The Conch Republic may be known for Duval Street, divine seafood, Hemingway, and hole-in-the-wall pubs that make you feel like a local….but there are also beaches in the Florida Keys that beckon a lazy day of lounging by the Atlantic Ocean or snorkeling in the shallow waters of the tropics.
Here are 9 sensational Key West beaches…five you can enjoy without issue and four that come with a price tag (and serious pampering.) But we didn’t stop there, because there are three more sandy beach escapes only a short ride away…and you must make sure to save time for them!
Best Beaches in Key West
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
You’ll pay a small entrance fee to the State Park, but it is worth it to play in the water and see the sun set without the crowds. Don’t miss spending a little time exploring the park. Walk the nature trails, tour the fort and its cannons, or explore the 87-acres.
After that, head to the beach.
You won’t find soft white sand here (even though it’s still called Key West’s best beach) so you might opt for water shoes. Insider Tip: It’s one of the only natural beaches in the Keys, made of ground coral – and that’s why the locals love it.
You will find a beachfront cafe (and beer) plus a nice bathhouse. Grab a picnic table with a grill, or lay out in the grassy area next to the beach if you want to avoid the sand.
This is a great place to snorkel, and divers love it for parrotfish, turtles, and more.
The real draw is at night, though. It’s one of the best place in Key West to watch the sunset!
Fort Zach might be “the best” beach, but Smathers in the most popular. The draw? Free entry, plenty of activities, a variety of food vendors, and free parking along S. Roosevelt Boulevard.
You’ll also find restrooms and beach chair rentals, ideal for making this 2-mile stretch you playground for the day. Watersports rentals are available for parasailing, jet-skiing and wind-surfing and more. Finally, don’t forget your volleyball – there is always a game going on here.
No, it’s not as authentic as Fort Zachery, but the kids will never know. This man-made gem was created with soft white sand, ideal for your toes. Go early for the best spot.
Higgs Beach/Rest Beach
We didn’t know about Higgs Beach before visiting Key West, but learned about it in Key West from several locals who told us it was their go-to spot! Parking is free, and there are fewer crowds. One Uber driver told us this was the ideal place to watch the sunrise.
Take a stroll out on the White Street Fishing Pier for the chance to spot a sting ray, or head into the water yourself for some great snorkeling.
It’s not too far from Smathers, and you’ll find great amenities here also like restrooms with showers, covered picnic tables, a restaurant, a playground our Uber drive swears by, and rentals.
When you are there don’t miss the African Cemetery near West Martello Tower. 1400 Africans were captured and held on three illegal slave-trade boats in 1860. The US Navy intercepted them and brought them to Key West as freed Africans, where 294 of them succumbed to their poor living conditions. They are buried here.
(History note, if you too are confused about this. In 1860, owning slaves was not illegal but transporting slaves was outlawed in 1820. )
Finally, don’t let people fool you into thinking Rest Beach is another nearby beach. Higgs and Rest are one strip of beach in the same…the name just changes depending on which side of the pier you are standing. Right next to the Waldorf Astoria is Higgs…walk to the other side of the pier and it’s Rest. Maybe it was given a different name because the pier is so low?? You’ll find most people (and the amenities) on the Higgs side. Park accordingly.
If you’re traveling with your furry four-legged friend then head to this small patch of sand where dogs are allowed to roam free! It’s rocky and slippery, but we were so pleased to find even a small patch of beach set aside for Fido. And hey, only your pooch can use the restroom here, there are no facilities – so “go” before you go.
Insider Tip: It’s tricky to locate so just put the restaurant Louie’s Backyard in your GPS. And if you need another option or more room to play, consider the Dog Park at Higgs Beach.
Shallow waters and calm ocean waves make this smallest Key West beach popular with families of little kiddos. There is a concrete pier and sandy beaches…and a great sign quoting Tennessee Williams – I work everywhere, but I work best here. It’s easy to see why he is said to have swam here everyday.
There is an air-conditioned cafe serving lunch and drinks. Look for metered parking when you come, and don’t miss a snapshot with the Southernmost Point, not too far away.
Drop a Dime on These Key West Beaches
The above beaches are either State Parks or public beaches, which are free or come with a nominal fee. But they don’t offer the complete story – here’s more!
Dry Tortugas National Park & Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas includes seven islands about 70 miles from Key West. It’s one of the most popular Key West attractions, and rightly so. Click through to our post to learn all about this amazing National Park and why you should spend the half-day adventure and $125-180 per person price tag. (Yes, I know. But you should do it! Seriously!)
But here, let’s talk about the beach!
You’ll find hundreds of conch shells along Conch Shell Beach, which make for gorgeous photos and a great learning experience for the kids. But it’s the other side of this beach where you’ll find a place for swimming and relaxing.
Garden Key Beach is near the camping area and offers plenty of shallow water for timid swimmers or young children. It’s usually the most popular area.
Out by the Fort Wall is a section that is known best for snorkeling (complimentary snorkeling gear available.) It’s about 5-15 ft deep, and on a calm day you can see quite the array of marine life.
Sunset Key is a 27-acre residential and resort island off Key West. Stay in a guest cottage for a pretty penny (though 100% worth it, if you can swing it!) … but you can still indulge for far less than that.
Sunset Key is a sister property of Margaritaville Key West, so you can take advantage with a Day Pass – just get your early because they sell out fast. It is $20 for guests and $40 for non-guests.
You’ll take a water ferry there, which is free.
Relax on this luxurious, exclusive beach…and enjoy lounge chairs in the shade of a cabana as well as complimentary towel service. You may also order food and beverage services on the beach.
If you want to eat at Latitudes, the exclusive beach restaurant, be sure to make reservations in advance. I know of some people who had to make them 2-3 weeks early.
PS – don’t confuse this with the adult-only community of Little Palm Island – your kids are welcome here, but there is no child price on the day pass.
The Reach is a Wadorf Astoria property, with – quite frankly – reasonable rates. The beaches are the only private, natural-sand beaches at the Southernmost Point of the island.
The resort’s pool and beach concierge offers lounge chairs, umbrellas and towels. Additional perks include popsicles and chilled eucalyptus towels. Food and beverage from Spencer’s by the Sea restaurant is served poolside.
If you want to play in the Atlantic, Barefoot Billys offers Jet Ski rentals, paddleboarding and more.
You must be a Waldorf Astoria guest to enjoy their beach. You can enjoy either property, as access is included with your resort fee, as well as transportation to and fro.
Casa Marina is the other Waldorf Astoria property in Key West. It’s a tad more upscale and larger, with a larger beach and with a more “resort” feel – though the beach is a bit more rocky. You can avoid the rocks by walking along the pier and down the stairs – and the hammocks on the beach here are wonderful.
Wave runners, kayaks, fun boats, scooters, bicycles, sun cat loungers, snorkel gear and wind surfers are all available from beachside rental services. Popsicles and chilled eucalyptus towels are also available here, as is access to The Reach (as above.)
Nearby Florida Keys Beaches
Bahia Honda State Park
Bahia Honda is about 30-miles north of Key West. You’ll pay the nominal fee for entry to the park, and then parking is free. There are actually two beaches within this well-known state park, including Calusa Beach and Sandspur Beach – both are fantastic.
We adored this beach because it was very shallow for a long, long way out. This allowed us (kiddos included) to snorkel without issue in a very wide area. Insider Tip: The best snorkeling is along the seagrass, where the marine life are hiding.
We were so thankful for the fresh water showers after our swim. There is also a concession stand and nature trails for exploring the mangroves and getting a great view of the 7-mile bridge.
Fun fact – Beach expert Stephen Leatherman (Dr. Beach) selected Sandspur Beach as the 1992 National Winner, because of its “crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms.” Please note that Sandspur is closed from Hurricane Irma, but is expected to open shortly.
Lucky folks can also tent camp here on the beach, or pick a raised cabin on the water! Reserve it early!
Sombrero Beach is a visitor favorite, with 12.6-acres of glorious beach play on the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll find it about 50 miles north of Key West in Marathon.
There is free parking, pavilions, a playground, picnic tables, restrooms, showers…and you can even bring Fido on a leash. It’s the ideal place for old-fashioned Florida beach play.
John Pennekamp State Park
Ok, I’m cheating. John Pennekamp is about 2 hours north of Key West — but you MUST make a stop here going in or coming out of South Florida! On hiatus as they recovered from Hurricane Irma, it is back in full swing now.
Established in 1963, John Pennekamp was the first undersea park in the US, covering about 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps.
Take in some sun and build up that vitamin D at one of 3 beaches here. I recommend starting at Canon Beach, which features remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck just 100 feet offshore, as well as an excursion on one of their snorkeling tours. It’s via the snorkeling tour that you can see (weather permitting) the famous “Christ of the Deep” statue at Key Largo Dry Rocks reef.
There are also kayaks, paddle boards, and a glass bottom boat tour. Sounds like you need to camp here, too!
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Disclosure: 365 Atlanta Traveler is a Visit Florida Digital Marketing Program Partner. Opinions here are all our own.
After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.