Known for its mix of high and low, the Florida Keys can be both budget-friendly and uber expensive.
While the chain of islands has plenty to offer in terms of natural beauty and outdoor activities, there is also a vibrant cultural scene that is worth exploring. Best of all, if you get creative, many of these attractions can be experienced for next to nothing. From public art trails to bird sanctuaries, here’s our guide to the top free activities in the Florida Keys.
There are many quirky characteristics about the Southernmost outpost of the US, but none quite as iconic as the Sunset Celebration. Starting every evening before sunset, visitors in Key West can experience a multitude of live performances, stunt acts, musical groups and much more in Mallory Square. The celebration, which is part circus, part art fair, embodies the oddball spirit of Key West and is not to be missed. If you stay long enough, you’ll also be treated to a gorgeous view of the sun as it sets over the Gulf of Mexico. While payment is not required, it’s worth noting that many of the entertainers work for tips, so you might want to bring a few dollars if you can spare them.
Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
Connecting the entire Florida Keys in segments from one end to the other, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is a recreational pathway that was once the famous Flagler Railroad. The path is open to cyclists and pedestrians and offers opportunities for fishing, birding, picnicking, hiking and other leisure pursuits. The trail incorporates 23 of the historic Flagler Railroad bridges along with access to state parks, nature trails, boat ramps and important landmarks.
Traversing the trail allows for easy island hopping, but there are some sections that are directly next to the heavily trafficked Overseas Highway, so anyone walking or biking should be comfortable with motor traffic close by. Also, because sections of the trail are historic, there are often partial closures due to renovations and repairs. The website is updated frequently with the latest announcements, so be sure to check before you plan an excursion.
Morada Way Arts & Cultural District
Morada Way is Islamorada’s arts and cultural district. The 6-block area is home to art galleries, studios, hip restaurants and boutiques. Every third Thursday of the month, Morada Way hosts an Art Walk from 6 to 9pm. During the event, artists flood the neighborhood to showcase their work, and musicians play live at several local venues. Whether you’re there to invest in some art or just to be inspired, the scenic walk is a great way to get acquainted with downtown Islamorada and enjoy the laid back beauty of the area. Grab a beer at Florida Keys Brewing Company or a quick bite from one of the food trucks and make an evening of it.
Relax at the Public Beaches
With an average of 260 sunny days per year, the Keys are a great place to spend time outdoors. While the region, which sits mostly on coral rock, isn’t known for its expansive sandy beaches, there are a few outliers that can be enjoyed for free all year. Anne’s Beach in Islamorada, Sombrero Beach in Marathon and Smathers Beach in Key West are all beautiful places to spend the day.
In addition to the larger beachfronts, there are also secret enclaves to explore. In Islamorada, all the way down Beach Road, a small public beach is nestled between the private waterfronts of the luxurious Cheeca Lodge and Moorings Village. In Big Pine Key, Horseshoe Beach at Mile Marker 35 is a quiet place to snorkel or scuba dive. Some, such as Smathers, do require a small fee if you are parking a vehicle, so be sure to prepare in advance if you are driving.
Florida Keys Sculpture Trail
Spanning 80 miles from Islamorada down to Key West, the Florida Keys Sculpture Trail features twelve monumental sculptures dotted along the Overseas Highway. The works were first created for the Art Students League of New York’s “Model to Monument” program in Manhattan before being relocated to the Keys. From a monumental iron sundial to a stainless steel bird, from a red triangular structure to an oversized mesh shell, each sculpture is as different as the next. Now permanent fixtures in the area, the public art trail can be freely enjoyed by anyone passing by.
The Studios of Key West
The Studios of Key West is a cultural hub in downtown Key West that is dedicated to encouraging and connecting creativity on the island. In addition to offering lectures, workshops, studio space and residencies, the organization presents gallery shows and live performances and is home to Books & Books, a charming independent bookstore. On Thursday evenings, guests can enjoy Glow Hours on Hugh’s View. The free weekly cocktail hour not only includes an open bar and live music, but also a panoramic view of the city from the stunning rooftop. Admission to the campus and gallery spaces is free, but many of the scheduled events require a ticket purchase.
At the center of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key is the largest freshwater lake in the Keys. Blue Hole was once a limestone quarry whose rock was used to create many of the original roads in the area. Because it is a rare source of freshwater, the lake attracts a variety of wildlife including alligators, herons, turtles, fish and, most especially, Key deer, an endangered type of deer that only live on Big Pine Key. The lake provides an unmatched opportunity to revel in the natural beauty of the Keys, and there are several short trails for hiking around the refuge. While the trails are less than one mile each, they are not shaded, so come prepared with sunscreen and bring good walking shoes!
The Key West Garden Club
The Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower is a historic and secluded tropical paradise. A group of dedicated volunteers maintains the grounds, which include a prehistoric garden, a native garden and a butterfly garden, among others. Visitors can take in seaside views, delight in the exceptional collection of exotic trees and plants and learn about the fascinating history of the West Martello Tower, an important site built during the Civil War. Take your time as you wander the circular layout, as some of the most striking flora can hide in plain sight.
Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1980, Crocodile Lake National Refuge is an important nesting ground for the American crocodile, an endangered species found only in South Florida. These crocodiles find refuge in this 6700-acre protected habitat, and it is believed that nearly a quarter of the country’s population lives here. While you aren’t guaranteed to see this reclusive animal during a visit, there are more draws to the refuge including sightings of other rare animals like the white-crowned pigeon, Stock Island tree snails and several kinds of endangered butterflies.
Florida Keys Wild Bird Center
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of wild birds and consists of both a hospital and the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary, a natural refuge open to the public, houses nearly 40 different species of rescued birds. Visitors can walk through a mangrove forest and observe an array of birds including Great Horned Owls, Great Egrets and plenty of Eastern Brown Pelicans. At the end of the pathway, past the animal enclosures, the mangroves open up to the Florida Bay and a beautiful view of the water. Admission is free, but they do request a donation upon entry.