting with wildlife above and below the water. It also happens to be one of the least visited national parks, meaning a visit to Dry Tortugas almost guarantees peace, quiet, and a feeling like you’ve escaped it all. The small islands are fringed with picture-perfect beaches, and stunning marine life swims in the waters offshore. It’s also home to a historic fort — Fort Jefferson — and campgrounds for those who want to stay overnight. Come prepared to scope out tons of birdlife, as this is a major breeding ground and migration stop as well. The islands are only accessible by boat or seaplane, most easily from Key West.
Recommended Hotel: Capitana Key West
With additional reporting by Riley Kirkpatrick and Kyle Valenta.
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