A trip to Key West is a must when you visit Miami and Florida! You can easily do it as a long daytrip if you start early in the morning from South Beach. From South Beach it’s about 3 ½ hrs straight drive to Key West. From Miami airport it’s about 3hrs 10minutes. We would recommend staying at least 1 night at Key West and make sure to see some of the sights on the way to Key West and also in and around Key West itself. Like our day trip to the Dry Tortugas. Regarding car rental we have used Sixt on Washington Avenue in South Beach, it has the best and closest location to the Surfcomber hotel were we normally stay. Sixt also have a great selection of cool cars. from Miami Airport we have used both Sixt and Avis for cars. If You feel nervous driving a car in the US, read our section on US drivers and how to handle the multi lane interstate roads here.
From either South Beach or Miami Airport you will drive for quite a while on highways, more than an hour at least on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike south that turns into the old Highway 1 ending on Key West. Until you reach the blue bridge heading into Key Largo, there will be endless rows of cars and walls around the road, and no views whatsoever. In Key Largo you should stop if you have the time. On our last trip to Miami, we got straight into our car and drove down to Key Largo from the airport and spent the night in Marina Del Mar resort on Key Largo, we chose the hotel due to cheap price and location versus good bars and restaurants plus proximity to the John Pennekamp park.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The morning after we had booked a snorkelling trip at the excellent and beautiful John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, home of the Christ Of the Abyss statue.
Christ Of the Abyss is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ by Italian artist Guido Galletti. The original cast is located in the Mediterranean sea between Portofino and Camogli on the Italian riviera. On August 25, 1965, this statue was placed in approximately 25 feet (7.6 m) of water off the coast of Key Largo. The statue weighs around 260 kg, and the concrete base to which it is attached weighs approximately 9 tons. It makes for a spectacular sight surrounded by fish and corals.
It is essential that you prebook your experience, it gets fully booked quite fast since there are only so many people that can visit the reef per day. We booked the first trip in the morning and had a great time swimming among schools of fish and great forests of coral reef formations that look like antlers sticking up from the rocks. And in the end, we located the statue, after we had a guide that unintentionally pointed us in the wrong direction. He was being ironic, which is unusual in Americans, so we took him seriously when he pointed away from the obvious point where the statue was. The water was warm (so no need for the wet suits we had originally rented) and visibility was great. At the jetty where the tours depart there is ample parking, a shop, facilities for showering and toilets. You can rent paddleboards, SUPs, kayaks to explore the many canals and mangroves in the area. There is also nice beach area were you can snorkle or just relax and soak in the tepid and calm waters.
If you have dreamed about swimming and interacting with dolphins, we have found the place for you. We had a magical experience at the Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder centre. We opted for the Structured Swim, so we had a blast while interacting with the dolphins in the large natural pool of the centre. First and maybe last time that we kissed dolphins.
The Overseas Highway
After Key Largo the road will get quite spectacular, you will have more and more glimpses of the ocean, more and more road will be bridges across keys and small islands and sometimes the islands are so narrow that you feel like you’re actually driving in the turquoise ocean. The Overseas Highway started life as a railroad in 1912 regarded as the “eighth wonder of the world” and it was built at huge cost and was considered somewhat of a folly by the general public. The industrialist Henry Flagler was the man who built the railway but after the devastating Labour Day hurricane in 1935 it was partially destroyed. The remains were sold to the state of Florida, which used the remaining structures and sections to build the Overseas Highway. In the 1980s many of the bridges were replaced, and that is why you can see so many unused sections running parallel to todays road.
When you get to the more spectacular 7 Mile Bridge (yes it’s a bridge that’s 7 miles long over the ocean) you can see it very clearly on the section of road to your right if you travel south. A section of this old bridge was blown up for the movie “Last Action Hero”.
Just after 7 Mile Bridge is the genuinely nice stop of Bahia Honda State Park. You should stop here for a swim, and to take some cool photos of the old bridge that looms over the beach area.
Entering the town of Key West is a bit daunting, the streets will get narrower and you will feel more like you have driven into some pirates’ nest than a town. Good advice is to look at a map for the hotel location before you book in Key West. Many hotels say that they are on Key West and they do not lie but they are a long way outside the main streets of the town itself. We have stayed at the excellent and newly refurbished Blue Marlin Motel, good choice for a decent price and great location.
We have also stayed at the upmarket and rather expensive The Reach Key West, one of the few hotels in Key West that boasts a private beach. In addition to all the hotels there is a plethora of guest houses in Key West, each with their own charm and atmosphere.
U.S. Route 1 or U.S. Highway 1 (US 1) is the major north–south road in the eastern USA that starts in Key West and ends up in Fort Kent, Maine at the Canadian border. It runs for 2369 miles (3813 kilometres). The highway connects most of the major cities of the East Coast—including Miami, Jacksonville, Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Key West should be experienced on foot, it’s fascinating to walk up and down all the narrow streets soaking in the beautiful, lush gardens surrounding vintage cottages and conch style houses with bright pastel colours. Along the way you will find nice bakeries, local bars and restaurants, small art galleries and gift shops. A must of course is Duvall Street, the main street in Key West. The Sodom and Gomorrah of southern Florida. Absolutely packed with bars and restaurants, all kinds of freaks and tourists roaming the street in search of their next Margarita. And there is the Hemingway link. Writer Ernest Hemingway called Key West home between 1931 and 1939, and said it was good to live near a lighthouse, so that he found his way back home easily when he was drunk. You can visit his house and be fascinated by the history of the author and the house.
And you can of course visit his original famous watering hole Sloppy Joe’s or the newer Sloppy Joe’s just around the corner of Duvall Street. On the way you can queue up to have your picture taken at the Southernmost Point in the US. Or just wonder how there are so many free roaming chickens all around town. 90% of those staying at Key West will congregate around sunset at the dock to look at the sun setting into the ocean, or you can get on a cruise boat and see the sunset even closer.
A great way to see Key West from a different angle is to go on a jet ski tour around the Key itself. We have done this once and it was a cool experience and we got to see dolphins in the wild. Key West Jet Ski Tours have what you need.
We have only one recommendation for food on Key West, the Amigos Tortilla Bar on Greene St just around the corner from Duvall St. Fresh simple Mexican food as they say themselves. And sitting perched on the porch looking at all the people trying to get that quarter into the fish’s mouth (you will know what we mean) is entertaining for hours. Not that this is the only and best place to eat, there are hundreds of options, but we seem to have ended up here every time we have been to Key West.
Fantasy Fest is an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a small group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island in what was a typically quiet, but beautiful season. It worked. Fantasy Fest has grown every year since its inception and is now the wildest extravaganza around! Fun-loving revelers from around the globe bring their creativity and imaginations as they descend upon Key West each year in October for 10 days filled with costuming, parades, libations, and excitement!
Key West has an weird mix of everything. It is part drunken paradise for adults both straight and gay. It has a vibe that we have found nowhere else on the planet. Duvall street is a circus at night, bringing in the weird and the wonderful. We love Key West, that is why we keep coming back to hang and do the drinking and the paople watching that Key West is famous for. And did we mention that The Dry Tortugas? The most spectacular daytrips to the least visited national park in the US. Enjoy Key West if you dare to venture into the weird and partly unknown.