Here are just a dozen great experiences to be had in the Florida Keys, from top to bottom.
Two words: Underwater park. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first undersea park in the country… and the first place you should go when you arrive in the Florida Keys. There are endless ways to explore this aquatic attraction, including kayaking through the mangroves, snorkeling or scuba diving and setting out on a glass-bottom boat tour.
The African Queen Canal Cruise is another fun way to explore Key Largo. Hop aboard the famed vessel—yes, it’s the one made famous by the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn—and embark on a 90-minute sightseeing cruise departing from Marina del Mar. Dinner cruises are also available.
Theater of the Sea combines the pizzazz of a marine park with the charm of a family-owned attraction. Watch a sea lion show, hold a parrot and enjoy a bottomless boat ride. The park’s animal interaction programs—including swimming with dolphins—are sure to make a splash. (See what we did there?)
Although your vacation may last only a few days or weeks, the history of the Keys dates back thousands of years. Get up to speed with a visit to the Keys History and Discovery Center, located on the grounds of the Islander Resort. In addition to rotating exhibits, the museum’s permanent collection of photos and memorabilia highlights the area’s Native American life, shipwrecks and more with photos, models and artifacts.
Love dolphins? Do a deep dive into the life of the aquatic mammals at the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, near Marathon. Watch the dolphin and sea lion shows, chat with trainers and cool off at the sprayground. For next-level fun, enroll your tween or teen in Dolphin Camp, or splurge on a Fantasy Dolphin Day to live out all your swimming-with-dolphins dreams.
BIG PINE KEY
Secluded Bahia Honda State Park, located on Big Pine Key, is home to more than 150 species of rare flora and fauna. But its three unspoiled beaches aren’t only for the birds; they’re also a great place for shelling, geocaching, snorkeling and other low-key activities. The park is also sought after for camping, with accommodations ranging from primitive camp sites to glamping cabins.
There’s no shortage of animal encounters in the Keys. But for one of the most peculiar, you’ll have to visit the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The endangered creatures stand no more than 32 inches tall and are found only in the lower Florida Keys, so hike, bike or kayak through the preserve and keep your eyes peeled for these beautiful creatures.
Pay your respects to one of Key West’s most legendary residents with a visit to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. As you stroll through the gardens and pet the six-toed cats—descendants of the writer’s own pets—imagine the Nobel Prize winner working on manuscripts when he lived in the house during the most prolific decade of his career, the 1930s. In the bookstore and gift shop, take home a souvenir to serve as your own muse.
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is located on Duval Street, but it’s about as far away from the famous thoroughfare’s excesses as you can get. Whether you’re looking for family-friendly fun or you just need someplace to catch your breath, a few hours inside this glass-enclosed conservatory surrounded by butterflies and birds should do the trick.
When the sun goes down, the fun heats up at Mallory Square, home of Key West’s nightly sunset celebration. Jugglers, tightrope walkers, sword swallowers, buskers and other colorful characters put on a family-friendly show for your entertainment—and hopefully, for your generous tips.
Sure, it’s touristy. But no visit to Key West would be complete without a photo op at the Southernmost Point. The oversized buoy landmark represents the lowest spot on the map of the Continental United States.
Just when you thought the Keys were as remote as you could get, there’s Dry Tortugas National Park. This conglomerate of islands 70 miles west of Key West is accessible only by boat or seaplane. But not to worry; even if you don’t have your own transportation, you can ride the Yankee Freedom ferry from Key West to Garden Key and still explore the park’s historic Fort Jefferson; snorkel, dive or swim in the clear waters; enjoy breathtaking birdwatching; and pitch your tent under the stars.