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A Traveling Insider's Guide To The Florida Keys

From exploring sun-bathed beaches and glittering waters to spotting tropical wildlife and feasting on delicious local fare, get ready to unlock the many treasures of the Florida Keys. | By Paul Oswell | March 17, 2022

Hanging off the southwest tip of the Florida peninsula are the Florida Keys, a chain of some 1,700 islands, surrounded by the continent’s only coral reef. The bohemian city of Key West marks the most southern point, while the other islands stretch across 125 miles of ocean. Across the Keys you’ll find relaxing island vibes, world-class water sports and fishing, artistic enclaves and a culinary scene that includes fresh seafood and that famously irresistible Key lime pie.

Here are some ideas for making memories in the Florida Keys:

  • Rest and relaxation: Feel those city stresses melt away as you meander around Key West — a laid-back a destination with island vibes and year-round sunshine

  • Discover the zoologist within: Prepare to spot a wealth of local wildlife, including dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, birds and cute Key deer

  • Ocean life: Take to the crystal-clear waters that surround the islands and enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving and all types of fishing

Why visit the Florida Keys?

Within these scenic islands are bustling vacation spots, quiet bohemian communities and unspoiled natural landscapes are surrounded by clear blue waters and the beautiful expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. The sun shines year-round and life here is very much lived outdoors.

Driving to Key West from Miami along the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1), over its undulating bridges and through dozens of beach communities, is one of the great American road trips. Your adventure truly begins with the journey.

Key West is a celebratory town, dedicated to good times that include phenomenal Cuban food and raising a cocktail-filled glass as the sun goes down. There’s an artistic swathe that can add creative flair to any Key West trip, too, as well as the literary endorsement of greats such as Ernest Hemingway.

Key Largo reflects the same festive energy, and is a base for some of the region’s most spectacular diving opportunities around the coral reef. The midpoint of Marathon attracts fishing enthusiasts from around the world and you can enjoy a wide range of angling options. If you live for the beach, head to Bahia Honda State Park, Dry Tortugas National Park or Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach Park for some of the Keys’ most memorable scenery.

The Keys are home to 10 State Parks, which help conserve local wildlife. You can see pods of dolphins frolicking in the shallow waters, or peaceful manatees bobbing along. If you’re a scuba diver or love snorkeling, then the colorful wonders of the coral reef with its tropical fish and plant life are there to be discovered. The Keys also have their own culinary delicacies that you should definitely seek out: Feast on a freshly caught fish sandwich at a casual crab shack, conch fritters at a beachfront bar or a slice of sweet Key lime pie just about anywhere.

When should you travel to the Florida Keys?

The Keys have a fairly consistent climate, with temperatures rarely dropping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 21 degrees Celsius). High season happens between December and February, when many visitors from places farther north arrive to experience some winter sunshine. Shoulder season runs March through May and the low season is usually June through November. Hotel rates and general foot traffic rise and fall accordingly, and there are good deals to be snagged around the quieter times. There’s a packed annual schedule of festivals that also dictate visitor numbers, and in March Key West especially becomes a spring break hot spot. One note: June through November is hurricane season, so be sure to keep a close eye on weather systems around this time.

Getting to and around the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are served by two airports. Key West International Airport has direct flights and connections via other airports in Florida, while Florida Keys Marathon International Airport has more on-demand smaller charter routes. However, a good number of visitors will fly into Miami International Airport and rent a car.

The journey time from Miami to Key West is around four hours. U.S. Route 1, aka the Overseas Highway, and crossing the 42 bridges, is a very pleasant drive. It highlights the best of island scenery. In terms of public bus transport, Miami-Dade Transit runs services from Miami to Marathon, while the Lower Keys Shuttle travels from Marathon to Key West. The City of Key West furthermore runs five bus routes throughout Key West, Stock Island, the Lower Keys, and Marathon (see for details).

Around Key West, sightseeing vehicles such as the Conch Tour Train or the Old Town Trolley are fun ways to get around, and there are plenty of bicycle rentals available. Most people in the Keys will be driving, though as it gives visitors more flexibility. Things to bear in mind: The Overseas Highway is mostly just two lanes, and the speed limit is 55 mph, though it drops to 35 mph in some residential spots. A toll road, called the Card Sound Road, is a faster alternative to the main route.

Make your Florida Keys memory

As you leave the mainland and drive out across the expansive Overseas Highway, you can’t help but slip into vacation mode. Colors become more vibrant, time is more fluid and you can’t resist the pull of relaxation. Whether you want to sip a neon cocktail at sundown, sunbathe on your perfect stretch of sand or dive into those clear waters, the Keys offer the warmest of welcomes and memories.

Find My KeysView list of Hilton hotels in the Florida Keys

Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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