After our epic bus trip down the East coast of the USA we were all in need of some rest and relaxation. We’d followed the Freedom Trail in Boston, got totally lost in Philly and visited pretty much every monument in DC, our culture boxes were well and truly ticked so it was time to take it easy by the sea with a cocktail or two and the family friendly Florida Keys seemed like the perfect place to do it.
I’ve always been intrigued with the Keys having seen pictures of sandy beaches, read stories of Hemingways antics, watched many episodes of Bloodline and heard tales of the most magical sunsets in the world, but would Piper (my 8 year old daughter) enjoy it? Knowing that, at worst she would be happy to spend all day every day in the pool I picked Key West, the furthest South we could get and booked us in at the Gates Hotel for a few days and started stocking up on the sun cream.
In this family friendly Florida Keys destination guide I’ll be covering off how to get to the Keys, what to do with kids when you’re there, where to eat and where to stay including many free things to do in key west with kids.
How to get to Key West
Having met up with Mr AWTYK in Tampa to spend some time with family, we hired a car and opted to drive down to the Keys. I had a romantic notion of stopping off for a mooch at every island we drove across, finding secluded little beaches, a great fish place for lunch and a cold drink looking out to sea. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like this, it took so long to drive from Tampa that by the time we reached the first bridge across to the Keys, we just wanted to get to base as soon as possible.
There’s one, rather slow main road that will take you right across the Keys, 42 bridges crossing over the beautiful islands as you go. The drive is pretty scenic, I’m a total sucker for a sea bridge and we spent the road-trip spotting alligators, pelicans and huge iguanas (Mr AWTYK was driving) and very little else. There’s nothing much of interest on the main road, to find a nice spot for lunch you’ll need to head off and take a chance. We were lucky enough to find this gorgeous tiki bar in Key Largo on our way down
And then this amazing fish restaurant, the Islamorada Fish Company, which actually is on the main stretch of road in Islamorada on our way back.
In total it took us around seven and a half hours to get there, including a couple of short stops. Thank goodness the Gates Hotel met us with cold drinks and a friendly smile on arrival!
If you’re a fan of scenic drives you might also enjoy the amazing Hana Highway across the North of Maui. Patsey Family Travels has shared everything you need to know about The Road to Hana With Kids, her pictures have got me desperate for a visit.
If you don’t fancy the drive (and who could blame you!) you can always fly in to Key West airport directly from all over Florida or if you’re keen on the scenic bridge road but not the added hours from Northern Florida you can fly into Miami Airport and drive down which will take you just over three hours.
And if you’d rather someone else did the driving, Attraction Tickets Direct has a great deal on coach transfers from Miami right to Key West with 5 hours free time to explore the island.
If you’re not dead set on staying in Key West itself, you could always stop at one of the Islands halfway across the Keys, I’ve heard great things about Hawks Cay Resort which will again shave a load of time off your journey and these vacation rentals in Islamorada look absolutely gorgeous and super family friendly.
Things to do with kids in Key West
1. Watch the sunset (Free)
It’s true what they say, the sunsets in the Florida Keys are some of the most spectacular in the world and the Keys offer so many great places from which to enjoy it. It’s one of our favourite free things to do in Key West with kids.
The Sunset celebration at Mallory Square on Key West is a good place to start, it’s mega busy but for good reason, the view is mind blowing.
If you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter then Mallory square than head to White Street Pier which sits between Higgs Beach and Rest Beach, it’s peaceful, free and perfect for lingering. This is also a great place to watch the sunrise if you can take advantage of the jet lag and head out early.
2. Go to the beach (free)
The beaches in Key West are not the huge stretches of white sand you might find in other parts of Florida, they’re smaller, yellower but no less fun. Being from the very middle of the UK, we’re happy with any level of sand so absolutely loved all the beaches we visited.
A couple of our favourites are:
- Southernmost Beach
A very small beach where you can take a dip dodging the pelicans as they dive into the sea for their dinner. There’s also a lovely restaurant (part of the Southernmost resort) for a spot of lunch or just a cold drink.
- Fort Zachary Taylor Park
Being a state park, this costs around $6 to visit but there’s loads to do from exploring the Fort, snorkelling, or finding some shade to escape the Floridian heat. You can easily walk the mile here from Mallory square.
- Smathers Beach
Located on the other side of the island to the craziness of Duval Street, this is a relaxed sandy beach.
- Anne’s Beach, Islamorada
Elsewhere in the Keys, Anne’s Beach in Islamorada is a great place to visit with kids, its shallow, calm waters make it perfect for a quick swim or paddle.
3. Walk Duval Street, Key West (Free)
Anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate resorting to cabs on our travels, I just feel you learn so much more about an area by exploring on foot. A great place to get a feel of Key West is Duval Street, the main tourist strip that cuts across the whole Island. This is not glamourous or particularly authentic but it is quite good fun, there are icecream stores along the way to keep little ones going, plenty of restaurants and cafes and it’s a lovely place to spot the typical architecture of Key West. Maybe just cover the kids eyes when walking past some of the more “choice” T-Shirt shops!
These are what I imagine when I think of old time Florida, houses with wooden porches, painted in pretty colours. These buildings and survived fire, storms, hurricanes and the odd Hemingway era house party, they’re made of pretty strong stuff.
4. Southernmost Point (Free)
I’d be lying if I said this was particularly fun or a family friendly thing to do in Key West but I think it’s a must visit if you’re on the Island, you’re only 90 miles away from Cuba after all, just take a quick snap and then head to the Sourthernmost beach café for lunch.
As you can see, Piper wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about our visit, it was hot, there was a queue (literally only 3 people), she was thirsty and Mr AWTYK had drunk all the water. She perked up as soon as we took her to the beach so I think all is forgiven now!
5. Visit Hemingway’s House
I’ve always liked Hemingway’s work and his connection to Key West is highlighted pretty much everywhere you go on the Island but having visited his Key West home and learnt about his life there I think I’m an even bigger fan of his wife!
As you can imagine, Hemingway’s house is a beautiful building, just off Duval Street, and one of the super enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides will show you round and tell you tales of Hemingway’s turbulent time on the Island.
The house interiors are gorgeous with many of the original features perfectly preserved. His original writing room feels like a magical place, a great space to soak up the creativity.
Pipers favourite thing about our visit was meeting the famous 6 toed (polydactyl) cats. Some are actual descendants of Hemingways original cat, gifted to him by a visiting ships captain. There are more than 40 feline residents, most of which will snooze away as you tour their home. They’re the only creatures allowed on the furniture and are clearly very well loved and cared for. Piper even got to fuss a few – heaven for this little animal lover!
There’s also a cute little cafe just across the road called the Six Toed Cat Cafe which is a perfect place for brunch.
6. Explore the Key West Art and History Museum: Custom House
You cannot miss this place with its huge outdoor statues by American artist Seward Johnson, they change from time to time, when we visited it was “The embrace” the famous kiss, we couldn’t help but take a selfie!
The museum itself, once the islands Custom House is now full of art, architecture and interesting pieces of history from the Florida Keys.
7. Key West Conch Tours
Something we try to do wherever we visit is a bus, trolley or land train tour. I find it’s a great way to work out the layout of a city and you can figure out all the places you want to go back to later. Key West has plenty of fun ones to try, we loved the conch train, a 90 minute journey round all the main sights of the island.
8. Hang out around Mallory Square (Free)
By day this is a cute space to let kids run around, pick up any holiday souvenirs you’re after and maybe sample the Key Lime Pie. By night it transforms into a Sunset Festival with hundreds of locals and tourists congregating to celebrate the sun going down and soak up the party atmosphere. There are Street Performers, food trucks and craft stalls which will the kids entertained as you watch the sun sink into the sea.
We headed away from the crowds and found some outdoor seating at Sunset pier, grabbed a rum cocktail and watched the sky light up. Beautiful.
The sunset celebration takes place every night and is well worth a visit at least once if you have the time.
9. Meet the fish at Key West Aquarium
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the aquarium but I’ve read lots about what a fun place it is to visit. They have an open shark tank and you actually get to feed them! Avoid disappointment and pre book tickets to the Key West aquarium
For even more ideas on things to do in Key West with kids, especially if you enjoy getting out on the open water then try these 35 Fun Things To Do In Key West With Kids by the awesome Let’s Travel Family.
Where to stay with kids in the Florida Keys
Key West can be an expensive place to stay, it’s real vacation hotspot and there’s limited space so try to book early.
We stayed at the Gates Hotel, right next to the bridge on to the island. We loved it here, it had a pool, food truck, bar and gorgeously decorated and comfy rooms. You can read more about our stay in our Gates Hotel review and check availability and prices here
I’ve also heard great things about:
Hawks Cay Resort. A huge family friendly resort located on Duck Key with 5 pools, plenty of restaurants and a great spa and fitness centre. They have plenty of family sized rooms to choose from.
Casa Marina Key West, a 4 star hotel on the East of the Island with a great pool, right next to Smathers Beach.
Hyatt Centric Key West Resort and Spa a luxury hotel located in historic Old Town with a beautiful Spa and 120 rooms, all with private balconies.
You can also have a look on Tripadvisor for best prices for Family friendly hotels in the Florida Keys
Where to eat with kids in the Florida Keys.
We had some fantastic food during our Florida Keys holiday, most restaurants are relaxed, serving fresh food and super family friendly. These are just a few of our favourites:
One to visit if you want to see the southernmost point. This is a great place to enjoy a relaxed lunch whilst gazing out to sea.
The staff were busy but friendly, the drinks were ice cold and the food servings were huge.
If you don’t have time for a full meal, this is also a lovely place to soak up some sun and enjoy a coffee or cocktail.
Located on Islamorada this chain restaurant is one of my favourite places to enjoy relaxed Florida Keys dining.
Not only can you enjoy some delicious fresh fish but the location of this place is gorgeous. They have plenty of both indoor and outdoor seating and the actual restaurant sits on a stilted platform over the sea meaning once you’ve finished your shrimps you can feed the rest to the huge fish looking for scraps and even spot a manatee or two.
This place was recommended to us by a local and it was just as good as promised. This is Spanish, tapas style dining at its best.
It’s pretty pricey and one of the fancier restaurants on the island but we didn’t feel out of place dining early with our eight year old and there was plenty on the menu for her to choose from. This meatball went down a treat!
Ask the staff their favourite dishes and go with those, you wont be disappointed!
If you’re elsewhere in the Keys, my friend from DQ Travel has some great family friendly Florida Keys restaurant recommendations which sound absolutely perfect.
This one is restaurant recommendations for Key Largo and Islamorada and this one for Marathon. I really wish I’d seen these before our trip!
Key West definitely has a reputation for being a party island and a walk down Duval street can get pretty wild but we also found it to be a great place to visit with kids. The same rules apply as for most family travel, don’t stay out too late, do your research and avoid any rowdy bars. And be sure to keep kids of reading age away from those T shirt shops!
Key West has loads of child friendly activities to enjoy but it’s also an island made for kicking back and relaxing, perfect for doing as much or as little as you and the kids like. And it doesn’t have to cost the Earth, as you can see there are many fabulous free things to do in Key West with kids and a family friendly Florida Keys holiday should be high on your bucket list.
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