Touring Florida can be expensive, especially for a traveler who chooses waterfront hotels and gourmet restaurants. But along 1,200 miles of coastline and 11,000 miles of rivers and waterways — as well as spots of dry land — are plenty of places for free fun. Here’s a sampling:
The Keys, a series of islands spanning over 100 miles connected by bridges and causeways, offer plenty to do at no cost, from sunset views to nature spots. Driving the toll-free Florida Keys Overseas Highway south from Florida City to Key West, which takes about three hours, is worth the trip alone. You feel as though you are floating over water as you hop from island to island, with pristine views on either side. It’s also one of the rare places where both sunset and sunrise can be seen over the water.
A couple of tips: Bring snorkel and flippers so you don’t have to rent. If you plan a hotel stay, find one that lets guests use kayaks for free. You can fish off the bridges, but you’ll need a license unless you’re here on the state’s two Free Fishing Days, April 6 and June 8. For more visitor information, download a free Florida Keys iPhone app, or visit www.fla-keys.com.
• Key Largo: State parks offer great opportunities for bird watching and nature photography, but many, like John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, charge entrance fees. So head to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (near Mile Marker 93) to see rescued and rehabilitated wild birds. The bird sanctuary (http://fkwbc.org) accepts donations but has free admission. Free brochures guide you through boardwalks surrounded by falcons and other wild birds in cages. Watch out for wild pelicans walking the boardwalk — they won’t bite but they also won’t get out of your way. Cross over the Mangrove Wetland to a beach where birds roam freely.
A bicycle and pedestrian corridor known as the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail starts in Key Largo (Mile Marker 106) and stretches 70 miles. It will eventually run the length of the Keys parallel to U.S. Highway 1.
• Islamorada: Known for world-class sport fishing, Islamorada has a vibrant art scene with a free art walk event (between Mile Markers 81 and 82) the third Thursday of each month sponsored by the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District (www.moradawayarts.org). Five galleries stay open late as artists and musicians line the streets.
Anne’s Beach (http://floridakeystreasures.com/Beaches/annesbeach.shtml) at Mile Marker 73 is a quiet beach with a rocky shore and shallow clear blue waters. There’s limited parking but it’s rarely crowded.
• Marathon: Sombrero Beach Park is a lovely community spot with a crescent-shaped beach, white sand and palm trees. Facilities include volleyball courts, picnic pavilions, playground equipment, restrooms, and showers. No fee to enter or park. It’s open from 7 a.m. until dusk. To get there from the Overseas Highway, turn south on Sombrero Beach Road.
• Big Pine Key: The Lower Keys have a more laid-back feel than the northerly islands, with fewer restaurants and tourist attractions. Signs warn you to slow down and watch out for Key Deer, an endangered species. In Big Pine Key, you can see the small deer with white tails at the National Key Deer Refuge (www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/). You can’t feed them but you can watch them feed; you can also bike or jog here. To see the elusive lower Keys marsh rabbit, go in early morning and stay quiet by the tall grass.
You can also tour the Bat Tower in Sugarloaf Key (www.keyshistory.org/SL-Sugarloaf-Key.html) at Mile Marker 17. Just don’t expect to see bats. The 1929 structure was built to lure bats as a way to combat mosquitoes. Bats stayed away, but the tower stands.
• Key West: Key West is known for beautiful sunsets, and the place to watch them is Mallory Square (www.sunsetcelebration.org).
At the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden (www.keywestsculpturegarden.org), you’ll find 38 bronze busts of prominent men and women who had homes here, from Henry Flagler to Ernest Hemingway and President Harry S Truman.
Finally, stop at the southernmost point in the continental U.S. for a picture at the replica of a large concrete buoy so you can say you were 90 miles from Cuba.
The gleaming white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Florida’s Panhandle draw millions of visitors each year, but this area isn’t known for glitz, glamour and high-end hotspots like some of Florida’s other beaches. Instead, the Panhandle offers a laid-back vibe, Southern hospitality and family atmosphere and caters to budget-conscious travelers. Unlike South Florida, peak travel season here is summer.
• Beaches: From Pensacola in the western Panhandle to Apalachicola in the east, you’ll find more than 200 miles of relatively undeveloped beaches. Walk the sand in the early morning or late day to glimpse a spectacular sunrise or sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. Because the beaches don’t get lots of traffic — except for a few towns that draw spring breakers in March — shell seekers often make unique finds such as small conch shells and sand dollars. Beachgoers often glimpse pods of dolphins frolicking in the distance and schools of stingrays gliding just offshore.
During the busiest months, some beaches offer free outdoor concerts. Pensacola Beach offers live music every Tuesday night from April to October (http://visitpensacolabeach.com/what/bands.php).
• National Naval Aviation Museum: The museum is located on Pensacola Naval Air Station and is open to the public 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (www.navalaviationmuseum.org). The museum offers an extensive collection of vintage military aircraft from all eras of flight and has numerous hands-on displays that give visitors a taste of what it was like to be a naval aviator through the generations. On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings March through November, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron practices in the skies above the museum (www.navalaviationmuseum.org/explore/blue-angels-practices). Visitors are treated to a full, jaw-dropping performance by six of the world’s best fighter pilots. Team members gather inside the museum after some practices for an autograph session with visitors.
• Seaside: The picturesque village of Seaside (www.seasidefl.com) is located on the Gulf of Mexico between Destin and Panama City and includes some of the priciest beach homes in the region. Developed in 1981 as a planned resort community, Seaside was the setting of the 1998 film, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. Seaside is known for its pastel-colored beach bungalows built in the old Florida tradition and for its beautifully landscaped walkways and public areas. The town has a selection of upscale boutiques and restaurants, but there is lots of fun to be had in Seaside without spending any money. Seaside often has live concerts during the evenings in its outdoor amphitheater — a jazz series starts in May. Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic and enjoy the music (www.seasidefl.com/highlights/events-calendar/).
• Wentworth Museum and Historic Pensacola: A collection of historic homes, museums and other sites (www.historicpensacola.org) highlights Pensacola’s history dating to the mid-1500s under Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American control. Admission to the The T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; admission is free.
For a look inside the historic homes in Historic Pensacola Village, you can take a tour for $6. The University of West Florida Archaeology department often conducts digs in the area and visitors can get a close-up look at a dig in progress.
• The Destin Docks: The sign welcoming visitors calls Destin “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” The sign is an homage to a time when the area was known for its fine snapper fishing and shrimping rather than high-rise condos, but fishing remains a huge part of local culture. Destin has a large charter boat fleet and visitors can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars searching for marlin and mahi on a deep-sea fishing expedition. For visitors who don’t want to spend serious money on offshore fishing, Destin’s fishing docks still offer an entertaining stroll. Fishermen unload and clean their catch and display the fish for passersby to view, and the large grouper, snapper and other fish are usually an impressive sight.
Harborwalk Village and the Emerald Grand resort (www.emeraldgrande.com/harborwalk-village.aspx), located on the west end of Destin, have a variety of seasonal events year-round and make a fun place for visitors to stroll before or after checking out the day’s catch.
While the region does boast some of America’s most beautiful beaches, there are also some out-of-the-way spots that reveal a different side of this sunny state.
• Jose Marti Park: While it’s physically located in Tampa’s historic district called Ybor City, this tiny park is really part of Cuba. Yes, THAT Cuba. It was named after the revolutionary who helped oust the Spanish from Cuba in 1900 and who also spent time in Florida. The land was bought by a couple in the 1950s to honor the man himself and given to Cuba. To this day, property records show that the owner of the 0.14 acre park is the “Cubano Estado,” or “Cuban State.”
• Teddy’s Tampa: In 1898, before he was president, Col. Teddy Roosevelt stayed in Tampa on his way to fight the Spanish-American War in Cuba. He and the First United States Volunteer Cavalry — also known as the Rough Riders — bivouacked and planned the invasion at the Tampa Bay Hotel, an ornate structure with silver minarets built by a railroad magnate. The building is now part of the campus of the University of Tampa and houses a museum.
• Mafia Cemetery: Did you watch the movie Donnie Brasco? Remember how Donnie and Sonny Black met up with famed mobster Santo Trafficante Jr., the mafia boss of Florida and Cuba? In Tampa, you can see Trafficante’s final resting place at the L’Unione Italiana Cemetery in Ybor City. Trafficante died in 1987 at a Houston hospital after a triple bypass. During his funeral at the Tampa cemetery, police officers stood outside and took photos of the mourners.
• Sunset Beach: Almost all of the Tampa-area beaches are located west of the city in Pinellas County, and all of them are gorgeous. But one of the nicest and most secluded is Sunset Beach, nestled at the tip of a small beach city named Treasure Island. There are few businesses on this part of the barrier island; it’s mostly homes and condos. From downtown Tampa, take I-275 South to 22nd Avenue South, then head west.
• St. Petersburg waterfront: Downtown Tampa is mostly concrete and steel, but across the bay is a kinder, gentler cityscape. You can stroll along parks and waterfront between the historic, Mediterranean-revival Vinoy Hotel and the eye-popping Salvador Dali Museum. Pass by the Museum of Fine Arts, a marina, a yacht club and some gorgeous banyan trees. On nearby Beach Drive, cafes, bars and stores line the street.