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The Florida Keys, stretching some 126 miles from the mainland to Key West, connected by 42 bridges, offer a Caribbean-feel without leaving the states. You’ll most likely head down the 18-mile stretch of US 1 from Homestead and Florida City through the Everglades, before continuing on into Key Largo, Islamorada and other scenic isles, ending at the last Key, Key West. You’ll find lots to see along the way, including beautiful beaches. If a tropical paradise is what you’re after, these are the top things to do in the Florida Keys.
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What Is It? The 2.5 miles of beautiful sandy coastline at Bahia Honda State Park is one of the best beaches near Key West.
Why Do It? The park has two separate beach areas, the longer stretch that faces the open ocean as well as another, smaller beach area that looks across to the old railroad bridge. You’ll also have the opportunity to enjoy snorkeling among underwater life like queen conchs, tropical fish and soft coral that sit just a few hundred feet offshore.
Good to Know: Kayaking, swimming, snorkeling and boating are the biggest draws here, but you should also take time to hike the Silver Palm Trail to view rare West Indies plants and a number of species that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. If you want to stick around a while, there is a campground and rental cabins for overnights, as well as facilities offering snorkeling tours and kayak rentals.
What Is It? A top family attraction in the Florida Keys, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was America’s first underwater park as the home of the only living coral reef in the nation. It’s one of the best places to go snorkeling and diving in the U.S., with the chance to view all sorts of tropical fish, sea turtles and even a number of wrecks.
Why Do It? Most of the park is under the water, located within the confines of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. All you need to go snorkeling is an ability to swim – for those who’ve never tried it, you can take a tour and the crew conducts a “how to snorkel” class right on the boat. You’ll be provided with a safety vest, and if you don’t have your own gear, you can rent a mask, snorkel and fins.
Good to Know: Those that don’t want to get wet might want to take a glass-bottom boat tour for a close up look at the world beneath the water’s surface while staying dry. The park also has a small swimming area with a shell covered beach as well as picnic areas.
What Is It? The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center is a fantastic bird rehab center that offers a close up look at ospreys, pelicans, hawks, herons and other birds that can’t be released back into the wild.
Why Do It? The sanctuary accepts donations but has free admission for self-guided tours that will take you across a boardwalk where you can watch for wild pelicans and get a glimpse of the birds that live in spacious screened enclosures.
Good to Know: Some wild birds, particularly pelicans and egrets, like to visit every day to get a free lunch from the center’s staff. By crossing over the Mangrove Wetland you’ll find a beach where the birds run free.
What Is It? Founded in 1984 as a not-for-profit education and research facility, DRC is a recognized leader in animal care, educational programs for the public, and behavioral and observational research.
Why Do It? In addition to the dolphins born at the center, Dolphin Research Center provides a home for animals who were rescued and rehabilitated, and could not be released. They are an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums.
Good to Know: The center offers educational sessions and programs to the public that allows you to meet the dolphins in their natural habitat, or from dry land. Visitors can even paint a t-shirt with a dolphin – you pick the paint, and the dolphin “designs” the shirt.
What Is It? A sunset sail is a must during your time in Key West. While watching the sun go down from the dock at Mallory Square is certainly unforgettable, wait until you see it from the water.
Why Do It? This southernmost city is the ultimate sailor’s paradise, home to the best sunsets in the continental U.S. Leaving your worries behind and sailing off into Key West’s famous sunset while sipping wine is a favorite way to cap off another perfect day in paradise.
Good to Know: There are a number of boat rentals and private charters available. From here, it’s just a 70-mile journey to Dry Tortugas National Park, renowned for its world-class snorkeling.
What Is It? Big Pine and the Lower Keys are one of the last remaining homes of the Key deer, the tiny, knee-high endangered species that have learned to exist among the shallow bays.
Why Do It? About 800 of the diminutive deer, a stunted subspecies of white-tailed deer, call the National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge home. The 84,824-acre refuge includes salt marsh wetlands, mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, freshwater wetlands and other wilderness areas with nature trails winding through for observing the deer and other wildlife.
Good to Know: The refuge is home to 23 endangered and threatened plant and animal species as well as hundreds of others. Be sure to stop at the Blue Hole Observation Platform a few miles north of the visitor center where you’ll often see alligators, turtles, green herons and other wading birds.
What Is It? Duval Street in downtown Key West is world-famous – the Village People sang about it in the hit song, “Key West,” with lyrics that sing: “take a walk down Duval Street, you never know who you’ll meet.”
Why Do It? It’s one of America’s best places for people watching and the perfect place to begin, or end, a day of sightseeing in the popular resort town. No matter what your age or tastes, you’ll find something to delight, from legendary eateries and bars like Sloppy Joe’s and Rick’s Café to The Bull and Whistle, and an endless array of shops and historic homes.
Good to Know: The Green Parrot, just off Duval Street, is a must-stop as the oldest bar on this island of bars. The landmark institution opened in 1890 and is still going strong with live music on the weekend as well as offering great drinks, bad art, pool, darts and pinball in a one-of-a-kind open-air tropical environment.
What Is It? A top attraction in Key West, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is housed in Hemingway’s 1851 Spanish Colonial home where he lived through 1940. It contains the furniture that he and his family used, and the cats that live about the grounds are descendants of those he kept while he lived there.
Why Do It? The museum also includes Hemingway’s lush tropical garden and saltwater pool that he claimed nearly financially ruined him, as well as his “last penny,” pressed into the concrete.
Good to Know: Hemingway wrote nearly 70 percent of his life’s work here, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “A Farewell to Arms. The museum is open every day, year-round and public tours are available – afterward, you’re free to explore on your own.
What Is It? The Key West Aquarium opened more than 80 years ago as one of the first open-air aquariums in the country. It played a major part in the town’s attempt to stage an economic recovery by advertising it as “America’s Caribbean Island.” Since then, most of the building was enclosed for all-weather viewing, and the facility upgraded.
Why Do It? It features a touch tank for handling creatures like hermit and horseshoe crabs, sea cucumbers, starfish, horse and queen conches. You’ll also find an alligator exhibit and the chance to pet and feed cow nose rays.
Good to Know: The aquarium features a wide array of fish too, like grouper, barracuda, parrotfish, moray eels and more. Plus, visitors can take a guided tour to watch sharks being fed and even touch a juvenile nurse shark.
What Is It? Built in 1847, it features a Fresnel lens that was installed in the 1860s at a cost of $1 million. The original lighthouse keeper’s home was torn down in the 1880s and replaced with the current clapboard structure in 1887. Today, it houses a museum that exhibits vintage photographs, nautical charts, ship models and lighthouse artifacts from all along the Key Reefs.
Why Do It? If you want to take in the very best view in town, climb the 88 steps to the top of the 92-foot-high lighthouse.
Good to Know: If you’ve got little ones with you, they can enjoy the kids’ room, filled with toys and books.
What Is It? Mallory Square has long been the hub of Key West’s social and commercial life.
Why Do It? Tourists and locals gather on the dock to join in on the nightly sunset-watching ritual that includes live entertainment like musicians, jugglers and other street performers, as well as vendors, creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
Good to Know: The former warehouse area is not only home to glorious sunsets, but it also features an array of restaurants, shops and museums.
What Is It? The Theater of the Sea is a popular marine park in Islamorada and the second oldest marine mammal center in the world.
Why Do It? It offers the chance to swim with dolphins, sea lions or stingrays, and participate in turtle feedings in addition to viewing marine life exhibits and shows where you’ll get to see some of the animals performing tricks that are a lot more impressive up close.
Good to Know: You’ll find plenty to keep you busy all day, with glass-bottom boat tours, a grill open for lunch, a private beach for swimming and sunbathing as well as an extensive gift shop.
What Is It? This 1830s home was built for Captain John Greiger, a noted harbor pilot and wrecker. It was restored 130 years later by Colonel Mitchell Wolfson which sparked the subsequent preservation movement throughout the rest of the town.
Why Do It? Visitors can take a guided tour to view its 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, as well as a collection of engravings by famous ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audobon, who visited Key West in 1832 to study and sketch birds of the Keys.
Good to Know: The property also features beautiful gardens with an array of tropical plants, like hibiscus, birds of paradise and a variety of palms.
What Is It? The Shipwreck Treasure Museum is housed in the replica of a 19th-century wrecker’s warehouse. It features exhibits that trace the history of the region’s salvage industry.
Why Do It? Many people who lived here made their living from shipwrecks, which is why they were called wreckers. You can also watch actors, all decked out in period costumes, who recount the story of the “Isaac Allerton,” a ship that sank in 1856. View artifacts from the shipwreck as well as films and videos on the subject too.
Good to Know: By heading up to the 65-foot observation tower, you can enjoy gorgeous vistas of the surrounding landscape and the sea beyond.
What Is It? Everglades National Park is home to 1.5 million acres of swamps, saw-grass prairies and sub-tropical jungles as one of the most unusual public parks in the country, making it a must-stop as you make your way down to the Keys.
Why Do It? There are 14 rare and endangered species here, including the Florida panther, West Indian manatee and the American crocodile. Take a walk on one of the trails for a unique perspective on the park’s diverse ecosystem, or to explore its most untouched areas.
Good to Know: You can also rent a canoe or kayak for the day, or overnight. If you’re short on time and want to capture some great images, take a stroll on one of the Flamingo water trails, accessible from the main entrance of the park in Homestead, where you can find an abundance of wildlife.
What Is It? Located 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is made up of a cluster of small islands, coral reefs, and an impressive fortress.
Why Do It? The park also offers some of the best snorkeling in North America, be sure to make time to get in the clear, shallow waters while you’re there.
Good to Know: You can enjoy all sorts of colorful tropical fish and living coral – directly from the brilliant white sand beach at Fort Jefferson.