When most of us think of Florida, we picture beautiful white sand, pristine waters, and lots of activity. And if you’re planning a vacation to the Florida Keys soon, you might not be sure which island offers what or how to choose the best destination based on your personal preferences. After all, you’ve heard great things about both Key West and Key Largo.
The reality is Key Largo and Key West are both delightful Florida destinations. They offer a lot of the same activities and amenities you’re looking for. But there are numerous differences that will help steer you in the direction of the best Keys vacation destination for you and yours.
1. Small Town Versus Small City Feel
When you visit Key West, you’ll immediately feel that you’re visiting a city in Florida -- an island city, but a city. On Key Largo, the atmosphere and pacing are much more like that of a small town or community. This means that Key West is bustling with businesses, nightlife, parties, and every kind of tourism and activity all day and much of the night while Key Largo has a more subdued pace.
Key Largo also has a much more intimate feel than Key West. This smaller, laid-back community feels homier than the bustling city of Key West. That’s not to say you won’t cross paths with familiar faces over and over in Key West, but in Key Largo, you’ll feel like you’ve come to a community rather than a tourist destination.
2. Dive Shops Versus Dive Bars
Both Key West and Key Largo are excellent destinations for aquatic activities. You’ll find ocean kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, fishing charters, and jet skiing abound in both locations. But take note: Key Largo has more dive shops while Key West has more dive bars.
In other words, Key West has an exciting social scene, while Key Largo is more for outdoor activities. Key Largo has some incredible bars -- head to Sharkey’s Pub and Galley Restaurant or the Caribbean Club where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall shot a film called Key Largo. But the number of bars in Key West is significantly larger. Some of the top bars in Key West include Sloppy Joe’s, the Green Parrot, Captain Tony’s Saloon, and the city’s only clothing optional bar, the Garden of Eden.
When it comes to snorkeling and diving, Key West has some great diving, but the snorkeling and diving around Key Largo surpass the opportunities around the southernmost Key by far. The reefs around both islands are incredibly healthy, beautiful, and mostly easy to access. In Key West, the best snorkeling spot you’ll find is in Dry Tortugas National Park. In Key Largo you’ll find great diving at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (where you can also dive around the Christ of the Abyss statue), the Mosquito Bank or Sea Gardens, Molasses Reef, and the Grecian Rocks.
3. Incredible Fishing Spots Versus More Limited Fishing Allowed
If you’re into fishing, either fly-fishing or hook-and-line, you’ll find that Key West is by far the better option. Key West has multiple fishing championships and tournaments throughout the year at various locations around the island and in the surrounding waters. But Key Largo has mostly protected waters where fishing isn’t allowed.
The best fishing spots in Key West include the Edward B. Knight Pier and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. You can charter fishing boats to snag some whoppers off the coast with a variety of top-rated companies including Dream Catcher Charters, enjoy a party experience with Gulfstream Fishing, or go deep-sea fishing with Key West Fishing Charters.
4. Closer Versus Farther Into The Keys
Key Largo is the unofficial grand entrance into the Keys while Key West is the culmination of a long, beautiful journey away from the hurried life of Miami and its surrounding cities. If distance is an issue, you’ll want to note that Key Largo is only about an hour away from Miami. Key West, on the other hand, is a three-and-a-half-hour drive, depending on traffic.
The drive from Miami to Key Largo is pretty. The drive to Key West is somewhat spectacular. The further along you go, the deeper you sink into the beauty of the surrounding sea as you drive along Seven Mile Bridge and other bridges connecting the islands.
5. Pedestrian Friendly Versus Car Needed
Key West is hands down one of the absolute best spots in America for pedestrians and bicyclists. The city expects visitors to take to the streets while leaving their cars behind at their hotels. Almost everything on the island west of Fifth Street is walkable enough for anyone without mobility issues, and the whole island is rideable on a bicycle.
Vacationing in Key Largo, on the other hand, probably requires a car. Key Largo is a much longer Key from end to end, so things are more spread out. If you’re up for on-foot explorations and plenty of walking, it’s doable, but most choose to use their cars to get from Point A to Point B on Key Largo.
6. Familiar History Versus The More Obscure
Many folks visiting the Florida Keys already know that author Ernest Hemingway had a house on Key West. They’ve probably also heard of the famous six-toed Hemingway cats that still hang out at the yellow mansion where tourists can visit them. Visitors may have heard of the infamous Conch Republic and are often familiar with the airline Pan Am, which sent its first plane out from Key West.
Key Largo has far fewer familiar historical sites. There’s the 1942 Norwegian SS Benwood that wrecked along Key Largo and the abandoned Port Bougainville housing project. This means Key Largo will be more interesting for those who are fascinated by lesser-known history and unique destinations and less appealing for anyone looking for major historical significance.
7. Touristy Spots Versus Local Hangouts
While both Key Largo and Key West are fairly touristy, you’ll find fewer tourist-centric spots in Key Largo than in Key West. Key West is a party town filled with nightlife and activity, while Key Largo is more laid-back and relaxed. This means you’ll find more activity available during every waking hour you spend on Key West.
You’ll also find more gift shops, boutiques, and restaurants geared toward visitors on Key West than Key Largo.
If you’re looking for loads of things to do, activities to participate in, and attractions to visit, Key West is your best bet. But if you’re looking for more things on the natural side, Key Largo has more to offer. In other words, if you’re looking for a laid-back, relaxing vacation with outdoor activities, Key Largo is the way to go.
8. Cost Of Staying Versus Cost Of Getting There
The cost of staying in Key West isn’t terribly different from the cost of staying in Key Largo. Food prices are similar -- though Key West has far more high-end restaurants than Key Largo -- and hotel rates are also comparable. Activity fees are similar, charter costs are also proportionate on each Key.
The main cost difference is going to likely the cost of getting there. You can fly into Key West’s dedicated airport from many places in the country, though most flights route through Miami or Fort Lauderdale. It’s a small airport, so that means higher prices on those flights.
Key Largo doesn’t have an airport, but it’s a short one-hour drive from Miami International Airport. You can get cheap flights into Miami from all over the country, and a rental car with only 150 miles (round-trip plus getting around town) put on it during your vacation will be a lot less expensive than renting a car in Miami and driving down the bridges to Key West, which is approximately 160 miles one way from Florida’s largest city.
9. Sinking Sun Versus Setting Sun
One of the most famous things about Key West is the unique way the sun seen from its shores seems to sink into the ocean. If you’ve never seen it, it can only be described as incredible. Key Largo has some beautiful sunsets as well, but they are definitely not the same as the sinking sun of Key West.
The green flash of light -- another natural wonder that can be observed on Key West thanks to the island’s unique atmospherics -- makes for a truly unique experience. The party that goes on every night in Mallory Square is something as well. Thousands gather to watch the sun vanish into the waves, while buskers, or walking salesmen, and other locals bring out their wares and singing, fire juggling, and other acts contribute to the memorable Keys affair.
As you plan your Keys getaway, check out these must-visit places in Key West you probably haven’t heard of, and pencil in these eight things you didn’t know you could do in Key Largo.