Key West Vs. The Florida Keys: Understanding The Difference

With its island charm and laid-back vibe, Key West is a dreamy tropical destination. But is it the same thing as the Florida Keys? While related, Key West and the Florida Keys refer to different things.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: Key West is a separate island city, while the Florida Keys refer to the chain of islands that stretches southwest from the southern tip of Florida.

Defining the Florida Keys Island Chain

The Florida Keys are a captivating chain of islands located off the southern coast of Florida. This unique archipelago stretches for about 120 miles and consists of over 1,700 islands and islets. The Keys are renowned for their stunning natural beauty, vibrant marine life, and laid-back atmosphere, making them a popular destination for tourists and nature enthusiasts alike.

Geography of the Keys

The Florida Keys are divided into three main sections: the Upper Keys, the Middle Keys, and the Lower Keys. Each section offers its own distinct charm and attractions.

The Upper Keys, which include Key Largo and Islamorada, are the northernmost part of the island chain. This area is known for its world-class diving and snorkeling opportunities, as well as its proximity to the breathtaking John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The Middle Keys, including Marathon and Big Pine Key, are characterized by their tranquil beaches and abundant wildlife. Visitors can explore the picturesque Bahia Honda State Park or venture further south to the famous Seven Mile Bridge, an engineering marvel that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.

The Lower Keys, which encompass Key West and its neighboring islands, are the southernmost part of the Florida Keys. Key West, the most well-known city in the Keys, is famous for its vibrant nightlife, lively festivals, and historic sites such as the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.

This area also offers incredible opportunities for fishing, boating, and enjoying the stunning sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.

Major Keys Islands

Among the numerous islands that make up the Florida Keys, there are several major ones that stand out for their unique features and attractions.

  • Key Largo: Known as the “Diving Capital of the World,” Key Largo is a paradise for scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. It is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the United States, offering a vibrant underwater ecosystem to explore.
  • Islamorada: With its picturesque beaches, world-class fishing, and charming art galleries, Islamorada is a haven for relaxation and outdoor activities. It is often referred to as the “Village of Islands” due to its collection of six islands within its boundaries.
  • Marathon: Located in the heart of the Florida Keys, Marathon is an ideal destination for those seeking a balance between adventure and relaxation. Visitors can explore the tranquil Sombrero Beach, visit the Turtle Hospital to learn about conservation efforts, or embark on a fishing expedition in the deep blue waters.
  • Big Pine Key: Known for its abundant wildlife, Big Pine Key is home to the adorable and endangered Key deer. Visitors can catch a glimpse of these gentle creatures at the National Key Deer Refuge, which spans over 9,000 acres.
  • Key West: The crown jewel of the Florida Keys, Key West offers a vibrant mix of history, culture, and entertainment. Visitors can stroll down Duval Street, explore the charming Old Town, or enjoy a sunset celebration at Mallory Square.

Introducing Key West

Key West, often referred to as the “Conch Republic,” is the southernmost city in the continental United States. Situated on the beautiful archipelago known as the Florida Keys, Key West offers a unique blend of tropical paradise and vibrant culture.

With its laid-back atmosphere, stunning beaches, and rich history, it is no wonder that Key West is a popular destination for tourists from around the world.

Location and Size

Key West is located approximately 90 miles north of Cuba and 150 miles southwest of Miami. It is the westernmost island in the Florida Keys, connected to the mainland by a series of bridges known as the Overseas Highway.

Despite being only 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, Key West packs a punch with its diverse neighborhoods, lively streets, and picturesque waterfront.

History and Culture

Key West has a fascinating history that dates back to its founding in 1822. It was once a thriving seaport and a hub for shipwreck salvagers and cigar manufacturers. The city’s diverse heritage is evident in its architecture, with charming conch-style houses and historic buildings lining the streets.

Key West has also been home to many famous figures, including author Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S. Truman.

The culture of Key West is as unique as its history. The island has a reputation for its bohemian vibe, artistic community, and vibrant nightlife. Visitors can explore numerous art galleries, attend live performances at the historic theaters, and enjoy the lively music scene that ranges from reggae to jazz.

The annual Fantasy Fest, a ten-day celebration of art and creativity, is one of the most anticipated events in Key West.

Tourism and Attractions

Key West is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Its crystal-clear waters offer excellent opportunities for snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing. The island is also known for its stunning sunsets, which can be enjoyed from Mallory Square, a popular gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.

Duval Street, the main thoroughfare, is lined with shops, restaurants, and bars, making it a vibrant hub of activity.

One of the must-visit attractions in Key West is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where visitors can explore the author’s former residence and meet the famous six-toed cats that still roam the property.

The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is another popular spot, offering a tranquil oasis filled with colorful butterflies and exotic plants.

For those interested in history, the Key West Shipwreck Museum provides a fascinating insight into the city’s maritime past, while the Harry S. Truman Little White House offers a glimpse into the life of the former president during his visits to Key West.

Comparing Key West to Other Keys


When comparing Key West to other keys in the Florida Keys, one notable destination is Islamorada. Known as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” Islamorada offers a unique experience for fishing enthusiasts.

With its crystal clear waters and abundant marine life, it’s no wonder that anglers flock to this key. Whether you’re a seasoned fisherman or a beginner looking to cast your line, Islamorada provides a variety of charter boats and fishing guides to choose from.

The laid-back island vibe, beautiful beaches, and stunning sunsets make Islamorada a must-visit destination for nature lovers.


Another key worth mentioning is Marathon, located in the middle of the Florida Keys. Marathon is known for its family-friendly atmosphere and diverse range of activities. From snorkeling and scuba diving in the vibrant coral reefs to exploring the natural wonders of the nearby state parks, there is something for everyone in Marathon.

One of the key attractions is the Turtle Hospital, where visitors can learn about sea turtle conservation efforts and even have the opportunity to release rehabilitated turtles back into the wild. With its warm climate and abundance of outdoor adventures, Marathon is a great choice for those seeking a mix of relaxation and excitement.

Big Pine Key

If you’re looking for a more secluded and peaceful getaway, Big Pine Key is the perfect choice. Known for its untouched natural beauty, Big Pine Key is home to the National Key Deer Refuge, where visitors can catch a glimpse of the endangered Key deer.

This key is also a haven for birdwatchers, with numerous species of birds inhabiting the area. If you enjoy kayaking or paddleboarding, the calm and clear waters surrounding Big Pine Key provide the ideal conditions.

With its tranquil atmosphere and abundant wildlife, Big Pine Key offers a unique escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Each key in the Florida Keys has its own distinct charm and attractions, making it difficult to choose just one to visit. Key West, Islamorada, Marathon, and Big Pine Key all offer a different experience, from vibrant nightlife and historic charm to sportfishing adventures and serene natural beauty.

Whether you’re seeking relaxation, adventure, or a combination of both, the Florida Keys have something for everyone.

Getting to Key West and Around the Keys


Flights are a popular option for travelers looking to get to Key West and explore the Florida Keys. The main airport serving the area is the Key West International Airport (EYW). It offers both domestic and international flights, making it convenient for visitors from all over the world.

Airlines such as American Airlines, Delta, United, and Southwest operate regular flights to Key West, connecting it to major cities in the United States.

For those traveling from other parts of Florida, there are also several regional airports in the Keys, including Marathon Airport (MTH) and Key Largo Airport (OCA). These airports offer smaller planes and charters, providing additional options for getting to and from the Keys.

Driving the Overseas Highway

One of the most iconic ways to explore the Florida Keys is by driving the Overseas Highway. This scenic route stretches for 113 miles from Key Largo to Key West, offering breathtaking views of the ocean and the opportunity to visit various islands along the way.

The highway is part of U.S. Route 1 and is known for its famous Seven Mile Bridge, which connects the Middle and Lower Keys.

Driving the Overseas Highway allows travelers to take their time and enjoy the beautiful scenery at their own pace. There are plenty of places to stop and explore, including state parks, beaches, and charming waterfront towns.

It’s a great option for those who want to have a road trip adventure while experiencing the unique charm of the Florida Keys.

Other Transportation

In addition to flights and driving, there are other transportation options available for getting around the Florida Keys. One popular choice is the Key West Express, a high-speed ferry that operates between Fort Myers and Key West.

This ferry service allows visitors to avoid the traffic and enjoy a scenic journey through the Gulf of Mexico.

For those who prefer to leave the driving to someone else, there are also bus and shuttle services that operate within the Keys. These services provide convenient transportation between the different islands, making it easy to explore the area without the hassle of navigating and parking.

It’s important to note that while Key West is the most well-known and popular destination in the Florida Keys, there are many other islands and communities worth visiting. Exploring the other Keys allows travelers to discover hidden gems and experience a different side of the Florida Keys.

So whether you choose to fly, drive, or take a ferry, there are plenty of options to help you get to Key West and explore the beautiful Florida Keys.

Planning Your Keys Experience

When planning a trip to the Florida Keys, it’s important to understand the difference between Key West and the rest of the Keys. Each destination offers its own unique experience, and knowing what to expect can help you make the most of your visit.

Lodging Differences

One of the biggest differences between Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys is the variety of lodging options available. In Key West, you’ll find a wide range of accommodations, from luxury resorts to cozy bed and breakfasts.

The city is known for its vibrant nightlife and bustling atmosphere, making it a popular choice for those looking for a lively vacation.

On the other hand, the rest of the Keys offer a more laid-back and relaxed atmosphere. Here, you’ll find charming beachfront cottages, waterfront campgrounds, and quaint boutique hotels. If you’re looking for a quieter and more secluded getaway, the other Keys may be the perfect choice for you.

Ideal Trip Length

The ideal trip length for Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys can vary depending on your interests and preferences. Key West is a small island, and many visitors find that two to three days is enough time to explore the main attractions and get a taste of the city’s unique culture.

For those planning to visit the other Keys, a longer trip may be necessary to fully experience everything the region has to offer. With its numerous islands, stunning natural beauty, and opportunities for outdoor activities like fishing and snorkeling, the rest of the Keys can easily fill up a week-long vacation.

Best Times to Visit

The best time to visit Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys largely depends on your preferences for weather and crowds. The Keys experience a tropical climate, with warm temperatures year-round. However, the months of December to April are considered the peak tourist season, with pleasant weather and a busy atmosphere.

If you prefer to avoid crowds and are willing to tolerate slightly warmer temperatures, visiting during the shoulder seasons of May to June or September to November can be a great option. During these months, you’ll still enjoy plenty of sunshine and outdoor activities, but with fewer tourists.

It’s worth noting that hurricane season in the Florida Keys runs from June to November. While the chances of experiencing a hurricane are relatively low, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast and purchase travel insurance for peace of mind.


While Key West is the most famous of the Florida Keys, it’s just one island among many. Understanding the difference between Key West and the larger Florida Keys chain can help you better plan your tropical getaway.

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