Planning a stop in the Florida Keys? Here’s where to eat, drink, and stay, and what to see and do.
I remember my first visit to the Florida Keys like it was yesterday. I was a young journalist on an environmental fellowship, and I recall watching as a sea turtle mama laid her eggs on a deserted beach, snorkeling in the crystal clear ocean, and chowing down on lots of freshly caught seafood.
Fast forward a dozen years and I’m now a married mom of a toddler, so when we booked a trip to the Keys, I was happy to learn that not much has changed. The Florida Keys still boasts swoon-worthy access to wildlife, a robust local food scene, and lots of activities on the water—a welcome retreat for a young family.
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Positioned in between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the Florida Keys comprise roughly 1,700 islands, located off of the tip of South Florida. The Upper Keys, which includes Key Largo, is about an hour’s drive from Miami.
Here are some top tips for spending a “Keys approved” few days in the South Florida archipelago:
Where to Eat and Drink
This Key Largo staple has been serving plates piled with fish straight from the dock since 1982 and is known for creating the tasty broiled fish “Matecumbe”—loaded with sautéed tomatoes, shallots, capers, and basil, along with mainstay dishes like a whole roasted lobster stuffed with crabmeat.
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This local favorite is covered in kitschy license plates from all over the country and its no-fuss breakfast of lobster and grits—lobster served blackened on top of a mound of grits, cheddar cheese, and salsa—is a tasty start to a day on the water.
This Gulf-side restaurant at the base of the historic Faro Blanco lighthouse in Marathon is a tasty spot for lunch with a side of people watching. Customers can while away the afternoon sipping cocktails and checking out the boats as they come and go past the lighthouse and marina. Try the conch fritters, fried until golden brown and served piping hot with a spicy scallion remoulade.
Let the tiki torches light the way to an alfresco dinner at the Morada Bay Beach Cafe, a waterfront spot in Islamorada that’s part eatery, part performance space and was featured in the Netflix series, “Bloodline.” Taking inspiration from the Caribbean and the day’s catch, the cafe uses sustainable seafood and local ingredients for dishes like the bright and zippy fish ceviche, topped with avocado chunks and served with boniato chips. Be sure to get there just before dusk for the spectacular sunset over Florida Bay.
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What to See and Do
Get up close and personal with a cetacean friend at the Dolphin Research Center on a lagoon in Grassy Key. The nonprofit is a fully operational research institute, medical center, and animal rescue home to two- dozen dolphins and a smattering of sea lions. Guests can get in the water to interact with the animals—shaking fins with a grinning dolphin was unforgettable. Don’t be surprised if you spy an eye watching you from the water. The dolphins are apparently as curious about us as we are about them, and they love to people watch!
Cruise the high seas in a relic from old Hollywood. The original tugboat from the Katherine Hepburn classic film “The African Queen” has a new life as a pleasure vessel, rambling through the Keys’ canals and along the shoreline.
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Explore the world’s third-largest coral reef in the country’s first state park under the sea. The John Pennekamp State Park boasts kayaking, glass-bottom boat tours, swimming, and guided snorkel excursions in the waters off Key Largo. Staff ferry snorkelers offshore past vast mangroves to a dive spot near a submerged statue of Jesus Christ that’s studded with coral and surrounded by colorful schools of fish.
A trip to the Keys isn’t complete without partaking in some Key Lime pie, and Key Largo Chocolates & Ice Cream takes the dessert to another level by taking slices of the pastry—which is made in house—dipping them in chocolate, freezing them, and then serving them up on a stick, cake pop style. The shop also hosts chocolate making classes for both kids and adults.
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Where to Shop
A giant spiny lobster named “Betsy” marks the spot along the Overseas Highway for this open-air market, which has been showcasing artwork, sculptures, custom jewelry, and resort wear from local artists for the last 40 years.
Come for the shopping, stay for the party. On the last Sunday of the month, this resort in the Middle Keys hosts an outdoor marketplace with live music, cocktails, and food trucks.
Where to Stay
This Marriott property is one of the newest resorts in Key Largo, and it gives us major Caribbean vibes. It has the conveniences of a world-class resort, but with the charm and service you’d expect at a bed and breakfast. The resort’s oversized rooms are stocked with luxe amenities like Nespresso machines and customized iPads, and have gorgeous vistas of Florida Bay. Their beachfront restaurant, Sol By The Sea, is a can’t miss, with Insta-worthy views and delicious local dishes like whole fried grouper with heaps of Brussels sprouts slaw.
You can park your pleasure boat waterside at the Faro Blanco Resort, which has its own on-site yacht club and marina. And its location in the Middle Keys means it’s a convenient base to explore the attractions of both the Upper and Lower Keys.
Travel back to British Colonial times—with modern comforts—at the adults-only Little Palm Island Resort and Spa. Set on a five-acre private cay, this boutique property is only reachable by boat or seaplane and its 15 renovated thatched-roof bungalows come with luxe perks like private decks, outdoor copper soaking tubs, and a full-service spa—and all surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. To help guests truly get away from it all, there are no TVs, phones, or radios—but there is dedicated WiFi.
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Love to fish? Then check out Baker’s Cay Resort’s “Dock To Dish” tour, where guests take a chartered fishing trip—either in the deep sea, nighttime lobster netting, or in the backcountry—and then cook their catch with the resort’s executive chef Andy Papson.
Florida Keys Lodging, Various Prices on Airbnb
Or explore your Airbnb options.
Header image courtesy of Getty Images / Steve Bly