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 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 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
It’s not easy to follow any walking tour or trail, so we found an alternative method. We chose a specific point (like the Southernmost House) and walked a few blocks in each direction to visit a few of the marker sites and listen to the audio.
A second free walking tour app comes from the Florida Humanities Council. (Look in the app store for Florida Stories.) This tour has 12 key locations, which makes it easier to complete. Each of its stops includes entertaining stories of Key West’s people and past.
The Oldest House in Key West
Key West is full of old homes, but few of them welcome visitors inside for free. The oldest house, a modest building you’ll easily walk right past as you stroll down busy Duval Street, is operated by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, which is responsible for starting the whole preservation movement in Key West.
You can tour the three ground-floor rooms, and it’s worth going with a docent to hear about the Watlington family and their nine daughters. The whole tour will take perhaps 20 minutes.
The best part, though, may be the quiet, shady backyard, where you are free to linger and escape the hectic Duval scene.
Here’s more about the Oldest House.
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.
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.
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.
White Street Pier
White Street and Atlantic Boulevard, Key West.
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.
The 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 protected].
Find more spots to see in this Florida Rambler story on Key West Cemetery.
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
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.)
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)
Many Key West visitors miss seeing areas that aren’t directly on Duval Street or Mallory Square.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- 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
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
More places to discover in Florida Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor (including some bargains!)
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West residents go for fresh fish
- All about those Key West chickens
- Find peace at Key West Butterfly Conservatory
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- National Key Deer refuge
- Bahia Honda State Park: Good beaches & a great bridge
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Biking or walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- Visit historic Pigeon Key in Marathon
- Kayak or canoe to historic Indian Key
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Key West Tropical Forest and Botanic Garden: It will charm plant lovers
Camping and lodging
- Best tent camping in the Keys
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Camping in Middle Keys: Curry Hammock State Park
- Camping near Key West
- Camping at the Dry Tortugas
- Classic Keys cabins on Big Pine Key
[Updated July 4, 2018]