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As a frequent traveller who has explored destinations across the U.S. and abroad, I was eager to finally make the trip to the legendary Key West.
Like many first timers, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to plan a satisfying whirlwind visit to take in the highlights. How long is the drive? Where should I start exploring first? What and where should I eat? My mind swirled with questions.
After thoroughly enjoying my action-packed one-day Key West adventure, I wanted to pass along my insider travel tips to fellow travellers making this trip for the first time from Miami.
With its funky, laidback vibe, pastel Victorian-style buildings, and beautiful blue waters perfect for snorkelling and sunset viewing, Key West makes for a delightful day trip escape from the city.
In this guide crafted specifically for first timers, you’ll discover everything you need to know to plan your perfect quick Key West getaway: from mapping the scenic Overseas Highway drive, to must-see attractions like Hemingway’s House to the nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square.
I’ll provide hand-picked recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, and how to get around to maximise your precious time on the island.
How to Get from Miami to Key West
Driving from Miami to Key West
Driving your own car is often the cheapest and most flexible way to embark on a day trip to Key West. The Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1) connects the Florida Keys to the mainland with a series of bridges streaming across vibrant turquoise waters.
Making the drive down to Key West for the day is one of the best ways to experience the Keys. The Overseas Highway connecting the islands is one of the most beautiful drives in Florida.
Driving allows you flexibility to make stops along the way at places like John Pennekamp State Park. You also won’t have to worry about catching a particular return ferry or flight.
The drive from Miami to Key West takes just under 4 hours one-way. Be sure to leave early to allow plenty of time for experiencing Key West and the return drive. Leaving Miami by 7 am will get you into Key West around 11 am, giving you a full day to explore before heading back.
Many visitors opt to rent a car for the Miami to Key West drive. Having your own wheels allows stopping whenever and wherever you’d like. If renting a car, get one with good gas mileage since you’ll cover about 170 miles round trip.
The drive also includes 42 bridges, including the iconic 7-Mile Bridge.
Take a Day Tour Bus from Miami to Key West
- Guided tour buses like Key West Express offer convenient, affordable transport.
- Buses have restrooms, AC, and typically make stops at key attractions.
- Packages often include roundtrip transport, snacks/light meal, discounts and more.
- Sit back, relax and enjoy island views on the drive down without any stress.
- Ideal if you’d rather not drive yourself and want a packaged experience.
Fly from Miami to Key West
- For the fastest trip, opt to fly from Miami International Airport to Key West International Airport
- Flights take approximately 45 minutes one-way.
- Once in Key West, you can book ground transportation or rent a car/scooter to explore.
- This is the quickest but generally the most expensive option.
- Silver Airways and American Airlines offer regular flights.
Top Things to Do in Key West in a Day
With a vibrant culture, stunning scenery and exciting attractions, narrowing down what to do in Key West in just one day can be tricky. To make the most of your limited time, be sure to experience these top highlights:
1. Explore Mallory Square & Watch the Sunset
No trip to Key West is complete without experiencing the nightly sunset celebration that occurs at Mallory Square.
As the glowing sun sinks below the horizon, the area transforms into a bustling, energetic street carnival with musicians, artists and food stalls. It’s by far Key West’s most popular event so arrive early to claim a good viewing spot.
Insider Tip: For a particularly vibrant and exciting atmosphere, visit Mallory Square on a weekend evening when you can catch the Sunset Celebration in its full glory.
2. Walk Down Duval Street & Explore Downtown
Lively Duval Street serves as the epicentre of Key West’s action-packed downtown. The bustling area features colourful local art galleries, unique boutique shops, fine dining restaurants, and popular watering holes livening up the night with live entertainment. It’s also lined by gorgeously preserved Southern Victorian architecture.
Be sure to pop over to the opposite end of Duval St. to glimpse the Southernmost Point Buoy—one of Key West’s iconic landmarks marking the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. Snap that classic buoy photo to commemorate your visit.
3. Pose at the Southernmost Point Buoy
No visit to the Florida Keys reaches completion without the requisite photo op at this much-photographed spot demarcating continental USA’s farthest reach south. Expect lines of eager tourists angling for their snapshot framed by the landmark giant red, yellow, black and white buoy.
Painted with bold letters reading “90 Miles to Cuba, Southernmost Point, Continental U.S.A”, it makes a quintessential memorable addition to any road trip album. Just watch out for territorial iguanas lounging nearby ready to photobomb!
The buoy resides adjacent to South Street just east of popular Southernmost Beach. Free access 24 hours daily means no excuse for missing this iconic selfie opp with lands’ end bragging rights.
4. Relax at a Nearby Beach
What’s a warm-weather island getaway without some time relaxing under the sun? Key West beaches like South Beach, Smathers Beach and the lesser-known Fort Zachary Taylor State Park offer stretches of pristine sand and pleasant swimming conditions.
At Fort Zachary Taylor, you can even try your hand at snorkelling around some shallow shipwrecks accessible from shore. Just be sure to pack water, sun protection and refreshments.
5. Taste Key Lime Everything
From pie to margaritas and everything in between, Key lime is the quintessential flavour of Key West cuisine. Be sure to treat yourself to the best key lime treat you can find from local restaurants and bakeries. Pair it with a Cuban coffee for the ultimate Key West experience.
Some favourite picks are key lime pie from Blue Heaven and Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe or even key lime martinis from local bars. You really can’t go wrong when it comes to savoury, zesty key lime.
6. Stroll Whitehead Street Pier
Take a relaxing stroll down Whitehead Street Pier in the historic seaport area. This long wooden pier provides panoramic views of the Key West harbour dotted with sailboats. The perfect spot to snap photos or simply soak in the scenery. Grab an icy cocktail from the restaurant at the pier’s end.
7. Check Out the Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters Museum
For unparalleled views overlooking the entire island, climb the 88 spiralling steps to the top balcony of Key West Lighthouse. At 142 feet above sea level, you’ll glimpse 360-degree vistas of Key West’s beaches, harbours and architecture with the shimmering water as a backdrop.
Next-door lies the Keeper’s Quarters museum detailing the history of Key West’s iconic beacons, their vital role in maritime navigation as well as showcasing period furnishings from when lighthouse keepers and their families lived onsite in the 19th century.
8. Ride Around in Style on the Conch Tour Train
See all the top Key West sights in an open-air tram on the Conch Tour Train. These tourist trains offer hop-on, hop-off service to major attractions like Hemingway House, Mallory Square, and more. Audio commentary provides an overview of Key West history and culture. It’s a fun way to get oriented.
9. Pay Respects to Papa at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
No trip to Key West is complete without a pilgrimage to where beloved booze-swilling writer Ernest Hemingway penned classics like “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. His preserved former residence stands as a living legacy Just steps from the honky-tonk revelry of Duval Street.
Walking the leafy grounds of the Ernest Hemingway Home, I visualise “Papa” Hemingway typing away Under the breeze-catching windows of his second-floor studio.
True fans can see the actual antique typewriter where he captured tales of war, loss and adventure. Costumed guides share colourful stories that reveal the larger-than-life bravado of Key West’s most famous long-time resident.
And of course, there are the cats: descendants of Papa’s beloved polydactyl felines that now number nearly fifty.
Admission runs $15 for house tours, but the gardens can be enjoyed separately either before or after. I recommend early morning or late afternoon to beat the heat and crowds.
10. Catch a Sunny Sunset Cruise
You simply must catch one Key West’s legendary sunsets from the water. Numerous boats offer evening sunset cruises with complimentary drinks and live music. A sublime way to end your Key West day!
11. Dive Down To Experience North America’s Only Living Coral Reef
Nature lovers shouldn’t miss exploring Key West’s underwater crown jewel: North America’s only living coral barrier reef Just offshore. The relatively shallow depths make it accessible even for novice divers and snorkelers.
I clearly recall slipping beneath the glassy surface for the first time, feeling instantly transported into an alien world of gently swaying sea fans and labyrinthine elkhorn coral formations teeming with rainbow-hued fish. Beyond lay diamond-dust sand flats that disappeared into an azul abyss.
To protect this fragile ecosystem, certain sections have been designated marine preserves with mooring buoys installed for boats. This helps prevent destructive anchor drops onto the easily damaged reef structures below.
Snorkel trips generally cost around $50 per person while scuba diving charters average $75 and up. Both tend to include gear rental making it easy for first timers to participate. Consider booking the earliest outing to avoid wind-whipped waves on the surface.
I strongly advise using reef-safe sunscreen during your time on and in the water as chemicals can negatively impact marine organisms.
12. Paddle Through a Tropical Mangrove Tunnel
Trading dry land for shallow Draft kayaks allows an intimate glimpse into the aquatic wilderness emblematic of the Keys. Paddling through lush mangrove tunnels near Key West, I felt transported back to a primeval age of swashbuckling explorers and pioneers.
Mangrove branches intertwine overhead, blotting out the sun save for occasional dapples of light on coffee-hued waters. The calls of herons and other tropical birds echo through the shrouded overhangs as your vessel glides silently over submerged roots.
Most kayak operators run similar guided eco-tours ranging from $35 on up for a few hours of paddling. Tours often incorporate stops at uninhabited islands where guides detail the unique flora and fauna that thrive in this singular habitat. If you’re lucky, you may spy Key deer, tiny mammals found only in the lower Keys.
13. Tour the Truman Little White House
History buffs can explore another unexpected presidential landmark marking Key West’s storied past – the Truman Little White House. Here the 33rd US President escaped Washington’s pressures to enjoy tropical tranquillity during 11 working vacations.
Guided tours grant access to Truman’s private quarters with original furnishings Like his big four-poster bed where momentous decisions got hashed out. Guest rooms showcase famous White House visitors including Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill who once stayed.
Don’t miss the well-stocked gift shop for unique presidential souvenirs. I still have the Truman baseball cap I bought to shade my paler presidential scalp!
Tickets run $15 for 45-minute tours with discounted combo passes available for visiting the neighbouring Audobon House and Museum as well. Open daily with tours on the top of most hours.
14. Be Enchanted at the Key West Butterfly Conservatory
Even reluctant nature lovers fall under the spell of over 50 vivid butterfly species fluttering freely through this glass-enclosed wonderland modelled after a traditional Caribbean habitat. Paths wind through the sultry palette just as I remember from childhood trips to Grandma’s native Costa Rica.
Iridescent wings flutter mere inches from delighted faces, landing gently on lucky outstretched hands to feed. Peer closer at tender caterpillars noshing milkweed before being moved to the emerging enclosure.
Beyond butterflies, lush winding trails reveal tiny finches, quail, turtles, waterfall features and dense tropical foliage selected to replicate Key West aesthetics. The $12 admission also includes access to their full-scale replica of the ill-fated ship Antilles for an extra dash of local history.
Where to Stay in Key West for a Day Trip
Since you’ll be visiting Key West just for the day, staying overnight likely isn’t necessary. However, if you’d prefer to extend your trip into one night or two, Key West offers varied accommodation choices suiting all budgets and styles.
Here are top lodging picks ideal for overnight Key West day trippers:
Hotels & Resorts
- The Gardens Hotel – Stylish hotel surrounded by lush tropical gardens.
- 24 North Hotel – Contemporary boutique hotel near Duval Street entertainment
- Pier House Resort & Spa – Beachfront resort with spa & pool overlooking the Gulf.
- Ocean Key Resort & Spa – Elegant waterfront resort on a private pier
Bed & Breakfast Inns
- Angelina Guest House – Charming Victorian-style B&B in Old Town
- Curry Mansion Inn – Historic Spanish-style inn featuring fine dining.
- Silver Palms Inn – Key West-style guesthouse with outdoor saltwater pool
- Reach Resort – Affordable rates at its tropical oceanfront resort.
- The Conch House – Quirky guesthouse with complimentary breakfast
- Deco Inn – Vintage motel featuring retro-style Art Deco rooms.
- Wherever you choose the lay your head at night, Key West offers varied lodging options to perfectly match your style and budget.
Getting Around Key West
Navigating compact, laidback Key West is pleasingly walkable, but when you need a lift, getting around is simple via these transport options:
- Key West’s small size makes walking a convenient way to explore major sights.
- Traffic and parking can get congested, so walking sidesteps vehicle hassles.
- Wear good walking shoes, sun protection and bring water while out exploring.
- Bicycle rickshaws offer rides around Old Town for budget-friendly rates.
- Friendly drivers double as helpful tour guides highlighting top attractions.
- Ideal for short distances when walking fatigue sets in
- Rent a bike to cover more ground at a comfortable pace.
- Several outfitters like Eaton Bikes offer cruisers for rent.
- Just beware of riding at night due to limited lighting
- Key West Transit buses conveniently shuttle locals and visitors around the island.
- Stops loop past top sights like Mallory Square, Duval Street and beaches.
- Exact change required when boarding and routes only run every 30-60 minutes.
- While your own two feet can easily get you around major Old Town sights, pedicabs, bikes or buses help when needing to save energy or get further afield.