Found where the Peace River flows into the massive expanse of Charlotte Harbor, Punta Gorda is a stunning city in Southwest Florida.
This stretch of coastline has had the misfortune of being on the path of several hurricanes. Hurricane Ian made landfall just before I visited Punta Gorda.
Earlier, Hurricane Charley in 2004 was even more devastating. On a positive note, this disaster was a spur for development in the city.
One of the projects completed since then is the Harborwalk, spanning several miles of waterfront. With the Linear Park rail trail also in the mix you can reach many of Punta Gorda’s highlights on foot or by bike.
1. Peace River Wildlife Center
On Charlotte Harbor in Ponce de Leon Park, this is the place to come if you want to know more about the impact humans have on local wildlife. If that sounds upsetting, let me assure you that there’s a lot of inspiration, showing what we can do to protect Florida’s amazing animals.
Founded in 1982 by wildlife expert, Dr. Jerry Gingerich, the Peace River Wildlife Center initially started out of his own home. Local wildlife that he found or that others reported to him was taken to his veterinary office for treatment.
Injured animals are taken in by the center and are either treated and released back into the wild. Some stay on at the center, where they receive expert care. Birds, including pelicans, owls and bald eagles make up a lot of the residents.
As a visitor, you can see all the wildlife currently in their care. I appreciated hearing about the vital work that goes into looking after these animals.
2. Punta Gorda’s Historic Districts
A lot of Punta Gorda’s most positive changes have taken place in the wake of the highly destructive Hurricane Charley in 2004. While the hurricane was a catastrophe, it provided an opportunity to show Punta Gorda’s rich history in a new light.
The revitalized downtown warrants a brief walking tour, and has a smattering of restaurants, whether you’re in the mood for Vietnamese, Tex Mex, Southern cuisine, pub food or fine dining. My time to come is Saturday morning, when there’s an award-winning farmers’ market in front of the Old Charlotte County Courthouse (1928)
Go west from downtown and you’ll be in the Punta Gorda Residential District. This elegant area is peppered with lovely architecture from the 1880s to 1930, mostly in the Queen Anne style.
East of downtown, the Bethel-St. Mark Historic District covers 23 blocks, and traditionally was Punta Gorda’s African-American neighborhood. Be sure to call in at the Blanchard House Museum for insights about this community.
3. Fishermen’s Village
At the west end of the Harborwalk there’s a buzzing entertainment, dining and shopping complex jutting out into Charlotte Harbor.
Fishermen’s Village is on a converted industrial pier, constructed in the 1920s. After a fire in 1939 the pier had lain derelict for decades until it was purchased in the 1970s and transformed.
Some 50 years later, this is a fine place to continue a stroll. In cute pastel-painted buildings there’s an assortment of inviting boutiques, several restaurants, and sublime views of the harbor.
Fishermen’s Village is also a springboard for water-based recreation, from fishing charters and eco tours of the harbor.
4. Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens
Art and botanical splendor are entwined at this unique attraction five minutes up the Peace River in Cleveland.
On almost 30 acres, the Peace River Botanical And Sculpture Gardens have more than 4,500 flowering trees and plants. These grow in a variety of native habitats, including mangroves, uplands, wetlands, and tidal basin.
Walking the trails and boardwalks, I was thrilled to come across a world-class collection of sculpture. Harmonizing with this lush setting are more works by Carol Feuerman, Dominic Benhura, and Laurie Tenant, among many others.
If my family is anything to go by, the Butterfly House is a highlight, and is almost bustling with native pollinators.
There’s a wonderful paved trail on Punta Gorda’s waterfront, tracing the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor for around 2.5 miles.
From Fishermen’s Village to Bayfront Health, the Harborwalk links a series of waterside parks, and passes restaurants, museums, monuments, hotels, and the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center.
There’s a lot of nature too, with patches of mangrove forest, and sweeping vistas of Charlotte Harbor.
On my most recent walk, I saw a lot of shorebirds hanging out along the piers and jetties. The light takes on a magical quality later in the day when the low sun catches the water.
6. Ponce de Leon Park
Facing Charlotte Harbor in the west of the city, the park surrounding the Peace River Wildlife Center deserves a little exploration.
For one thing, the sunsets at Ponce de Leon Park are among the prettiest I’ve ever witnessed. These can be admired from a little sandy beach by the opening to the canal.
Another reason to come is for the boardwalk. Traversing the mangroves, this is about a quarter-mile and has signs about the species inhabiting Charlotte Harbor.
For further amenities, there’s a pavilion, fishing piers, boat ramp, picnic tables, and a playground.
7. Gilchrist Park
I think you could make the case for this park being the best in Punta Gorda. Gilchrist Park is on a picture-perfect slice of waterfront, along the Harborwalk between downtown and Fishermen’s Village.
The park honors Albert W. Gilchrist (1858-1926). He was one of Punta Gorda’s founders, and served as the 20th Governor of Florida.
With a long fishing pier, Gilchrist Park commands a view of Charlotte Harbor that will stop you in your tracks. There’s a gazebo for public concerts, a fenced playground, tennis/pickleball courts. Linger until late in the day for a dreamy sunset.
8. Military Heritage Museum
Within shouting distance of the Fishermen’s Village there’s a military museum with more than 30,000 items in its collection.
The Military Heritage Museum moved to its current building in 2019, and boasts four engaging exhibit galleries. With multimedia and interactivity, these do a deep dive on every conflict from the War of Independence to the Global War on Terror.
You’ll see Medals of Honor, and a wide variety of uniforms, weapons, and equipment. I was completely engrossed by the flight simulator, as well as the small collection of vehicles outside, including a Huey helicopter.
9. Linear Park
In the heart of the city you can walk or ride along a mile of the former Florida Southern/Atlantic Coastline Railroad.
This short-lived stretch of line was built in 1886 but had outlived its purpose by 1897. Today, the corridor has become a route between Fishermen’s Village and the southern end of downtown.
As well as landscaping, a sculpture park, and Punta Gorda’s Visual Arts Center, there are three fitness zones here, with 17 different machines in total.
By Fishermen’s Village the Linear Park connects with the Harborwalk, so for my money it’s an effortless way to get to some of Punta Gorda’s highlights.
10. Laishley Park
By the marina on the waterfront, this public park is the go-to venue for outdoor events in Punta Gorda.
The most important of these is probably the Punta Gorda Seafood Festival in mid-January, but this is also a prime spot to watch the 4th of July fireworks.
Within a short walk of downtown’s restaurants, Laishley Park is ideal for a picnic on a sunny day outside of the summer months.
On hotter days the interactive fountain here is a real asset, especially if your kids are as energetic as mine. There’s some dry play equipment on the edges, as well as covered seating for parents and caregivers.
11. Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center
Established in 1987, the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center is one of the best places to get to know the local ecosystems.
This is an educational place for the whole family, with nature trails, guided hikes by local experts, and much more. The center also puts on wildlife photography exhibits, and hosts regular lectures by historians and scientists.
If you’re just enjoying a self-guided visit, you’ll love the Three Lakes Trail. The best part for me was the long boardwalk skirting the mangroves on the edge of the water.
12. Blanchard House Museum
Punta Gorda’s African-American heritage comes into focus at this residence from 1925 in the Bethel-St. Mark Historic District.
This museum is a must, not least because African Americans are essential to the city’s story. Around a half of Punta Gorda’s founders were black, and signed the papers confirming its incorporation in 1887.
Exhibits at the Blanchard House study civic life, local politics, education, faith, founding families, and Punta Gorda in the Civil Rights Movement.
On show are family effects, local black literature, photographs, newspaper clippings, and much more. During my last visit to Punta Gorda the museum was temporarily closed following damage in Hurricane Ian.
13. AC Freeman House
If you’re looking for more history, make sure to pay a visit to AC Freeman House. Built in the Queen Anne style in 1903, the house is named for its original owner Augustus Freeman.
He was a prominent businessman and one-time mayor, and bought the original plot of land from the politician Albert W. Gilchrist, a Punta Gorda founding father.
The building is noted for the delicately carved columns and cornice on the porch. Meanwhile the National Register of Historic Houses describes it as having ‘elaborate interior finishes.’
The house has been relocated twice over the years, most recently after Hurricane Charley in 2004. When I was in town the AC was temporarily closed for renovations.
14. South County Regional Park
If you’re in need of active recreation, this public park is no more than a mile east of downtown. Opened in 2005, the park is packed with facilities, including a recreation center and an aquatic center.
This is ideal If you want a swim without traveling all the way to the Gulf shore. There’s a 25-yard competition pool with eight lanes, and a separate shallow area for kids.
Also outside are a host of other amenities. When I took a look I saw fields for baseball, softball and soccer, as well as tennis/pickleball and basketball courts. There’s also an 18 hole disc golf course, an RC car track, and a playground under a canopy.
15. Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary
Out in Punta Gorda’s hinterland, this nonprofit sanctuary provides a forever home for mistreated or unwanted exotic animals.
Most of the residents at the Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary have been born and raised in captivity. Sadly they cannot be released into the wild, but they’re clearly treated with a lot of love here.
As well as seeing a host of lions, tigers, hyenas, bears and monkeys up close, the real joy of this place was learning the animals’ stories.
When I went to press, the sanctuary was only offering guided tours, available in the mornings on Monday, Thursday and Friday.