Your full travel guide to the Florida Keys & Key West, USA

With big adventures, museums oozing eclectic history and sunsets worth celebrating (every night), the Florida Keys are bursting with remarkable diversity. Discover this for yourself with our travel guide

Rhodri Andrews
23 February 2022
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Florida Keys Travel

How to get to and around the Florida Keys

Sunset Schooner (Rob O’Neal)

Getting there: Fly direct from London to Miami (around 10 hours) and from there, it’s an easy drive south to Key Largo, the entry point to the Florida Keys.

Getting around: A rental car is by far the easiest way to get around the Florida Keys, with the Overseas Highway connecting the island chain from north to south.

Public transportation: If you don’t opt to rent a car, there are a variety of public transport services that connect Miami and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood international airports with the Keys. These include Flixbus, a new car-free option that runs six days a week and stops in Islamorada, Marathon, and Key West. Stops in Key Largo and Big Pine Key are also planned. Greyhound also run bus services through the Keys and the Keys Shuttle is another easy option. Once in Key West, it’s easy to explore on foot, two wheels, or by hopping aboard the Old Town Trolley Tours of Key West or the Conch Tour Train. Many hotels also offer free shuttles into the Historic Downtown.

If you only do three things in the Florida Keys

1. Drive the Overseas Highway

The Florida Keys Overseas Highway (Andy Newman)

The Florida Keys’ main artery, the 181km Overseas Highway is often referred to as the “Highway that Goes to Sea.” The southernmost leg of U.S. Highway 1, the modern wonder links Key Largo with Key West and incorporates an astonishing 42 bridges leapfrogging from key to key in a series of giant arches of concrete and steel over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Mile markers count down your journey to Key West. In 2009, the Keys highway was designated as Florida’s first All-American Road by the US Federal Highway Administration, one of fewer than 50 roadways in the nation that have earned the prestigious title.

An engineering marvel when it was completed in 1982, the Seven Mile Bridge connects Knights Key in the district of Marathon with Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys, providing panoramas over azure blue waters as you pass across it. Adjacent, the Old Seven Mile Bridge reopened on 12 January 2022 after significant renovations. Visitors can walk, skate, or cycle along a section of the bridge, but no vehicular traffic can run along it. Plus, a new 60-passenger tram to take visitors back and forth to the small island of Pigeon Key is expected to be operational this spring. After reaching Key West, the striped buoy at the island’s Southernmost Point is a colourful landmark to conclude your epic journey.

2. Experience the Sunset Celebration in Key West

Key West is famous for its sunsets

You know the sunsets are good when there’s a celebration devoted to them each evening. Legend has it that playwright Tennessee Williams was the first to applaud Key West’s fiery sunsets before a nightly event honouring sundown was spawned in the 1960s. Since then, it has evolved into a thriving free street festival in Mallory Square. Beginning two hours before dusk, Mallory Square erupts into life with live music, street performers and stalls selling food, arts and crafts. However, they’re all just openers for the main act: Key West’s sunset painting the sky in hues of burnt orange, pink and crimson, before melting into the sea. Look out for the green flash!

3. Enjoy adventures in and on the waters of the Florida Keys

Snorkelling at Dry Tortugas National Park (Rob O’Neal)

An archipelago of 1,700 islands, there’s plenty of water to explore in the Florida Keys. But their low-lying nature means the Keys are under threat from rising sea levels, so low-impact adventures on water help preserve their future while still allowing you to see the marine wonders. The kayaking here is remarkably diverse, whether it’s paddling through tangles of mangroves, soundtracked only by the faint rustle of Key deer, or gliding past stingrays and sharks in the gin-clear shallows of Indian Key. Snorkelling opportunities are equally abundant, including spying the giant brain corals of Molasses Reef and swimming alongside sea turtles and nurse sharks that call Alligator Reef home.

If you only eat and drink three things in the Florida Keys

1. Key lime pie

Nothing fires a debate more in the Keys than the islands’ signature dessert, Key lime pie. Some locals call for the pie to be served topped with meringue while others are firmly in the whipped cream camp. Establishments like Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe even serve the popular pudding frozen on a stick and covered in chocolate.

2. Fresh seafood

What can be better than tucking into a plate of seafood in a restaurant offering views of the water it came from? Hogfish sandwiches, pink shrimps, spiny lobsters and stone crab claws – the Keys’ eclectic marine cuisine is unlike anywhere else. For a sustainable option, order lionfish which is an invasive species in the Keys.

3. Rum runner

Locals say Keys life is good and the islands’ iconic cocktail, the rum runner, is a large reason why. First mixed by ‘Tiki John’ over 40 years ago, enjoying a glass of the rum, banana liqueur and grenadine concoction here is practically a rite of passage.

5 top places for history lovers in the Florida Keys

1. Harry S. Truman Little White House

The Harry S. Truman Little White House (The Florida Keys & Key West)

Having to deal with the tumultuous events that followed the Second World War, President Harry S. Truman valued the Little White House, his regular winter retreat in Key West. Over the course of 11 trips, Truman spent nearly six months of his Presidency in the island city. Now Florida’s only presidential museum, its interiors have been frozen in time since 1949, while additional exhibits offer insight into the president’s life here and the house’s role in America’s political history. Visitors who choose the exclusive VIP White Glove Tour can even take a spin in the limo formerly used by President Truman during his term in office (1945-53).

2. Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum

Hemingway Home & Museum – a Key West landmark (Rob O’Neal)

Perhaps the most famous writer to be hooked in by Key West’s tropical allure, Ernest Hemingway lived in his Spanish colonial home for nearly a decade. It inspired him to write To Have and Have Not and acclaimed short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Anecdote-laden tours now show off his love for Spanish furniture and the polydactyl cats that roam the grounds.

3. Tennessee Williams Museum

Tennessee Williams House (Roberto Rodriguez)

Tennessee Williams had plenty of time to admire Key West’s sunsets – he lived in the island city for over 30 years. Located just a few miles from his home, the Tennessee Williams Museum hoards an impressive number of exhibits relating to the great playwright’s life, including typewriters he used to hammer out icons like A Streetcar Named Desire, first-edition plays and even a model replica of his home on Duncan Street.

4. Pigeon Key and the Old Seven Mile Bridge

Old Seven Mile Bridge (Andy Newman)

Known by locals as the ‘Old Seven’, a 3.5km-long section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge reopened on 12 January 2022 for walkers, cyclists, skaters, and prime sunset views. Originally part of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, it now provides access to Pigeon Key, a tiny islet once home to the bridge’s maintenance and rail workers, where you can visit historic buildings and snorkel the fish-filled waters.

5. Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, Islamorada

A one-stop shop of encyclopaedic knowledge of the archipelago, the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center is a fascinating portal into its past. Among others, witness exhibits about the devastating 1935 hurricane, the pioneering Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, the islands’ unique coral reefs and the Keys’ past inhabitants, from pirates to First Nations people. You’ll come out feeling like a local that’s lived here for years.

What to do if you’re a nature lover in the Florida Keys

1. Snorkel at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Christ of the Deep (Stephen Frink)

Inaugurated as the first underwater park in the USA in 1963, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s 48,000 acres of protected waters are a snorkeller’s and diver’s dream. Spying the nearby haunting and submerged Christ of the Deep statue is a must, flanked by coruscating brain and elk horn corals, while the shallow waters around the Grecian Rocks are teeming with tropical fish, queen conchs and barracudas.

2. Spot birds at Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center

Spot a variety of avian life at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (The Florida Keys & Key West)

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier treats and rehabilitates injured birds and is also a natural refuge for injured or displaced birds that can’t be safely returned to the wild. A walk along the boardwalk trail will reveal avian residents from hawks to shorebirds.

3. Visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon

The Turtle Hospital (The Florida Keys & Key West)

Moving to Marathon over 30 years ago, Richie Moretti has become one of the Florida Keys’ greatest environmental heroes, turning his motel into the Turtle Hospital. The Keys waters are home to five species of turtles – hawksbill, green, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback turtles, all of which are endangered. Whether it’s because they’ve been struck by a propeller, tangled in netting, or a victim of disease, the hospital’s team, managed by Bette Zirkelbach, rescues scores of turtles each year. Since 1986, the centre has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 2,000 turtles. A 90-minute tour affords you a behind-the-scenes look at the excellent work it does. You can even join a feeding session and on occasions, it’s possible to see rehabilitated turtles released back into the wild at beaches across the Keys.

4. Kayak the Lower Keys

Kayaking with Big Pine Kayak Adventures in the Lower Keys

Known as the Lower Keys, the cluster of tiny islands before you reach Key West are best explored by kayak. It’s a nimble way to paddle the mangrove tunnels, slender channels and shallow coves of wildernesses within the National Key Deer Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, getting up close with horseshoe crabs, wading birds and the endemic labrador-sized Key deer, which are unique to this area of the Florida Keys.

5. Watch dolphins in the wild

Wild dolphins spotted off Key West

For something truly bucket-list, head out on a dolphin-watching cruise off the shores of Key West. Hundreds of bottlenose dolphins treat the limpid-blue waters as their personal playground and a cruise with an eco-conscious Blue Star tour operator will ensure you ethically watch them dance and frolic within a nose’s width of your boat. They might be joined by sea turtles and eagle rays, too.

Where to stay in the Florida Keys

Cheeca Lodge & Spa

Playa Largo Resort & Spa, Key Largo: Surrounded by greenery and right on the beachfront, enjoy luxurious rooms with views across the Florida Bay.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa, Islamorada: The decor of this relaxing, beachfront hotel reflects the laid-back lifestyle of Islamorada. Expect spacious rooms, first-class restaurants, lush gardens and adventures on your doorstep.

Tranquility Bay Beachfront Resort, Marathon: Escape the crowds in a private beach house and wake up to the sounds of the Gulf of Mexico lapping the sand outside your front door.

Deer Run on the Atlantic, Lower Keys: This boutique bed and breakfast is named after the Key Deer Refuge it’s situated in, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in nature.

The Gardens Hotel, Key West: Dubbed the ‘prettiest hotel in Key West’, a stay here puts you in easy reach of adventures such as biking, snorkelling, hydrobiking and more.

Where to eat in the Florida Keys

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen is adorned with licence plates

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo: Founded in 1976 and named after the owner’s mother, this charming eatery is now world-famous for its original recipes that please locals and visitors alike. The walls are covered in licence plates from all over the US, which makes for interesting reading while you eat.

Chef Michael’s, Islamorada: Locally-sourced ingredients and chefs with experience of cooking in the finest restaurants in the US combine to create a dining experience you’ll remember long after you leave.

Castaway Waterfront, Marathon: With 52 beers on tap, a sushi bar, and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’ll be spoilt for choice at this popular bar and restaurant. Be sure to book at least two days in advance.

Hogfish, Lower Keys: This lively open-air restaurant offers fresh seafood, views across the water, heaps of character and a glimpse of what the Florida Keys used to be like years ago.

El Meson de Pepe, Key West: For over 30 years, Chef Pepe Diaz and his family have been dedicated to serving authentic Cuban cuisine, and preserving Cuban Conch heritage in Key West.

Make it happen

America As You Like It (0208 742 8299) offers a seven-night Wandering in the Keys self-drive multi-centre itinerary of the Florida Keys. Priced from £2,229 per person, the package includes return flights from LHR to Miami, car hire, and seven nights’ accommodation (two nights at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, three nights at The Gardens in Key West, and two nights in Marathon at Tranquility Bay). The price is based on travel in November 2022.

Turn your dreams of visiting the Florida Keys into a reality by heading over to the official website.

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