The Florida Keys and Southern Florida are the tropical paradise of the continental US. Traveling through this area, you will see exotic plants and animals not found elsewhere in mainland USA. From this part of the country, you can also access the third largest coral reef in the world, and the largest coral reef in the US, the Florida Reef. Moreover, this area is home to three National Parks–Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. Lastly, the Overseas Highway that spans the Florida Keys, from Key Largo to Key West, has been rated as one of the most beautiful drives in the US with it’s scenic ocean views. Our Florida Keys/Southern Florida Guide will go through how to see it all!
We spent 10 days exploring the Florida Keys and Southern Florida area on our babymoon. During this time, we visited Everglades National Park (see Everglades National Park Quick Guide), Biscayne National Park (see Biscayne National Park Quick Guide), Dry Tortugas National Park (see Dry Tortugas National Park Quick Guide), Miami, the Florida Keys and everywhere in-between. On our trip, we saw SO much wildlife including iguanas, dolphins, sharks, alligators, sea turtles, manatees and many different birds. We recommend spending at least one week in the Florida Keys and Southern Florida, potentially longer, if you want to see all three of these National Parks and a large majority of what the Florida Keys has to offer. Here is our guide on visiting the Florida Keys.
FYI: This post is based on a trip taken in mid-March
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What to do in the Florida Keys/Southern Florida
Visit Dry Tortugas National Park
This park is located 70 miles west of Key West and is one of the most remote and secluded National Parks in the US. To get to this uninhabited island, you have to either take a seaplane or a ferry. Highlights of visiting this National Park include exploring the historic Fort Jefferson (built in the 1800s) and snorkeling in the crystal clear water around the Fort. A visit to this park is not one you will soon forget. See our Dry Tortugas National Park Quick Guide for all the details about visiting this National Park.
Visit Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park is located near Homestead, Florida (Southeast Florida) and is 95% water. Highlights of visiting this park include traveling across the very clear Biscayne Bay, exploring the mangroves, snorkeling around the mangroves on the bay side of the park or in the Florida Reef on the Atlantic side of the park. To visit this National Park, take a tour with the Biscayne National Park Institute. We highly recommend sailing, snorkeling, kayaking and visiting one of the remote Keys during your time at this park. For all the the details on visiting this National Park, see our Biscayne National Park Quick Guide.
Visit Everglades National Park
This National Park, the 4th largest US National Park, spans from the Miami area all the way down into the Florida Keys so there are many points to access it. On the northern end of the park, visit Shark Valley and rent a bike or ride a tram on the loop road to see more Alligators than ever before. Near the Homestead entrance (Ernest F. Coe entrance), you can explore many different hiking trails and/or canoe/kayak. Near both of these areas, you can also take an Airboat ride. The possibilities are endless. See our Everglades National Park Quick Guide for all the details about visiting this park.
Visit the Turtle Hospital
In Marathon Key, there is a unique Turtle Hospital, that rescues local sea turtles, that we recommend visiting. Here, you can take a tour and see more sea turtles than ever before. On the first part of your tour, you will learn about the different types of sea turtles in Florida and how/why the turtles end up at the Turtle Hospital. On the second part of your tour, you get to see many of these massive sea turtle patients and permanent residents up close.
This hospital’s goal is to release as many of the sea turtle patients as possible back into the wild, but some turtles become permanent residents here as they would not survive in the wild on their own. This tour costs $27/person and is well worth every dollar.
Mile Marker 48.5
Take a Pontoon Boat Tour
This pontoon boat tour, based in Key Largo, explores a small portion of the southern saltwater Everglades National Park, part of John Pennekamp State Park and some of the Key Largo Canals. On this tour, we saw manatees (a mom and her baby), giant iguanas and plenty of different birds. Our captain on this tour, Captain Tony, was very entertaining and we learned quite a bit of history about the different areas we visited.
Mile Marker 101.9
Spend a day in Key West
Key West is the most vibrant, fun and walkable of the Florida Keys. On Duval street (the most lively street on the island), there are 43 bars alone, which speaks to the exuberant party scene here. With all the bars and the unique style of the houses on the island, Key West felt to us like a Tropical New Orleans. If you are looking to take advantage of the nightlife here, you may want to consider staying down on this Key.
Key West Food Scene
A large part of the Key West culture is the many different vibrant restaurants. During your visit to Key West, make sure to stop at Conch Republic Seafood for a meal, our favorite restaurant on the island. This restaurant is located right along the harbor with delicious seafood. We recommend getting the blackened snapper and the seafood ravioli but really do not think you could go wrong with anything on the menu. For other meals, we recommend eating at Blue Heaven (good brunch) and Lucy’s (casual diverse food, on Duval street). However, you will have plenty of different options to choose from.
While in Key West, make sure not to miss the Sunset Celebration. This nightly celebration starts about an hour or two before sunset when street performers, artists and food vendors fill Mallory Square. These street performers look to make tips by dazzling onlookers while artists and food vendors look to sell their products. The Sunset Festival is really a Key West cultural experience. The sunset over the ocean from Mallory Square is also truly unmatched and not to be missed.
Other Key West Activities
Another fun thing to do while in Key West is to take your picture by the Southernmost point of the Island, the closest spot in the US to Cuba (90 miles from). Also, seeing chickens/roosters everywhere on the island is part of the Key West experience. We saw at least 30 chickens and roosters during our day in Key West. Other things we did not have time for while visiting Key West but have heard good things about include visiting the Ernest Hemingway House (one of the most famous Key West residents) and watching the Turtle races (bet on Turtles racing) at the Turtle Kraals.
Tip: If visiting Dry Tortugas National Park, we recommend doing your day in Key West on the same day you visit the park (if you are taking the seaplane/doing the half day tour).
Visit Bahia Honda State Park
At Bahia Honda State Park, you can hike (about 1 mile trail), kayak, fly a kite or lay out on the beautiful natural sandy beach. The views from the old Bahia Honda Bridge are very pretty. We enjoyed hiking on the trail and exploring the park for an hour or so.
Admission is $4.50/person, $9/two people and 50 cents more per person after two.
Tip: If staying in one the more northern Florida Keys, stop here in the morning on your way to Key West or after visiting the Turtle Hospital. You only need an hour of two at this beach, depending on what you want to do, and this will minimize your driving time on different days.
Mile Marker 37
Feed the Tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
Spending an afternoon at Robbie’s Marina will offer you a plethora of activities to choose from. You can eat at the Hungry Tarpon restaurant (we highly recommend–great views and good food), rent a kayak or boat, shop at the different stores/stands or the most unique and well-known activity, “Feed the Tarpon.”
“Feed the Tarpon” involves feeding tarpon, which are giant, 4 foot up to 8 foot, fish that can go flying into the air to grab fish to eat. At Robbie’s, buy a bucket or two of fish ($4/bucket, food for the Tarpons) and admission to the pier ($2.25/person) that these tarpons frequent. Then, go onto the pier and feed the tarpon by holding fish near the water in the designated area.
Feeding these tarpon is quite entertaining as they jump high into the air to get fish that are being fed to them. It is really a spectacle as, even though you know they are going to jump into the air, it is quite startling with their size. Further, adding the experience, there are always many Pelicans waiting very closely (maybe too closely) for a fish to accidentally get dropped to them. Also, when we fed the tarpon, we saw a 5+ foot shark in the water with the tarpon, making our experience even more unique.
Mile Marker 77.5
Eat Key Lime Pie
While in the Florida Keys, make sure you eat the iconic desert of these islands, key lime pie. The authentic Florida Keys style is served with meringue. The best meringue key lime pie we had in the Florida Keys was at the Fish House in Key Largo. If whipped cream is more your style, the best whipped cream key lime pie is from Key Largo Chocolates. Regardless of what kind you get, make sure you get some.
Note: The key lime pie in the Florida Keys is not green, it is more of a light yellow, unlike other places we have eaten it in the US. This less vibrant coloring reminded us of how you know if gelato is the real deal. Generally speaking, authentic gelato will not have extreme or vibrant coloring either. See…coming soon…Rome, Italy Quick Guide.
Spend a day in Miami
Miami is a lively, colorful and culturally vibrant city to explore. The options on what to do while in Miami for a day are really endless. However, we most recommend visiting both Little Havana and the Wynwood area during your time there.
In Little Havana, make sure to visit Calle Ocho. Here, you will be impressed by the many colorful murals and different authentic Cuban (and other Latino) restaurants. On this street, there is also the famous Domino Park (small park where locals come to play dominos), Walk of Fame (stars in the sidewalk highlighting famous Cuban Americans) and Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park (a pretty and peaceful park located right off Calle Ocho).
Tip: To find Calle Ocho, either search for Domino Park or Cuban Memorial Boulevard Park in your GPS and you will be sure to stumble upon it.
After visiting Little Havana, head to Wynwood. Here, you will also be impressed by the many different murals that seem to be on nearly every building or business you pass. You can explore these murals through walking around or driving. We recommend eating lunch at Tacomiendo while in Wynwood. This simple outdoor eatery, which is BYOB, serves delicious tacos (at least 10 to choose from) that you can enjoy on a pretty outdoor patio.
Next, consider spending the afternoon at the lively and youthful South Beach. Here, you can go roller skating, relax on the beach or simply people watch. We opted not to visit South Beach, as we had plenty of ocean time during other parts of our trip but we think it would be a fun place to explore.
There are plenty of different bike rental shops in the Florida Keys. If you want to rent it conveniently, you can rent from a place near where you are staying or if you want to explore another Key, you can rent a bike in a different Key. We rented bikes in Key Largo, from All Keys Cycles, and really liked exploring the Key via bike. We found biking around the Keys to be more enjoyable than walking as the breeze created while on the bike was much appreciated. Biking was a fun way to see a lot of the different neighborhoods/houses in Key Largo.
While riding bikes, we played the “name the price game” of different houses for sale. This is where we would both guess how much a house was for sale and then look up how much it was actually for sale. We found this to be entertaining as the real estate market is really much more pricey than what we are used to in Wisconsin.
Mile Marker 103.4
Visit Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
At Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, you can see the fossils of different coral reefs on the approximately 1.5 miles of hiking trails here. Plan to spend an hour or so here on the hiking trails looking at the different coral reefs fossilized. This is a nice to see, not must see, so only stop here if it is along the way (you will likely pass it at least one of the days while driving).
Tips: This state park, similar to some other state parks (not Bahia Honda) in the Keys, is only open Thursday-Sunday so plan accordingly. The park admission is $2.50/person and bring this in exact change as you will likely pay the self-pay station.
Mile Marker 84.9
Here is a quick summary of how we timed everything below. Add, subtract or rearrange as you please!
Day 1: Fly into Fort Lauderdale Airport, pick up rental car, grocery shop, drive to accommodations in Key Largo (see below in Where to Stay for details on accommodations)
Day 2: Hike throughout Everglades National Park, stop at Robert is Here Fruitstand in Homestead on the way back, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 3: Ride Bikes through Shark Valley through Everglades National Park in the morning, late lunch at La Quebradita Mexican Grill in Homestead on the way back, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 4: Sail, Paddle and Snorkel Tour at Biscayne National Park, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 5: Ride Bikes around Key Largo and stop for Key Lime Pie at Key Largo Chocolates, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 6: Take Pontoon Boat Tour, afternoon Key Lime Pie at the Fish House, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 7: BIG DAY, wake up early to journey to Key West from Key Largo. On the way, stop at Bahia Honda State Park, drive across 7 mile bridge, lunch/drinks at the Conch House in Key West, 1/2 day seaplane tour to Dry Tortugas National Park, Sunset festival along waterfront in Key West, Dinner at Lucy’s on Duval Street, drive back to Key Largo.
[Option to stay overnight in Key West this night to break up the driving and experience more of the night life well known to Key West, particularly on Duval Street.]
Day 8: Free day, relax/read at oceanfront accommodations in Key Largo
Day 9: Visit Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key, stop on Islamorada on the way back, eat lunch at Robbie’s and feed the tarpon here too, stop at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park on the way back, relax/read on oceanfront at accommodations in the evening in Key Largo
Day 10: Explore Miami in the am/early afternoon, lunch at Tacomiendo, return rental car and fly home
Where to Eat in the Florida Keys and Southern Florida
As our Airbnb had a kitchen and a covered patio overlooking the ocean, we cooked/ate most of our meals at our Airbnb. However, we did eat out several times and below are our recommendations for different areas.
- Fish House (seafood, good meringue key lime pie)
- Key Largo Chocolates (best to-go whipped cream key lime pie)
- Hobo’s (seafood)
- Conch Republic Seafood (harbourfront dining, seafood)
- Blue Heaven (good breakfast/brunch)
- Lucy’s (on Duval Street, causal)
- Kermit’s (key lime pie)
- Hungry Tarpon (seafood)
- Robbies (fruit stand, delicious fruit milkshakes/smoothies)
- La Quebradita Mexican Grill (Mexican)
1. Tacomiendo (Tacos)
Where to Stay in Southern Florida/ The Florida Keys
Stay in Homestead or one of the Florida Keys
We based ourselves in northern Key Largo, at a cute Airbnb perfect for two people, right on the Atlantic Ocean. This location was perfect for us because we wanted to stay in the same place our whole Florida Keys/Southern Florida trip to make it a bit more relaxing (packing and unpacking numerous times in a trip can be a bit exhausting). We were very happy to find this little slice of paradise, that was reasonably priced, with a beautiful view. It was a 2 hour and 15 minute drive to Key West from here but we only made that drive one day so it was manageable. The other days, we were within 30 minutes to 1 hour drive of where we were going.
Lookout Point Airbnb in Key Largo at Mile Marker 113
Alternatively, you could also stay a little further down in the Keys for an even more central location (such as Islamorada). Another option is to split your time between Homestead or Key Largo and Key West. However, keep in mind that accommodations only get more expensive as you get further down into the Keys and closer/into Key West. Conversely, accommodations in Homestead are on the more reasonably priced than any accommodations in the Keys.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to the Florida Keys and Southern Florida. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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