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 and do along the way, as well as in your final destination, if a tropical paradise is what you’re after, including these favorites.
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1. Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key
If you’re visiting the Keys for the first time, you may initially be disappointed to learn there aren’t endless stretches of beach here – but you can find two-and-a-half miles of beautiful sandy coastline at 524-acre Bahia Honda State Park, just 40 minutes north of Key West. 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. The park actually 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. No matter which you choose, you’ll enjoy impressive views. 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.
John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
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. 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. 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.
Hovercraft Tours, Key Largo
If you’re looking for a heart-pounding thrill and a different way to explore Lake Surprise and the Blackwater Sound – prime territory for the American crocodile and the West Indian manatee, a Hover Tour offers a great way to do it. This is a rare chance to ride one of the unique land/sea vehicles (the only one of its kind in the U.S.) while taking in the natural beauty of the Upper Keys. You’ll cruise at up to 32 knots getting into shallow areas that boats don’t dare venture into, for an up close look at the twisted mangroves, exotic birds, dolphins, manatees and gators that live near the shoreline. Tour options from 15-minute to two-hour excursions are available, and some include snorkeling, water volleyball and beach picnics.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, Tavernier
You might be surprised to find that some of the best attractions in the Keys are free. This fantastic bird rehab center offers a close up look at ospreys, pelicans, hawks, herons and other birds that can’t be released back into the wild. 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. 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.
Theater of the Sea, Islamorada
This popular marine park is the second oldest marine mammal center in the world – while it isn’t anything like the fancy, and much more expensive parks, it is one of the best attractions north of Key West. 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. In fact, 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.
Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key
The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key was opened by Milton Santini, the creator of the classic 1963 movie, “Flipper,” which popularized the notion of humans interacting with dolphins. The center specializes in behavioral research and maintains liaisons with university research programs and independent scientists from across the globe. Founded in 1984 as a not-for-profit teaching and research facility, it’s received numerous conservation awards for the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured marine mammals. The center offers educational sessions and programs to the public that allow you to meet the dolphins in their watery 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.
Sunset Sail, Key West
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. 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. Wine enthusiasts rave over the Wind & Wine Cruise which sails nightly and serves eight different fine wines from all over the world. An array of quality beer and hors d’oeuvres are also served. If you’re looking for a little bit more with your cruise, choose the afternoon Sail, Snorkel, Kayak with Sunset Option. It includes the chance to snorkel the unspoiled waters to view tropical fish and exotic marine life as well as the opportunity to paddle a kayak on a guided tour through the mangrove island ecosystem. You’ll also enjoy complimentary snacks and beverages, including unlimited wine and beer.
National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, Big Pine Key
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. 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. It includes total of 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.
Duval Street, Key West
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.” And, that’s certainly an understatement as one of America’s best places for people watching. It’s 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. Doing the Duval Street Crawl is a bucket-list activity for some, featuring stops at some of the street’s most famous pubs and bars.
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.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
One of the first important writers to live in Key West, Hemingway bought his 1851 Spanish Colonial home in 1931 and lived there through 1940. The house still 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. It also includes his lush tropical garden and saltwater pool that he claimed nearly financially ruined him, as well as his “last penny,” pressed into the concrete. 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, all year-round and public tours begin every 10 minutes – afterward, you’re free to explore on your own.
Key West Aquarium
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. Today, 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. The aquarium features a wide array of fish too, like grouper, barracuda, parrot fish, moray eels and more. Plus, visitors can take a guided tour to watch sharks being fed and even touch a juvenile nurse shark.
Key West Lighthouse Museum & Keeper's Quarter's Museum
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. 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 which exhibits vintage photographs, nautical charts, ship models and lighthouse artifacts from all along the Key Reefs. If you’ve got little ones with you, they can enjoy the kids’ room, filled with toys and books.
Mallory Square, Key West
Mallory Square has long been the hub of Key West’s social and commercial life. Today, the former warehouse area is not only home to an array of restaurants, shops, museums and theater, but it’s the location of some of the most glorious sunsets you’ll find anywhere on the planet. 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.
Audobon House and Tropical Gardens, Key West
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. 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. The property also features beautiful gardens with an array of tropical plants, like hibiscus, birds of paradise and a variety of palms.
Shipwreck Treasure Museum, Key West
This interesting 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. 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. By heading up to the 65-foot observation tower, you can enjoy gorgeous vistas of the surrounding landscape and the sea beyond.
Everglades National Park, Homestead
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, though it’s worth more than a quick break. 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. 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.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Finally, be sure to hop aboard the Yankee Freedom II to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Located 70 miles west of Key West, the park is made up of a cluster of small islands, coral reefs, and an impressive fortress. The excursion aboard the high-speed catamaran takes a little more than two hours and guests have about four hours to enjoy the stunning Dry Tortuga beaches and explore Fort Jefferson. As 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. You can enjoy all sorts of colorful tropical fish and living coral – directly from the brilliant white sand beach at Fort Jefferson.