Florida Keys Travel Guide
The Florida Keys are like a coral kingdom: a 125-mile-long arcing chain of islands flung south from the tip of Florida with the ultimate island — Key West — resting just 90 miles from the shores of Cuba. And with one narrow road (and 42 bridges) connecting the isles, just to travel the Florida Keys is to feel on a magical, water-surrounded journey.
While it's possible to hop in a car in Miami and make it to Key West (and the southernmost point in the continental United States) in less than four hours (traffic willing), that defeats the charm and richness of the Florida Keys. Every few miles there's a discovery to be had: a tiki bar, a seafood joint, a beachy resort or boutique hotel, a gorgeous nature preserve, or just a thrilling turquoise vista across the famed saltwater flats toward a blue horizon. So, make a trip of it — spend a few days in Key Largo or Islamorada near the upper end of the archipelago, dally on Marathon or Big Pine Key, then settle in for some serious quirky culture, history, and bohemia in Key West. Take time to snorkel, dive, and fish, walk the beach, and eat lots and lots of seafood (and Key lime pie). And don't worry if you don't get to everything that there is to love and explore in the Florida Keys — you'll be back.
Eastern Standard Time (Daylight Savings Time is observed seasonally)
Best Time to Go
Peak tourist season in the Florida Keys starts right after the holidays in late December and lasts through May. During the winter months it almost never rains, and even if clouds do push through with some showers, they're gone that day. The Keys' subtropical climate means balmy temperatures year-round (January's high temperatures are typically in the 70s), making it a superb destination when even Central Florida can be experiencing frosts. In the summer, when temperatures get into the hot range (July's average high is 86°F), the crowds disperse a bit and hotels tend to lower their prices, which makes this a great time to visit if you're looking for better deals and don't mind heat and humidity. Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, which means more turbulent weather and the possibility of dangerous storms (peak hurricane months for the Florida Keys are between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15). That said, some of the prettiest weather of the year — calm waters and fluffy clouds — also occur during this period.
Festivals in the Florida Keys draw big crowds and can be a reason to go or a reason to pick another time for vacation, depending on the type of trip you're looking for. Peak festivals include Key West's Hemingway Days (including the famed Hemingway lookalike contest) in July and the Carnivalesque Fantasy Fest in October, the Original Marathon Seafood Festival in March, the 7 Mile Bridge Run (the only run surrounded by water along its entire length) in April, and the Key West Brewfest over Labor Day Weekend. (For a full list of festivals and events, check the Florida Keys Tourism Bureau's calendar, here.)
Things to Know
The Florida Keys is a 125-mile-long chain of islands that begins just south of Miami. The coral and limestone islands are linked by 42 bridges — one almost seven miles long — over the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Keys are divided into five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and Lower Keys, and Key West.
Key Largo is known as the Dive Capital of the World and is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater preserve in the U.S.
Islamorada is known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the world and is famous for its backcountry sport fishing and saltwater fly fishing.
The Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon is one of the longest segmented bridges in the world.
In the Lower Keys, Big Pine Key is home to a national refuge that protects the miniature endangered Key deer, which has made an astonishing comeback from near extinction.
Key West, famed as the beloved home of writers Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams (and home to a warm and welcoming LGBTQ+ scene), is closer to Cuba (90 miles) than it is to Miami (159 miles). The island — just two by four miles in size — is home to a vibrant historic district, an international airport, and the southernmost point in the continental United States.
The only road linking the islands — the Florida Keys Overseas Highway — is the southernmost leg of U.S. Highway 1 and is sometimes called the Highway That Goes to Sea. Its green mile marker signs begin at mile marker 113 at the Miami-Dade/Monroe County line and descend to marker 0 at the corner of Fleming and Whitehead streets in Key West (a popular photo opportunity). It's common for hotels, restaurants, and other sites to peg the locations to the closest mile marker (MM). The drive from Miami to Key West generally takes four hours.
The waters surrounding the chain, which include shallow flats, mangrove islets, and coral reefs, are protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail links nine historic underwater wreck and artificial reefs from Key Largo to Key West.
Over the years, residents of the Florida Keys have prospered from farming, shipwreck salvage, sponge fishing, commercial fishing (the second-largest industry in the Keys today) and tourism, the primary economic driver of the area. Tourism had its earliest booster in railroad baron Henry Flagler who completed a railroad in 1912 that linked the Keys to bring tourists south, but a hurricane in 1935 destroyed segments that were never rebuilt. The Overseas Highway, completed in 1938, became the sole way to travel among the Keys on land.
Classic dishes of the Keys reflect the islands' exposure to Caribbean cultures, and include spicy conch chowder, Cuban classics like ropa vieja and pork marinated in mojo sauce, Key West pink shrimp, and Key lime pie. Being surrounded by fishing grounds, the Keys are a superb place to eat fresh seafood — classic catch includes yellowtail, grouper, mutton, snapper, mahi-mahi, spiny lobster, and stone crab.
How to Get Around
Bus Service from Miami: The Greyhound Keys Shuttle connects from the Miami Bus Station and serves the Keys all the way to Key West. Miami-Dade Transit Route 301 Dade-Monroe Express runs from Miami's West Palm Drive/3rd Avenue to Mile Marker 50 in Marathon. From there, the Key West's Lower Keys Shuttle connects Marathon to points in Key West.
Taxis: Local cab companies generally service their island area — inquire locally for taxis. A cab stand services passengers arriving at Key West International Airport (EYW).
Ride sharing: Uber and LYFT both operate in the Florida Keys.
Big Pine and Lower Keys
Big Pine and Lower Keys
Things to Do
The climate in the Florida Keys is subtropical, and the proximity to the Gulf Stream and Gulf of Mexico means that the average summer and winter temperatures rarely differ more than 10 degrees. Which means year-round paradise (except for hurricane season). Here's how the seasons break down:
Winter: What's not to love about a season where it hardly ever rains, and the temperatures hover between 75 and 80 degrees? January's high is 74.8° F and the low is 64.9°, and February is about one degree warmer. The average rainfall for both months hovers below two inches.
Spring: Early spring is still pretty dry, but with May comes more precipitation (3.5 inches of rain) as hurricane season looms officially on June 1. In terms of average temperature, March opens with an average high of 78.6° F and by May that high is up to 85.1°.
Summer: Even at the peak of summer, the average high is 89° F, and the lack of highways and urban sprawl means that the heat doesn't bake quite like it does elsewhere. And all the water surrounding the Keys has a cooling ocean effect. But it's rainy season, with June and August topping out at just over five inches per month.
Fall: This season includes some of the feistiest months of hurricane season, so this can mean threatening storms. It can also mean beautiful, calm days with billowy clouds. The high temps of August start to decline, down to 88° F in September, 84.4°in October, and a balmy 80° in November.
Apps to Download
Key West Tour Guide: Audio tours from Key Largo to Key West.