The topic of Key West often comes up when discussing Florida. Key West and the Keys are supposed to be one of the best vacation spots in the world. But are Key West and the Florida Keys the same thing?
Key West and the Florida Keys aren’t the same thing. Key West is one of many “keys,” or islands, that make up the Florida Keys. The Keys, as they are sometimes known, are an extensive archipelago that spans the ocean, for a total of 125 miles southwest-bound from Miami.
So, where is Key West? Where are the rest of the Keys? How big are these keys, and where did the word “key” even come from if we’re talking about islands? You will find the answers to all of these questions and more as you continue reading.
Key West and the Florida Keys: What’s the Difference?
The Florida Keys are a 125-mile-long coral cay archipelago that stretches from their origin in Key Largo to their terminus in Key West. Which is all very well and good, but what does that mean? In simple terms, the Florida Keys are a long chain of low, sandy islands that have grown up from reef beds over time. Each island, or key, has its own name, and many have their own distinctive atmosphere.
Key West is a term that is used interchangeably to describe the island of Key West and the city of Key West. The city of Key West includes the island of Key West plus Dredgers Key, Sunset Key, Fleming Key, and part of Stock Island. The island of Key West is approximately 5 square miles and is the last island in the Florida Keys.
Generally, people mean the city when they say Key West, but technically some parts of Key West (the city) are on other keys. So how many other keys are there? In total, there are over 880 islands in the archipelago.
Most of these islands are small, uninhabited, and inhospitable, although adventurers sometimes will sail or boat or swim to smaller keys to explore. There are about 30 inhabited keys in total, but some keys are much better known for tourism and activities than others.
The Keys are usually split up into five distinctive sections: Key West, The Lower Keys, Marathon, Islamorada, and Key Largo. We’ll explore south to north, beginning in Key West.
Key West is the southernmost place in the contiguous United States and the final inhabited island in the Florida Keys.
Key West is a very unique city that has been shaped by the presence of the nearby Navy base, the proximity of Cuba, and a long and intriguing local history of piracy, shipwrecks, and salvage that is dotted with colorful local characters.
About 24,000 people call Key West home, making it a fairly densely populated island with about 4,300 people per square mile.
The city of Key West is well known as a fun place to go party, eat, fish, or just bask in the glory of the irreverent local culture. To begin, head to the Southernmost Point in the United States for a snapshot and a brief moment of fame as the Southernmost American in the Contiguous United States.
From there, head out to the old Hemingway House and experience Key West through Ernest Hemingway’s house – you can even give a friendly pat to one of the famous six-toed Hemingway cats.
Head to Duval Street next: it might be a bit touristy, but it’s a fun experience, and there are plenty of great bars, including the Smallest Bar in Key West, which is well worth your time.
Other things you want to check out in Key West include:
- Visiting the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
- Checking out one of the gorgeous tropical beaches.
- Taking a boat or fishing charter.
- Even taking a seaplane ride.
Key West also houses a Naval Air Station, a Coast Guard station, and Key West International Airport. Commercial flights to Key West are available from many air carriers, or you can bring your own plane.
The Lower Keys
Heading north from Key West, we come to the Lower Keys. The Lower Keys are a much more mellow and quiet place than Key West, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to do. Fishing, diving, sailing, and other kinds of charter operators put into the water from places with names like Cudjoe Key and Sugarloaf Key.
Snorkeling and diving are popular and fun activities to do in the Lower Keys, and one can explore reefs or shipwrecks offshore. While not quite as artsy as Key West, Stock Island is up and coming and gaining popularity among tourists.
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Phenomenal Florida Fun Fact: The word “key” to describe islands comes from the original Taino people, who used the word “cairi” to mean “island.” In Spanish, this becomes “cayo,” which eventually became the English “key.”
A more family-oriented stretch of the Keys, Marathon is a ten-mile span of islands with names like Grassy Key, Fat Deer Key, and Vaca Key. This stretch of the Keys has many resorts, vacation homes, AirBnBs, and inns.
The area is well known as a haven for marine activities and boasts thousands of slips and hundreds of places to moor or dock your boat. Fishing, snorkeling, diving, and just playing in the water are major activities to enjoy in Marathon.
If you’re a private pilot or an important VIP, you can even fly your own plane or charter a flight to the Marathon airport.
Islamorada, like Key West, is a name that means many things: it is the middle region of the Keys between Key Largo and Marathon, it is an island, and it is a city – but mostly people mean the region of the keys when they refer to Islamorada.
This section is known as the sport fishing capital of the world. Famous, world-class fishermen and anglers ply their trades here; charter operators will take you out to sea and help you catch almost any kind of fish you want.
Speaking of fish, take a few hours while you’re in Islamorada and stop at Robbies, where you can feed gigantic tarpon off the docks – it’s well worth doing. While you’re there, you can enjoy a delicious and freshly cooked meal, relax with a beer or a cocktail, and partake in dozens of marine activities.
The northernmost section of the Keys is a diver’s paradise. Places like the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park have some of the best diving and snorkeling that you’ll find out there. Key Largo is also the most easily accessible key by car, as it’s the northernmost stretch of the Keys and is only a short drive from Miami.
Like most of the keys, life on Key Largo is pretty laid-back and tends to revolve around marine activities – not a bad way to spend your time, all things considered.
Are the Florida Keys in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean?
The Florida Keys are technically in the Straits of Florida, a dividing line that separates the vast and stormy Atlantic from the more tropical Gulf of Mexico.
Some keys, like Virginia Key, are entirely in Atlantic waters. Most people and mariners would consider the eastern beach of a key to be the Atlantic shore and the western beach to be the Gulf shore. Curiously, few people refer to the Straits of Florida by their given name.
Are the Florida Keys Considered Part of the Caribbean?
While the relaxed and playful vibe of the Keys is much closer to that of the Caribbean than that of, say, Miami, the Florida Keys are actually not part of the Caribbean. Instead, the islands sit in the Straits of Florida, straddling the line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Cuba, which is about 90 miles south of Key West, is technically the northern border of the Caribbean Sea. No parts of the Florida Keys touch the Caribbean in any way.
Key Takeaway: Have a Blast
Key West and the Florida Keys are not the same thing. Key West is part of the Florida Keys, but the Keys consist of a huge number of islands with many unique and interesting communities, all connected by a love of the water and an independent and fun-loving personality. One could spend a lifetime in the Keys, sailing from island to island, fishing for dinner, and making new friends on the dock. It is a very romantic place, in its own unique way.
Regardless of whether you’re headed to Key West to imbibe beverages and party on a boat, taking the family to Key Largo to relax on the beach, or driving down to Islamorada to catch some big fish, the “Key” point here is to relax and unwind. Once you cross that bridge out of mainland Florida, time slows down, and the world takes a breather. The Keys offer an unforgettable atmosphere and some incredible experiences that you’ll remember for a lifetime.