Florida Keys / Historic

Free in Key West: Things to do without breaking your budget

Captain George Carey Home in Key West

The Captain George Carey Home in Key West is one of many buildings you’ll admire on a free walking tour of Key West.

Free in Key West? I heard that derisive laugh. Sure, few destinations in Florida are as expensive as Key West. But think about the three most popular things to do in Key West:

  • Walk down Duval and wander through historic neighborhoods full of tropical plants and colorful gypsy chickens.
  • Get your picture taken in front of the Southernmost Point.
  • Gawk at the nightly street carnival scene at Mallory Square sunsets.

See a common thread? They’re all free.

And they’re not the only things to do in Key West that are free. Several of my favorite “finds” in Key West are free, and I love them because they are off the standard tourist trail.

So I say: Go ahead and splurge on the ferry to the Dry Tortugas.  You can make up for it with an afternoon or day in Key West filled with free fun.

Free walking tour of historic Key West

Key West's Oldest House is a free attraction right on Duval Street. It's on the free walking tour.

Key West’s Oldest House is a free attraction right on Duval Street.

There are wonderful group tours of Key West, but the best ones cost $30 for adults. If you’re an independent sort, here is a great alternative. Print out the Pelican Path Self-Guided Tour of Key West, created by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, and wander on your own through Key West’s charming lanes.  This tour provides the stories behind 51 historic buildings and you can break your explorations into smaller segments to go at your own pace.

Then, as you visit historic sites, look for the historic markers. Each has a number on it. You can use your phone to hear more detailed historic narration of each site if you desire. Dial 1-305-507-0300 and then the marker number.  All the markers and narration are listed at the Key West historic-marker website

While you’re enjoying the exteriors of historic houses, be sure to visit The Oldest House in Key West. Not only is the small house museum free, it also has a beautiful garden right off of Duval Street where visitors can enjoy a shady respite.

West Martello Tower & Botanical Garden

West-Martello-Tower

When you visit the West Martello Tower, home of the Key West Garden Club’s Botanical Garden, you feel like you’ve stumbled on a lost ruined city in a jungle.

This spot incorporates two of my favorite things: old forts and tropical gardens.

Situated on the Atlantic about a mile east of the Southernmost Point, West Martello Tower is a Civil War-era fort that was never finished. Begun in 1863, construction ended in 1873. The tower was used to quarter troops during the Spanish American War and housed radio stations during World Wars I and II.

By 1949, the unused tumbled down ruin was considered an eyesore and many wanted it torn down. US Congressman Joe Allen fought to save it and the Key West Garden Club took over the site as their botanic garden.

In addition to the charming ruins, the garden has another major asset: It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors are rewarded with ocean views at various points with a particularly spectacular view from a pretty white gazebo at the top of a hill — a popular as a wedding site.

The gardens were once shaded by a huge strangler fig that entwined the ruins, but the tree blew over in Hurricane Irma in September 2017. (Its rootball weighed 25 tons!) With its loss, the gardens will be sunnier and require extensive replanting.

Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower
1100 Atlantic Boulevard
Key West, FL 33040
(305) 294-3210
Hours:  9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

White Street Pier

Aerial view of White Street Pier, Key West

Aerial view of White Street Pier, Key West (Photo courtesy Florida Memory Project)

Adjacent to the West Martello Tower & Botanical Garden is what has been dubbed the “unfinished road to Havana” – a very large concrete pier that stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

The pier is a popular fishing spot for locals and visitors are entertained watching fishermen reel in their catches.  Looking into the very clear water, you see schools of colorful reef fish nibbling around the rocks along the pier.  The view from the pier is beautiful with its range of blue hues. It’s also a stunning place for a quieter Key West sunset.

Just south of the White Street Fishing Pier and adjacent to the Waldorf Astoria’s Casa Marina Resort, is Higgs Beach. This free urban beach offers shade from a grove of palm trees and a number of picnic tables as well as a dog park and free parking.

White Street Pier
White Street and Atlantic Boulevard, Key West.

Key West Wildlife Center

Rooster-at-Key-West-Wildlif

The Key West Wildlife Center rescues and rehabilitates birds, and serves as a temporary home to nuisance chickens and roosters that roam the city. It’s a free, fun stop for families

While taking in the pier and Martello Towers, families and animal lovers might like to stop at the Key West Wildlife Center. The center is located inside an 8-acre park that has a freshwater pond that attracts a good number of herons, egrets and other birds.

The wildlife center has an aviary and rehab flight area where it nurtures injured hawks, pelicans, osprey, heron, egrets and other birds back to health.

A large chicken aviary is home to dozens of Key West’s infamous gypsy chickens.  To get rid of nuisance chickens, residents can borrow a trap from the wildlife center and bring the captured fowl here.  The chickens are trucked to organic farms in Central Florida monthly, where they are prized for their eggs and for their help with pest control. (They eat bugs.)

Key West Wildlife Center
1801 White Street
Key West
305-292-1008
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

The Historic Key West Cemetery

Key-West-Cemetery-angel

Hand-carved angels and Victorian statues are part of the history of the Key West Cemetery.

The Key West Cemetery is at the center of the island – halfway between the Historic Key West Seaport and West Martello Tower.  It has several entrances, but you should make a point to start at the northwest corner at Passover Lane and Angela Street because a small office there has excellent free walking tour guides.

With a walking tour guide in hand, the cemetery reveals fascinating stories of Key West and its people.

The cemetery was founded in 1847 after a terrible hurricane in October 1846 washed away the old cemetery, scattering the dead throughout a forest.  As a result, the oldest gravestones in the cemetery are actually older than the cemetery itself. They date to 1829 and 1843 and were moved here after the hurricane.

A prominent monument is to the U.S.S. Maine, which was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898 killing 260 American soldiers.  Two dozen of those dead are buried here along with other veterans of the Spanish-American war. The area is protected by an iron fence and gate brought from Washington D.C.

 

The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice a week, Tuesday and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. for $15 per person.  For information and reservations, call 1-305-292-6718 or email [email protected].

Find more spots to see in this Florida Rambler story on Key West Cemetery.

Historic Key West Cemetery
Passover Lane and Angela Street
Key West
1-305-292-6718
Here’s the cemetery map and walking tour as a PDF.

The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Florida-Keys-Eco-Discovery Center

The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West is located on the waterfront near Fort Zachary Taylor. Enjoy high-quality exhibits, including a 2,500-gallon tank with a living reef.

Besides being free, there are two things that are special about this attraction: its aquarium tank and its free parking.

The center, operated by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other environmental agencies, offers educational exhibits with the highlight being the Mote Marine Laboratory Living Reef exhibit, a 2,500-gallon reef tank with living corals and tropical fish. There’s a short film that gets good reviews.

My favorite: The tank with the beautiful lion fish, a non-native fish that is plaguing coral reefs in the Keys

The center is very near the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum & National Historic Landmark. ($10 for adults.)

Lion Key at Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

An aquarium at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center lets you admire the beauty of a lion fish, which is actually a plague on the reefs in the Keys.

The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
35 East Quay Road, Key West
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is located at the end of Southard Street in the Truman Annex in Key West, across the street from Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
(Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas)

Read reviews on TripAdvisor

seaport-logoThe Historic Key West Seaport

One of the most scenic strolls in Key West — and a top freebie — is the harborwalk along Key West Bight, also known as the Historic Key West Seaport.

From picturesque schooners to hungry tarpon to historic exhibits to the best happy hour specials in town, the Key West Seaport has plenty to offer a visitor.

Here’s a Florida Rambler story on what to see and do around the Key West Seaport.

 

Not free, but cheap:

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park

fort zachary taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West: a Civil War-era fort and a great beach, all for $6 per car admission. (Photo courtesy Florida State Parks)

Admission is only $6 per vehicle and given that you must pay for parking everywhere in Key West, this makes Fort Zachary Taylor virtually free.  If you walk or bike in, it’s $2 per person.

The park is fabulous for two reasons:  While a little rocky, its beach is the best in Key West and is a favorite for snorkeling, with living coral and tropical fish. Secondly, its Civil War fort is well preserved, has a fascinating history and displays the largest cache of Civil War-era seacoast cannons in the U.S.

Here’s a Florida Rambler report on the park and fort.

Guided tours of the fort are given daily at noon and there’s a brochure to aid in self-guided tours.

Here’s another bargain-hunter tip: The fort’s beachfront Cayo Hueso Café offers reasonably priced sandwiches, snacks and cold beverages served on a shaded patio overlooking the beach. (No sandwich costs more than $6.50; a hot dog or slice of pizza is $3.) (Menu as PDF.)

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
601 Howard England Way
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 292-6713

The park is open from 8 a.m. until sundown daily.  The fort closes at 5 p.m.

More budget-friendly tips:

We visited all these places in one day on bikes, which made for a carefree way to tour congested Key West with its lack of parking.  We brought our own bikes from Fort Lauderdale on a bike rack. But you can rent bikes at a number of locations in Key West (and many hotels and B&Bs provide bikes.)  Bikes rent for $10 to $15 a day per person.

Key West accommodations are expensive, especially during the winter season. An alternative is to stay in the Upper Keys or Middle Keys. We’ve stayed in mom-and-pop 1950s-era motels in Marathon and visited Key West on a day trip. A closer, attractive alternative is to stay at Parmer’s Resort, an individually owned waterfront complex with motel rooms and cabins that are less expensive than Key West. We’ve stayed here and found it charming and comfortable.

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:

More places to discover in Florida Keys:

Camping and lodging

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Prepping for the Sunshine State | Biked It!

  2. Pingback: Indian Key: Kayak to Florida Keys history -- and snorkel too | Florida Rambler

  3. So who knew there were so many free things to do in Key West? Useful info.

  4. Darlene Britto says:

    What about a bar called garden of eden we have heard it is beautiful but is the food good?

    • The Garden of Eden is not exactly known for its food. It’s an open-air, clothing-optional rooftop garden bar above the more reserved Whistler on Duval Street. Classic Key West. 🙂

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