Just south of Miami lies a chain of easily-accessed idyllic coral islands known as the Florida Keys. Travelling to these blissful utopias involves an incredible car journey along part of the Overseas Highway between Key Largo and Key West known as the Seven Mile Bridge; one of the most scenic causeway drives in the world.
I’ll admit that Florida is not usually the first place that comes to mind when you think about places for a tropical getaway. However, the stunning sun-soaked beaches, flawless turquoise waters and incredible marine life make these islands a perfect destination for those craving a slice of paradise.
With so much to discover in these sunny little havens, here are some of the best things to do in the Florida Keys to help you plan your trip.
1. Explore John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a unique park that lies almost entirely underwater and can be found just off of the island of Key Largo. Being home to the only living coral reef in the US, you won’t be short of places to explore in these waters, from an exciting array of aquatic life to several wreckages.
Experienced scuba divers will be right in their element, whilst less confident divers can explore the sea life by just snorkelling along the reef. If you don’t fancy getting in the water, you can get in on the fun by investigating the wildlife from the comfort of a glass-bottomed boat.
With on-shore mangrove forests, short hiking trails, tropical hammock forests on top of the 70 nautical square miles of gorgeous blue water, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the perfect playground for nature lovers. Expect to see eels, sea turtles and shoals upon shoals of colourful fish in this coral reef.
If you just fancy some time to chill out and the occasional dip in the water, the park also has a beautiful shell-covered beach with a prime swimming area where you can totally unwind while taking in some rays.
2. Bahia Honda State Park – Big Pine Key
Boasting what is widely recognised as the best beach in the whole of the Keys and one of the nicest in Florida, Bahia Honda State Park is a remote island on the Lower Florida Keys. Sitting just off of the Seven-Mile Bridge, the park is surrounded by stunning beaches, diverse plant life and warm, crystal clear waters.
Bahia State Park is bursting with opportunities for water-based adventures, with snorkelling, swimming, boat rental and kayaking on the cards. No matter how you choose to discover the waters, it is sure to be a remarkable experience. Don’t forget to keep a special eye out for stingrays and turtles!
What’s more, there are also plenty of exciting opportunities for visitors on land, with a nature centre and three hiking trails to be explored. With so much to do and see, it can be difficult to fit everything into one day, but luckily the park has seaside campsites and cabins where you can stay and wake up to amazing views over the bay.
3. Visit Dry Tortugas National Park
Only accessible by boat or seaplane, a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is set to an adventure right from the get-go! An archipelago of seven beach-ringed islands, the park boasts stunning blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico with some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world.
While Dry Tortugas National Park lies a hefty 70 miles from Key West, the incredible collections of coral, seagrass, ancient sites and shipwrecks make a visit well worth the journey. You’ll have your pick of snorkelling and diving spots, with some of the most popular being the Historic Coaling Pier and Garden Key’s coral heads.
One of the most spectacular sights in the park has got to be the huge 19th-century coastal fortress, Fort Jefferson. This military structure dates back to 1846-1875 and is one of the largest and most unique forts to ever have been built.
4. Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West
Nestled in Key West lies the former home of one of America’s most-loved authors, Ernest Hemingway. Having fallen in love with the beautiful remote islands of the Florida Keys, Ernest and his wife Pauline moved to this house after he completed his famous semi-autobiographical novel, A Farewell to Arms.
The house itself is a Spanish colonial-style manor from the 1800s which still holds mementoes of the author’s life such as pieces of art, accessories and furnishings, including his cherished collection of 17th and 18th-century furniture. However, it is the gardens of the home that have become a highlight amongst most tourists.
While the landscape flourishes with vast arrays of beautiful flowers, another popular attraction are the 40-plus feline residents that roam the grounds. These cats directly descend from Hemingway’s own six-toed cat Snow White, who was gifted to him by a ship’s captain and are a quirky feature of this tourist spot.
Guests at The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum can take a guided tour of the home from 9 am through 5 pm Monday – Friday and see the renovations that Ernest and Pauline made on their home to restore it to its former glory. It’s a must-see for literary lovers staying in the area.
5. Southernmost Point Buoy
After journeying so far south, the Southernmost Point Buoy in Key West offers the perfect photo opportunity to round up your trip. Sitting on a coral bedrock, the monument lies a mere 90 miles from Cuba and is said to mark the most southern point of continental USA.
The buoy makes a perfect pit stop during a scenic stroll by the sea, but make sure you aim to visit in the early evening for a chance to catch one of the notoriously beautiful sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. While the monument is likely to be busy during the peak season for tourism, it’s still definitely worth a visit.
Alternatively, you can try to beat the queues by visiting in the early morning. The surrounding area is brimming with hotels, bars and restaurants, so you can totally relax and enjoy yourself while taking in the sights.
Being so close to Mallory Square, it is worth venturing into this lively area while you’re in town to catch a glimpse of its bustling nightlife festivities. You can expect a buzzing atmosphere with entertainers and vendors as well as lots of shops and designer boutiques for a spot of shopping.
6. Take a Walk at Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park is home to over 80 different species of protected plants and animals. Located in North Key Largo, the park spans over 2400 acres and was created to preserve the nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park as well as its own tropical oasis. The sounds of the forest’s animal inhabitants create a magical atmosphere that is ideal for a peaceful walk.
For a mere $2.50, visitors are free to explore the luscious landscapes of the park. You can choose to brave the six-mile hiking trail by foot or bicycle, and most of the pavements are safe for wheelchairs and children’s buggies. Be sure to keep an eye out for some of the endangered American crocodiles during your adventure, as you might just be lucky enough to spot a few, from a safe distance of course!
If you fancy going it alone, you are free to venture on a self-guided trail which is very well signposted so you won’t miss out on any key information. Alternatively, the team of rangers provide regular tours which go through all the exciting ecology of this remarkable forest.
7. Explore Key Largo
Being the largest island in the Florida Keys, Key Largo is simply not to be missed. Easily accessed, this tropical oasis is only 60 miles from the bustling lights of downtown Miami and offers the perfect idyllic getaway.
There are plenty of water-based activities to get involved in on the island, like taking a kayak along the turquoise waters or taking a snorkel to investigate the exciting sea creatures. For the adventure-seekers amongst us, there is also the option of going on a 115-mile kayak trail from Key Largo to Key West which travels through some of the more untouched areas in the archipelago and the most diverse marine life ecosystems in the world.
However, if you are looking to just relax and enjoy the sun, there are plenty of fabulous sunbathing spots on Key Largo. If feeling a touch peckish, we recommend you head to the Blonde Giraffe Key Lime Factory, which is said to offer some of the best Key Lime Pies in the whole of the Florida Keys!
8. Visit the Dolphin Research Centre
A fantastic nonprofit organisation, The Dolphin Research Centre in the Florida Keys has been providing a home for rescued and orphaned dolphins since 1984. The facility provides an exciting opportunity for visitors to learn about these marine animals from experienced trainers and interactive demonstrations that you can get involved in.
Playful, mischievous and affectionate; you will get to know the animals that live at the sanctuary and recognise their distinct personalities. While over half of the residents were born in the research centre, others were rescued and deemed unreleasable by the government, so will spend the rest of their lives being cared for by the staff here.
Visitors will get the chance to get up close to the sea lions and dolphins and even swim with them. What’s more, the centre has been home to a few household names over the years, with some of the stars of the children’s movie Flipper being from the facility!
9. Visit the Sea Turtle Hospital
While the waters of the Florida Keys used to be full of healthy sea turtles, these days, the creatures are seriously under threat and many have to be sent to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon for treatment. A trip to this amazing non-profit organisation gives you a rare insight into the processes involved in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing sick or wounded sea turtles at one of the state’s top facilities.
An entrance fee provides guests with a 90-minute guided tour, including an informative presentation and the opportunity to witness feeding time and meet some of the four-legged patients. The instructors will also guide guests on how to best approach any turtles that they come into contact with in the wild.
Not only is the experience sure to be a fascinating one, but the proceeds from each ticket contribute towards supporting the upkeep of the hospital, so you can be sure that the funds go towards a worthy cause. After fighting the good fight for around 34 years, the Turtle Hospital has become a very popular place to visit, so you should consider booking tickets in advance to avoid any long queues or disappointment.
As well as famous places to visit such as Key West, there are also plenty of hidden gems in the Florida Keys waiting to be explored. It is no surprise that the islands have become such a popular holiday destination with blissful beaches, clear warm waters, exciting wildlife and top-quality hotels – what more could you ask for?
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide on what to do in the Florida Keys. You can check out more of my recommendations for this state in my Florida Travel Guide here.