It’s easy to spend a fortune on a Florida vacation. (Walt Disney World passes for the whole family, anyone?) Yet with a little research, it’s also possible to take in memorable sights and experiences in the Sunshine State for nothing at all.
We’ve looked all over the state for top beaches, fun walks, natural attractions and more for those who want to stretch their dollars and see as much as possible for less. These are the top free things to do in Florida.
Start with beaches…then continue with more beaches
No trip to Florida is complete without hitting the beach – or many of them. Florida has 825 miles of beaches, and some of its most renowned spots remain totally, happily free to the public. These options span the spectrum from the traditionally buzzing South Beach (Miami), Daytona Beach and Panama City Beach (in the Panhandle) to the vast, tranquil landscapes in Clearwater and Naples. Keep in mind that convenient parking may cost you, so biking or using public transport to get to the sand may be more cost effective than driving.
Admission-free Disney: Disney Wilderness Preserve, Disney Springs and Disney’s BoardWalk
Unfortunately, admission to Walt Disney World is not free. Yet you’ll find a number of Disney-branded activities in and around the parks to get into the magical spirit without breaking the bank. Among them, you can stroll through the dining, entertainment and shopping wonderland of Disney Springs or the action-packed BoardWalk at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn. Eco-minded travelers will like the Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, an 11,500-acre area full of bird-watching and hiking opportunities.
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Watch manatees chill out
Manatees are right up there with dolphins, sea turtles and panthers as some of Florida’s most beloved animals. While it can be tricky to spot one out in the wild or from a boat, there are a few places statewide where they are known to congregate. Among them is Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, located approximately 20 miles south of downtown Tampa, where the pleasantly warm discharge water from a power station draws packs of these gentle creatures. In addition to an expansive outdoor manatee sanctuary and viewing areas, there are also butterfly gardens and an environmental education building to explore.
Join a nightly sunset party
It’s the Sunshine State, after all – so why not celebrate the sunset each day? In select Florida destinations, vibrant and often entertainment-filled “sunset celebrations” happen each night up to (and during) the final rays of the day. Notable celebrations include the one at Key West’s Mallory Square, which boasts acrobats, musicians, clowns and everything in between, and a similar daily party at Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach.
Take a stroll down St Augustine’s historic St George St
Dating back to 1565, the city of St Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the USA. No street in the town brims with a balance of history and contemporary life more than its main drag, St George St. On a stroll along this pedestrian-only street, you can see the Oldest Wooden School House, Old City Gate and a plethora of other eye-catching sights.
Enjoy Florida’s creative vibe at public art installations
You can take in some of the state’s most unique and captivating art by simply taking a stroll. Among the state’s highlights is Thrive, a sculpture by South African artist Daniel Popper by the Las Olas Riverfront in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Other top art spots include Miami’s graffiti-festooned Wynwood neighborhood and the newly opened Underline park. At the other end of the state, the Tu Viện A Nan Buddhist Temple and Statue Park in Gainesville offers a tranquil experience.
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Get some quirky culture at free museums
Although the majority of Florida’s museums require paid entry, there are a few free-admission options scattered throughout the state, often a little quirkier than the mainstay institutions. From north to south, free choices include the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee and the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Feel the pull of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory
Did you know that some of the strongest magnets in the world are housed in a Florida building? On the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is dedicated to testing all forms of magnets, materials and energy under one (strongly fortified) roof. Free public tours of the facility are available on the third Wednesday of each month; with three weeks’ notice, groups of eight or more may schedule a private tour.
Jam out at the Guitar Hotel
Is this the most rockin’ hotel in the world? In 2019, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood opened the 638-room Guitar Hotel on its grounds. The building does, in fact, take the form of a giant guitar stretching 36 stories high. At night, vivid lights and a rooftop beam shining into the sky make for a wonderfully gaudy spectacle. Though you’ll have to pay to check in here, the hotel typically puts on a nightly light show at 9 and 9:30pm.
Watch mammals take flight from the University of Florida’s bat houses
The largest bat houses in the world can be found on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. And we’re not taking about baseball. Each night and shortly after sunset, upwards of 500,000 bats emerge from the two wooden structures for their nightly insect feast. The public can watch the visual spectacle from nearby – and there’s no need to fret, since these bats leave humans alone.
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Start (or end) a journey at mile 0
How often do you see a marker for mile 0? Snapping a picture in front of this Key West landmark means more than just taking a cool photo. It means you’ve ventured to the southern end of the continental USA at the southernmost point of US Route 1, which runs from here all the way to the border with Canada, some 2400 miles away.
If geographic superlatives are your thing, you’ll probably also want a pic with the Southernmost Point Buoy (marking the southernmost point in the US – sort of), which can also be found in Key West.
Linger under the Spanish moss on canopy roads
Whether driving on Interstate 75 through the Everglades or along the Atlantic Coast via State Road A1A, there is no shortage of vistas on Florida’s thoroughfares. Tallahassee is home to nine official “canopy roads,” where the long branches of Spanish moss–covered live oaks, hickories and other flora creates a tunnel-like and unforgettable drive. You’ll definitely want to make a few pit stops for a picture…or 10.
Feel the old-school grandeur of the Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables exudes an old-school elegance that is rare to find in South Florida. Originally built in 1926, it’s now a National Historic Landmark with a 271-room resort as its anchor and more than 150 acres of lush spaces on its property. Every Sunday, two free tours let non-paying guests explore its grounds and history.