Unlock your next adventure: The Best Things To Do In The Florida Keys
Get ready to live your best island life with this inside scoop on what to do in the Florida Keys. | By Jeremiah Crossing | March 31, 2022 (Updated March 20, 2023)
The islands of the Florida Keys are a world away from the mainland. This string of laid-back towns, secluded beaches and colorful coral reefs offers visitors an escape from the cares and stresses of daily life. Toast the sunset with a cocktail from the southernmost point in the United States, watch dolphins glide by in clear blue waters or find a tranquil, secluded beach — whatever you choose, you’ll feel like a different person in the Florida Keys.
Try these key experiences for making Florida memories:
Island vibes: Bring your most colorful wardrobe and a relaxed attitude to explore bohemian resort spots such as Key West and Key Largo
Animal attraction: Meet the most charming local wildlife — including dolphins, manatees and turtles — while diving, snorkeling or kayaking
Sporting chances: Feel the warm breeze as you fish, golf or boat around these sun-drenched islands
Key West is the southernmost city in the continental United States. Head to Duval Street, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, to join the party atmosphere. You’ll find a welcoming mix of Cuban, Caribbean and LGBTQ communities here.
As the sun sets each day, head to Mallory Square, where locals and tourists join in a toast surrounded by performers. You can also explore the town’s history at sites such as Fort East Martello and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, defensive fortresses that date back to the 19th century.
Key West’s most famous attraction is probably The Hemingway Home & Museum, where author Ernest Hemingway lived from 1931-1940. Guided tours are offered daily, though plan ahead as admission is cash only. Many local bars celebrate Hemingway’s former patronage, and Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street was his particular favorite.
Key Largo is equally lively and is a base for the best diving in the Florida Keys, while Marathon is the Key’s midway point and attracts both a party crowd and fishing enthusiasts.
Beaches for days
With year-round average temperatures in the 70-degree-Fahrenheit range (21 degrees Celsius), the Keys really lean into Florida’s nickname of the Sunshine State. With more than 150 islands to explore, there are plenty of options for your perfect beach holiday. Take the Overseas Highway to island-hop your way through the Keys.
In Key West, Smathers Beach is a great place for families and has excellent amenities, including nearby cafes and shops for renting Jet Skis and the like. Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach Park is slightly quieter and is close to the beautiful gardens of the Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower. For even more seclusion, you can take a charter boat to Dry Tortugas National Park, a lovely crescent of golden sands set against the historic stone wall of a 19th-century fort.
Bahia Honda State Park is said to be among the most scenic stretches of coastline in the Keys, and you can’t help but feel blissful as you set your towel down on Calusa or Loggerhead beaches there. You can't beat the shallow waters around Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for snorkeling, where you can see remnants of a Spanish shipwreck from 1715.
You can see some of the Keys’ many tropical fish just by swimming or snorkeling in these warm waters. The local dolphin population is also easy to spot, as they frolic in the shallows and are visible from some beaches. If you take a guided tour on the water, you’ll probably also run into manatees, the protected gentle giants of Florida, who eat and sleep around the plant-laden waters.
Sea turtles are among the most popular animals in these parts. You can get a closer look at some of them at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, where injured turtles are rehabilitated before being released. You can spot all manner of birds, fish and perhaps even the rare Key Deer at the Keys’ three national parks: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park. For a better chance at spotting Key Deer, head to the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are the most popular water sports in the Keys, with the region’s coral reefs creating a calm and colorful underwater playground. Almost 400 miles of barrier reef provide a home to a diverse ecology, and you can spot parrotfish, barracuda and stingray, among hundreds of other species.
The state parks offer the best diving spots, as well as Sand Key Lighthouse and Cottrell Key. Kayaking through the mangrove forests at spots such as Key Largo's Dusenbury Creek lets you glide past otters, manatees and even alligators. A glass-bottom boat ride will let you peek under the waves while staying dry. Most of the more developed towns will let you rent Jet Skis or offer parasailing or kiteboarding, and if you’re a sailor, then there’s nothing like chartering a boat and cruising around the islands.
Key West’s dynamic Cuban community brings with it some of the best food you’ll experience outside of Havana. Head for local institutions such as El Siboney Restaurant and El Meson de Pepe for decades-old, authentic menus. You’ll be in heaven if you’re a fan of fresh seafood, and there are must-try spots all across the Keys.
Most restaurants are rustic, casual crab shacks, but their menus are world-class. For many, The Fish House in Key Largo is the place to go, famed for its yellowtail snapper, mahimahi and Florida lobster. Islamorada boasts the cracked conch and stone crab chowder of Lorelei Restaurant & Cabana Bar and the lesser-seen hogfish at Chef Michael’s.
One thing’s for sure, you won’t be able to escape the allure of the Key Lime Pie — this creamy, citrus-y treat is served with pride almost everywhere. And if you want a little bit of everything, there’s always a Key West Food Tour, where expert guides give you the best of both worlds: sightseeing and delicious local eats.
The Florida Keys unlock a whole new world, with sun-tinged towns, stretches of golden sands and changing scenery you’re sure to remember long after your trip has ended. Sip a colorful drink at sunset, swim with tropical fish and be your best island self — whichever Key you land on.
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.”