The Keys are a stretch of islands located below mainland Florida. Often described as eccentric and a different country of itself, this description was very fitting while walking through the character-filled streets of Key West. I was looking forward to the drive itself as it is often heralded as “inducing sensory overload” and an “engineering marvel.” While sometimes the drive through a Key (an island) itself was not all that exciting, the drive over the bridge from Key to Key often gave me whiplash as I tried to soak in as much of the view as possible.
Here are the top things to do in Key West (and on the way to Key West):
5. John Pennekamp Park
This park’s treasures can be found mostly underwater. Some of the activities you may find interesting include snorkeling, going on a glass bottom boat tour, kayaking, and paddle boarding. There is also a visitor’s center with an aquarium and a decent set-up explaining what local marine life you can expect to find at the park.
The original plan was to go snorkeling, but because of personal health reasons, I ended up having to do a glass bottom boat tour instead. I was bummed that I couldn’t snorkel, but the boat tour was pretty cool because we ended up seeing a shark, Dory’s cousins, plenty of other types of fish whose names I can’t remember, and sea turtles. The guide did her best to speak over all the tiny children (there were 130 of us and trust me, you could tell) and taught us some cool facts. For example, the parrotfish is responsible for half of the sand at Florida beaches. How? Its poop. It likes to feast on algae, which is commonly found growing on coral. While eating the algae, it inevitably ends up eating some coral, which then passes through its gut and exits as sand. The tour felt a bit touristy and kitschy, but I’m still suffering from Southeast Asia withdrawals so everything is kinda like that. I’d recommend the tour for anyone looking to learn some facts about the park. If you’re looking for something more adventurous, I’d opt for the snorkeling so you can truly take advantage of the bounty of marine life. John Pennekamp came recommended as one of the best places to snorkel by several locals, so if you have the time, it’s definitely worth checking out.
- If you get seasick easily, buy some anti-sickness pills like Dramamine beforehand! They also sell Dramamine on the glass bottom boat for $1.00.
- I also recommend getting to the park early and making reservations for water activities at least a day in advance if you can.
102601 Overseas Highway
Key Largo, FL 33037
Open daily 8:00am – 5:00pm
4. Seven Mile Bridge
Throughout the drive down the Seven Mile Bridge, you’re surrounded by blue-green water, people boating, and it’s so easy to start envisioning yourself quitting your job and just living here. Along the drive, there’s areas where you can park and explore the surrounding sandy beaches or walk along portions of the bridge itself and maybe even fish off the bridge if you’re feeling lucky.
3. Keys Fisheries
Behold the Lobster Reuben from the Keys Fisheries. The generous portion of lobster is topped with a layer of sauerkraut which was covered with melted swiss cheese, all snuggled between two pieces of buttered bread. You also have an option of condiments from tartar sauce to ketchup to tabasco sauce. I took the liberty of mixing tartar sauce and tabasco sauce and if someone hasn’t patented yet or patent trolled it, I sense a new business opportunity. The meal can more than comfortably feed two people or can save you from having to think about where you’re gonna eat that next meal. Other than the food though, it’s the little details that make this place worth coming to. For example, since this restaurant is built over the water, boaters can easily dock on the patio, then step on-site to place their order.
Once your order is ready, they will call you up through the loudspeaker. Rumor has it that they’ll make you answer a question before you can pick up your order and I was ready to play, but sadly there was no question for me. Instead, it was more like me teaching them how to properly say my name. “It’s like ‘he’ *points to a guy* and the sun *points to the sun*.” There is also a sink thoughtfully located next to the exit, for you to watch off your seafood drenched paws. The Fisheries draws a local crowd as well as tourists from all over, resulting in a vibrant mix of languages floating about while you sit and enjoy that reuben.
3502 Gulfview Avenue
Marathon, FL 33050
Open daily 11:00am – 9:00pm
2. Mallory Square and Duval St
Duval Street is Vegas and NOLA’s lovechild. People are rambunctiously drinking on the streets at 4pm, with one woman even veering off into the street as her husband yelled, “That’s a no passing zone honey” after her. The streets are filled with tourists from all over the world including France, China, and South America. The chatter of these languages fill the streets as people walk around with their beers and Fat Tuesdays. Ice cream shops and henna stalls are scattered across the street and beckon to hot tourists. There’s a little something for everyone as Duval Street also boasts a hammock company that promises worldwide shipping and “the smallest bar in the world”. I even had some bomb Key Lime Pie at Mattheessen & Magilner’s Candy Kitchen. As night approaches, you can see 7 foot high heeled drag queens passing out flyers for their bars. There are also local characters driving their motorcycles, which have been tricked out with neon colored lights and are blasting hip-hop. If you continue all the way down Duval Street to Front Street, you will soon approach another tourist destination, Mallory Square.
Mallory Square offers the best people watching in Key West. You can relax near the ocean’s edge and watch the sailboats, yachts, and cruise boats pass by, their members waving at you and you waving back. As the first blush of pink predicts the sunset, street performers start appearing and enchanting the crowds of international tourists with handstand pushups and creative dances. You can also enjoy an unobstructed view of the sunset as Key West passed a city ordinance that does not allow cruise ships to dock on the pier during sunset hours. I think that’s government work that both Democrats and Republicans can appreciate.
400 Wall Street
Key West, FL 33040
1. Southernmost Point Buoy
Be prepared to wait in line but hey, you’re at the southernmost point of the U.S.! People in line are usually friendly, potentially tipsy, and more than willing to take a picture for you. Also, if you try really hard, you might be able to spot Cuba.
Key West, FL 33040
- On the drive through the Keys, the water beckons you and plenty of people take advantage of it with swimming and boating. However, swimming in Key West is not that popular and you can find better beaches at the other Keys or up in Miami.
- Be prepared for traffic, especially on a weekend. Load up on those podcasts and have your Spotify road trip playlist ready.
- I drove down from Boca Raton (Palm Beach County) to Key West and back up in one day. I left around 7:00 am and got back around 1:30 am. I did this because I was on a budget and the idea of shelling $300 for a hotel room in Key West didn’t really appeal to me. If, on the other hand, you are interested in staying the night and are looking to book last-minute deals, check out the app Hotel Tonight, which will find you cheaper deals based on your geographic location.
- If you’re heading to Key West by car, consider using the Florida turnpike. This will save you precious time for a couple of dollars in tolls.
Have you been to Key West? If so, what was your most memorable experience?