Key West is one of our favorite places in the world and we visit often. I’m constantly sharing our adventures on my TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, so I get a lot of questions. And the most popular question I get is how can I visit Key West on a budget? It is well known that Key West is not a cheap destination and I’d be lying to you if I told you it was. But if you’re visiting Key West on a budget, this list of free things to do in Key West, Florida, will help you!
Walking Around Key West
Before you roll your eyes at how unoriginal this idea is, hear me out. Key West has so much charm and one of the best ways to take it all in is by walking around the island. It’s one of the things I look forward to most on our trips to Key West and is probably my favorite budget friendly activity in Key West.
This will be easier for you if you are staying in a good location (we like to stay close to Duval Street) but if you are staying on the other side of the island, many hotels will offer a shuttle to Duval Street for free. We always walk the entire length of Duval Street at least once each time we visit, but Key West is full of historic neighborhoods equally worth exploring. My favorite neighborhoods in Key West are Bahama Village, Truman Annex, and Historic Seaport. I never get sick of looking at all of the conch houses, with no two being the same!
West Martello Tower and Botanical Garden
When I interned in Key West in 2007, the other interns and I went on the ghost tour (actually, we loved it so much we went on the ghost tour multiple times). On that tour, we learned about Robert the Doll, who lives at the Martello Museum. We had to visit the museum to see Robert but ended up falling in love with the museum itself. On a subsequent trip to Key West, the West Martello Tower and Botanical Gardens caught my eye when I noticed the Martello in the name. Since I loved the Martello Museum, I was curious.
The West Martello Tower and Botanical Garden is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Located right on the Atlantic Ocean close to Higgs Beach, it was actually a Civil War-era fort that was never finished. Construction on the fort lasted from 1863 until 1873. It became a quarry for residents, quartered troops during the Spanish American War, and housed radio stations during World Wars I and II. The United States Navy also used the fort for target practice.
In 1947, the fort was turned over to Monroe County. Not long after, it was considered an eyesore that many wanted torn down. Luckily, the Key West Garden Club took over and have preserved the site since then. This is such a hidden gem in Key West and definitely worth a visit. The plants are stunning as are the many views of the Atlantic Ocean. The Key West Garden Club currently oversees the botanic garden. A lot of love goes into the gardens on site, which we saw first hand when we witnessed over 20 volunteers caring for the plants on our visit. Entrance is free, though donations are welcome if you are able. They are also open daily from 9:30am -5pm (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day).
White Street / Edward B Knight Pier
Located very close to the West Martello Tower and Botanical Gardens, the Edward B Knight Pier (also known as the White Street Pier) is a large fishing pier in Key West. The pier goes 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a common place for visitors and locals alike and you’ll probably encounter people rollerblading, jogging, walking, and fishing if you visit.
Right in front of the White Street Pier, you will find the Key West AIDS memorial. The AIDS memorial includes names of those who have died of complications due to AIDS, as well as some poems. You can rest on one of the benches while you visit as well.
Located near the pier (in between the pier and the West Martello tower), you’ll also find the African Cemetery at Higgs Beach. This is the site of a cemetery where 294 enslaved African men, women, and children are buried. I actually had no idea that this had occurred until we learned more about this on a recent visit to the Mel Fisher Museum. They were rescued by slave ships and brought to Key West. Unfortunately, rescue did not happen quickly enough and most died after experiencing such inhumane conditions on the ship.
Key West Cemetery
I debated including this with the walking around category, but I feel strongly it deserves its own mention. The Key West Cemetery is located in the center of Old Town. There are several entrances, but if you enter in the northwest corner at Passover Land and Angela Street, you’ll find a small office with free walking tour guides. You can also download your own cemetery map and walking tour guide.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
The Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center is closed for renovations at the time of this writing but will likely be reopen by the time you are reading this. I can’t wait to see what the renovations will bring because the Discovery Center was already such an impressive place to visit. You’ll find information about the ocean, and specifically the waters surrounding Key West. There are exhibits, live fish, a 20 minute movie, and a 3D experience. Donations are welcome, though entrance is free.
Key West Historic Seaport
The Key West Historic Seaport has a lot of activities that cost money, such as restaurants, shopping, and water excursions. However, it is also a great place to wander and explore, which you can do for free. We like to visit in the morning and stroll while we drink our coffee. This way, we beat the crowds and we like to watch the boats load up and leave for the day. Typically, we get our coffee from Cuban Coffee Queen, but since this is a post about things to do for free, you could also grab one to go from the lobby of your hotel.
Key West Wildlife Center
The Key West Wildlife Center is a small nonprofit facility that rescues and rehabilitate birds and chickens on the island. They are located in the City of Key West Indigenous Park and are open every day except Wednesday from 9-5.
Key West Beaches
In every article I write about Key West and the Florida Keys, I give a short disclaimer about the beaches not being what you might expect. I go over a little more detail on this, as well as on each individual beach in Key West, on my Key West beaches post. But in short, you might find sargassum on the shores. This can be smelly at times, but it can vary. In general, sargassum season is May or June through the end of November. Additionally, the waters may be “rocky” due to the coral reefs.
However, the beaches in Key West are absolutely stunning and I have enjoyed my visits at them each and every time. My absolute favorite is the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor. However, that’s not a free beach as there is an entrance fee to go to this state park. You can’t go wrong with any of the beaches in my opinion, but Smathers Beach tends to be the favorite of many. They import sand to Smathers Beach, so it’s a
Key West is famously known as the southernmost city in the continental United States. So famous that they even have a landmark identifying it as such. You’ve probably seen the pictures of the famous Southernmost Point and there is even a live webcam of the Southernmost Point. The Southernmost Point itself isn’t anything too crazy, it’s simply a landmark consisting of a large concrete buoy located at the intersection of Whitehead Street and South Street. But it’s free and something that is definitely unique to Key West.
The Southernmost Point was marked by a small sign until the buoy we know and love today was built in 1983. It has survived many hurricanes since 1983, though it was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Visiting may take some time, as it isn’t uncommon for there to be a line several blocks long to take a picture in front of this famous Key West landmark. If you visit late at night or early in the morning, you can easily have the landmark to yourself. It is also worth noting that there is a more southern part of Key West but it is the property of the United States Navy, so it isn’t accessible to the general public.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has a convenient location on Duval Street, and that is how we found the church in the first place. The church is open every day of the year and they open its doors to visitors (just be sure to be respectful, of course). It is absolutely beautiful, especially the stained glass windows, and worth a visit.
Mallory Square is a popular place to watch the sunset, as there is a nightly sunset celebration. Every night, there are vendors and street performers as you watch the sun set behind Sunset Key. Mallory Square gets crowded around sunset. The crowds can make people watching fun, but could be overwhelming depending on your preferences. While I’ve personally never seen a bad sunset, there are better places to catch a sunset in Key West (I recommend Truman Waterfront Park), but Mallory Square offers a unique experience that I recommend visiting at least once to see how you like it.
No matter how “touristy” others might claim Mallory Square to be (and it is), we love it just the same and visit at least once per trip. When I interned in Key West in 2007, my friend and I would come here almost every night. We’d stay after dark, long after the tourists had left, just talking about life. That is a memory I hold dear, even though I thought nothing of it at the time.
Mallory Square can also be fun to visit during the day, during which time it is much quieter, unless a cruise ship is embarking or debarking. Cruise ships dock at Mallory Square, which has been somewhat controversial among locals. You can check the Key West cruise port schedule if you’re wondering how busy it may be. If a cruise ship docks at Mallory Square, they must leave before sunset.
Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden
This is a very quick stop, located right outside of Mallory Square. It consists of around 30 sculptures of individuals who been instrumental in making Key West what it is today. This is a good way to learn more about Key West’s history and development.
Truman Waterfront Park
If you visit at sunset, you’ll find better sunsets than Mallory Square (at least, in my opinion) and it will also be quieter. But Truman Waterfront Park is also worth visiting during the day. It is large and well kept with a playground, splash zone, and outdoor fitness stations. It’s a great place to walk along the water and it’s common for ships to be docked, which is always cool to see. Truman Waterfront Park often has events such as farmers markets and concerts. On our last visit to Key West, there was an art market and it was so unique to stroll the individual vendors with a large military ship in the background. We walked to Truman Waterfront Park when we visited, so the visit was free for us but it’s worth noting that while the park is free, it does cost to park.
See the Kapok Tree
You will probably naturally stumble upon the Kapok Tree if you decide to walk around. It is located at 502 Whitehead Street, near mile marker 0 for US 1. It’s a very unique-looking tree that makes for a great photo opportunity. Kapok trees, also known as Ceiba and Silkcotton, have been used to make furniture, insulation, and stuffing for some life jackets in World War II. Kapok tree seeds are edible and oil from the seeds can make soap. These trees have also been very special to the Mayans, who believed the spirits of the dead climbed the trees to heaven.
Take a Self-Guided Tour of Key West
Pelican Path has a self guided tour that will bring you to landmarks and historic homes. You can pick up your own guide at the Chamber of Commerce on Green Street. Old Island Restoration Foundation publishes this well-thought-out guide.
Key West Turtle Museum
The Key West Turtle Museum is open seasonally, in the winter months, so know that this may not be an option depending on what time of year you visit Key West. This free museum is a great place to learn more about turtles. More specifically, you’ll learn more about how Key West actually used to sell and hunt for turtles. The area used to have a lot of turtles until turtle fishing nearly wiped them out. Conservation efforts began in the 1950’s and continue today. The museum is located right on the edge of the docks at the Key West Historic Seaport.
San Carlos Institute
The San Carlos Institute is located right on Duval Street and is a beautiful building with impressive architecture. Established in 1871, the San Carlos Institute is a Cuban heritage center. Founded by Cuban exiles of Key West, Cuban exiles met here to campaign for Cuba’s independence from Spain. The San Carlos Institute served as an educational, civic, and patriotic center. Today, it serves as a museum, library, art gallery, and theatre. They are open to the public and often have events throughout the year, including performances at their theater.
Window shopping may not be a free activity in Key West if you are tempted to buy things. However, there are a lot of great shops in Key West that are fun to browse. We particularly enjoy the art shops, which, to be honest, we can’t afford even when we aren’t trying to save money in Key West! The art is impressive and fun to browse.
The Shops at Mallory Square also has interesting shops and they are located in a historical building. A lot of the shops here got their start at artisan and farmers markets.
Throughout Key West are several different key lime pie shops which are worthy of a visit. It’s always interesting to see what new products they can make with key lime. Of course, they have food you might expect like key lime pie, but there are always unique options, too, such as key lime jelly, BBQ sauce, salsa, and more.
Sheriff’s Animal Farm
The Sheriff’s Animal Farm is open twice per month, on the second and fourth Sunday from 1pm-3pm. It is located right cross the bridge at the correctional facility. The farm opened in 1994 in an area underneath the jail. Built on stilts 11 feet above the ground (in case of hurricanes), there was space under the building. This is where the farm now exists. It began as a home for homeless and/or unwanted animals, as well as ducks and chickens who were regularly being killed on the road. Inmates care for the animals. Sheriff’s Animal Farm is now home to many different animals, including a lemur, fox, skunk, and fox. Though you never know what animals might be there for your visit!
Key West First Legal Rum Distillery
The distillery is a must visit in Key West. You can tour their distillery for free where you will learn about the entire process of manufacturing rum. Their rum delicious (I love the coconut), and you will get some free samples. Employees care about their jobs and their pride shows through their hospitality and enthusiasm. I also appreciate how much they care about their Key West community. After hurricane Irma in 2017, they distributed 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. You can tour the production floor and enjoy a free mojito class at 4:30 pm Monday through Saturday.