Across San Carlos Bay from Fort Myers, Sanibel is an island destination, adored for its sublime beaches, unblemished nature, and all-round upscale vibe.
The island has a peculiar shape, a bit like an upturned boomerang. This results in an unusual abundance of shells accumulating on Sanibel’s beaches. Indeed, it’s one of the best places in the world for shelling, and even has a national museum for shells.
Behind, facing the bay and Pine Island sound is a huge network of mangrove tunnels ready to be explored by renting a kayak or joining a tour.
I put this article together just a few months after Sanibel was devastated by Hurricane Ian in 2023. Even so soon after the event, an incredible variety of attractions, sights, and businesses were back on their feet.
1. Bowman’s Beach Park
There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches on Sanibel Island. Still, if I had to choose just one, I reckon it would have to be Bowman’s Beach.
This seemingly endless stretch of soft white sand is on the more remote and less developed western side of the island. Bowman’s Beach is probably the most popular beach on Sanibel, but is so large that you can have as much privacy as you want.
The beach goes on for miles, and is reached by a bridge across a lagoon, and then a long sequence of walkovers. Shelling is a big activity here, and you could easily spend hours combing these sands for unique specimens.
2. Periwinkle Way
On the eastern side of the island, Periwinkle Way is where most of Sanibel’s shops, eateries, and other service businesses can be found.
This is the island’s main street, and in true Sanibel style there’s an upmarket but chilled feel to things. Instead of a concentrated downtown, there’s a string of charming shopping centers, wrapped in palms and sub-tropical landscaping.
Just off this main artery is the municipal center, home to a weekly farmers’ market, and Sanibel’s main cultural attractions.
Unfortunately, Periwinkle Way was hit extremely hard in the hurricane. Still, businesses were bouncing back when I compiled this list, and the future looks bright.
3. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
In Sanibel you can access a portion of one of the largest undeveloped mangrove systems in the country. You have several choices when it comes to experiencing the 5,200-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
You can hike or bike along several trails, including Wildlife Drive and Indigo Trail, take a 90-minute excursion with a professional naturalist on an uncovered tram, or self-drive along that same route.
Once-in-a-lifetime paddling experiences are available here via Tarpon Bay Explorers, which I’ll talk about below. Some of the animals often spotted on a journey through this lush habitat include crocodiles, alligators, manatees, and more than 200 species of birds.
On arrival, I’d begin at the free Visitor and Education Center, with exhibits, brochures, and a nature-themed store.
4. The Big Arts Center
In 2020 Sanibel’s BIG ARTS organization moved into a grand new home next door to the city hall. This was badly damaged by Hurricane Ian, but the building was repairable and a new season was in the works when I was in town.
BIG ARTS goes back to 1979, and oversees cultural programming in Sanibel. In the early days their shows, exhibitions and gatherings took place in private residences, the library or church.
When things are up and running once more you can head to the center for concerts, dance and theatrical performances at the Christensen Performance Hall, or to catch an exhibition at the Dunham Family Gallery.
Also on the calendar are lectures, movie screenings, and a multitude of workshops by resident artists.
5. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
Since Sanibel Island has such an abundance of shells, it’s only natural that there should be a national museum on the topic.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only museum of its kind in the country. It’s the perfect place for people of all ages to dive into the world of seashells.
I found out about the different types of shells, the creatures that make them, and the history of shelling in the area. On display are shells from the Sanibel Island area and from around the world, including the Goliath Conch and the Lightning Whelk.
Meanwhile kids will be absorbed by a well thought-out scavenger hunt that you can complete on a smartphone.
When I went to press the museum was in the middle of storm repairs, but was due to reopen before long.
6. The Great Calusa Blueway
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one element in a 190-mile paddling trail through the extraordinary bays, coastal backwaters, and tributaries of Lee County.
This is a kayaking or canoeing adventure like no other. The name comes from the Native American Calusa people who relied on these same routes to navigate these sheltered waters.
Sanibel is on the second leg of the trail, as it makes its way along Pine Island Sound and through the Matlacha Pass.
The trail is suitable for both beginner and seasoned paddlers, while taking sensible precautions. Along the way, you can expect to see a dazzling variety of wading birds, as well as dolphins and occasional manatees.
7. Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
A fine way to start a visit to Sanibel Island is with a history lesson. This museum takes you on a journey, starting with the native Calusa people and moving onto the Spanish conquerors and pioneers who settled in the area.
Seven restored buildings, including a post office and a school, help make the experience authentic. You’ll make your way through the historic homesteads and workplaces full of antique furniture, gardening tools, and household items.
Even a restored 1927 Model T truck is on-site, and various informational panels around the grounds tell the story of each building and artifact.
On my last visit, the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village was closed for repairs following the hurricane, but had set a definite date to reopen.
8. Gulfside City Beach Park
East of the apex of Sanibel’s ‘boomerang’ there’s a sizable beach close to the shops and eateries along Periwinkle Way.
Gulfside City Beach Park is my pick for families on Sanibel. Even when the tide is up, the water is relatively shallow here, and kids will have a blast hunting for shells. In fact there’s a neat little shell exhibit at the kiosk, showing what kind of shells you can discover on the beach.
Despite being close to the more developed parts of the island, the shore is natural, with three boardwalks crossing the dunes from the parking lot.
9. Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
On the eastern point of Sanibel Island is a historical 98-foot tall lighthouse that was built in 1884. Although the Sanibel Lighthouse is not open to the public, it’s a beautiful sight from the outside.
Visitors can still walk around the grounds and take pictures of it rearing up behind the curving beachfront. If you can, I think it’s well worth rising early and watching the sun come up from here. As ever, there’s a profusion of wonderful shells on the beach, with conches galore.
Exposed as it is, this park took a while longer to reopen after the hurricane, while the lighthouse lost one of its legs in the story and was in need of long-term repairs.
10. Sanibel Island Farmers’ Market
On Sunday mornings, October through May there’s a colorful and busy farmers’ market in the parking lot by the City Hall. This had been running for almost two decades when I was here, and has a mix of fresh produce, specialty foods, and arts & crafts.
Browsing the many vendors I saw fresh fish from the Gulf, honey, orchids, locally-grown citrus, herbs, microgreens, salsas, nuts, fresh-baked bread, dog treats, and more besides.
It’s a good idea to work the market into your lunch plans, with salad bowls, empanadas, crab cakes, and bagels all on the menu.
11. Tarpon Bay Explorers
The licensed concession at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, providing a range of rentals, tours, and cruises.
If you’re a little overawed by the vast labyrinth of mangrove tunnels on Sanibel’s bayside, I’d sign up for a tour. For an introduction there’s the Kayak Trail Tour, which will get you acquainted with Tarpon Bay, the mangrove system, and the spectacular wildlife within it.
For an unforgettable birding experience, Sunset Rookery Paddle heads to the Rookery Islands. In the evenings, more than a dozen species of mostly wading birds can be seen at this spot, including egrets, brown pelicans, ibises, herons, and cormorants.
12. Tahitian Gardens
For a dynamic shopping experience in Sanibel Island, Tahitian Gardens may be the best place to pick up a special something. On Periwinkle Way, this is a kind of shopping center, but feels a little more intimate as the businesses are all linked by a continuous porch.
You never know what kind of treasures you’ll find at this set of 16 boutiques. These carry everything from designer clothing to toys, jewelry, bags, shoes, hats, novelty gifts and home decor.
This may also be one of my favorite places to eat, with elegant health food, sandwiches and burgers among the choices.
13. Blind Pass Beach
One of the most unexpected beauty spots on Sanibel is this beach on the strait between this island and neighboring Captiva.
Blind Pass Beach is on the south side of the beach here, with a generous arc of sand to relax on. Before the hurricane there were sandbars at the entrance to the pass. When I was here these had gone, but this west-facing beach is still a delight, especially as the sun sets.
There are strong currents on the pass, which can make swimming dicey if you go a long way out. By that token, Blind Pass Beach is an awesome fishing spot, improving the closer to the bridge you get.
One of the best things about this place is the shelling, with some wonderful finds to be made at low tide. For amenities you can cross the bridge to Captiva’s Turner Beach, which is another lovely place to laze by the Gulf.
14. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
More than 3,500 sick and injured animals from at least 200 different species are cared for at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife each year. Among them are felines, birds of prey, opossums, turtles, snakes, and many more.
This not-for-profit veterinary hospital is a leader in rehabilitating these animals with the hopes of returning them to their natural habitat.
The center runs education programs that I can’t recommend enough. There’s a daily presentation led by a professional, explaining the important work that they do, normally with a focus on one species in particular.
You can also visit the hospital campus for a guided tour. This takes you behind the scenes, shining a light on patients’ journey from intake to release.
15. The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club
Enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding nature when you tee off at The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club.
This immaculately-maintained 18-hole course, designed by Mark McCumber, is on an Audubon Society nature preserve. This means you may even see more wildlife here than on an eco-tour.
When I played here, every fairway on the course had just been re-grassed, and I shared the course with a lot of small lizards, wading birds like egrets, and a number of alligators lurking by the lakes.
As for the layout, it’s not easy, with as much water as grass on this course. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need to be cautious with your approach shots or lose a lot of balls.