Visiting the Florida Keys? Here’s what you need to know

Never been to the Florida Keys? If you’re planning a trip to this idyllic chain of islands, you might want to know a few things before you set off.

As an Orlando-area resident, I’ve lived in Florida for almost 25 years and have explored the Sunshine State from coast to coast – including several trips to the Keys. Let me dispel some myths about the Keys and give you some tips that have already done so to optimize your first trip to the island chain. I also reached out to Florida Keys & Key West Tourism Board Representative Ashley Serrate for additional expert advice so you can get the most out of your visit to this iconic island chain.

understand logistics

While you can fly into Key West International Airport at the southern end of the island chain and easily take a shuttle/taxi to your Key West hotel, you would be missing out on the amazing must-see sights on the Keys. Instead, consider flying to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, renting a car, and driving throughout the Keys. It’s about 1.5 hours from Miami to Key Largo, and expect a three-hour drive from Key Largo to Key West via a major corridor — the Overseas Highway (aka US Route 1). With breathtaking views across 42 bridges, the Overseas Highway is a spectacular scenic drive. If you plan to enjoy all of the Keys, it’s best to stay two or three nights in the Upper or Middle Keys (like Key Largo, Islamorada, or Marathon) and then two or three nights in Key West. I’ve enjoyed some great stays at Reef House Marina (Key Largo), Hawk’s Cay (Duck Key), and Margaritaville Beach House (Key West). And if you’re flying to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, book your Keys visit with a fabulous stay at the National Hotel (Miamis South Beach).

Do you dream of visiting the dry Tortugas?

If this is on your Key West bucket list, know that it’s about 70 miles west of Key West and is only accessible by boat ride (a 2.5-hour drive) or a faster seaplane flight. “There are only two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas – either by seaplane with Key West Seaplane Adventures or by the Yankee Freedom Ferry. Both book months in advance as the park has limited occupancy. So be sure to book in advance!” advises Serrate.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida.


Don’t expect to find sprawling beaches.

As a 120-mile chain of islands, the Keys surprisingly lack large swathes of sand. That doesn’t mean there aren’t incredible beaches – they’re just fewer and smaller. While many resorts offer their own slice of sandy heaven if you stay on property, visitors to the Keys can still find lovely spots to spread out a beach towel and splash in the surf. “The destination isn’t known for traditional beaches because of the natural barrier reef off the Atlantic coast,” says Serrate. “But there are still great beach spots like Bahia Honda State Park and Sombrero Beach in Marathon. Quirky spots like Anne’s Beach are great too.” Personally, I also enjoyed the beaches at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo and the popular Smathers Beach in Key West. While they don’t rival sprawling beaches like New Smyrna or St. Pete, they still offer opportunities to bury your toes in the sand.

Dawn at beautiful Sombrero Beach in Marathon, Florida Keys.

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty

Do something in, on or under the water.

This is not the time to stay dry all the time. But you don’t have to own a boat or be a licensed SCUBA diver to enjoy the stunning turquoise waters of the Keys. When you’re not diving, go snorkeling for a glimpse of the incredible coral reef and marine life that thrive in the clear water. If you don’t have a boat license, take a boat tour (think eco-tour or glass-bottom boat tour). Try something new like SNUBA, stand up paddle boarding or kayaking. Take at least one sunset cruise to see the orange and crimson hues from the water as you watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. Serrate also suggests looking at the Blue Star Operator program, created by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with input from local employees/Keys dive and snorkel shop owners and the REEF Environmental Education Foundation. “This voluntary recognition program aims to reduce the impact that divers, snorkelers and anglers have on the Keys’ ecosystems,” she says.

Plan your key activities in Key West.

There’s a lot to see in this compact part of the Keys. From historic sites and botanical gardens to museums and state parks, .the Conch Republic offers a smorgasbord of things to do. Do your research ahead of time, starting with the Florida Keys & Key West Tourism Board website. There’s a reason the Conch Train/Trolley tours are popular – they give you a great visual overview of the island’s famous sights so you can hop on and off during your trip. Note that most attractions charge entrance fees ranging from $2.50+/person for state park entry to $15-$25+/person for museum entry. To save money on some of the city’s best activities and attractions, consider purchasing a Vacation Discount Booklet from The Key West Attractions Association. This 2022 booklet costs $54.99 (plus shipping) and includes buy one, get one free discounts on top Key West tours, attractions, water sports and even restaurants, saving visitors up to $850. If you’re visiting next year, keep an eye out for the Key West Attractions Association’s annual six-week Kids Free Florida Keys promotion, held every September after Labor Day through October.

Divers at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Key Largo, Florida.

Stephen Frink/Getty

Consider a state park pass

If you visit Florida often, plan to visit multiple Keys State Parks, and/or are traveling with a large family, it may make sense to purchase a Florida State Park Pass even if you don’t live in Florida. (My husband and I bought an annual family pass for about $125, but single passes are also available.) One pass gives you free entry to any of the 10 state parks in the Florida Keys.

Beat the crowds

There is usually a line waiting to take a photo in front of the iconic Southernmost Point buoy. If you can’t get in line early in the morning, consider skipping the line altogether by standing on the wall about 30 feet before the “official photo spot” and snapping a selfie with the buoy in the background. And if you want to dine and watch the sunset at one of the amazing restaurants on the water (like the rooftop restaurant at Bistro 245 at the Opal Key Resort & Marina), make reservations early to secure a table.

Island Grill in Islamorada, Florida Keys.

Franz Marc Frei/Getty

Eat (and drink) locally.

You won’t find too many chain restaurants in the Florida Keys, but you don’t want to waste time eating there anyway. Even if you’re not a big seafood fan, dine on culinary delights fresh from the water like conch chowder, mahi mahi paninis, grilled lobster tail and shrimp tacos. Eat Key Lime Pie for dessert every day just to compare which restaurant does it best. Not in desserts? Try lime mojitos, sauces, or even non-edible items like salt scrubs. Forget your usual martinis and mass beers. Instead, opt for handcrafted tropical cocktails (think mango margaritas) and locally brewed beers (like Florida Keys Brewing Co’s Sun Session IPA). My absolute favorite beer? The irresistible No Wake Zone Coconut Key Lime Ale from Islamorada Brewery & Distillery. Preferably. Beer. je.

Lower Expectations

Due to the pandemic, many of the artists who graced Key West’s Mallory Square have either found other jobs or left the area. While the sunsets are still spectacular and the crowds gather, you may not see as many jugglers, musicians and other street performers when you visit. “Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is still one of Key West’s signature experiences and well worth attending,” says Serrate, noting that it’s the end of a beautiful day in the fabulous Florida Keys always Reason to celebrate for locals and visitors alike.

Lisa Beach is a freelance writer based in Orlando specializing in travel, food, lifestyle and wellness. It was published in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, islands, United States today, and dozens more. Check out her author’s website at

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