11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in the Florida Keys
To the south of Miami are the Florida Keys, a chain of coral islands that extend for more than 110 miles between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
Until a devastating hurricane in 1935, they were linked by a rail line extending to Key West, from which there were boats to Havana, Cuba. The boldly engineered Overseas Highway, US 1 now runs over 42 bridges and numerous artificial causeways to the southeastern tip of the United States.
Many people immediately think of Key West when they ponder the best places to visit in the Florida Keys, but there is much more to see. The little islands of Sands Key, Elliot Key, Cotton Key, and Old Rhodes Key, lying off Biscayne Bay, are now part of the Biscayne National Underwater Park, established in 1980. Off Key Largo are the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.
The Florida Keys are filled with wildlife, scattered beaches, beautiful resorts, and plenty of water adventure opportunities, including snorkeling, diving, and swimming with the dolphins. Tourists can find plenty of interesting history here, too, especially thanks to pirates who used to call the Keys home.
Plan your trip to the islands with our list of the top attractions in the Florida Keys.
1. Duval Street, Key West
Duval Street, which runs from Mallory Square to the Southernmost Point marker, is home to museums, souvenir shops, galleries, and cafés.
An excellent place to people-watch while sightseeing, Duval Street hosts several annual events and parades, including the Hemingway Days festival each summer and the Fantasy Fest, a ten-day costume party each October.
Duval Street is home to some of Key West's most historic attractions, including the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, the Southernmost House, and the former Strand Theater.
2. Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park is home to what is undoubtedly the nicest beach in the Keys, and one of the most beautiful beaches in Florida. The park actually has two separate beach areas, one large stretch facing the open ocean, and another smaller beach area that looks across to the old railroad bridge.
Views are impressive from either side. The park covers approximately 400 acres and offers snorkeling boat tours, beach equipment rental, and concessions. There is also a campground area, as well as picnic sites.
Address: 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, Florida
Official site: www.bahiahondapark.com
3. Dry Tortugas National Park
Located in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or seaplane, although most people do this as part of a tour. You can take a Dry Tortugas National Park Day Trip by Catamaran from Key West.
This archipelago of seven beach-ringed islands is also home to Fort Jefferson, a massive 19th-century fortification that takes up one island in its entirety. The park is a favorite among snorkelers and divers for its coral and seagrass, as well as the numerous shipwrecks that can be easily spotted under the surface.
Popular snorkeling spots are the Historic Coaling Pier, Fort Jefferson's moat wall, and Garden Key's coral heads. Those with their own boat can explore around Loggerhead Key's Little Africa Reef and the Windjammer Wreck.
Address: 40001 SR-9336, Homestead, Florida
Official site: www.nps.gov/drto
4. Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West
Located in Key West, this former home of author Ernest Hemingway is an important piece of Florida's cultural history. Visitors can tour the home, which is furnished with many of the original pieces, including Hemingway's prized collection of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish furniture.
The gardens surrounding the home are a main attraction here as well, famous not only for the many species of flowers but for the 40-plus cats who reside here, all of whom are descendants of Hemingway's original pet cats.
Address: 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida
Official site: www.hemingwayhome.com
5. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Off Key Largo are John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where the rich underwater life and a number of wrecks attract many snorkelers and scuba divers. The park has a small swimming area with a shell-covered beach, but many people come here to snorkel or dive.
Picnic areas and an information center with displays on the habitats and marine life provide fascinating insight into the marine environment. A variety of tours are available, including glass-bottom boat tours for a close-up look at the world beneath the ocean surface.
The longest of the Florida Keys, Key Largo is a good introduction to the Keys lifestyle, with many marinas, tackle shops, and diving opportunities.
Address: 102601 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, Florida
Official site: www.pennekamppark.com
Accommodation: Best Family Resorts in the Florida Keys
6. Mallory Square, Key West
Mallory Square is a lively area in Old Town Key West that is best known for its nightly sunset celebration. Each evening, entertainers and vendors gather to create a festive atmosphere while tourists admire the iconic sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.
You will find an interesting mix of performances, from tightrope-walking cats and dogs on unicycles to sword swallowing and fire juggling. Mallory square is also home to several shops, including the Key West Sponge Market, a place where you can enjoy their small museum dedicated to the sponge-harvesting industry that supported Key West in years past. You will also find several surf shops, a treasure-hunting store, and other specialty boutiques.
Mallory Square is also the last stop on the Conch Tour Train route, which takes tourists on a 90-minute sightseeing tour of the Old Town, featuring stops at Truval Village, near Duval Street, where you can hop off to explore some of the area's attractions and popular things to do, including the Southernmost Point and the Key West Lighthouse.
Address: 400 Wall Street, Key West, Florida
Official site: www.mallorysquare.com
7. Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory provides you with the unique opportunity to wander the glass-enclosed conservatory where nearly 60 species of butterflies soar freely among the plant-filled habitat. In addition to the butterflies, more than 20 species of exotic birds are also kept here.
You can also learn about the butterfly life cycle in the Learning Center, where a 15-minute educational film loops continuously. Other exhibits showcase the different types of butterflies, and you can view live caterpillars in all stages of the life cycle.
Stop in at the Butterfly Gallery on your way out. Here, you can view specimens and artwork, and wander through the gift shop.
Address: 1316 Duval Street, Key West, Florida
Official site: www.keywestbutterfly.com
8. National Key Deer Refuge
Located between Marathon and Key West, Big Pine Key is home to Key deer and the National Key Deer Refuge. This miniature species reaches the size of a large dog when fully grown.
The refuge was established in 1957 and was created as a sanctuary for the endangered Key deer, which were almost non-existent by the 1950s due to hunting.
Also on Big Pine Key is Blue Water Hole, a freshwater pond located in a former quarry that attracts turtles and alligators.
Address: 179 Key Deer Blvd., Big Pine Key, Florida
Official site: www.fws.gov/refuge/national_key_deer_refuge
9. Dolphin Research Center
The Dolphin Research Center allows visitors to learn about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Experience the different "dolphinalities" during narrated sessions and watch the trainers interact with the dolphins.
You can also participate in interactive programs that include swimming with the dolphins. Dolphin-lovers will also enjoy a tour of Island Dolphin Care on Key Largo, a facility that teams up with dolphins to provide unique therapy for people with various health conditions. Tours include an overview of the programs, dolphin viewing, and a touch-tank.
Address: 58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, Florida
Official site: www.dolphins.org
10. Turtle Hospital
A visit to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon will give you the unique opportunity to learn about the process of rehabilitating injured sea turtles at one of the state's top rescue facilities.
The Education center is open daily, and all visitors must take one of the 90-minute guided tours available hourly. Tours allow you to see the sea turtle rehabilitation tanks, the hospital area, and even feed the permanent residents who cannot be released back into the wild.
The center performs medical treatment for sea turtles and emergency rescue for turtles stranded by tropical storms and has rehabilitated and released more than 1,500 since the hospital was founded in 1986.
Address: 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Florida
Official site: www.turtlehospital.org
Marathon is the commercial and sportfishing center of the Middle Keys, and charters are easily arranged from here for deep-sea, reef, and flats fishing. Tourists also enjoy the numerous water sports available, including paddleboarding, kayaking, and jet skiing, not to mention the excellent beaches and waterfront restaurants.
Marathon is the starting point if you want to walk along the former seven-mile bridge. This stretch of bridge was left in place, and the walkway is open to walkers, joggers, and cyclists for free.
Marathon is home to top Florida Keys attractions, like the Turtle Hospital, the Dolphin Research Center, and Aquarium Encounters. Marathon is also home to several top-rated resorts that are popular with couples and families.