The Florida Keys may be classed as part of the United States, but as you count down the mile markers on Seven Mile Bridge, you’ll have the pleasant inclination you’ve headed elsewhere – somewhere freer and more relaxed, where time rolls a little slower, and you can practically feel the lure of the not-too-distant Caribbean.
While the stretch of idyllic islands may have a reputation as a snowbirds’ paradise, its attractions are diverse and pull a much wider crowd than assumed. From big game fishing to underappreciated historical sites, the Keys are far more than a sweet escape.
Welcome to the Florida Keys.
5 things you can’t miss in The Florida Keys
Get to grips with Key West
Easily the most recognizable tourist spot in the Keys is the famous buoy that marks the Southernmost point in the Continental United States. Unless you can get there early, there’s a fair chance you’ll be waiting in line for a snap with the buoy. Thankfully, if you don’t feel like waiting, you’ll be happy to realize you’re in Key West, a surprisingly edgy little city and the Keys’ largest island.
It’s here you’ll find the most things to do, and it’s a good place to base yourself for a few days on your trip. It’s packed with wonderful restaurants, intriguing museums, and even unexpected historical sites.
For those with an eye on the arts, you’ll find several excellent visits in Key West. Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House is the standout attraction. Housed in the old customs building, the museum mainly charts the role of the region in the Spanish-American War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Elsewhere, you’ll find several literary giants’ homes. Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home, where he lived in the thirties, is now a museum, as well as Tennesee Williams’ home of three decades. Both are quick visits and easy to squeeze into a busy schedule.
Fort Zachary State Park is another gem, home to the island’s only beach and the eponymous military fort used in the American Civil War and Spanish-American wars. The beach is also one of the best places to catch the sunset, although park rangers will briskly kick you out.
Of course, at night is when Key West comes alive. Its excellent array of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs make it far more lively than many of the other islands – perfect for letting loose after a long day’s sightseeing. There’s even a thriving LGBT scene, with drag shows and gay bars centered around the famous Duval Street area.
Get out on (or under) the water
Heading to the Keys and not getting out on the water is a chance wasted. While it’s widely regarded as the premier destination for sport fishing, there’s more than ample opportunity to experience the staggering breadth of diversity in the Keys’ surrounding seas.
If you’ve ever been interested in fishing, this is the place to be. Big game fishers from across the world swarm to the keys for the opportunity to catch some monster-sized fish like blue marlin and dolphin (dolphin fish, not dolphins). Of course, you’re unlikely to be after the big boys on a first try, but you can hop on a day-trip, learn the basics, and try to catch your first fish.
Scuba diving in the Keys is unmissable. The combination of perfectly clear water and sublime diving sites make it extra special. The Molasses Reef is the core of any diving trip, especially for first-timers, where you’ll likely see reef sharks, turtles, and some rays. Beyond that, multiple ships have been sunk deliberately and otherwise to offer a spectacular location. It’d be a great place to get your PADI certificate!
From there, you can expect all the usual suspects – parasailing, paddle boarding, jet skis, and the like. Many companies offer all of the above, so sift through and use reviews and personal judgment to decide the best option.
Meet the locals
Not Bill and Betty from Boston down for the winter – meet the wilder locals that have made the Keys their home for far longer than anyone else.
With the sea intrinsically tied to the region, it’s the perfect location for conservation centers. At the top of the list is The Turtle Hospital. The center takes in injured turtles and rehabilitates them before sending them back into the wild. You’ll enjoy a tour, meet some patients, and feed some nearly-ready turtles before they head home.
The Dolphin Research Center is another excellent day out. The center houses dolphins that cannot be released into the wild because they were born in captivity, have been rescued from elsewhere, or are too severely injured. The center works with the dolphins to help them live as enriched a life as possible and let visitors in to see the work.
Other top attractions include the Key West Butterfly Conservancy, and the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. As a bonus, you can also head down to Robbie’s Marina on Islamorada and feed the enormous tarpon swimming around the docks.
Chow down on some fresh catch
You’re in the Florida Keys. If you don’t like seafood, it’s time to come around to the idea. Some of the best and freshest catches are available on your doorstep during a visit, and not indulging in some conch fritters is borderline madness.
We recommend the Fish House.
A true staple of the Florida Keys and one of the first you’ll even stumble across as you arrive, the Fish House serves no-frills seafood in delectable piles on your plate. Think Florida lobster, stone crab, mahi-mahi, chowders, conch, or grouper, among others.
As they source directly from the local fisherman, it’s not a guarantee you’ll have your favorite fish on the menu, but rest assured, knowing that whatever is coming from the kitchen will be excellent.
Of course, you can’t skip Key Lime pie, either.
With so many islands to see, it would be a shame to spend all your time at the headliners.
If you’ve rented a car, make sure you set aside some time to go exploring all that the region has to offer. For the further flung parts, there are plenty of day trips via boat or even sea plane.
The Dry Tortuga Islands are a popular option. They’re a group of seven islands and home to a national park of the same name. Make sure to book well in advance as you’ll need a sea plane to get there and there are limited spots every day.