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.
Situated on the Atlantic Ocean 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. A congressman fought to save it and the Key West Garden Club took over the site as their botanic garden.
In addition to the picturesque ruins, the garden has another major asset: It overlooks the Atlantic. 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!)
We were amazed to visit in summer 2018 and see the gardens looking spectacular. It’s not as shady as in the past, but it was full of blooming orchids and new landscaping. I was particularly impressed with the flower-filled butterfly garden, which was all aflutter.
1100 Atlantic Blvd.; 305-294-3210, keywestgardenclub.com. Open 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 beach offers shade from a grove of palm trees and a number of picnic tables as well as a dog park and free parking.
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 who survived were shipped to Liberia.
White Street Pier is at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard.
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 inside an 8-acre park that has a freshwater pond that attracts a good number of wild 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.)
1801 White St.; 305-292-1008, keywestwildlifecenter.org. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.
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 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.)
35 E. Quay Road. It’s at the end of Southard Street in the Truman Annex, across the street from Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday (Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas).
The 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 harbor walk 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.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
It’s not free but so cheap. 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: First, while a little rocky, its beach is the best in Key West and is a favorite for snorkeling, with living coral and tropical fish.
Second, 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.
601 Howard England Way; 305-292-6713, floridastateparks.org/park/Fort-Taylor. 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 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.
FloridaRambler.com gives tips on getaways to the natural and authentic Florida.