For a glorious two years, my husband and I lived in Key Largo (farthest north key for those who do not know). During that time, we drove up and down the Keys visiting as many places as we could-because frankly, I had Spring Fever almost every single day. Makes it hard to work, I have to admit.
We had many friends and family visit during that time as well, so had additional chances to sightsee and check out the islands. Because the Keys hold such a special place for so many, I thought I would share a series of articles on best places to go, eat and maybe even shop when you go down there. This is the first in the series.
Why are the Florida Keys so amazing?
The water! It is the color of all those Caribbean ocean colors you see and drool over. Blues, turquoise, teals, lime greens, etc. It is mesmerizing!
The weather. I used to tell people the weather never changes. The humidity does. For example, on January 1st, we were in shorts and tank tops kayaking the Gulf of Florida. It was around 80F with 30% humidity. In August, the temperature was around 85F but the humidity was so high we stayed indoors most of the day. Having said that, the beauty of these islands is the humidity breaks around 5pm so you have the rest of the day to enjoy yourself.
Never-ending breeze. There is a constant breeze in the Keys. It is warm all the time. Like a beautiful spring day everywhere else in the US-but this is 365.
So much to do. There are multiple kayaking spots, scuba diving, snorkeling, shopping, fishing, beaching, restaurants, museums, local breweries…what am I missing? I am sure much. Oh, for those of you who love to eat fresh fish, this is YOUR place!
Have I convinced you to make reservations yet?!? Better hurry. They book up fast down there.
My list is in in no specific order. I did not have a single favorite place or thing to do down there because it was all so incredible. Between you and me, every day I think about how much I miss being down there.
And of course, I did not take pictures of all of these places I visited. Instead, I will try to provide links so you can learn more about each location.
Top things to do the Florida Keys
Robbie’s was seriously one of the biggest hits for every one of my guests. First, they are known for their tarpon-and giving visitors the chance to feed them. Now, these tarpon are not just any old fish. Tarpon can grow up to 8 feet long. And their mouths are HUGE!
Oh, and during certain times of the year they are so numerous it seems like you could walk across them on the water. Prices are great. It is $1 to see the tarpon and $3 for a bucket of bait (usually five fish in this bucket).
Robbie’s is not just about the tarpon though. They have an adorable restaurant right on the bay (Watch out for the pelicans. They are BIG food thieves!) and several vendors are set up around the property where you can buy handmade items from locals. I took every visitor there. Some went back multiple times during their time with us because they liked it so much.
John Pennekamp State Park is the coolest! They have snorkeling, scuba diving, sunset tours, glass bottom boat tours and kayak rentals.
They also have a small beach with a swimming area sectioned off. This beach area has some anchors and cannons sunk at the bottom of it for you to check out. BBQ and picnic areas abound.
The prices are great. $4 per person to get in. Single kayak rentals were $12 per hour (super affordable by Keys standards). A full day is only $40. I have kayaked, taken the snorkeling tour, glass bottom boat tour and swam with the Barracuda (you read that right).
The Pennekamp staff are professional and knowledgeable (not always the case in vacation land). Their boats are in great shape and they take very good care of you.
Mel Fisher found $450 million in sunken treasure off Key West in 1985. In tribute, he opened a museum on the island. We have been there multiple times and every time have discovered something new to check out.
The museum has several of Mel’s treasures on display as well as artifacts from the ship that sunk - The Atocha. You will learn a lot here AND develop a sudden urge to throw it all away and board a boat tomorrow!
The mangroves that surround the keys make it a very interesting place to kayak and see some serious nature. From manatees to the Mangrove Saltmarsh snakes to starfish to nurse sharks, you can see SO much from a kayak. Some areas I recommend:
· John Pennekamp State Park: There are mangrove paths in abundance to explorer in this park. You can bring your own kayak or rent one there.
· Veteran’s Beach (at the south end of the 7-mile bridge): You will need your own kayak for this park. It does not cost anything to visit here though.
We put our kayak in at Veteran’s Beach then paddled north and then west underneath the 7-mile bridge then south toward the mangrove stand. In that stand, we found an abundance of red starfish and some baby nurse sharks hiding in the roots.
· Curry Hammock State Park: This park is gorgeous, gorgeous-and not crowded ever. You can rent kayaks or bring your own. Not as many mangroves to explore here but beautiful and worth exploring nonetheless.
· Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park: I admit I never did make it to this park. The reason I include it is you can only access this park via boat. Lignumvitae Key is supposed to be absolutely beautiful though and worth the time.
Ah, Smather’s Beach. This beach is in Key West and one my favorite places. The view is astounding, the sand is fairly soft (remember the keys are mainly made of coral) and the ocean is the temperature of your bath water. There are bathrooms, food trucks and plenty of parking.
Local’s tip: Go to Cuban Coffee Queen first and get some very inexpensive, yet amazing food and take that to Smather’s for an amazing lunch with an amazing view.
Sunset at Mallory Square is famous both for its view but also the entertainment offered. From the guys who ride the unicycles and tell jokes to the fire eater, you will not be bored while you wait for the sun to set over the Atlantic. And what a sunset it is!
Wow is this park wonderful! It is never over crowded. It has a nice beach area, picnic tables, clean bathrooms and even grass to set your chairs and towels on. Your neighbors are not allowed to blast their music (it’s a Cuban thing) so you can even enjoy the sound of the never ending breeze rustling the palm leaves overhead.
Florida Keys Brewing Co. is in Islamorada. We love them for their yummy and creative brew AND the colorful interior. It is housed in a warehouse but you cannot tell that by the wonderful Keys like décor.
On sunny days, they will roll up their huge garage door and let the outside in. They frequently have someone entertaining with low key music. You can tell the locals because they are playing one of the board games and know everybody who comes in.
When you get there, ask for a flight. Most economical and fun way to go.
My husband Kevin wanted me to add this restaurant. Fogarty’s is on Duval Street-a block away from Sloppy Joes. We like it here because almost all the tables are on the patio thus no walls to obstruct your view of the ever changing scenery of humans. Their menu is extensive and food is good.
Fogarty’s has a sister restaurant a few doors down on Duval called Caroline’s. I love them too because they have some wonderfully creative salads that are super filling and fantastic.
I pondered making Southernmost Café number 1 as I love this little place SO much. However, it is because of the ambiance, décor and location-NOT because of the food. Not that the food is bad. It’s just pricey and very uninspiring.
Having said that, I cannot resist visiting there every time I am in Key West because the café sits on a small public beach overlooking the Atlantic. It too is open air and decorated with all those wonderful Key’s/Caribbean pastels we love so much. Just.can't.get.enough.
Don’t go to Sunset Pier for the food or the service. Go for the drinks and the view. Sunset Pier is part of Ocean Key Resort & Spa but open to the public and easily accessible. The tables are all sitting on a dock that extends out over the water. They almost always have a great band.
The breeze is amazing. Every table has a view of the ocean. Downsides are the food is very uninspiring and the service is painfully slow. We go for the Vitamin D overload and the view. Visitor friends love it!
The Historic Seaport is on the Key West Bight on the northwest side of the island not too far from Sloppy Joes. It is 20 acres with boardwalks that run along the entire marina. Restaurants and fun little shops abound.
They recently opened up Waterfront Brewery which has a great view of the marina. The beer is good-if you are an IPA fan. When we were there, it is basically all they had. However, they had JUST opened their doors.
A few fav restaurants were Turtle Kraals and Conch Republic Seafood Company. Our options are limited at the Seaport because I am vegetarian. If you are a fish eater, you will be very happy in Key West though!
Local's tip: Conch Republic has a public parking lot adjacent to them. We parked there a LOT because it was rarely full and the prices were reasonable. There are several affordable local taxi companies on the island that you can use to get you around.
Lorelei’s is another restaurant that I let out a big sigh every time I think about it. Their sunset view is ah-mazing! All of their tables are outside-most are on the sand although I recommend you leave your shoes on as the sand is crushed coral so a little sharp. Their food is decent. Prices are great for both food and drinks. They have bands and entertainment that rotate throughout the evening.
Local’s tip: Get there at least 1 hour before sunset as they fill up FAST. And stalk out tables as close to the water as you can, even if that means you shift mid meal-don’t wait to ask the server-just go. This will give you the best chance of getting the best view.
The Turtle Hospital is a great place to take your kids. They rescue sea turtles who have been hurt by boat propellers or have some other challenge. They also breed them so you will see all ages there. Of course, they release those who can be released and keep those too damaged to fend for themselves. It is $20 or so per person to get in.
Local’s tip: Call in advance and reserve a time for your group. They only take people on tours every hour or two and the group limit fills up fast!
Rain Barrel Village is a fun place to shop and check out the local artisans. You cannot miss it as they have an enormous lobster in front of the building with every tourist standing by to take their picture in front of it. There is more than just the building as the courtyard behind the building has several small shops with local art, jewelry, clothing and touristy knick-knacks.
Have I enticed you to go yet? Every ocean/outdoor loving person must experience the Keys at least once. They have a little bit of everything for everybody. Go forth! You will never want to go home.