Road Trip Guide: Miami to Key West

Beach shoreline with palm trees along Sunset Key, FL.

.Everyone, even those who live in the Sunshine State flock to the Florida Keys in the winter months to have a little tropical escape without the need of a passport. Key West is the end of the archipelago of Keys and is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Miami. It’s an easy road trip for a girlfriend’s getaway, a solo foray, or a couples weekend. I’ve put together a fun Florida Keys road trip itinerary to serve as a guide for you to make your amazing Miami to Key West road trip plan!

Picture of signs and mileage from the Conch House in the Florida Keys.
The Keys are a US getaway that feels tropical but doesn’t require a passport.

The airfare into MIA (Miami International Airport) is generally affordable when compared to other flight options and puts you within an hour of the start of the Overseas Highway, which is the only way to drive in and out of the Florida Keys. You can fly into Key West (EYW) but it’s usually at a premium! Besides, who can resist the thrill of the open road? Especially when you have blue-green water views on either side of the rental carWhile Miami is a trip unto itself, this guide is more about getting you on the road and Miami serves as an economical starting point. 

Miami International Airport Hotel

This hotel is located inside the airport. MIA is famous for being dated and often under construction. The traffic in Miami is famous for being fast paced and busy. Often, flight deals are deals because you get in at midnight or have to arrive to fly out by 3 a.m. For all of these reasons, the Miami International Airport Hotel is perfectly convenient, as it was for me and my partner, flying in and out at those blurry eye, zombie shuffle times.

Old spartan hotel room at the Miami International Airport Hotel.
Very old and spartan, tiny pillows, but so convenient.

It is NOT, however, a place you want to spend a lot of time. It’s super dated with thin walls and bare essentials – tiny, flat pillows and frankly, curt customer service. All that said, for those who are apprehensive about night time driving, traveling with kids, or just plain tired, it’s a place to lay your head. Bonus: Air Margaritaville is just across from the front desk and actually has pretty good food and beverage service for the weary, hungry traveler. 

Mandy’s Travel Tip: MIA is active 24/7. No matter the time of day, there was a line at airline check in kiosks at least a few dozen deep. Make sure no matter where you stay, you arrive early! 

Coral Castle 

Entry sign to Coral Castle site near Homestead, FL.
Just beyond the hedges, a beautiful roadside oddity awaits.

This kitschy stop is on the way (mostly) as you head south toward the Florida Keys, located near the Homestead area. This is a feat of architecture and a sculpture garden in one. A Latvian man named Ed Leedskalnin carved tons of coral rock very secretively to create this interesting masterpiece which is now called Coral Castle. It’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Admission is $18 for adults and they are closed Monday – Wednesday. Snapping a few photos next to the creative formations and learning on the tour is a great way to kick off your road trip with a fun and funky stop full of history. 

Biscayne National Park

Just under a half hour from the heart of busy Miami is the peaceful shoreline of Biscayne National Park. The park is almost entirely water-based but you can still explore some from land. The park protects reefs and provides mangrove habitats which also make wonderful offshore fishing opportunities. From the quiet pier you can look back toward the vibrant Miami skyline. The Dante Fascell Visitor Center is your jumping off point for learning on the land and booking eco adventures to discover the park in a deeper way. 

Sign among palm trees at Biscayne National Park.
Biscayne National Park feels wild, but includes views of Miami from afar.

Biscayne is best seen from the water. Book a boat tour and get out to the islands and lighthouses with a guide to find out all of the history and ecology of the area. We did not have time, but we did explore the Visitor’s Center and a short pier trail. So many people were fishing and enjoying the day! Save an hour or so for exploring if you aren’t taking a tour. Make sure to check schedules and any closures to plan accordingly.

Mandy’s Travel Tip: You do not need a park entrance sticker to explore the Dante Fascell Visitor Center or the trails around Biscayne National Park. 

Key Largo

Key Largo is about 70 miles and 90 minutes from Miami. It’s about 100 miles and two hours from Key West. Key Largo is the first city and northernmost key you’ll run into when traveling south on the Overseas Highway (US 1.) It’s a great spot to spend a few days if you have the time in your itinerary. There is a different feel to each of the keys, so the best way to explore is slowly! 

Key West is one of my favorite places to spend some time. It’s one of the bigger cities along the keys–although Key West is the most economically developed and populated key city. 

Boat docked at a marina in Key Largo.
The marina in Key Largo is always a great hang out.

Where to Eat in Key Largo

There are around 50 different restaurants and bars to eat in Key Largo – not counting fast food places. You could spend your entire vacation eating your way through the island town. Maybe I have. (No regrets!) There are some places which will be more popular, more expensive, more exclusive, or require reservations. Here are some of my firsthand favorites after spending years in the Keys eating and drinking! You can expect fresh seafood and an array of drinks at almost every restaurant in Key Largo.

Skipper’s Dockside is a wonderful little tiki bar and restaurant. The tiki bar is where I usually like to hang out. The decks have ample seating at the bar and at tables around the patio. Frequently, live music sets the vibe. I have enjoyed every singer they’ve featured. There is also indoor seating if the weather is chilly or you just aren’t in the mood for the bar scene. Skipper’s is situated over a marina so to see pelicans, manatees, and fish is common. The food at Skipper’s is really delicious. There is a generous happy hour appetizer and drink menu. 

High Tide Restaurant is a lovely spot for that ‘local greasy spoon’ type of breakfast. This little cafe doesn’t have much parking but has a sizable menu and friendly staff. It’s our go-to breakfast spot. Blue crab is often a feature in daily specials. 

The Lazy Lobster has a giant menu and is seafood heavy, as a name like this might suggest! The vibe is really fun, with tables under cover but a pebble floor and fresh air coming through wooden fence walls. Propane heaters are spread throughout in case of chilly weather. I brought in my fresh catch (more on how I got it further down) and was able to choose how I wanted it prepared. 

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Located at Key Largo, you’ll need to be prepared for a line of cars flowing out to the Overseas Highway/US1 in the mornings, with other visitors seeking entry and checking into the campground. It’s a very popular spot and rightly so. You can go snorkeling trip, scuba diving, or on a glass bottom boat tour from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. You’ll really feel this impact if you’re in the Keys during the week between Christmas and New Years. To access the reefs, you’ll need to travel at least three miles offshore by boat. Be prepared for seasickness, it can get very rough at times. Water sports in the Florida Keys are definitely the main stay of fun.

Snorkeling in the Park

I’ve been snorkeling through the park concessionaire. Even if air temperatures are in the mid-70s, you may want a long sleeved rashguard. Wind makes you cold quick on the surface! It will help with sun protection and you’ll need less reef safe sunscreen on your body, but it will also help with that chill factor the wind brings, often much to your surprise!

Keep in mind, if you want to see the famous ‘Christ of the Deep’ statue, you won’t do so by taking a glass bottom tour. Snorkeling and diving are the way to see the statue. The Dry Docks reef where it rests is too shallow for glass bottom boats.

The African Queen 

If you haven’t seen the Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart classic 1951 movie, The African Queen, you should stream it directly after you finish reading this article! This historic steamboat makes its home in Key Largo. You can walk to the marina where it is docked or you can book a cruise to take it out on the water. Originally cruising in Africa carrying cargo, the boat is now a National Historic site and worthy of a stroll and selfie while on the island. Adult cruise tickets are $59.

Go Fishing 

You can use a site like FishingBooker.com (which is what I used) to find a great local fishing guide to show you the area beyond the highway and hopefully have you hooking fish. I was able to explore parts of Everglades National Park (which would otherwise be several hours drive to the northwest and outside the Florida Keys by road) and see many bird species, dolphins, and manatees. If you haven’t gotten to take an airboat ride through the everglades, this is the next best thing (and much quieter!) I also caught my lunch, which was the freshest fish I have ever eaten in my life! (It was literally about 20 minutes from my guide fileting my catch to the restaurant cooking it up for me!) The catch was two Mangrove Snapper and they were tasty.

h-snapper-fishing
Snapper caught in the Keys for a rod to table fresh lunch.

You can find a guide to take you deep sea fishing and you do not have to use a booking website.  If you just head to the marina, eager guides are waiting! It was super windy while we were in the area and so I chose to fish inland. There, we were sheltered from the big waves and wind. I also wanted to be sure we had a private charter. We paid a little more for the exclusive attention and guarantee we’d have the whole boat. You’ll pay anywhere from $500 to $1200 depending on your fishing adventure. This doesn’t include a generous tip if you had a good time on the water.

h-Everglades-fishing
Fishing in the Keys can provide access to the Everglades!

Key Largo in a Coconut Shell

Key Largo has a Publix and a Divers Direct, among other amenities and supply spots. It’s a good place to get gas since you can sometimes find a better price than further into the lower keys. While Key West has many stores and shops, it’s a lot busier than the Upper Keys. 

There are many franchised hotels here – we’ve stayed at the Marriott, The Courtyard, and the Holiday Inn and all were fantastic. If you’re traveling in the winter, especially the holidays, prices will hit several hundred dollars each night. Make reservations for fun like snorkeling and diving, any restaurants which accept them, and other excursions. Key Largo is an easy road trip for Florida residents, too, so it’s a popular spot for everyone, tourists and locals alike. 

Tavernier 

Traveling a little further down the highway you come to the quaint town of Tavernier. Still considered part of the Upper Keys, Tavernier has a few fun spots to enjoy. The hotels here are more boutique hotels than chain brands. Booking a vacation rental is also a good option in this part of the Keys. There are many restaurants to enjoy as well, though since we are almost always on our way from Key Largo when we travel through, we do not have any to specifically suggest.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center 

There are two sites included under this center’s direction – the Wild Bird Hospital, which is visible from the roadside and is easy to find, and the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary, which is a bit more obscure and tucked away. At the sanctuary, you can walk around and see many rescued birds and it’s one of my very favorite stops in the Florida Keys.The birds living here are not able to be released back into the wild and serve as ambassadors living safely at the sanctuary. The boardwalk is tucked into the mangroves and is a really lovely way to see some local species up close.

Islamorada 

Although I went fishing while in Key Largo, Islamorada is actually the sport fishing capital of the world, so you might try getting some lines wet there! 

Robbie’s Marina

You know when you are at Robbie’s Marina even before you see a sign. You’ll see a line and a parking lot packed full of cars, all full of people waiting to feed the spunky tarpon from the docks of the marina. There is a live webcam if you ever want to see what all the fuss is about. This is one of those experiences that is unique to the Florida Keys and if you’ve ever wanted to feed a chunk of bait to a giant fish with a gaping mouth flying out of the water to feast, well, this is a stop for you! There is an underwater live cam as well, so you can view the scaly scoundrels looking to snatch a snack from your hand! 

History of Diving Museum

The Florida Keys are a scuba diving paradise. Barrier reefs teeming with colorful fishes and loads of shipwrecks dotting the coast make it a super spot to dip down and get your fins wet. However, if you’re a landlubber who has a penchant for history–especially nautical themed, then the History of Diving Museum should make your itinerary. This collection of dive gear and memorabilia is gigantic.

Mural of marine life on the exterior of the History of Diving Museum building.
When you see the whale shark, pull over and go inside!

The museum includes an art showcase, and diving history and evolution of gear and techniques through the years. Iron Mike is an interesting exhibit, so is learning about the Mariana Trench. Diving bells to free divers, it’s all housed within the walls that feature marine murals of this fantastic gem along the Overseas Highway. Save about two hours for this stop, there is a lot to read and if you love maritime history or diving, you’ll be devouring all the exhibits. Adult admission is $15.

Theater of the Sea

Offering dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows, this large, well-manicured spot is easy to spot as you make your way through Islamorada. If swimming with a dolphin has been on your bucket list, you can book that experience here. Theater of the Sea is still owned and operated by the original family who opened the marine mammal park as one of the earliest of its kind in 1946. In addition to dolphins, you can have a nurse shark encounter or experience sea lions up close. While I haven’t been to this spot, it has always made me curious! Adult admission starts at $29.99 and encounters are booked separately. 

Mandy’s Travel Tip: Much of the trip between Miami and Key West is demarcated by mile markers, leading you all the way to the famous Mile Marker 0 photo spot in Key West. If you see MM88 or similar signage, that is what it means! 

Marathon

Marathon is a busy little key midway through the Miami to Key West itinerary. There are some standout favorites and places I have yet to explore. 

The Turtle Hospital is a stop right along the highway which is probably really neat if you are a sea turtle enthusiast. This is a working hospital and a rescue center with the goal of rehabilitation and release. You must be part of a guided tour to interact with turtles. This stop for ocean lovers illustrates a different side of marine life than the entertainment based spots elsewhere in the area. The admission is $35.00 for adults and reservations are recommended. 

Burdine’s Waterfront is a somewhat hidden gem. I found it by searching for a waterfront bar and grill. We stop every time we drive through for a burger and fries and a cool beer in the hot sun. The waterfront setting is perfect for watching boat traffic. The french fries are coated with a proprietary “fry dust” which is savory and somewhat addicting. Thankfully, they sell it and I always pack 8 ounces of the mystery seasoning home with me to taste a bit of vacation now and then, until the next time! 

Bahia Honda State Park is technically NOT in Marathon proper, but Marathon is the last city you drive through before the Seven Mile Bridge and then entering Bahia Honda Key where the state park is located. Incredibly popular with Florida residents and tourists alike, this is a lovely place to camp in the Keys. Reservations are needed well in advance because of the beautiful setting and finite number of areas for camping in the Florida Keys

Key West

This is the biggest city in the Keys and has hundreds of places to eat and drink. You can spend days or even weeks here just eating and drinking (and I have!) 

Where to Eat (and Drink) in Key West

You’ll find Key West is a gluttonous paradise for those who want to eat and drink their way through a vacation. Some restaurants do accept reservations and if you like to eat during popular dining hours, a reservation doesn’t hurt. Many establishments offer great happy hour deals, so do a bit of research before you arrive. Here is my advice on some of the best restaurants in Key West.

Lobster benedict with slices of fresh fruit at Blue Heaven.
Lobster Benedict with a Key Lime Hollandaise is my go-to breakfast order.

Irish Kevin’s is a Duval Street pub in which you can always find live entertainment and the food is fantastic. Blue Heaven is my absolute favorite place for mimosas and brunch. It’s wildly popular. They do not take reservations for breakfast or lunch, so get in line and be patient. If you’re willing to eat at the bar, you can usually get in faster. The Lobster Benedict is my fail safe order with local Florida lobster and yummy key lime hollandaise. 

Palm trees outside Latitudes Key West on Sunset Key, FL.
Every single moment is beautiful on Sunset Key.

Latitudes is another iconic spot to have a romantic dinner as you watch the famed Key West sunset sink into the ocean. However, dinner reservations are coveted and you truly need to plan months in advance and stalk OpenTable to secure one. Lunch and breakfast reservations are much easier to acquire than dinner. These early meals only require about a month or so of planning in advance. There is a dress code – but having eaten lunch there two afternoons in a row, I can say it is only loosely followed. So don’t stress about how to dress! I can say the planning and time spent is worth the splurge.

Dine Around Dusk

If you love a good surprise and want to splurge on seafood, The Little Pearl may be your best bet. They have three seatings for a prix fixe tasting menu and it’s divine. They accept reservations and you’ll need them, but they aren’t too hard to secure. Margaritaville–the original bar on Duval Street made famous by the founder, the late, great Jimmy Buffet is a really colorful, fun bar to grab a fruity drink and enjoy the upbeat vibes. There are hundreds of places to eat and drink–many walkable, most delightful.

Mandy’s Travel Tip: Reservations are easier to get at sunset — if you’re willing to miss the spectacular show.

What to Do in the Conch Republic

Simply walking around Duval and the surrounding streets is a good way to spend a few hours. You will want to take a shuttle from your hotel or be strategic about parking! Rideshare services and taxis are ubiquitous, so you can always catch a ride home. Scooters are a super great way to travel around the island and are everywhere, zipping in and out of streets and in traffic. You pay a premium to park downtown, but the scooters can park free in most places. Nearly all the hotels have shuttle services or bus shares with other properties. 

The Weirder, The Better

Shopping, sipping, and just taking in the characters of this mega weird (but in such a good way) city. Some of the most quintessential Key West things you must do include: a sunset party at Mallory Square and a selfie by both the mile marker zero sign and the southernmost point buoy. You’ll find crowds and lines and tourists at all of those super well-known sites. Once you have finished with the requisite stops, head to some more quirky spots in town. 

Entry sign to Mallory Square in Key West.
Mallory square by day is quiet, but at sunset, we party!

Sightseeing and Exploring Beyond Duval Street

Mel Fisher Shipwreck Museum is a museum for treasure hunting, shipwreck, and pirate enthusiasts. The museum has artifacts and displays; a sensational glimpse of the maritime world to explore. An hour of wandering the halls will allow you to read and enjoy the exhibits. Adult admission is $17.50.

I’m an aquarium and zoological park junkie. Naturally, I wanted to stop into Key West Aquarium. While I think the exhibits the aquarium does have are really top notch, it’s not a huge facility. Nurse sharks steal the show for most guests. Since I purchased admission 30 minutes prior to closing, my bracelet was good for the next day as well. 

Mallory Square is fun for some flamboyant fanfare to celebrate the setting sun, but Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is my favorite place to enjoy a more quiet and peaceful sunset. You pay admission per car, pedestrian, or scooter – and when I walked in, it was under $5. The fort itself is a neat place to explore.  Higher vantage points offer great photo spots along the big stone walls. Paths and picnic tables weave between palms. Some spots are rocky, but this is a legit beach, too. Often an impromptu parade of yachts, catamarans, and themed cruises like a pirate ship will float by, casting silhouettes against skies of orange, magenta, gold, and crimson. 

Here are some other Key West fun things to do, where you might want to invest your time: 

  • LaTeDa Cabaret Brunch
  • Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden (parrot rescue)
  • Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservancy 
  •  Ernest Hemingway House (and polydactyl cats)
  • Eat all the Key Lime Pie
  • Sloppy Joe’s Bar
  • Key West Lighthouse
  • Ghost Tours and Graveyards of Key West
  • Day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park
Aerial view of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park.
Approaching Fort Jefferson by seaplane.

Make it a Tradition

If there is one thing I learned after traveling to the Florida Keys annually for a week each winter, it’s that you can never see it all. It’s what makes it one of the best road trips you’ll ever take! There is so much to do and eat and appreciate. It’s like another country, tropical, exuding island attitude, but here in south Florida! It’s nice any time of year, but peak prices will be during the holidays and locals refer to the time between Christmas and New Years as “hell week” because of the crazy busy influx of visitors to the area. Maybe make it an annual tradition, like I do!

The best way unequivocally is a Miami to Key West road trip, from one end to the other and back. (You can fly directly into Key West, but you’re really missing a huge chunk of fun by doing it that way!) So, my tried and true advice is to make sure you do some homework before you go. Make the reservations, but don’t overpopulate your itinerary. Channel the energy of the late Jimmy Buffet and get your toes into the sand. Before you know it, you’ll be back in Miami and headed back to real life, so enjoy the ride along the Overseas Highway.