The entirety of Florida is approximately 447 miles, so if you’re interested in exploring other parts of the state, it often calls for a road trip. You plan to embark from Tampa and drive to Key West.
How do you get there, and how long will it take?
Driving from Tampa to Key West will cross through Sarasota, Punta Gorda, Sanibel, Fort Lauderdale, Key Largo, and Marathon. Even though you’re staying within state lines, the entire trip still takes 10 hours to complete as you drive through much of Florida on your route.
In today’s extensive guide, I’ll take you on a destination-by-destination journey from Tampa to Key West, giving you drive times and directions along the way. I’ll also point out some exceptional stops for keeping the kids entertained.
The best route from Tampa to Key West
Underscoring my point from the intro, the drive from Tampa to Key West will take you through the better part of the entirety of Florida.
It’s best planned as a multi-day trip, even if you are staying within Florida the entire time.
This route is the most convenient way to reach Key West from Tampa. Prepare for a fun road trip that will let you experience new parts of Florida with the kiddos!
Tampa to Sarasota
As you pack up the car, load the kids in, and leave home, your first destination will be Sarasota from Tampa.
This part of the drive is relatively short, requiring only about an hour without too much heavy traffic. Drive directly south from Tampa to reach Sarasota.
Sarasota on the Gulf Coast was once where the Ringling Brothers Circus brought its troupe when the winters were too cold. It’s appropriately the home of the Ringling Museum of Art.
The city is also beloved for its beaches.
Sarasota to Punta Gorda
If you drive for another hour from Sarasota and continue slightly southeast, you’ll soon reach Punta Gorda from Sarasota.
Punta Gorda is a Charlotte County city that is the sole incorporated municipality in that county. It’s a great place to get out of the car and stretch your legs with the kids for a bit, as you can find wildlife centers, nature preserves, parks, and beaches.
After a bit of time in the sun and sand, it will be time to pile everyone back in and continue the next part of your journey, which will see you reaching Sanibel.
Punta Gorda to Sanibel
From Punta Gorda to Sanibel is the longest stretch of your road trip so far.
Driving straight southward, it will take you about an hour and a half to get to Sanibel unless you get caught in heavy traffic, of course.
I would recommend stopping here for the night, as you’ve driven for about three and a half hours already. The kids might be feeling a bit cranky in the Florida heat, and you could probably use the break yourself.
Sanibel is quite a nice place to stay for a while. It’s in the southwestern part of Florida on Sanibel Island.
The city is rife with beaches, and the waters that flow here come from the Gulf of Mexico, as do the attractive variety of seashells.
You can go fishing, stroll the boardwalk, or appreciate sights such as the Sanibel Lighthouse, especially as the sun begins to go down.
Sanibel to Fort Lauderdale
After spending a night lodging in Sanibel with the children, everyone should wake up feeling refreshed and ready for day two of the trip to Key West.
Make sure you have a nourishing and filling breakfast, as you’ll drive about six and a half hours from Sanibel to Key West.
The next leg of your journey will take you to Fort Lauderdale from Sanibel. You’ll cross directly east, skipping Bonita Springs, Naples, and Boca Raton on your journey.
This is a long stretch of driving, as it lasts about two and a half hours unless you get stuck in a line of cars.
When you get to Fort Lauderdale, the city will greet you with parks, luxury boutiques, and upscale restaurants if you and the family are feeling hungry again.
Fort Lauderdale to Key Largo
You’re getting closer and closer to Key West!
From Fort Lauderdale, you should next drive southward along the eastern coast of Florida until you reach Key Largo. It only takes about an hour to get there if the roads aren’t too congested.
Monroe County’s Key Largo is an island that often gets a lot of tourists. You and the family can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities here if you feel like taking a break, including diving, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, and even a wildlife encounter or two.
Key Largo to Marathon
After everyone is dried off and ready to ride again, it’s time to drive to Marathon from Key Largo.
You’ll want to continue driving south, curving westward as you go. In about an hour (unless there’s traffic), you’ll get to Marathon, which is practically at the southernmost tip of Florida.
Marathon is a part of the Florida Keys and is spread across 13 unique islands with a barrier reef and beaches aplenty.
If you’re near Sombrero Beach or Coco Plum Beach, you might be able to spot loggerhead turtles, which natively nest here!
Marathon to Key West
Although it’s easy to get enchanted by the beauty of Marathon, you have a trip to complete, and you’ve nearly made it.
Continuing westward from Marathon will bring you to the southernmost point of Florida, which is Key West. The drive lasts for about an hour, give or take.
You’re only about 90 miles away from Cuba now, which is pretty cool!
No matter what you decide to do from here, relax and give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve made it!
How long will it take you to reach Key West from Tampa?
If you were keeping track of time, you’ll recall how the first day of journeying from Tampa to Key West includes about three and a half hours of driving.
Then, on day two, you drive for six and a half hours.
The entire trip, forbidding serious traffic, will take approximately 10 hours one way.
This drive time can be rather surprising since you never leave Florida once, but remember, the whole state of Florida is 447 miles. Getting through it isn’t fast.
You’ll learn that for yourself as you drive from a northern point of Florida all the way to the southernmost point.
Must-see destinations on the road to Key West
I always recommend livening up the trip by stopping at various destinations along your route.
You want to keep the kids entertained. At least on most road trips, they get to cross various state lines, but not this one. I think that makes the need for activities even more paramount.
Without further ado then, here are some destinations in each of the cities, towns, and islands across your route. Do one per stop or do them all. It’s your vacation!
- Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
Rather than another stop at the beach, which isn’t as special as a Florida resident, take your children to Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
Mote Marine Laboratory is a nonprofit, independently-operated organization. The aquarium here has a host of aquatic exhibits that will charm your children. They can learn all about the animals that call the Florida Watershed home.
Other exhibits include the Shark Zone, Otters & Their Waters, Florida’s Bay Habitats, Creatures from the Coastal Oceans, and Sea Turtles: Ancient Survivors.
The kids can wander through the Exploration Gallery, check out the giant replica of a megalodon jaw, or partake in the VR experience.
- Sarasota Classic Car Museum
If you have any motorheads in the family, then a trip to the Sarasota Classic Car Museum is a must.
This 60,000-square-foot museum includes 100 vintage vehicles, including models from Rivolta, Ferrari, and Alfa Romeo.
Many of the cars here were even once owned and driven by celebrities!
- Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy
Visiting the Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy will be a fun way to bid adieu to Sarasota. It features all sorts of art from local Florida artists. It’s a fun way to pass an hour or two!
The museum runs from November to May on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Punta Gorda Destinations
- Peace River Wildlife Center
The Peace River Wildlife Center in Punta Gorda is a rehabilitation center and wildlife refuge for local animals. The center also welcomes the public for animal tours.
It’s free to get in, but donations are welcome if you want to give back. Tours are offered every day between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Gilchrist Park
Gilchrist Park is an exceptional spot to get out of the car and breathe in some of that refreshing Florida air.
This park on the waterfront affords lots of green space and allows for a variety of activities. You and the family can go fishing, play on the tennis courts, or picnic together.
Play areas will let the kids release energy so they’re nice and calm on the next part of the trip.
- Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
On Sanibel Island is the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which is an ode to malacology, conchology, and all things seashells.
Don’t miss the Great Hall of Shells, which is a collection of 35 exhibits that altogether show off about 1,000 shells collected globally.
Each day at 3 p.m., a museum director will lead a tour of the Great Hall of Shells.
Some of the exhibits and displays within the Great Hall of Shells are Shellabration by Goz Gosselin, Sailors’ Valentine, Record-Breaking Sized Shells, Shells from Around the World, and Shells in Architecture, Art, and Human History.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum also features a Living Gallery that’s comprised of nine aquariums, complete with two touch pools.
At these aquariums, you and the kids can enjoy more than 60 aquatic animals, including corrals, fish, and mollusks such as the lined seahorse, queen conch, junonia, cuttlefish, giant clam, two-spot octopus, and giant Pacific octopus.
- Sanibel Lighthouse
The Sanibel Lighthouse also goes by names like the Port Ybel Light and the Sanibel Island Light. It was one of the original lighthouses on the Florida Gulf Coast above Dry Tortugas and Key West.
The lighthouse was erected in 1884 and is 98 feet above sea level. The staircase in the lighthouse ascends 10 feet up.
Fort Lauderdale Destinations
- Spacebound Trampoline Park Fort Lauderdale
The Spacebound Trampoline Park is sure to tire out your children in the best way possible.
This extreme trampoline park offers glow-in-the-dark trampoline jumping. The hourly rates start at 60 minutes and last up to 120 minutes.
Kids can play on a rock wall as well as jump around.
Spacebound Trampoline Park has an extensive menu, mostly for parties, that includes pizza, quesadillas, hot dogs, nachos, boneless wings, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, fries, and chips with salsa.
- Flippo’s Fort Lauderdale
If the kids are still craving excitement after an hour or two at Spacebound Trampoline Park, make a beeline to Flippo’s Family Fun Center.
This indoor playground and café includes arcades, a sport court, a ball blaster, a laser maze, and a toddler zone for the little ones. The jungle gym is not to be skipped either!
Flippo’s entertainment is recommended for kids as young as one through 14 years old, so you can keep the whole family happy here.
- Butterfly World
For a nice change of pace, Butterfly World in Tradewinds Park & Stables is sure to be a relaxing, rejuvenating experience.
More than 20,000 bird and butterfly species live here, and you can see them all as you take a relaxing tour with your family.
Educational tours are also offered so you can learn more about the butterfly species you encounter.
If your kids are into skating, Ramp48 is a great place in Fort Lauderdale to visit.
The indoor skate park features a pro shop with all the gear and equipment that kids need to have a blast.
Ramp48 is designed for skaters of all skill levels, so your kids should feel comfortable practicing their ollies here.
Key Largo Destinations
- Dolphins Plus
Have you always wished your children could swim with dolphins? Well, now they can at Key Largo’s Dolphins Plus.
You can select from two programs, the Shallow Water Dolphin Encounter or the Signature Swim.
The Shallow Water Dolphin Encounter is ideal for young kids, as the waters are only waist-deep at most. If you or your spouse or partner don’t swim either, then select this program.
The Signature Swim allows you to swim in deeper waters with the dolphins so you can see how they move.
Six dolphins are available for encounters, and their names are Zoe, Samantha, Nyla, Nica, Luna, and Leo.
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is a state beach park that welcomes RVs and campers.
You and the family can go picnicking, swim at Cannon Beach, or fish (if you have the appropriate license).
You can also go snorkeling or scuba diving or do some kayaking or canoeing here.
Power boat rentals are available if you want to treat the family to a personal boat ride.
You can also schedule a reservation to ride in a glass-bottomed boat and see Florida’s oceans from a very special vantage point.
- Dolphin Research Center
Marathon’s Dolphin Research Center is yet another exceptional opportunity to swim with the dolphins in Florida.
When you pay for a dolphin encounter, all-day admission to the research center is included.
The dolphin encounters are recommended for children ages five and older and last for 20 to 25 minutes.
If you’d rather not swim with dolphins, the Dolphin Research Center also offers a paint with a dolphin program (with a separate fee) for kids between three and seven.
- Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters
The Aquarium Encounters gives you and the kids an exciting chance to personally experience aquarium animals.
A variety of touch tanks across the aquarium house isopods, stingrays, and more.
The kiddos can also feed snappers, tortoises, lobsters, stingrays, freshwater turtles, or tarpon.
If you want to get a little closer still, you can always sign yourself and the kids up for a coral reef encounter, nurse shark encounter, or stingray encounter.
What can you do around Key West?
Now that you’re in Key West, what kinds of activities should you add to your itinerary? Here’s what I recommend!
Dry Tortugas National Park
Along the Gulf of Mexico is Dry Tortugas National Park, which includes seven islands.
You can spot seabirds at Bush Key or witness what is left of the 1875 ship known as the Windjammer at Loggerhead Reef.
Loggerhead Key is a popular spot to see many sea turtles, and there’s a lighthouse here as well.
Garden Key has Fort Jefferson, a piece of Florida history that dates back to the 19th century. Beaches abound here as well.
Key West Aquarium
A major attraction in Key West since 1946, Key West Aquarium will put smiles on the faces of your whole family!
The touch tank is stocked full of horseshoe crabs, giant hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, slate pencil sea urchins, sea stars, and conches.
The shark exhibit offers a unique encounter with sharks such as the sandbar shark, blacknose shark, lemon shark, and more.
The jellyfish exhibit showcases stunning moon jellyfish that almost seem to glow in the dark!
The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
The appealing Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory features birds that span the hues of the rainbow as well as plentiful butterflies spread across a peaceful nature oasis.
If you and the kids need a bit of a break after all the fun, this is a great place to unwind and appreciate nature.
Key West Lighthouse
Built in 1825, the Key West Lighthouse is 65 feet and includes a keepers’ quarters. Around the lighthouse are art exhibits for making an afternoon out of coming here.
Driving from Tampa to Key West is a fantastic opportunity to explore more of Florida than perhaps you and your family have ever seen before.
My recommendation is to take your time, stop and see the sights, and make the entire trip a memorable experience for the kids. The time in Key West will be the icing on the cake!