Honestly, there’s not much to do in the Keys. But that’s part of the appeal. Heading south on that magical drive past the Florida Everglades and onto the Overseas Highway takes you to a place where time moves slower, nobody’s in a rush, and flip-flops are the only acceptable form of footwear.
If you’re into fishing and drinking, you won’t find a better vacation spot in Florida. And while the beaches might not be the picturesque wide sands you'll find in the rest of the state, they’re still somehow just as relaxing. So if you’re looking for the best place to do nothing and enjoy every minute of it, here are the eight best beaches in the Keys.
Editor's note: After Hurricane Irma, many of the Keys beaches may have limited accessibility, or be closed until repairs are finished. Check with the civic and state parks for exact updates on what’s open and what’s not before you head down.
Nashville Absinthe Cocktails & the Hottest Chicken (Literally)
A tranquil slice of nature with perfect views of the highway Once rated the greatest beach in America by the esteemed Dr. Beach, this state park off Big Pine Key is a relaxing roadside paradise with unrivaled snorkeling. The sand straddles the Overseas Highway, with views of the partially-demolished bridge from the old road to one side, and the fancy new bridge in the other.
Where to eat/drink: There ain’t much around Bahia Honda, so your best bet is to pack a lunch and eat on the sand. There’s also a small concession stand with sandwiches, hot dogs, and ice cream. When you leave the park, The No Name Pub is your best bet, a dollar-bill-filled biker dive with the best pizza in the Keys.
Know before you go: The park offers two of the biggest stretches of sand in the Keys -- Sandspur and Calusa beaches. And it’s the odd state park in the island chain with beaches on both the Atlantic and bay sides. Parking here is ample, but gets filled up early on weekends. So the tip here is to go even earlier than you thought you needed to.
The perfect spot for a waterfront overnight Once upon a time, this key was home to the uber-exclusive Long Key fishing camp where Henry Flagler welcomed the rich and famous during the early 20th century. Flash forward to 2019 and you’ve got one of the prettiest state parks in Florida, where a long stretch of beach offers oceanfront campsites and the same world-class fishing that drew people here 90 years ago.
Where to eat/drink: Long Key is in one of the more desolate stretches of the Overseas Highway, but if you’re not up for bringing your own beer you can hit Angler and Ale at the Hawk’s Cay resort and Lobster Crawl Bar and Grill just before you reach the park.
Know before you go: Much like a hurricane destroyed Flagler’s fishing club, so did a storm wreck the campground in fall 2017. In Irma’s aftermath, the park is open now for day use, but all campground reservations are closed through December 2019.
The Keys’ most remote beach This curvy, windy beach near Mile Marker 50 in Marathon is often empty during slow times of the year, as its remote location (for the Keys) at the end of Sombrero Beach Road keeps visitors at bay. It’s a short trip through mangroves and palm trees to the sand, where you can watch the sun rise from one side, enjoy your day, then return at night to a set of rock formations further down the beach to watch the sunset.
Where to eat/drink: A few miles down the road you’ll find the Sunset Grill, the perfect place to enjoy a piña colada with a view of the Seven Mile Bridge. For a great selection of beer and a surprisingly eclectic menu, head to Herbie’s where the staff isn’t afraid to entertain you with a joke… or four. For a classic Keys dive, stop in for a drink and shoot some pool at JJ’s Dog House.
Know before you go: The beach has volleyball courts, picnic areas, and free parking. And even on weekends it’s not tough to find a space. So you can plan for a full day and not worry about leaving.
A long stretch of sand that’s surprisingly easy to miss At 1,200 feet, it’s one of the longer beaches in the Keys, and if you’re looking to camp this is the best beach to do it at. The campsites here all have electrical and water hookups, so you’ll feel remote while still having modern amenities. It’s a popular spot for kayakers, hikers, and cyclists as the park offers trails throughout with stunning views of the water.
Where to eat/drink: Much like Sombrero Beach, hitting Sunset Grill or Herbie’s is never a bad idea. Because you’re a little further north, the Island Fish Company is worth a meal, with all the caught-that-day fresh fish you'd expect in this part of Florida. The Hurricane Grille also offers live music on its breezy patio and a solid menu inside.
Know before you go: The turnoff to this beach around Mile Marker 56 is REAL easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled to find one of the country’s best beaches hidden in plain sight.
Key West’s premiere beach for tourists Head here for Spring Break, and it’s the closest thing to an all-out, '80s movie-style beach party you’ll find in Key West. The rest of the year it’s the most popular public beach on the island, a wide-ish strip of sand lined with palm trees and right next to the calming water. If you’re the type who likes to meet other travelers when you’re on vacation, this is the place to do it. Or just post pictures of yourself with a fruity drink so everyone knows you’re in Florida.
Where to eat/drink: Smathers Beach is actually a faster drive to Stock Island than to Duval Street. So head to the Perry Hotel where the poolside happy hour boasts the best bourbon drink in the keys. And the restaurant -- Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen -- has a big-city, New American feel in the relaxing Keys.
Know before you go: If you’re staying anywhere in the vicinity of Key West you’re doing yourself -- and the rest of the island -- a favor by taking a taxi or rideshare here. In season, you may even be hard pressed to find a spot in the sand if you show up late. Smathers, like most Keys beaches, isn’t all that wide and great real estate can come at a premium.
Key West’s locals’ beach This park is the beach of choice for Key Westers, where you can find islanders grilling out and enjoying the sand pretty much any day of the week. It sits right where the Atlantic meets the Gulf, making the water a colorful swirl of blue and green, and the rocky bottom a home for tons of tropical marine life.
Where to eat or drink: The park sits a stone’s throw from Duval Street, so you can pick pretty much any bar there and have a good time. For eating, Blue Heaven is fantastic if you don’t mind the wait. If you do mind the wait, try DJ’s Clam Shack for a lobster roll and fried...everything.
Know before you go: If laying out on the best beach in Key West gets old, you can also take guided tours of the 150-year old historic fort for which the park is named. Or enjoy lunch at the waterfront Cayo Hueso Café.
Calm, clear waters make this the perfect beach for families NOTE: Anne's is currently closed at the time of publishing. We'll be sure to update as soon as it reopens. With shallow water and nothing resembling waves, you can post up on the sand and let your kids wade their way in while you enjoy the sunshine. It’s also a perfect spot for kitesurfing, as you’ll find ample wind but few waves getting in your way. Though it was pretty much wiped out by Hurricane Irma in 2017, after extensive rebuilding efforts it’s set to reopen this summer.
Where to eat/drink: The Lorelei is a waterfront institution in the Keys, with possibly the best breakfasts in the islands and a killer sunset happy hour. For something a little more upscale, hit Pierre’s at the Morada Bay resort, the best fine dining spot in the Keys. The Whistle Stop is a good dive to drink with locals.
Know before you go: If you head here on the weekend, do yourself a favor and take a walk past the beaches near the parking lots, down the boardwalk to the covered pavilions. You’ll find far fewer people here, but the same pure white sand and calm turquoise water you’d enjoy by the more popular entrances.
A snorkeler’s paradise with visible shipwrecks For tanning and playing in the sand, you’ve probably got better options in the Keys. But for diving, this is one of the best shore dive beaches in America. From the spit of sand at Cannon Beach you can snorkel over the coral reef and the schools of tropical fish that call it home. Dive deeper, and you can see the Spanish shipwreck that’s now crusted in barnacles and sea life -- one of the most popular dive sites in Keys. There are also plenty of glass bottom boat tours if you don’t feel like getting wet. Though that begs the question: Why are you’re looking for a beach to hit in the first place?
Where to eat/drink:The Fish House is the first great stop for Keys seafood on the Overseas Highway. If you like fish, stop here. Not into fish? Señor Frijoles is tucked away on a waterway and has great tableside guac. If you’re driving back to Miami, you've just gotta have a drink at Alabama Jack’s, a swampy redneck extravaganza that goes off on the weekends.
Know before you go: Further down the park you’ll find Far Beach, a far more remote and often pleasant place to relax after your dive or snorkel adventure.
Sign up here for our daily Miami email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Curt Hollingsworth is a contributing writer to Thrillist who once spent seven hours in a car to snorkel Bahia Honda for an hour. It was worth it.