Last updated on March 12th, 2020 at 08:16 pm

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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross) 

Key West on the cheap is a challenge, but these off-the-beaten-path stops are all free

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 self-guided walking tours of historic Key West

There are wonderful group tours of Key West, but the best ones cost $30 and up for adults. If you’re an independent and resourceful sort, here a few great alternatives.

The old-school not-on-your-phone approach: 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 or a smart-phone app to hear more detailed historic narration of each site if you desire.

Near the Southernmost point, the historic Dewey House is an interesting stop on the historic walking tour. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Dewey House near the Southernmost point is an interesting stop on the historic walking tour. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

To use your phone: dial 1-305-507-0300 and then the marker number. You can access the same audio narration via the “Explore Historic Key West” app, which you can download for free in the app store before leaving home.

All the markers and narration are listed at the Key West historic-marker website

Much of the same information is available on a cell phone tour created by the same grass roots non-profit organization. If you call it up on your cell phone at, you can choose a setting where it uses your location to tell you sites that are nearby. You can listen to audio information about sites or read text about them. 

A shorter free walking tour is available via an app from the Florida Humanities Council. It has 12 key locations, which makes it easier to complete.. (Look in the app store for Florida Stories.)  Each of its stops includes entertaining stories of Key West’s people and past.

Whichever free tour you choose, wandering Key West lanes and alleys looking at historic sites is a great way to spend time (and not money) in Key West.

West Martello Tower is a Civil War-era fort that fell into disrepair and became home to the Key West Garden Club. This broken archway was the site of a large ficus tree that blew down in Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
West Martello Tower is a Civil War-era fort that fell into disrepair and became home to the Key West Garden Club. This broken archway was the site of a large ficus tree that blew down in Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Free in Key West: West Martello Tower & Botanical Garden

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. (Photo: David Blasco)

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

Situated on the Atlantic about a mile from 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.

East Martello garden ocean Free in Key West: Things to do without breaking your budget
The West Martello garden has beautiful views onto Higgs Beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The butterfly garden at West Martello Tower were aflutter with life. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The butterfly garden at West Martello Tower was aflutter with wings. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 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!)

After that, we were amazed to visit in summer 2018 and see the gardens looking spectacular. Not as shady as in the past, it was full of blooming orchids and new landscaping. I was particularly impressed with the flower-filled butterfly garden, which was all aflutter.

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.

Looking into the water along the White Street Pier, dozens of lobsters wree visible in shallow clear water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Looking into the water along the White Street Pier, dozens of lobsters were visible in shallow clear water. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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. On a July morning, we saw dozens of lobsters amid the rocks along the pier and a spotted ray swam close by.

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.

At Higgs Beach in Key West, a memorial marks the site where African slaves were buried after they were rescued from slave ships in 1860. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
At Higgs Beach in Key West, a memorial marks the site where African slaves were buried after they were rescued from slave ships in 1860. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

African Cemetery at Higgs Beach: Between the pier and the West Martello Tower, there is a large interesting memorial marking the site of a cemetery where 294 enslaved African men, women and children are buried. The Africans were rescued from three slave ships off the coast in 1860 and brought to Key West. Having endured inhumane conditions on board, many died after the rescue. Those that survived were shipped to Liberia.

Here’s a Florida Rambler story on the African Cemetery. 

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

An injured American kestrel is one of the birds at the Key West Widllife Center. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
An injured American kestrel is one of the birds at the Key West Wildllife Center. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Key West Wildlife Center

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.) Here’s a Florida Rambler story all about those Key West chickens.

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

Free in Key West: Historic Key West Cemetery

Hand-carved angels and Victorian statues are part of the history of the Key West Cemetery. It's a great stop for those seeking fun things that are free in Key West.
Hand-carved angels and Victorian statues are part of the history of the Key West Cemetery. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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

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
Here’s the cemetery map and walking tour as a PDF.

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center: Free in Key West with parking

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 fish. Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is one of the best things to do for free in Key West.
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is one of the best things to do for free in Key West. You’ll see a beautiful lion fish, which is actually an invasive species destroying diversity on the reefs in the Keys. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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


harbor walk Key West Free in Key West: Things to do without breaking your budget
At the Key West seaport, charter captains cleaning their fish attract schools of large tarpon. Note one surfacing at bottom left. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

seaport-logoThe Historic Key West Seaport

Many Key West visitors miss seeing areas that aren’t directly on Duval Street or Mallory Square.

Here’s an example: 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.

Key West sunset at Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Key West sunset at Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Bahamas Village neighborhood of Key West

Karuna Eberl, co-author of Key West & the Lower Keys Travel Guide has this suggestion: Stroll the streets on the southwest edge of Key West, between Whitehead Street and the Truman Annex. Immigrants from the Bahamas began settling this neighborhood in the 1800s, while trying their fortunes at fishing, sponging, turtling and wrecking. Sadly but not surprisingly, the community was historically marginalized for generations, but today is appreciated for its vibrant heritage, art, architecture, tropical gardens and Caribbean foods. The apex of Bahamian spirit explodes onto the streets each October during the Bahama Village Goombay Festival, a family-oriented weekend of street processions, wild outfits, vending trucks and dancing to the music of Caribbean Junkanoos.

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 $7 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 $2.50 per person.

The park is fabulous for three 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.

Third, once you pay your admission, you can show your receipt and come back for no extra charge to see the sunset from the fort’s property, with easy parking and lots of room to spread out along the shore.

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.

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.

Sunset is free: Watch for the “green flash”

Karuna Eberl, the Key West guidebook author, says the Green Flash is a phenomenon a few lucky people witness. Right as the sun dips below the horizon, a small burst of brilliant green emanates from it. Some call it a well-hyped legend, but it actually does exist and is proven through physics. There are a few tricks to seeing one. First, it must be a very clear evening with little haze or cloud cover close to the horizon. Second, don’t stare at it until the last two seconds. Have a friend tell you when the tip of the sun is just about to disappear, then quickly look. Voila!

            Jules Vern immortalized it in his 1882 novel Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray). “A green, which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope.”

            The green flash is pretty cool, but there are many other things worth having eyesight for, so please use common sense and don’t burn out your eyes looking at the sun.

More budget-friendly tips:

We visited all these places 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.

Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to finding hotels and restaurants in Key West for the budget-minded.

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation

More places to discover in Florida Keys

Camping and lodging

[Updated July 4, 2018]

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  1. Avatar

    Hello, I have heard there’s a lot of haunted places in Key West. Someone told me that a woman is seen around in the coffee shop and she’s a ghost. Do you know this specific coffee shop that people keep seeing that ghost woman?

  2. Avatar

    Wow what a great list of free suggestions in Key West. I own a fishing charter in Tavernier and get asked quite often for recommendations in Key West. Most of my recommendations can be a bit pricey, nice to have a list for the budget minded list as well.

  3. Avatar

    Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, free rum taste and free Mojito class with samples!

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