Table of Content
Florida Keys | Introduction
The Florida Keys, comprised of 1,700 small islands, are like a string of pearls strewn across the southern end of Florida. The rich Caribbean ambiance and romantic natural scenery have made this a renowned vacation spot. It's not just a tropical paradise within the United States, but also an ideal location for a wide array of water activities, offering both adventure and relaxation. From Key Largo to Key West, each island possesses its unique allure. The Seven Mile Bridge, connecting the islands, offers spectacular views, making it an unforgettable part of a road trip.
Florida Keys | Transportation
The easiest way to get around the Florida Keys is undoubtedly by car. If you're traveling from Miami, the scenic coastal highway US-1 (aka Overseas Highway) through the islands is a great drive in itself, with 200 miles of ocean views, countless islands and bridges, including the famous Seven Mile Bridge, and new sights at every turn. 3 hours later, you'll reach the southernmost tip of Key West. In 3 hours, you will reach the southernmost point of Key West.
If you're not planning to drive, tour companies offer convenient day trips or multi-day tours from Miami to the major islands, which include transportation and guided services.
Miami Car Rental
Key west day trip (from Miami)
Florida Keys | Accommodations
Key West, as the most popular tourist destination in the archipelago, is commonly visited with an overnight stay as part of a driving trip. Key West offers a variety of accommodations, ranging from luxury resorts to budget hotels. However, due to its popularity, it's advisable to book early. Key West is divided into Old Town and New Town, with the majority of tourists congregating in Old Town. The nightlife in the area is lively, especially near the main thoroughfare, Duval Street, where the buzz intensifies.
Looking for a stay in Key West?
Must See | Key West
Located at the southernmost tip of the island chain, Key West is known as the southernmost point in the continental United States and was once one of the wealthiest cities in the South, with a legacy of pirate lore and seafaring history.Key West's unique architectural style is a blend of Victorian and Caribbean styles, with colorful homes and quiet streets that add to the city's charming atmosphere.
Attractions | Hemingway's Home
Hemingway's home is the former residence of Ernest Hemingway, which is now a privately-run Hemingway Museum. There are guided tours in various languages, and even if you are not a Hemingway fan, the museum is richly decorated and of great historical value.
Ernest Hemingway was already 32 years old when he moved here. He was already a famous American war correspondent and writer, and could afford to live in the largest private residence in Key west. The decorations and sculptures in the garden show the family's dedication to decorating their seaside mansion. Ernest Hemingway moved to this Key West house around 1930's. At that time, it was considered a mansion and was the first house in Key West to have a swimming pool.
There is an interesting story about the pool. It is said that Hemingway paid $8,000 for the house, and then considered building a pool, but never got around to it; then Hemingway went to Spain for work, and his wife decided to build the pool as a surprise, but the project was quite complicated, and ended up costing $20,000 in the end. When Hemingway returned home and realized how much he had spent, he took out a penny and gave it to his wife, saying, "Here, this is my last penny.
The furniture in the living room is a collection bought from Paris by Ernest Hemingway's second wife. Hemingway lived here for ten years until he and his second wife divorced before moving out of the house.
There are also many photos of Hemingway in the house, which show that Hemingway traveled to many places and loved fishing and the sea.
The small cottages next to the main building were originally storage rooms and were later converted into guest rooms. After the death of his second wife, Ernest Hemingway occasionally stayed there with his fourth wife, leading to the transformation of the second floor into Hemingway's studio. It was here that he wrote several of his famous works, including "A Farewell to Arms".
Attractions | The Little White House
The Little White House in Key West was the winter vacation spot for former U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Due to health issues, Truman was advised by his doctor to stay in a warm place, leading to his choice of Key West for his winter White House. It is said that every time Truman arrived in Key West, he would change into attire suitable for the local weather, which everyone referred to as "The Key West Uniform."
Due to Truman's responsibilities as President, he had to work even while vacationing. Significant policies, including the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, which later came to be seen as the start of the Cold War, were shaped here. This place where he once worked is thus called the Little White House. Truman is regarded as a highly esteemed president in American history, with his tenure marked by major events such as the establishment of the United Nations and the end of World War II.
In the past, this area was predominantly a military base, but now it has been transformed into upscale residential vacation properties.
Attractions | Mallory Square | Old Town
Watching the sunset at Mallory Square is a must-do for tourists visiting Key West. Mallory Square has been ranked among the top ten romantic sunset spots in the world, with the fiery red sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico creating a stunning view. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square begins two hours before sunset, featuring food carts and street performers, creating a lively atmosphere. If time allows, visitors can also explore the museums and aquariums opposite Mallory Square before the sunset. The Key West Museum of Art and History, in particular, is known for its artistic ambiance, highlighted by the giant human statues surrounding it.
When it was time to watch the sunset, the pier was crowded with spectators. When the sun finally set, the crowd cheered.
The view of the harbor is beautiful, and there is still some daylight left after sunset, so it's perfect for a walk around the harbor.
The street lights came on after nightfall, and as we were here during the Christmas holiday, the harbor was very warm with Christmas lights.
Attractions | Duval Street
After enjoying the sunset, don't miss the bustling main street nearby, Duval Street, which is the heart of Key West's nightlife and is abundant in Caribbean-style shops. Given Key West's proximity to Cuba, being even closer to Cuba than Miami, the area also boasts a strong Cuban vibe. Sloppy Joe’s, the most famous bar there, is said to have been a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, who often ended up too inebriated to find his way home from there. However, even for those who don't drink, simply taking a stroll around this area is a delightful experience.
Attractions | Highway 1 Mile 0
We traveled to Key West via the Overseas Highway, also known as U.S. Route 1, which runs through the island chain. U.S. Route 1 is a scenic roadway that traverses the East Coast of the United States from south to north, and its Mile 0 is located in Key West.
Attractions | Southernmost Point
The southernmost point in Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States, just 90 miles away from Cuba across the sea. The landmark here is a colorfully painted concrete buoy, which intriguingly bears the inscription "The Conch Republic." The story behind this is quite interesting: On April 23, 1982, Key West declared its independence. At that time, due to severe smuggling issues in the Caribbean, the U.S. decided to intensify border checks, causing difficulties for traffic over the sea bridge and hindering tourists from entering Key West. After protests from residents proved ineffective, the mayor decided to lead the citizens in declaring independence, forming the Conch Republic. They prepared a president, a coat of arms, and a flag, and the president even led an assault on a U.S. Navy base. However, they decided to surrender just a few minutes later, thus making it one of the shortest-lived nations in history.
Must See | Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda State Park is located between Big Pine Key and Marathon. Its main attractions include beautiful white sandy beaches, clear waters, and the stunning Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Entrance to the state park requires a ticket purchase, but it's absolutely worth it. Even if you're not into water activities, you can still enjoy the beautiful scenery by walking along the trails with the abundance of seabirds in the park.
Attractions | Old Bahia Honda Bridge
The historic Bahia Honda Rail Bridge was once a part of the Florida East Coast Railway. Built in 1912 as a railroad bridge, it was later damaged by a hurricane and subsequently converted into a highway bridge. After the construction of a new overseas bridge, the government decided to decommission this old bridge. A section of it was dismantled, but the remaining part is still preserved. The broken bridge has become a landmark of Bahia Honda State Park, serving as a natural history museum. Its presence, standing over the sea, creates a stunningly beautiful scene.
The broken bridge can be climbed up to see the other side of the old highway.
Attractions | Calusa Beach
Calusa Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Florida and was once selected as America's Best Beach in 1992 for its stunning beauty. When visiting, you might consider taking a boat trip for snorkeling. We had planned to go out to sea as well, but unfortunately, despite the weather looking good, the conditions weren't favorable. Therefore, we ended up snorkeling in areas closer to the shore.
Attractions | Sandspur Beach
Another beach in the park, Sandspur Beach, also features white sands. Compared to Calusa Beach, Sandspur Beach feels more suitable for sand activities due to its larger area.
Must-see | 7 mile bridge
The 7 Mile Bridge is located between Marathon Key and Bahia Honda Key and serves as a connection between the Lower Keys and the Middle Keys. Spanning almost 7 miles, hence its name, it is the third-longest bridge in the United States and has been featured in many movies.
We can actually see two bridges here: the old bridge on the left, built in 1912, is no longer in use for road traffic. The new bridge on the right is the one currently used by vehicles. Visitors can park their cars in parking lots at both ends and walk onto the old bridge. Like the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, this old bridge was originally a railway bridge before being converted into a road bridge. When it was first completed, it was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world due to the immense difficulty of constructing an overseas railway. However, after seven years of construction, it was destroyed by three hurricanes, making its maintenance highly challenging, hence its conversion to a highway bridge. Because of the grand scale of this project, its remnants have been preserved, allowing us to reflect on history at this site.
Florida Keys | Food
Located in the southeast corner of the United States, South Florida is close to Latin America, gathering cuisines from Cuba, Spain, Mexico, Peru, and other countries. This self-driving trip through the Florida Keys also allows you to enjoy gourmet foods in Key West and Key Largo. Here, we have compiled a list of recommended restaurants that we have tried on the island chain.
Key West | DJ's Clam Shack
- Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Cuisine: Seafood
DJ's Clam Shack, located on Duval Street, is a seafood restaurant famous for its lobster roll and fried clams. However, instead of the fried clams, we ordered the Key West specialty, conch fritters, which contain conch meat. The lobster roll is served on warm, buttered bread, generously filled with lobster meat, and it's incredibly delicious.
Key West | The Conch Shack
- Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Cuisine: Seafood
Also located on Duval Street, we tried the conch fritters and lobster roll at Conch Shack. The conch fritters here seemed to have a more complex flavor profile, while the lobster roll was served with cold bread.
Key West | El Siboney restaurant
- Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Cuisine: Cuban
El Siboney is the most famous Cuban restaurant in Key West, where we went specifically for their limited-edition Paella. Known for its generous portion, which includes two lobsters, this dish requires advance reservation. The restaurant has a very homely atmosphere, but it's incredibly popular, and we ended up waiting until about 9 p.m. to get in. Besides the Paella, we also ordered a bowl of Conch Chowder. The Paella portion is actually enough for four or five people; we were just two and could only eat half of it before getting full. Their Sangria is exceptionally delicious.
Key West | Southernmost beach cafe and bar
- Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Cuisine: Seafood
A seafood restaurant on the beach with a great atmosphere for seating by the sea. The food was decent. I decided to go for a healthier option, so I ordered the Mahi Salad and Ceviche, which was very refreshing.
Key Largo | The fish house
- Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- Cuisine: American
This is an American seafood restaurant, and our visit here was an unexpected addition to our itinerary. However, the meals turned out to be surprisingly delicious. We ordered dishes including the seafood entrees Mahi Mahi and Yellowtail Snapper, Lobster Bisque, and the dessert Key Lime Pie. Key Lime Pie is actually a specialty dessert of the Florida Keys, so it's available in many places. Although this restaurant's Key Lime Pie wasn't on our pre-trip research list, it turned out to be the most delicious one we had during our trip.
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