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. That's right, we're talking about the Florida Keys. Most of us have heard about how awesome Key West is, but the rest of the islands shouldn't be overlooked. And while the hurricane season of 2017 didn't leave the Keys unharmed, the recovery has generally been swift and much of the region is back on its feet and welcoming visitors.
So what makes the Florida Keys so special? Collectively, the region is made up of hundreds of islands, so there are a ton of worthwhile stops to make during a road trip from the mainland down to Key West. You'll find plenty to do onshore and off, whether you're after amazing wildlife sightings or simply want to bask in the warm temperatures and sun. We know the options can be overwhelming, but not to worry — we've broken it down for you. Here's our list of must-stop spots along U.S. Highway 1 for your next trip to the Florida Keys.
With additional reporting by Riley Kirkpatrick and Kyle Valenta.
What You Need to Know Before Your Florida Keys Vacation:
A road trip down the Florida Keys is one of the most popular ways to visit. It’s also convenient, as there’s one road connecting the major islands in the chain. It takes about three-and-a-half hours to reach Key West from mainland Florida, just south of Miami, via the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1). The Keys themselves are broken into three categories: the Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys. The closest major airport is in Miami, where numerous car rental outlets are available. A small amount of flights also land at Key West Airport if you’d prefer to use that as a home base, though you’ll shell out more for your flight than flying into Miami.
The Upper Keys (excluding Biscayne Bay) run from Key Largo to Lower Matecumbe Key at about mile marker 75 (MM75). The Middle Keys start at Craig Key and extend to the city of Marathon — ending at the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge. And, last but not least, the Lower Keys start at MM47 and finish at Key West, which is MM0. Since the majority of the Keys are linked by just one road, the mile markers are the most helpful ways to pinpoint locations along the route.
Keep in mind that you’re not going to find a beach on every island in the Keys, though Bahia Honda and Curry Hammock State Park are nice options. That’s especially true as 2017’s Hurricane Irma caused significant damage to the coastline here. For the most up-to-date information on the recovery, check the Florida State Parks website before your road trip through the Keys to make sure your perfect stretch of sand has reopened.
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. Diving enthusiasts can even check into the Jules’ Undersea Lodge, where you have to suit up and dive down to enter the guest rooms. 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.
Kona Kai Resort, Gallery & Botanic Garden is a special property that sits right on Florida Bay. The adults-only hotel has its own art gallery and botanical garden on-site, plus only 13 rooms, keeping things personalized and intimate. Features include a small beach and a beachfront pool, and you’ll find free fresh fruit by the hot tub. It’s a great place to unwind for a night at the beginning of your Florida Keys road trip.
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 we said, 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 a 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.”
Epitomizing the laid-back Keys lifestyle, Casa Morada is an upscale 16-room boutique hotel that’s ideal for groups of friends or couples looking for a romantic getaway. The atmosphere is peaceful and serene, with tropical garden grounds, and a small private island with pool and tons of loungers. Guests have their pick of free activities including yoga classes, bocce, lounging by the small pool, or renting kayaks, push bikes, or snorkel gear.
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. Not enough outdoor activities on the agenda yet? Set out on an SUP or kayak tour around the mangroves.
It’s not all fishing and boating in Marathon, though. You can hit up theater shows, check out museum exhibitions, and eat at any of the tasty food festivals hosted on the island. Speaking of food, be sure to get your fill of locally-harvested fish, stone crabs, lobster, and of course, key lime pie. And, of course, the famous Seven Mile Bridge is not to be missed, as it connects the city of Marathon, which is part of the Middle Keys, to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys. Pro tip: Marathon is also your spot if you’re looking for beautiful white-sand beaches, often a rarity in the Florida Keys. Sombrero Beach and Coco Plum Beach are both free and open to the public.
Spread across 12 waterfront acres in the Florida Keys, Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort is a collection of upscale tropical Victorian-style homes divided into multi-story two- and three-bedroom suites with full kitchens and water views. There are also a handful of guest rooms without ocean views. With a private beach, three pools (including one adults-only), and an array of on-site water sport activities available, the property is a great fit for vacationing families.
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 are 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 the prettiest beaches in the Florida Keys. It has a pristine, natural vibe and there are opportunities for swimming, boating, snorkeling, kayaking, and camping. This spot is definitely recommended for travelers looking to avoid the crowds of more crowded areas like Islamorada and Marathon.
Easily the most famous of the Florida Keys, there’s a reason 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. But it’s perhaps most proud of its quirkiness. The island once staged a fake war against the United States using conch fritter bombs, threatening to become its own country.
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 — there’s a Margaritaville, after all — 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. Oh, and while we’re all in on the key lime pie craze, don’t forget that — with Key West’s close proximity to Cuba — you’ll be missing out if you don’t take advantage of the amazing cafe con leche or Cuban sandwiches on the island — try the Cuban Coffee Queen for these specialties.
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. This is definitely Key West at its wildest, with drag queen contests, barely-there costumes, and all sorts of drunken revelry. Be sure to book your hotel well in advance, as this event draws tens of thousands of visitors. Looking for something a little more tame? Try visiting during July’s Hemingway Fest, when the island fetes its most famous literary resident.
The 100-room Ocean Key Resort is an upscale waterfront property with an elegant atmosphere that captures the artistic whimsy of Key West. Contemporary rooms have large, comfortable beds, whirlpool tubs, and minibars, plus feature a cheerful, island-flavored design. There are two restaurants on-site, including the classy Hot Tin Roof. Outside, guests can grab a colorful table on the pier. The spa, fitness room, and small pool with a hot tub make this a lovely choice for relaxing when not exploring the island.
Bonus Florida Keys Destination: Dry Tortugas National Park
You can’t drive here and you won’t find any hotels, but 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 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.
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