Key West on the cheap is a challenge, but these off-the-beaten-path stops are all free things to do in Key West
Free things to do 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 things to do in Key West.
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 a snorkel trip or sunset cruise. You can make up for it with an afternoon filled with free things to do in Key West..
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.
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 keywest.oncell.com, 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.
Free things to do in Key West: West Martello Tower & Botanical Garden
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.
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
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.
Free things to do in Key West: White Street Pier
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. Across the street is a kid’s playground.
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.
Free things to do in Key West: The Key West Wildlife Center
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
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.
Free things to do in Key West: Historic 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@example.com.
Find more spots to see in this Florida Rambler story on Key West Cemetery.
Historic Key West Cemetery
Passover Lane and Angela Street
Here’s the cemetery map and walking tour as a PDF.
Truman Waterfront Park and Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
Key West has developed spacious park grounds in a half-mile stretch of waterfront in a section of Key West that many visitors never explore. The area is located behind the Truman Annex area and the historic Truman Little White House on the way to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, a real hidden gem.
If you have kids, Truman Waterfront Park is a great place because of the extensive shaded playgrounds, including a splash playground. There’s a broad, open promenade along the water with outstanding views.
Anchoring one end of this area is the free Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center operated by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This center offers educational exhibits about the Keys environment, interactive exhibits and a 20-minute film. (It no longer has a live reef tank.)
Moored next to the Truman Waterfront Park is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum & National Historic Landmark. (It’s $15 for adults; $5 for kids 7-12.)
Beyond the Eco Discovery Center is the waterfront Coffee Butler Amphitheater, where special events occur, including the Key West Literary Seminar in January, concerts and music festivals. (Sorry, few of the events here are free. )
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, near Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Hours will expand in January 2023, but currently are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday- Saturday. Parking at the Eco-Discovery Center is ample and free.
Free things to do on Key West: The Key West Historic 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 Key West Historic Seaport.
From picturesque schooners to interesting shops to the best happy hour specials in town, the Key West Seaport has plenty to offer a visitor.
One of my favorite freebies: At 4 p.m., when fish parts are thrown into the water to feed the huge silvery tarpons. (This happens in front of Alonzo’s Oyster House and there is a sign.)
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on what to see and do around the Key West Seaport.
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 and terrific: Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
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 clear water, 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
The park is open from 8 a.m. until sundown daily. The fort closes at 5 p.m.
Free things to do in Key West: Sunset — and 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 Verne 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 for things to do in Key West
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
- Key West is less crowded (and more enjoyable) when cruise ships are not in town. Check the cruise ship calendar when making your plans. (In general, cruise ships seem to skip Wednesdays more than most other days.)
- Overseas Highway Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- A great bike path if you’re staying in Key West
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Best beaches in the Florida Keys
- Shopping for authentic souvenirs in Key West
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
This page may include affiliate links from which we earn modest commissions if a purchase is made.
This article is property of FloridaRambler.com, protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.
The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.
Wednesday 25th of January 2023
Hey Bonnie, I was wondering if can you send me infor on free things to do in Key West Flordia,we are going to be there for Spring break march12-19 we will have our twin 15 yr. old grandkids with us something to do to not break the bank,info would be appreciated we are staying at Parrot key Resort, Thanks
Wednesday 25th of January 2023
My tips are pretty much represented on that page. I've gotten good feedback from people who took kids to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park https://www.floridarambler.com/florida-best-beaches/fort-zachary-taylor-state-park-key-west/ .
Thursday 5th of March 2020
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?
Thursday 5th of March 2020
Sorry, I don't know about that ghost sighting. The famous paranormal mystery in Key West involves Robert the Doll. Here's more about it: https://www.ghostsandgravestones.com/key-west/robert-the-doll
Captain J Fishing Charter
Thursday 27th of February 2020
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.
Tuesday 18th of February 2020
Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, free rum taste and free Mojito class with samples!