A First-Timer’s Guide To Miami And The Florida Keys
Hello fellow travelers! I have lived in South Carolina for almost a year now and have wanted to visit South Florida ever since moving here, so this past weekend I went to Miami with two friends from high school. After that, I took a short, solo road trip and drove all the way down to Key West and back. The southern part of US Highway 1, more commonly known as the Overseas Highway, is a breathtaking drive that connects the Florida Keys to the mainland.
Since Miami is a city for eating great food, drinking tropical cocktails, and laying on the beach, it’s honestly a pretty self-explanatory destination. We found some awesome restaurants which I’ll share with you, but in this post I’ll be focusing on the journey to the Florida Keys. It’s something that should be on everyone’s bucket list and can be done in just 24 hours!
Going to Miami almost felt like visiting a different country. The culture is an awesome mix of Latin influences and the international vibe that comes with tourists visiting from around the world. It should be no surprise that Miami is home to some amazing and authentic cuisine from around the world.
My favorite restaurant was called Havana 1957. There’s more than one location, and we ended up going to the one on Española Way in South Beach. They have amazing mojitos in every flavor you could think, a great appetizer called the Cuban Combo, and a sample platter called la orquesta cubana (the Cuban orchestra) which includes pork, beef, and chicken.
For some really excellent tapas, head to Barceloneta. Their meat and cheese sampler plates pictured below were two of my favorites.
And in case you are craving something other than Latin or Spanish food, South Beach also has a surprisingly authentic Neapolitan pizzeria called La Leggenda. When you hear the chefs (and the customers!) speaking Italian, you know it’s the real deal.
The last restaurant I’ll mention is a little bit out of the way, but definitely a great place to stop if you’re headed to the Everglades or are willing to take a small detour on your way to the Keys. It’s called Amelia’s 1931, and as you can see below has a very cool interior. They serve a fusion of Cuban and Asian cuisine which is actually quite good. Be sure to leave room for dessert and a café cubano, a delicious and sweet shot of espresso.
The Best Bar in Miami
There are endless choices for bars here, but our favorite ended up being the Broken Shaker. It’s located on a huge private patio with a pool connected to the Freehand Hotel, and it makes you feel like you’re on a movie set (we were hoping someone would jump into the pool with their clothes on…maybe next time). I really liked the Thai Tea Old Fashioned I had will hanging out here.
Be sure to go up to the second floor; the menu is different. My favorite drink upstairs was a tart, fruity cocktail named after Kendall Jenner that changed color from purple to pink after the final ingredient was added. The bartender took a good five minutes to make and present the drink, which made it seem like a world-class bar. In fact, according to this website, it is the 18th best bar in the world. It’s still a casual environment (but don’t show up in a bathing suit), there’s ample space for a huge number of guests, plus there is no cover charge. You don’t want to miss this place!
Two Pieces of Advice...
- Always check your bill to see if there is a service charge. We noticed this popping up on quite a few of our restaurant bills, so we looked it up. Apparently, this is directed at international tourists who may not be familiar with tipping. If you received great service and want to tip further go ahead, but don’t feel obligated if it’s already included.
- If you go to a bar on Ocean Drive, watch out for menus without prices. Every bar on this street is going to be overpriced, but if the menu doesn’t have prices, the bill will make you want to cry. Don’t make this mistake!
One Other Cool Thing: The Wynwood Walls
This neighborhood in Miami is home to the Wynwood Walls, an enclosed space filled with some impressive and diverse street art. Pretty much every building in the surrounding area is also covered in art as well. Wynwood has an industrial feel to it, but is home to a bunch of cafes and restaurants, so it’s a great place to explore.
The Overseas Highway & The Florida Keys
Once you’re done partying in Miami, head south for a more relaxed island vibe. Traffic in and around Miami can be bad, but once you reach Key Largo, the Overseas Highway should be pretty open.
If want to make this round-trip journey in one day, I suggest you leave Miami in the afternoon, spend the night in Key West, and drive back in the morning. You may run out of daylight on the way there, but the drive back will be under the midday sun and you’ll be able to see everything. The most impressive part of the whole experience is crossing the bridges, where you’ll be able to see the shallow turquoise blue waters in all directions as well as islets off in the distance.
As you drive along the highway, you’ll notice a bunch of spots (sometimes paved parking spaces) on the side of the road to pull off. A lot of people go fishing here, but they’re all great places to pull over and simply take in the view.
Even though every key has its own unique selling points, my favorite was Bahia Honda Key. There were also a couple of quick attractions in Key West, and some green spaces in Key Largo.
Bahia Honda State Park
Many of the Florida Keys are fully residential or home to private resorts. However, almost all of Bahia Honda Key is occupied by a state park, so it can be enjoyed by everyone. Once you arrive, take a short walk up the old railroad bridge for a stunning panoramic view.
The park’s public beach is located between the Overseas Highway and this bridge, a remnant of the days when the Florida Keys were connected by train. This tiny island is beautiful and can be explored in half an hour or less. Keep in mind that state parks in Florida charge a small fee per person.
This is the biggest town in the Florida Keys, so you’ll have numerous lodging options if you want to spend the night here. I stayed at NYAH, a hostel that cost $75 for one night in a four-person dorm. This place was quite comfortable, clean, and had multiple pools in its private courtyard. If you stay here, you’ll have to park on the street, but it should be free.
I only spent a few hours on Key West the morning after I checked out, and my favorite part was the Key West Lighthouse. It’s not extremely tall, but climbing the winding metal staircase to get to the top was a little freaky. There are some great views to be seen from the top, and there’s also a museum on the lighthouse grounds that explains the structure’s history and significance. Entrance cost $10.
A cool place in Key West to take a photo is the Southernmost Point of the Continental US. There will probably be a line though!
If you have a bit more time, you could also visit Dry Tortugas National Park. I wish I was able to see it, but it looks like it takes a full extra day. It’s something I hope to check out next time I’m here! And one last thing: if you want to come to Key West, don’t fly! Although Key West is an interesting place, the highlight of this trip was the Overseas Highway itself. This is definitely one place where the journey is more rewarding than the destination!
The first island you’ll encounter after leaving the mainland is fairly quiet. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a good place to relax and hang out on one of the island’s only public beaches. Again, entrance will cost you a few dollars.
On your way back to the mainland, consider heading north and taking Card Sound Road. It offers some cool views and the bridge back is an ideal place to watch the sunset.
So there you have it, a few ideas and suggestions for anyone looking to explore Miami or the Florida Keys! Although it can be done in a weekend, both the city and the archipelago are two very unique places in the United States, and if you do a whirlwind tour like I did, you’ll definitely want to come back to explore further. Drive safely, wear sunscreen, and you’ll have a great time!