The best first timers guide to the Florida Keys

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There’s always something happening in the Florida Keys & Key West, from festivals focusing on the area’s colorful history, artistic culture and quirky ambiance to events that celebrate the Keys’ underwater paradise

Visit a uniquely laid-back atmosphere that seems to be a world away from the big cities and theme parks of Florida.

Beginning just south of Miami, the Florida Keys are divided into five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine and the Lower Keys, and Key West. Each region has its own special flavor, attractions and museums, historical and cultural offerings, flora, fauna, restaurants with local seafood and other specialties, fishing, diving, watersports and boutique-type shopping experiences.

SEE WHAT MAKES EACH ISLAND TICK:

Key largo

See vistas of blue sea and sky, edged with tall palm trees and olive green mangroves. Sharing this eco-paradise are aquatic birds and countless underwater creatures! Key Largo’s star attraction is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a protected areas feature more than 50 varieties of delicate corals and more than 600 species of fish.

offers a variety of water-related activities including scuba, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat excursions to the coral reef. Key Largo also boasts a number of off-park dive charter companies that conduct dive trips. A few even feature underwater weddings, where the entire wedding party gets wet as the happy couple ties the knot.

Key Largo also is home to the Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy ship that is one of the world’s largest vessels ever purposely scuttled to create an artificial reef.

Islamorada 

is the centerpiece of a group of islands called the “purple isles.” Legend says Spanish explorers named the area from “morado,” the Spanish word for purple — either for the janthina janthina, a violet sea snail found in the subtropical waters, or for the purple bougainvillea flowers in the area.

Known as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, Islamorada is heralded for its angling diversity and features the Keys’ largest fleet of offshore charter and shallow-water “backcountry” boats.

Marathon

Home to the Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon is a renowned boating and family destination and is centrally located at the heart of the Florida Keys between Key Largo and Key West.

Marathon also is home to Crane Point, a 63-acre land tract that is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the Keys. This ecological and cultural treasure contains evidence of pre-Columbian and prehistoric Bahamian artifacts, and was once the site of an entire Native American village.

In addition, Marathon features Dolphin Research Center, one of several Keys facilities that provides visitors an opportunity to swim and interact with the intelligent mammals. Marathon also features The Turtle Hospital, a veterinary center dedicated solely to treating sea turtles that is open to the public for tours.

Florida Keys

Big Pine Key and the Lower Keys

The sheer sweep of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is readily seen from the Bahia Honda Bridge. Bahia Honda State Park is a prime example of the Lower Keys’ natural beauty.

The Lower Keys are noted for Looe Key Reef, rated by many as among the most spectacular shallow-water dive sites. To the west of Looe Key, the 210-foot island freighter Adolphus Busch Sr. rests on the ocean floor as an artificial reef, providing additional habitat for marine species and an intriguing site for divers.

Big Pine Key also features a national refuge for miniature Key deer, tropical forest and even a few alligators. Popular nature tours, many by kayak, offer unforgettable opportunities to view migratory and wading birds and the unique flora and fauna of this tranquil natural area of the Keys.

Key West

Key West is the final stop on the Overseas Highway, where the land ends and meets the sea amid 19th-century charm and contemporary attractions. Continental America’s southernmost city, situated closer to Cuba than to Miami, is characterized by quaint palm-studded streets, century-old mansions and a relaxed citizenry of self-styled “conchs” (pronounced “konks”).

At day’s end in Key West, crowds gather at Mallory Square to experience the nightly “sunset celebration,” a tradition that locals share with visitors. While musicians, jugglers, acrobats and other performers provide entertainment, the sun sinks slowly below the horizon as sunset cruise boats sail by in Key West Harbor.

Dining opportunities in the island city are as enticing as the sunset. Key West’s culinary influences and offerings are diverse, but most restaurants feature fresh local seafood such as shrimp, Florida spiny lobster, fish and stone crab claws, considered a renewable resource because of the crabs’ ability to re-grow harvested claws. Some species, such as stone crab claws and lobster, are subject to seasonal harvest restrictions. A slice of Key lime pie, the Keys’ signature dessert, is an ideal end to a meal.

The nightlife in Key West can be lively and exciting. The “Duval Crawl” is a popular phrase used to describe fun-seekers’ evening jaunts up and down the island’s main street to sample numerous taverns and entertainment offerings including live music and popular drag shows.

For more culturally oriented visitors, theater is available at several playhouses and diverse musical organizations offer a wide variety of concerts.

Plan a perfect Florida Keys wedding with information on venues and more. You’ll find the Keys are far richer in cultural opportunities than most tropical getaways. If the outdoors are your thing, you can explore our wild side through guided eco-tours, walking trails and environmental centers. Numerous dive-snorkel charter captains are ready to show you North America’s only living, coral barrier reef. Anglers have a full-range of world-famous fishing opportunities.

Key Largo Snorkeling Adventure

Professional divers will accompany you on an exploration of the United States only underwater State Park and living coral reef. Beginner and experienced swimmers alike will love this full service snorkeling trip.

2 Hour Kayak or Paddleboard Eco Tour

Paddle through the mangrove ecosystem of Tavernier Creek on a kayak or paddleboard on this guided tour. Ideal for first time or new paddlers, glide in shallow, clear water over sponges, grass beds, and sandy patches. Marine life like turtles, stingrays, dolphins, and manatees can sometimes be spotted nearby. Sunset and night tours with lighted boards are also available.

All Inclusive Water Adventure Excursion in Key West

Enjoy a day of sailing, snorkeling and kayaking on this 6.5-hour cruise off the coast of Key West. Spend a relaxing time on board a boat headed to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Pass some of Key West’s top attractions, then dive into the water to see more than 600 species of colorful fish, coral and other sea life.

Key West Ultimate Jet Ski Tour

Experience Key West’s tropical blue waterways on this Jet Ski tour along the Atlantic Ocean and/or the Gulf of Mexico. Enjoy panoramic island views and watch for dolphins, stingrays, sea turtles, manatees and more while gliding over 26 miles of warm ocean water. 

Bicycle tour of Old Town Key West

Ride through the streets of Old Town Key West during a leisurely bicycle tour—a perfect introduction for first-time visitors. Learn about the island’s history and see highlights such as Mallory Square, Mile Marker Zero, and the Hemingway House. Pedal out to the Southernmost Point Buoy and enjoy panoramic ocean views.

Key West Backcountry Schooner Eco-Tour

Explore the patch reefs, mangrove islands, and waterways of Key West on a 6-hour cruise and snorkeling tour aboard a wooden sailing schooner. Take a hand at the wheel on your way across the Gulf of Mexico, kayak through the mangroves, then snorkel through patch reefs and sponge gardens. 

Key West Dolphin Watch and Snorkel Cruise

Get ready for fun in the sun on this 3-hour dolphin watch and snorkeling adventure off the coast of Key West. Sail away from the island city of Key West and see dolphins swimming alongside the boat, then jump in for a shallow-water snorkel at the Key West National Wildlife Refuge with many different species of marine life.

Secret Food Tours Key West

From local shrimp to the perfect Key lime pie, Key West dining is a food-lover’s dream, but finding authentic flavors can be a challenge in a town packed with touristy restaurants. Discover the very best bites on a gourmet tour that samples a little bit of everything, exploring Key West’s charming neighborhoods, colorful characters, and history along the way. 

Key West Parasailing

Get a bird’s-eye view of Key West from high above the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean on this parasailing tour. Experience the thrill of flying while watching the bustling activity along the coastline and the abundance of marine life below.

LUXURY

Florida Keys Seaplane

Delight in lovely aerial views on the 40-minute journey over the upper Florida Keys by seaplane, touching down into crystal waters aside Lorelei Cabana Bar and Restaurant. This 3-hour tour offers plenty of time to savor an intimate lunch and admire unforgettable beach views before heading back to Miami. 

Helicopter Flight Over Florida Keys

Experience the beauty of the Florida Keys from the air on this guided Key West helicopter tour. Select from two unique adventures.

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