Visiting this upscale island paradise, I had to remind myself that I was 15 minutes from downtown Miami. Bookended by a state park and sprawling county park, Key Biscayne feels a lot more secluded than it really is.
To the south is Cape Florida, commanded by a lighthouse that has stood here for 200 years. In the north is Crandon Park, rolling together a sublime beach, natural habitats and a month’s worth of recreation possibilities.
The first place to be evacuated in hurricanes, Key Biscayne may appear to be at the mercy of the ocean. When you’re here everything feels gentler than that. Crandon Beach is shielded by a sandbar, while a profusion of reefs is ready to be explored on diving trips.
1. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
This spellbinding landscape encompasses Cape Florida on the south end of Key Biscayne. If you’re looking for a natural-style beach without leaving Miami, this is the place to come.
On the eastern, ocean side, the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is one of a couple on Key Biscayne to be rated among the best in the country.
In addition to its awe-inspiring shoreline and amazing ocean vistas, the state park is home to the iconic lighthouse, which I’ll describe later in this list.
The best way to navigate the park, and its tangle of paved trails is by bike, with rentals available from the concession. Some of the paths lead to the western, bay side of the cape.
Here you can scan the water for manatees, and bask in sunsets that need to be seen to be believed.
2. Cape Florida Light
The oldest structure in Miami-Dade is the solemn 95-foot lighthouse near the apex of Cape Florida.
Completed in 1825, this structure needed to be rebuilt in the 1840s following an attack during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
Cape Florida Light has a lot of stories to tell, including a litany of hurricanes, coastal erosion, and a long period of deactivation between 1878 and 1978.
You can tour the tower at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm, Thursday through Monday. For me, the vistas are some of the finest in Florida, encompassing Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, and a swath of the Atlantic.
3. Crandon Park
Much of the northern half of Key Biscayne is covered by a spectacular public park, more than 800 acres in size.
Crandon Park is a veritable wonderland, with a dreamlike beach on the ocean side. I’ll talk about the beach itself below.
The remainder of the park has an awesome array of amenities. To list a few, there’s a marina, a golf course, a family amusement center, a nature center, numerous picnic shelters, and kiteboard and kayak rentals from the north concession.
For more than 30 years up to 2018, the 27-court Tennis Center at Crandon Park was the venue for the Miami Open.
Wandering the park’s trails you’ll be confronted by an incredible variety of animals. Sandhill cranes and peacocks seem to go where they please, and you’re sure to see at least a few iguanas.
4. Crandon Beach
I saved an extra entry to go into a bit more detail on the palm-dotted beach at Crandon Park. Two miles long, this is often rated as one of the best, not just in Florida, but in the entire United States.
A few elements come together to make this such a prized location. You’ve got dazzling white sands, a meandering promenade, plentiful concession stands, and a lot of spots where you can take a picnic.
Looking at the surf, you’ll notice an absence of crashing waves, despite the exposure. This is explained by long sandbars, which keep the waters calm.
At low tide these create shallow pools for little ones to play in. And, when the tide is up, you’ll be able to wade out a surprisingly long way.
5. Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Bay Nature Center
The north end of Crandon Park is a natural haven, with more than 160 acres of mangroves, dunes, uplands, and fossilized rock reef.
This is the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Bay Nature Center, named for an environmentalist who dedicated much of her life to preserving south Florida’s wild areas.
Though it’s possible to see the Miami skyline from the center, in many ways, it’s worlds away. For kids the center is an excellent place to learn about the Miami area’s ecosystems. This can be done on self-guided visits, or on a naturalist-led program.
Meanwhile, I was astonished by the indoor exhibits. These include a variety of mangrove and saltwater aquariums, as well as a touch tank containing tidepool species.
6. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park
Between Key Biscayne and downtown Miami is another barrier island at Virginia Key. Despite being minutes from a bustling urban center, the beach at Virginia Key can feel secluded.
This spot has an intriguing past, founded in segregation. Following a protest at the ‘whites only’ Haulover Beach in the 1940s, this park was set aside for the Black community.
Later, another protest helped put an end to segregation on Miami-Dade Beaches. The park fell into decline later in the century, until a multimillion-dollar project helped restore the idyllic shoreline.
Less of an ocean beach, this stretch of shore is ideal for activities like paddleboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding, and kayaking. If you’re here just to relax, there’s a narrow sweep of white sand, edged by palms and mangroves.
As there’s a bay-like feel to this spot, my common sense advice is bring mosquito repellent.
7. Diver’s Paradise
Based at the Crandon Park Marina is a dive center with a reputation that goes well beyond Miami’s borders.
Diver’s Paradise has a pair of Newton dive boats that are used by visiting film crews as well as the University of Miami when conducting vital research.
The center offers classes for keen divers working towards certifications. Meanwhile, with dozens of wrecks and the world’s barrier reef system, this can be your gateway to a world of unforgettable diving experiences.
If you’re up for lighter you can also join a snorkeling expedition to discover the natural wonders of the reef, or a mangrove island.
8. Nixon Beach Sandbar
One famous winter visitor to Key Biscayne was the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon (1913-1994).
On the bay-side of the island, I’m wild about the sandbar that gets its name from the president, whose now demolished compound was located close by on Bay Lane.
From above the sandbar shows up as a lighter patch of clear, shallow water at the entrance to Hurricane Harbor.
Naturally, the only way to get there is by boat. And the combination of downtown views, seclusion and warm, glimmering waters make this a famed party spot in the Miami area.
9. Ritz-Carlton Spa, Key Biscayne
Something that might make your time in an island paradise like Key Biscayne even more special is a visit to a day spa.
My pick is the resort spa at Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. For one thing, this has a fabulous setting, with views over the Atlantic Ocean, along with a stunning pool and fitness center.
The facility is endowed with Caribbean glamor, and has decor relating the story of Miami’s Tequesta Native Americans.
To continue that theme, you can opt for a Tequesta Ritual treatment. Rooted in the traditions of a native American detoxifying ritual, this package involves an algae wrap, detoxifying aromatherapy massage, and scalp massage.
10. Rickenbacker Causeway Beach
Parallel to the Rickenbacker Causeway on Virginia Key, I’ve seen this alluring strip of sand given a few different names.
I’ve seen it described as Dog Beach and Windsurfer Beach, and both are accurate descriptors. All year-round this is a dog-friendly beach, while the gentle waters and healthy breezes make it a paradise for windsurfers.
Next to the Miami Seaquarium, the beach is angled towards the southwest. The Rickenbacker Trail passes behind, and there’s a string of palms, food trucks/concession stands, and watersports businesses.
I haven’t even mentioned the views, which include a big slice of downtown Miami.
11. Crandon Golf Course
The only public golf course on Biscayne Bay can be found in Crandon Park. This 18-hole championship facility is entwined in nature on the bay side of the island.
For close to 20 years, Crandon Golf Course was a stop on the Senior PGA Tour. Also, between 1997 and 2004 the Champions Tour’s Royal Caribbean Golf Classic took place here.
There’s an abundance of tropical vegetation all around, from mangroves to swaying palms. And, in keeping with the rest of Crandon Park, there’s a lot of wildlife, from iguanas to wading birds.
As well as being beautiful, the course is not a track to take lightly. This is especially true for the 7th, a scenic but devilish par 4 with a dogleg right over pristine blue water.
12. Rickenbacker Trail
Something that never ceases to amaze me about Key Biscayne is the ease with which you can get here by bicycle.
Starting in southern Miami, the Rickenbacker Trail crosses the causeway and continues down Crandon Boulevard for almost nine miles.
Despite the proximity of road traffic, the views are out of this world. In turn you’ll get glimpses of the Miami skyline, pristine beaches, Biscayne Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The trail is safe, protected from SR-913 by a concrete barrier on the bridges, and eventually taking you all the way to the tip of the cape.
13. Key Biscayne Village Green Park
The village’s community park is located at the very center of town. Though not as large as the massive waterfront parks bookending the village, it’s a popular outdoor spot, especially for those with kids.
My little ones had a blast at the interactive splash fountain here. For parents who’d rather watch from a safe distance than join in the fun, there are shaded seating areas nearby.
For everyone else, Village Green Park is a gentle kind of place for a stroll. There’s a promenade crossing the park, and passing an exquisite fountain, traced by tree-shaded benches.
Lastly, residents can take advantage of the full-service community center here, with an indoor pool and gymnasium.
One of the more haunting sights that you’ll see atop Cape Florida Light is Stiltsville. This is a constellation of abandoned buildings, stranded in the bay a little more than a mile offshore.
The structures were built decades ago as a way for shady entrepreneurs to get around booze and gambling laws that didn’t extend past the shoreline. In its heyday in 1960 there were almost 30 structures in Stiltsville.
Many of these have since been destroyed in hurricanes and fires. The survivors are preserved by a local non-profit organization. When I was on Key Biscayne, I counted six still standing.
If you want to take a closer look, Stiltsville is served by a number of boat tours, mostly departing from Miami.
15. Key Biscayne Chamber Visitors Center
A block south of Village Green Park, you can head to the Village Hall for travel tips. A real asset for anyone who has just arrived, the Key Biscayne Chamber Visitors Center is staffed Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
So you can stop by for one-to-one advice on attractions, dining, tours, lodging, activities, and much more.
Even if you pass by when the center is closed, you can still step inside the foyer. Open 24 hours, this space is stocked with maps, guides, magazines, brochures, flyers, and much more to help you plan your stay.