I had an amazing week in the Florida Keys, exploring the parks, pubs and restaurants that make the Keys so great. I’ve been coming to the Keys since I was in high school and they’ve always held a special place in my heart. They’re America, but not. The Keys are like a little slice of the Caribbean, right over the bridge. While last week I wrote up my ultimate Keys Pub Crawl (which you can read HERE), some people have been asking for more ideas and suggestions on the Keys. So I thought I would jot down some of my favorites to help you navigate through the islands and find some really top spots along the way.
Many people are surprised to find out there aren’t many great beaches in the Keys. The islands are generally surrounded by mangroves so the sand beaches are mostly man-made. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great beaches along the strand, but you do need to know where to find them.
Harry Harris Park, Tavernier (MM 92.5, Oceanside)
I know some people love John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, and I think it’s a decent place myself, but I’m usually trying to get to and through Key Largo as quickly as possible. If it’s during the week when there is no charge to visit, and I really must get into the water, my first stop in the Keys will be Harry Harris Park in Tavernier. There are picnic tables and restrooms and the water here is great. There’s even a protected swimming lagoon for the little ones. This lovely park is located on the ocean side at Mile Marker 92.5. There are signs from the highway.
Sombrero Beach, Marathon (MM 50, Oceanside)
Sombrero Beach is one of my favorite beaches in all of the Keys. Although it was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, it is back open and getting back to beautiful. The beach is always free and can get crowded, but it’s a wonderful place to stop, soak up some rays and have some lunch if you are trying to make it to Key West in a day. You can pick up food at the Publix right where you turn off the highway. This long, beautiful stretch of sand dotted with palm trees is located oceanside at Mile Marker 50 and is definitely worth the stop.
Bahia Honda State Park (MM36.8, Oceanside)
There is an entrance fee ($8/car, $4 single occupant) to get into Bahia Honda State Park, but it is worth it. While I don’t have a picture of the beach there, this one of the picnic area should give you a pretty good idea of what it looks like. The beach is narrower than Sombrero, but it’s still a wonderful place to swim and get some rays. Better yet, grab a kayak and go for a paddle under to old Bahia Honda Bridge. I also enjoyed a ranger led history talk while I was three. Bahia Honda is located at Mile Marker 36.8, oceanside.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park (Key West)
If you’re looking for a good beach in Key West, Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is by far your best option. While there were too many Portuguese Man-O’-War on the beach when I was there to go in the water on this last pass through, it is still a beautiful beach to sit on and relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of Key West. There is plenty of parking, good facilities and an amazing sunset view (skip Mallory Square and come here instead). Entrance Fees are $8/vehicle or $4 for a single passenger, and again, I think it is well worth the splurge, especially as the sun dips into the sea. Follow Route 1 all the way to the end (Mile Marker 0), and there are signs from there. There is an actual fort there to explore as well which is pretty interesting. Check their website (click the park name above) for times for guided tours.
Dry Tortugas National Park (A Plane or Boat Ride Away)
Far and away the very best beaches in the Florida Keys are located well past where the blacktop ends, in Dry Tortugas National Park. Only accessible by boat ($180) or plane ($356+), this is an expensive excursion, but well worth it in my usually frugal opinion. The history of Fort Jefferson and the beaches are both amazing and because space is limited the beaches can’t be overrun here. Read more about Dry Tortugas and see all the photos from my trip there by visiting my link HERE.
Drinking is by no means mandatory while you are in the Keys, but it sure is common. After a long day in the hot sun or out on a boat somewhere, there is nothing like sitting at a great bar and enjoying a cold beer. While I wrote a much longer post on the bars of the Keys (which you can find HERE), these are the absolute must-visit ones from that list.
Alabama Jacks - Card Sound Road, Key Largo
Alabama Jack’s is always either my first or last stop in the Keys (and sometimes both). It sits on Card Sound Road right at the very beginning of the Keys so it’s a little off the beaten path, but worth the detour. While it’s located on a boating channel instead of on the sea, it’s a fun place serving up cold beer, good grub and regular live music. Jack’s isn’t pretty, but it sure is a good time.
Hog Heaven, Islamorada (MM 85, Oceanside)
What’s not to like about Hog Heaven? This fantastic bar and grill is open from 11 a.m. - 4 a.m. seven days a week, so you can come for anything but breakfast. There’s a wonderful dock area which leads out to a small island which has great sunset views. The private lagoon lights up at night for fish viewing and a romantic atmosphere. There’s even live music on the weekends.It’s a great place to while away a day (or 2, or 3). Hog Heaven is one of the Keys’ must-visit bars, and it pains me any time I drive past it and don’t have time to stop. Don’t make that mistake while you’re there. It’s located right off the highway at Mile Marker 85, Oceanside, and right over the bridge.
The southernmost dive bar in the continental United States, Captain Tony’s is one of my favorite bars in the country. Dark, divey and full of history, this is a bar I spend entirely too much time in whenever I’m in Key West. I’m in good company though, because Earnest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffet did as well. Be sure you get your refillable souvenir cup to save some money and cut down on plastic, and then come early and often to this classic watering hole. There’s frequent live music and it’s open late. They don’t serve food, and that’s probably a good thing. I’ve heard it’s good luck if you can throw a quarter into the grouper over the door. I’ve never tried, but I do enjoy watching others fail miserably at it. I love this bar.
There are lots of good restaurants in the Keys, but I usually just end up eating at some of the bars mentioned above. I do want to share two of my favorites though as they are definitely worth mentioning. Also be sure you get a good slice of Key Lime Pie while you’re down here - that is an absolute must.
Mangrove Mama’s, Sugarloaf Key (MM 20, Bayside)
Mangrove Mama’s may be only 20 miles from Key West, but it’s a world apart. Quiet, laid back and usually not too overrun, this is a must-stop restaurant on your way down or on your way back. They have both indoor and outdoor seating, a full bar and frequent live music making this a great all-around stop. But the real draw is the seafood which is fresh and perfect and reasonably priced. They’re open from 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. seven days a week, and I’ve heard their Sunday brunch is amazing. This is definitely one not to miss.
Schooner Wharf Bar, Key West
The Schooner Wharf Bar is a ramshackle place full of bric-a-brac, right on the Harbor Walk in Key West. They bill themselves as “A Last Little Piece of old Key West”, and that sure seems to be the case sometimes. This is an old fishermen’s bar and the fresh catch used to come in for cleaning right to the back dock. The seafood here is fantastic and reasonably priced for Key West and I really love their spicy conch chowder. There are plenty of great places to eat in Key West, but I’m always sure I set one night side for the Schooner Wharf Bar. You should too.
And that’s it for my favorite spots to stop in the Keys. If you’re a diver, you should definitely check out the Spiegel Grove off of Key Largo, and I’ve heard the Vandenberg wreck off of Key West is amazing. I wanted to give that a look on this visit, but illness kept me out of the water. Next time. That’s the good thing for me, there’s always a next time when it comes to the Keys. I hope you can come for a visit when the weather is fine and the sun is shining. Roll down your windows, put on some sunscreen and some good music and enjoy the ride.