Florida Keys/Southern Florida Quick Guide


Key West, Florida Keys
Key West, Florida Keys

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.

Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Everglades National Park
Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Everglades National Park

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. 

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. That means that, at no cost to you, we may get a small commission if you purchase through these links. This helps us keep providing travel resources for you!


What to do in the Florida Keys/Southern Florida


Visit Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park
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.  

Dry Tortugas National Park


Visit Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park
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

Biscayne National Park


Visit Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park
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.  

Everglades National Park


Visit the Turtle Hospital

Turtle Hospital, Marathon, FL
Turtle Hospital, Marathon, FL

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.

Sea Turtle Hospital
Sea Turtle Hospital

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.  

Turtle Hospital

Mile Marker 48.5


Take a Pontoon Boat Tour

Pontoon Boat Tour
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. 

Pontoon Boat Tour
Pontoon Boat Tour

Key Largo Everglades Eco Tour

Mile Marker 101.9


Spend a day in Key West

Key West, Florida Keys
Key West, Florida Keys

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 Tourism Website

Key West Food Scene 

Lucy’s (left) and Conch Republic Seafood (middle & right)

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. 

Conch Republic Seafood

Sunset Celebration

Key West Sunset Celebration
Key West Sunset Celebration

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.  

Sunset Celebration

Other Key West Activities

Key West, Florida Keys
Key West, Florida Keys

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 

Bahia Honda State Park
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.  

Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park

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, Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Feed The Tarpon, Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada

“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. 

Robbie's Marina, Islamorada
Robbie’s Marina, Islamorada

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. 

Robbie’s Marina

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.  

Key Lime Pie, Florida Keys
Key Lime Pie, Florida Keys

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.

Little Havana

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).  

Little Havana, Miami
Little Havana, Miami

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. 

Wynwood

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.  

Wynwood, Miami
Wynwood, Miami

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.  

Visit Miami


Rent Bikes 

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. 

Bike Riding in Key Largo
Bike Riding 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.  

All Keys Cycles

Mile Marker 103.4


Visit Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
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).  

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

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. 

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

Mile Marker 84.9


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. 


Key Largo

  1. Fish House (seafood, good meringue key lime pie)
  2. Key Largo Chocolates (best to-go whipped cream key lime pie) 
  3. Hobo’s (seafood) 

Key West

  1. Conch Republic Seafood (harbourfront dining, seafood)
  2. Blue Heaven (good breakfast/brunch)
  3. Lucy’s (on Duval Street, causal) 
  4. Kermit’s (key lime pie)

Islamorada

  1. Hungry Tarpon (seafood)

Homestead

  1. Robbies (fruit stand, delicious fruit milkshakes/smoothies)
  2. La Quebradita Mexican Grill (Mexican)

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. 

Key Largo Airbnb
Key Largo Airbnb

Lookout Point Airbnb in Key Largo at Mile Marker 113

Use this link to get up to $65 off your first Airbnb

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!

And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!

Dry Tortugas National Park Quick Guide

Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park

Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most remote and secluded National Parks in the US.  It is located about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico and the only way to access it is by seaplane or boat.  This National Park is home to the massive Fort Jefferson, a large brick structure built in the 1800s to help protect the shipping lanes in this part of the ocean and then later used to hold Civil War prisoners. This park preserves not only Fort Jefferson but also the seven Dry Tortugas islands, the most western of the Florida Keys. This island is surrounded by the clearest blue water and is well-known for its excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. You can visit this National Park for the day or stay at one of the 8 primitive campsites overnight.  We recommend spending at least a morning or an afternoon exploring this park, if not more time.  Here is our quick guide for visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. That means that, at no cost to you, we may get a small commission if you purchase through these links. This helps us keep providing travel resources for you!


How to get to Dry Tortugas National Park

Snorkeling, Fort & Moat, Dry Tortugas National Park
Snorkeling, Fort & Moat, Dry Tortugas National Park

There are two ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park

  1. Take a Seaplane…Key West Seaplane Charters
  2. Take a Ferry…Dry Tortugas Ferry

Both options have their pros and cons but we highly recommend taking the seaplane, which is what we did. 

Fun Fact: Last time we were on a plane this size was when we met 7.5 years ago in Belize.  Crazy how a plane ride can change your life forever! 

Why take the Seaplane 


It’s Faster

Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park

The seaplane takes 35 minutes each way whereas the ferry takes 2.5 hours each way. If you take the ferry, you will be spending 5 hours of your day on it where conversely, on the seaplane, you will only spend a little over an hour. This allowed us our whole morning to explore Key West prior to going to Dry Tortugas as we went on the 2pm-6pm seaplane trip.  The plane ride to/from Dry Tortugas goes by very fast as well .  On the ride, the pilot is either pointing out different wildlife and viewpoints or an educational recording about the park is playing.  You’ll be at the park or back in Key West before you know it. 


The Views from Above

View from above on the Seaplane
View from above on the Seaplane

The views from above on the seaplane are really neat!  You fly at 500 feet elevation so you can see into the water quite well from the plane. Our pilot pointed out sharks, dolphins, stingrays and sea turtles along the way which were all very fun to see.  You’ll also see some sunken shipwrecks and other islands on the way to the park.  Our favorite view was seeing Fort Jefferson from above before landing on the water at the park. 


Avoid the Crowds 

Moat Views, Dry Tortugas National Park
Moat Views, Dry Tortugas National Park

Further, when you visit on the 8am or the 2pm seaplane trip, you will almost completely have the island to yourself.  The only other people at the park at those times will either be from one of the two small 10-person seaplanes or campers on the island (there are only 8 remote sites). If you visit on the ferry, it carries up to 175 people and it will certainly feel more crowded during your visit.  Be sure to book the seaplane in advance and book the 8am or 2pm trip to avoid any crowds. 

The seaplane is about twice the cost of the ferry (which is still expensive) but with all the pros to taking the seaplane, we think the extra cost is well worth it.


Other Seaplane Logistics

Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park
Seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park

With the seaplane you have the option to do a full day trip (8 hours total, with 6.5 hours at the park) or a half day trip (4 hours total, with 2.5 hours at the park).  We did the half day trip and felt it was adequate to tour Fort Jefferson and do all the snorkeling we wanted around the Fort.  However, if you are looking to spend more time relaxing on the island or want to snorkel for more than an hour, you may want to book the full day tour.  Keep in mind though, the full day tour is twice the cost of the half day tour. 

Included with your seaplane trip is the use of snorkel gear for the day as well as a cooler of soft drinks of your choice to enjoy on the island. Both of these were added perks. It was especially nice to not have to pack or purchase our own snorkel gear for the trip.  


Caution: Beware of Motion Sickness

If you are prone to motion sickness (like Natalie), you may experience it on the seaplane.  Prior to our trip, one pro that sold us on the seaplane was being told it was a way to avoid the motion sickness sometimes experienced on the ferry.  However, on our trip, we did not find that to be the case.  Our pilot did several banking 360 degree turns to show us different creatures on our trip to/from the park.  Although these turns provided us some stellar wildlife views, they did not bode well for Natalie’s stomach. 

If you take meclizine for motion sickness, try to take that before the flight to/from the island.  Also, make sure you are hydrated and are dressed cool as the plane tends to be quite warm (which does not help with any motion sickness).  See, coming soon, How to Prevent Motion Sickness While Traveling.  Again, we recommend taking the seaplane over the ferry and would both take it again but just be aware that it may be a bit of a roller coaster ride for your stomach.


What to do at Dry Tortugas National Park


Snorkel

Snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park
Snorkeling Dry Tortugas National Park

The snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park was hands down the best snorkeling we have ever done. The water here is crystal clear and the coral reef growing around the moat of Fort Jefferson is so colorful.  We saw many different colored and sized fish while snorkeling around the moat.  If you are a more experienced snorkeler, you can also snorkel in some deeper water on the North and South Beach of the park which is supposed to be stunning as well.  We highly recommend spending at least an hour, if not more time, snorkeling while visiting the park. 


Tour Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park
Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

At the park, you can take a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson.  This took us about 45 minutes to do.  On the tour, you can read history about different aspects of the Fort.  It was also really astounding to walk through this brick fortress as it was built at this very remote location with such limited resources in the 1800s.  The architecture of the Fort is really pretty.  From the top of the Fort, you get great views overlooking the park as well.  

Water Views from Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park
Water Views from Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

Relax on the Beach 

Pristine Beach, Dry Tortugas National Park
Pristine Beach, Dry Tortugas National Park

The beach here is pristine.  If you have time, enjoy a beverage overlooking the clear blue water while on the white sandy beach.   


Where to Stay when visiting Dry Tortugas National Park


Key Largo Airbnb
Key Largo Airbnb

We opted to stay in Key Largo and take a day trip to Key West (about 2.25 hours from Key West) to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Going to Dry Tortugas this way does make for a long day (we left at 6am and got back to our place around 11pm).  If you want to spend more than part of a day exploring Key West, in addition to visiting Dry Tortugas, you will want to stay in Key West or another one of the more southern Florida Keys such as Marathon.  

We stayed at a cute Airbnb, perfect for two people, right on the Atlantic in Key Largo and would highly recommend it if looking to stay further up in the Florida Keys.  On our trip, we also visited Everglades National Park (see Everglades National Park Quick Guide), Biscayne National Park (see Biscayne National Park Quick Guide) and Miami in addition to Key West, the other Florida Keys (see Florida Keys/Southern Florida Quick Guide) and Dry Tortugas National Park so we wanted a more central homebase than one of the more Southern Florida Keys.  

Lookout Point Airbnb in Key Largo

Use this link to get up to $65 off your first Airbnb


We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.  Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions.  Please leave us a comment!

And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!