If you’re looking for a road trip that combines nightlife, laid back beaches, and a little Key Lime pie, the four hour drive from Miami to Key West is the perfect adventure. The Florida Keys are a chain of islands just south of Miami that stretch 125 miles, and the most ideal time to visit is during the spring months from March to May or during the fall after hurricane season has ended on November 1st. But truly, visiting the Keys is a good idea no matter what time of year. Whether it’s a family vacation, a girlfriend getaway, or a solo expedition, there’s something for everyone in the Keys. Read on for a guide to where to stay, what to do, and where to eat along the way.
If you’re flying into Miami, I recommend spending at least one night on South Beach. There’s a wide range of accommodations - the Fontainebleau Miami Beach (starting at $350) or the The Setai (starting at $530) are good places to spot A-list celebrities. But if you’re craving something a little more lowkey (this is Budget Travel, after all), book a room at Miami’s favorite hostel The Broken Shaker (starting under $30 a night for a shared room) or the Selina Miami (starting at $75) that’s tucked away in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
If you’re just driving through Miami and only have a few hours to spare, find a parking garage (street parking is notoriously hard to find), and stroll down Ocean Drive. Rent a bike, watch the bodybuilders, or snap a picture in front of one of the unique lifeguard stands
For the full Miami experience, book a table at one of the many restaurants along Ocean Drive like the South Beach incon, A Fish Called Avalon ($$$). For something a little more understated, check out one of my favorite restaurants near Lincoln Road mall, Taqueria Bodega ($$). The tacos are authentic and the sodas are homemade. For a real treat, use the “secret door” in the back to enjoy a hidden after hours lounge.
Once you leave the neon lights of Miami, things slow down considerably. The keys have a laid back, hippie vibe that thumbs its nose at its northern neighbor.
Located about 70 miles from Miami, Key Largo is the largest section of the keys and a gateway to the rest of the Florida Keys. You won’t find any highrises in Key Largo, but you’ll find a lot of RV campsites, kitschy souvenir shops, and billboards advertising a chance to feed alligators.
Accommodations range from quiet luxury to bare bones. Check out the Playa Largo Resort and Spa (starting at $219) where you can lounge in a hammock on the white sand beach and order drinks from the poolside bar. But for something a little more off the beaten path, check into any one of the condos, airbnbs, or smaller hotels along the main highway like the Coconut Palm Inn (starting at $159).
Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, which is great for scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. Because of its small beach area, John Pennekamp is more suited for activities, so if you’re looking for a beach with a more sandy area to lay out on, try nearby Cannon Beach or Far Beach.
From Key Largo head south on US Highway 1 for about 17 miles to Islamorada. The area, named by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, means “Purple Isle.” And although it’s only 20 miles long, there’s still plenty to do.
For a quick bite, stop by the food truck Taco Jalisco. Locals love the Mexican eatery, and you can order tacos and hang out next door in the Florida Keys Brewing Company beer garden and listen to live music.
Across the street is Morada Bay, an open air restaurant directly facing the Florida bay. You can order from the more casual beach cafe side or eat the upscale Pierre’s Lounge. Either way, enjoy a stunning sunset while sipping a Key Lime Colada or Cucumber Martini. We highly recommend the Key Lime Colada – it’s a must-have.
Stop in Islamorada at the Rain Barrel Artist’s Village for some local handmade crafts and boutiques. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see Betsy the Giant Lobster out front.
Another must see attraction in Islamorada is Robbie’s. The marina is a hub for water activities like parasailing, jet skiing, and paddle boarding, but the main attraction is feeding the tarpon. Walk through the vibrant open air marketplace to the back of the marina, and after paying the $2.25 admission, you can buy a $4.00 bucket of fish to feed the monster tarpon that can grow up to 8 feet long. After the adrenaline rush of Robbies, settled in for the 30 mile drive to Marathon.
The road between Islamorada and Marathon is lined with iconic stilt houses, nature trails, and some of the best beaches in Florida. In Marathon, get your swimsuits and cameras ready.
I recommended visiting Bahia Honda State Park. There’s a $8 per vehicle entry fee (plus a county surcharge), but the views are priceless. Step onto the fine white sand, and wade out into the crystalline waters or take the short hike up the beach trail and snap pictures off the Old Bahia Honda Bridge that was built in the 1900s.
Other nearby beaches to check out are Sombrero or Cocoplum Beach. After splashing around, it’s time for the final stretch to Key West, just 50 miles away.
One of the most spectacular views of the road trip is driving over the famous 7 mile bridge that starts in Knights Key in Marathon and ends in Little Duck Key. The commute feels like you’re driving across the ocean, and on a sunny day the sun glitters off the turquoise waters, making it hard to look away.
If you need a jolt of caffeine, head over to the Cuban Coffee Queen. There are several locations, but if you want to announce your arrival to your Instagram followers with a picture in front of the “Greetings From Key West” mural, be sure to visit the Margaret street location (284 Margaret St).
Once you reach Key West, head straight to the “90 miles to Cuba” buoy. The marker is a huge attraction, and lines can get long. If it’s your first time in the Keys, it’s worth getting a photo. Don’t let the long lines dissuade you – there’s always something to keep you entertained. People in Key West are talkative and friendly, and you can buy fresh coconut water or shaved ice from one of the street vendors while you wait. Besides you’re now on Key West time, which means everything is a little slower.
Key West is made for walking, but there are several ways to get around town. I recommend parking in a lot for the day and then either renting a scooter or golf cart. Not ready to brave the roads? Hop onto the Duval Loop, a free public bus that will take you around downtown Key West. Make sure you catch a sunset from Mallory Square. You can also tour Ernest Hemingway’s Key West house, known for its famous 6-toed cats.
But if you want something different, check out restaurants like Santiago’s Bodega, Mo’s Restaurant,El Siboney, or Bad Boy Burrito. Some lively options for bars include Tiki House, The Rum Bar. or Captain Tony’s Saloon.
It’s not a trip to Key West without some Key Lime pie. While there are many places that claim to serve the best pie, you can’t go wrong with these three: The Key Lime Pie Company, Key Lime Pie Bakery, or Kermit’s Key Lime Shop. My advice? At the end of a long day of exploring Key West, pick the closest one and enjoy a cool, tart slice of pie in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Key West offers a launch point for people who would like to experience one of America’s most remote National Parks. Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles west of Key West, and can only be accessed by boat or sea plane, both of which leave from Key West and can be booked at https://www.drytortugas.com/.
Those who make the trip to Dry Tortugas will get a day of exploring an old brick coastal fortress in Fort Jefferson, or snorkel the protected coral reefs. For an additional fee, you can camp overnight at Fort Jefferson, which offers some of the best stargazing options on the East Coast. You’ll see several shipwrecks from old boats that hit the reefs, and get a new appreciation for the people who lived and worked in the Florida Keys.