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Key Largo means “large key” in Spanish, and it’s the largest of the Florida Keys, about 30 miles in length. It’s the first island you get to in the tropical chain (a gateway to the Keys, if you will). Known as the Diving Capital of the World, Key Largo is a water lover’s paradise whether you’re on the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.
Key Largo offers a wide array of charter fishing boats, snorkeling trips, and soft sand beaches, making it an attractive destination for all sorts of travelers. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Key West, but Key Largo and the Upper/Middle Keys easily top my list of favorite Florida destinations.
With the shipwrecks, coral reefs, and offshore fishing of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the sapphire shades of the Gulf of Mexico on the other, it makes one of the best adventure vacations in the world. The island’s location in the Upper Keys makes it a terrific choice for access to Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, attractions in Islamorada and Marathon, and even day trips from Key West.
You’ll find amazing seafood restaurants, tropical tiki bars, unique wildlife and watersports activities, and some of the best resorts in South Florida in Key Largo. I like to describe the Keys as the closest you can get to the Caribbean lifestyle without a passport.
You have all the gorgeous scenery of palm trees and sapphire water, island-inspired cuisine, and unique creatures like iguanas, manatees, and tropical birds. And you don’t have the hassle of flying overseas and trekking through customs!
That being said, you still have to get there somehow. My preferred mode of transport is to fly into Fort Lauderdale International Airport (FLL) – you could also choose Miami International Airport (MIA) – and rent a car to drive the rest of the way.
Key Largo is about an hour and a half drive from Fort Lauderdale. RentalCars.com is a terrific tool for searching for the right vehicle to explore all of the Key Largo attractions on our list.
- Things to Do in Key Largo
- 1. Book a Reef and Wreck Diving Excursion
- 2. Day Trip to Everglades National Park
- 3. A Day at the Beach
- 4. Snorkel Among Tropical Fish
- 5. African Queen
- 6. The History of Diving Museum
- 7. Stay in an Underwater Hotel at Jules Undersea Lodge
- 8. Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
- 9. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
- 10. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
- 11. The Turtle Hospital
- 12. Theater of the Sea
- 13. The Dolphin Research Center
- 14. Robbie’s of Islamorada
- 15. Rain Barrel Village
- 16. Glass-Bottom Boat Tour
- 17. Guided Eco-Tour
- 18. Rent a Pontoon Boat
- 19. Culinary and Craft Brewery Tours
|Most Significant Landmark||Christ of the Abyss underwater statue (John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park)|
|Best Park||Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park|
|Best Free Activity||Local Beaches|
|Best Activity for Kids||Theater of the Sea|
|Best Activity for Adults||Craft Brewery Visits|
|Best Food||Sunset Grille & Raw Bar|
|Best All-Around Accommodation||Hampton Inn Key Largo|
Things to Do in Key Largo
1. Book a Reef and Wreck Diving Excursion
The waters of the Florida Keys are a paradise for certified divers or those looking to become certified. Book a guided diving excursion to get into those offshore reefs. Tours typically stop at two sites, which could include Christ of the Abyss at John Pennekamp State Park, Elbow Reef, Grecian Rocks, and the City of Washington.
Located on the ocean side at Silent World Dive Center, it’s about 25 minutes from some of the best dive sites in the Keys. Diving equipment and snacks are included.
Other Florida Keys scuba diving sites include the Hens and Chickens Reef, the Pickle Barrel Wreck and Reef, and Molasses Reef. The USS Spiegel Grove Wreck is a terrific site for advanced divers.
See Related: Best Scuba Travel Insurance Options for Divers
2. Day Trip to Everglades National Park
Mark a national park off your bucket list with a day trip from Key Largo to Everglades National Park. Considered a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, it’s the largest designated subtropical wilderness in North America.
Residents include the Florida panther, the West Indian manatee, American crocodiles, and a wide range of birds, fish, and reptiles. The expansive area is popular for kayaking, canoeing, walking, and cycling.
An Everglades Adventure Tour provides admission to Sawgrass Recreational Park and allows you to take a 40-minute airboat ride, which is an amazing experience. Head off and enjoy other activities and educational experiences within Everglades National Park.
3. A Day at the Beach
The first thing I tell people about visiting the Keys is not to go to the Keys for the beaches. Yes, that gets me some weird looks.
There are, of course, lovely small beaches with soft white sand, shallow water, and swaying palm trees. But they’re just that, small and shallow.
You’re not going to find the long stretches of wide sand and crashing waves of the East Coast… and you certainly won’t be surfing. You can, however, go swimming, kayaking, fishing, paddleboarding, and snorkeling.
Head to Anne’s Beach, Sombrero Beach, Harry Harris Park and Beach, Far Beach, or Cannon Beach. As you explore, you can snorkel, check out antique weapons, and relax on the sand.
Knight’s Key Suites, in Marathon by the Seven Mile Bridge, is an excellent budget-friendly choice to base a Florida Keys vacation. It’s convenient to attractions in Islamorada and Key Largo as well as the Lower Keys, and it’s within walking distance to Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, which serves an amazing variety of tropical cocktails and the food to go along with them.
See Related: Best Beach Resorts In Florida
4. Snorkel Among Tropical Fish
Now that we’ve gotten the previous tidbit out of the way, the best way to really experience the glory of the Keys and its waterways is by taking a charter boat to go scuba diving or snorkeling among marine life and colorful coral reefs.
The Florida reef is home to the third largest living reef system in the world (and the only one in the U.S.). The other two are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef. Get out there and enjoy this colorful coral reef!
Book a half-day reef snorkel trip to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park. You’ll sail aboard a comfortable catamaran.
This tour is perfect for beginner snorkelers (though you do need to know how to swim). Tours meet at Pirates Cove Watersports.
I’ve personally snorkeled with several companies in the Keys. I recommend Captain Hooks Marina and Dive Center (Marathon, Big Pine, and Key West locations), Spirit Snorkeling in Marathon, and Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures in Tavernier. All offered a wonderful experience and a terrific day of bobbing about above coral, fish, and turtles.
Insider Tip: I recommend purchasing an underwater camera to record the colorful fish and unique coral formations. It doesn’t have to be an expensive model.
I love my Nikon COOLPIX W100 for its compact size, affordability, and ease of use. It’s waterproof to 33 feet and shockproof from a five-foot drop.
Don’t forget to add a floating strap to your virtual bag before checking out. You can thank me later.
5. African Queen
Address: 99701 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, Florida 33037
Docked at the Marina Del Mar Resort & Marina (which just happens to be Key Largo’s largest deep water marina) and beside the Holiday Inn Key Largo, the African Queen is a piece of movie memorabilia that’s worth checking out even if you’re not a classic movie fan.
The restored steamboat was built in Lytham, England, for the East Africa British Railways Company. Now a National Historic site, it was used in the 1951 Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn movie The African Queen.
Prior to the movie, she was a working boat that sailed along the Congo River carrying missionaries, mercenaries, and cargo across the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert. After starring in the movie, she remained in service until 1968 and was used in San Francisco, Oregon, and Ocala, Florida. The African Queen moved to Key Largo in 1982.
You can even indulge your inner thespian by booking an African Queen canal cruise. Channel Bogart and Hepburn on a 90-minute cruise around the Port Largo Canals or take a dinner cruise (offered on Fridays and Saturdays). You’ll sail to the Pilot House Marina restaurant, enjoy dinner, and then sail back to Marina Del Mar.
While you’re in the area, grab a bite to eat and listen to live music at Bogie’s Café, Sharkey’s Sharkbite Grill, or Skipper’s Dockside (where you can watch fishermen coming in with the daily catch – and the sharks waiting for a bite of the remains of that catch).
See Related: Best Houseboats for Rent in Florida
6. The History of Diving Museum
Address: 82990 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036
The History of Diving Museum opened in 2005, the result of more than 40 years of collecting by Drs. Joe and Sally Bauer. Stop by and peruse the collection of photographs, books, videos, and vintage diving gear. You’ll see helmets, regulators, suits, air pumps, underwater cameras, and other articles.
Did you know that NASA trains astronauts with diving and underwater living? Now you do! Enjoy featured exhibits like Aquanauts to Astronauts, which explore the relationship between diving and space exploration.
Speaking of underwater exploration, if you’re in need of snorkels, masks, or fins, you’ll find a wide range of dive shops and watersports stores in the Keys. Divers Direct is one of my favorites, but REI is also a great choice for gear, apparel, dry bags, coolers, and towels.
7. Stay in an Underwater Hotel at Jules Undersea Lodge
Address: 51 Shoreland Drive, Key Largo, Florida 33037
I don’t normally recommend a hotel as a “thing to do” but there are the odd exceptions. While you’ve got the dive gear on from earlier, check into the Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the only underwater hotel in the U.S.!
Named for French novelist Jules Verne, it’s an International Biosphere Reserve. This unique destination was once an underwater research facility. Jules’ Undersea Lodge became a hotel in 1986.
Jules’ Undersea Lodge is located at the bottom of Emerald Lagoon at Key Largo Undersea Park. Guests get to the entrance by diving down to the entrance, which is about 20 feet below the surface (much less than 20,000 leagues). The park also offers SCUBA training and certification.
See Related: Best Resorts in Key West, Florida
8. Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
Address: 93600 Overseas Highway, Tavernier, Florida 33070
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center consists of the Mission Wild Bird Hospital and the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. The Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary specializes in the rescue, rehab, and release of sick and injured birds.
Birds deemed non-releasable become residents of the sanctuary. Watch pelican feedings, view rehabilitating birds, and learn all about avian conservation. Admission is free, but donations are requested.
The Mission Wild Bird Hospital is located a few miles down the road. The Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Hospital treats sick and injured birds. It’s not accessible to visitors, but there’s a gift shop and an education center that welcomes visitors.
9. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Address: Key Largo, Florida 33037
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first underwater park in the U.S. It’s about 25 miles long and extends three miles into the Atlantic. Once you’re in the park, you have to take a boat to actually get to the underwater park. Head to the waterfront to meet the boats to take a reef tour.
Once offshore, you can snorkel or dive among coral reefs and the famous Christ of the Abyss statue. The nine-foot-tall bronze statue, with outstretched arms, was placed there in 1965. It’s mounted on a cement base in about 25 feet of water, making it better suited for up-close viewing while diving, though you can probably see it from above while snorkeling.
This area is called Dry Rocks. The hand-shaped reef has sand channels, patch reefs, and spur and groove formations. Look for angelfish, nurse sharks, groupers, moray eels, and grouper.
If you’d rather stay on the mainland at the park, that’s all good too. Visitors can snorkel at the beach, kayak through the mangrove swamps, hike along tropical forests, and work on that tan. Check out the 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium at the visitor center.
See Related: Best Islands in Florida to Visit
10. Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park
Address: 84900 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036
A former quarry made of Key Largo limestone (a.k.a. fossilized coral), Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park features trails that wind through fossilized reefs, hardwood forests, and fringe mangroves.
Walk along the quarry’s eight-foot-tall walls, check out quarry machinery, view exhibits at the visitor center, or go birding to get a peek at migrating birds like the Bahama mockingbird, warblers, and western spindalis.
An important part of Florida’s 20th-century history, the quarry’s limestone was used to build the Overseas Railroad, which has now been transformed into the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. The 106-mile-long rail trail runs from Key Largo to Key West.
The paved trail is popular for hiking, biking, skating, and sightseeing. There are also fishing bridges along the way.
11. The Turtle Hospital
Address: 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Florida 33050
If there’s one thing I love about the Florida Keys, it’s the area’s commitment to marine conservation and wildlife protection. The Turtle Hospital is an animal hospital that specializes in the rescue, rehab, and release of sick and injured sea turtles.
The Florida Keys is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles, including the loggerhead, green, hawksbill, leatherback, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, and the flatback.
While anyone can stop in to purchase a souvenir (proceeds go to fund the hospital, so I say do it), you do have to book a scheduled educational tour to visit the turtles. The tours last about 70-90 minutes and take you on a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital and the rehab area. You’ll have the chance to feed the turtles at the end of the tour.
See Related: Best Resorts & Hotels With Animals On-Site
12. Theater of the Sea
Address: 84721 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036
Spend the day or afternoon at Theater of the Sea. The marine park sits just off the Overseas Highway.
It was established in 1946 as a marine mammal park and features stingrays, nurse sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, California sea lions, and tropical birds. Many of the animals are rescues that have been rehabilitated and deemed non-releasable into the wild.
Theater of the Sea and other organizations like the Turtle Hospital are involved in the rescue efforts. The park sits on what was a rock quarry excavated for Henry Flagler’s railroad.
Explore the tropical gardens, watch educational marine animal shows, experience meet-and-greets with the resident animals, or snorkel in the lagoon. My favorites are the dolphins and the scarlet macaws. I gotta admit, the spunky sea lions are pretty adorable as well.
The Moorings Village, located nearby, sits on an 18-acre former coconut plantation. While I haven’t visited this idyllic setting, it’s on my bucket list. Fans of the show Bloodline will recognize the resort as the bed and breakfast home of the Rayburns.
One and two-bedroom cottages offer cozy porches, full kitchens, and beach views. The property has a swimming pool, a boat dock, and a private beach with lots of tropical palms. On the luxury side of the hotel spectrum, the resort makes a wonderful choice for a destination wedding, reception, or romantic getaway.
13. The Dolphin Research Center
Address: 58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, Florida 33050
The Dolphin Research Center is one of the best Keys attractions to check out your favorite sea life. Head to the Gulf side lagoon to get an up-close look at bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions.
The center was founded in 1984 with the mission to promote coexistence and cooperation between marine mammals, humans, and the environment. It accomplishes that through education, research, and rescue.
You can experience dolphin interactions or just walk around and watch these loveable cetaceans playing in the lagoon. Watch educational presentations and narrated sessions, participate in trainer-for-the-day programs, and even paint with dolphins.
See Related: Things to Do in Palm Coast, Florida
14. Robbie’s of Islamorada
Address: 77522 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036
You can’t beat the Keys for quirky attractions and family-friendly fun. This fishing village-inspired property features an array of art, jewelry, and souvenir vendors.
The Hungry Tarpon restaurant always draws a crowd, and the popular snack stands, boat tours, kayak rentals, and fishing charter boat trips ensure lots of action. One of the simplest and most fun activities is watching the tarpon bobbing about by the docks.
Robbie’s is one of my favorite places to relax and stroll through the open-air market setting. There are plenty of places for sitting in the shade if you prefer that aspect of the vacation life.
15. Rain Barrel Village
Address: 86700 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, Florida 33036
Another fun, quirky, and maybe a little bizarre roadside attraction to empty some weight from your wallet is Rain Barrel Village. All you have to do is look for the giant fiberglass lobster.
Shop for art, handmade crafts, jewelry, souvenirs, and more from more than 500 local artists in galleries, boutiques, and specialty shops. The village also offers The Lobster Shack restaurant and a tropical garden oasis with sculptures and other unique art.
Oh, you’re wondering about that lobster? The work of sculptor Richard Blaze, Betsy the Florida spiny lobster, is towering 30 feet tall and 40 feet long. She’s the inspiration for many a sunny selfie. The area is famous for lobster season, so why not?
Fun Fact: In contrast to Maine’s famous lobsters, Florida spiny lobsters don’t have claws. They’re caught for the tasty tail meat. Hold the chuckles, please!
The village, previously known as the Cypress Barn Building, got its name from its former life as the site of a 5,000-gallon cypress cistern (or rain barrel). It’s been an artist complex since 1978.
16. Glass-Bottom Boat Tour
If you’d rather check out the underwater world from above, book a glass-bottom boat tour to the colorful reefs. You’ll be able to view sea fans, sea plumes, turtles, jellyfish, and colorful formations without ever getting your hair wet.
Glass bottom boat tours are a terrific way to see the formations at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Tours meet at the Holiday Inn Key Largo, making this one of the best and most convenient of Key Largo’s attractions.
Insider Tip: I always recommend taking a dose of Dramamine prior to embarking on something like a glass-bottom boat tour. The only time I’ve ever gotten seasick in my entire life was on one of these tours.
The combination of looking down into swaying water, being on a swaying boat, and breathing in fumes that typically occur near a boat engine is a prime recipe for seasickness. Don’t be that guy or gal heaving over the side of the boat. If you’re still growing your sea legs, take the Dramamine at least 30 minutes before boarding.
17. Guided Eco-Tour
Florida’s mangroves are a unique sight and one of my top favorite marine habitats. For a relaxing day in nature, take a Mangroves and Manatees Guided Kayak Eco Tour.
Paddle along Tavernier Creek, which allows access to both the Gulf and the Atlantic. Search for manatees, fish, crabs, and birds like pelicans, egrets, and herons. Tours meet near the Old Tavernier Restaurant & Lounge.
Speaking of unique natural attractions… the Hampton Inn Key Largo has a small private beach that’s often visited by manatees. It’s illegal to touch or feed wild manatees (so don’t), but it’s super fun to watch these sweet sea cows swimming about in the water.
Clean, comfortable, and sporting a neutral tropical vibe, this mid-range hotel has a pool, a fitness room, a boat dock, and complimentary breakfast. You might also see a lawn full of Florida’s infamous iguanas hanging out in the sun. They may look like tiny dinosaurs (or even big dinosaurs – it’s all about perspective), and they’re always a cool sight in the island life.
See Related: Best Springs in Florida to Visit
18. Rent a Pontoon Boat
Key Largo Pontoon Boat Rentals is one of the best places to rent a ‘toon for the day and take the fam out on the water. You can also hire a captain if you’re not comfortable navigating on your own.
Boating is one of my favorite activities, and I always recommend it, especially in the Keys. I love gliding across the water and stopping to explore small islands and coves.
Remember to pack your water shoes for this adventure. Offshore islands can be covered with small shells and rocks. Natural beauty is all well and good, but it’s a beast on bare feet!
19. Culinary and Craft Brewery Tours
Sample the flavors of the Keys (Key lime beer, anyone?) by checking out a few (or five) of the area’s craft breweries. There’s even a meadery, which would be my personal choice. Fermented honey? Yes, please!
The Florida Keys Food Tours features happy hour tours, food tours, and even tours via golf cart. The walking tour takes you through downtown Islamorada, where you’ll pop into local restaurants, meet chefs, taste amazing “Floribbean” food, and even tie in pop culture with stops at Bloodline filming sites. Hello Rayburns!
Want to venture to the southernmost point? There are plenty of Key West pub crawls and food tours to suit your fancy.
Prefer to explore on your own time? We get it.
Add some of these to your itinerary: Islamorada Brewery & Distillery, Keys’ Meads, Florida Keys Brewing Company, The Fish House, Islamorada Shrimp Shack, or the Green Turtle Inn. For a sweet treat, Sweet Savannah’s in Marathon is a personal favorite.
Burdine’s Waterfront, Sunset Grille & Raw Bar, and Lazy Days South are a few of my other favorites. You can even pull up a boat and enjoy the fun of docking and dining. Whether you’re gazing at the sunset, sipping a tropical cocktail, diving into a plate of fresh Florida seafood, or floating in an on-site pool, you can’t beat the Keys dining scene.
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- About the Author
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Sandy is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her specialties range from hotels, dining, beaches, and yacht charters to theme parks, urban settings, mountain getaways, and other fun spots. She loves Nashville, Las Vegas, and Williamsburg, Virginia – but you’re most likely to find her on the beach. In addition to ViaTravelers, her work appears at AFAR, PierShare, Cozymeal, and more.