Visitors looking for an island paradise with a laid-back atmosphere and all the amenities of a city center find just that in Sanibel. Situated in Lee County, Florida, the small barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico is removed from the large tourist crowds that gather in other areas, but is actually only 25 miles away from the city of Fort Myers.
Whether you are traveling as a couple or family, Sanibel is the perfect place to unwind. It’s a place where cell service is spotty, and there are no traffic lights or skyscrapers. Visitors are also drawn to the pleasant tropical climate, the beautiful sandy beaches, the world-class resorts and restaurants, and the stunning sunsets.
While part of the island has been developed for tourism, a large portion of it is reserved for the preservation of a unique ecosystem that can be explored in the wildlife refuges taking up half of the island.
Popular activities include an array of water sports and shelling, which is the act of collecting shells from the beaches.
Below are 15 of the best things to do in and around Sanibel Island, Florida
1. Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
The best way to start a visit to Sanibel Island is with a history lesson; visitors can learn all there is to know about the people who settled here throughout the years and how the community came to be.
Starting with the native Calusa people and moving onto the Spanish conquerors and pioneers who settled in the area, The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village takes you back in time.
Seven refurbished buildings and staff in period clothing help make the experience authentic as you 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.
2. Bowman’s Beach
There’s no shortage of beautiful beaches on Sanibel Island, but if you’re looking for one that is less crowded but with some amenities, Bowman’s Beach is the best option. This stretch of soft, white sand is great for children and a popular option for anyone seeking unique shells.
Other popular activities include swimming, windsurfing, and sailing, and on-site amenities include picnic areas with BBQ grills, bathrooms with showers, and a playground.
3. Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream
Cold treats are a welcome indulgence on a hot day, and Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream has an assortment of cold treats available in a friendly and colorful environment.
The homemade ice cream this long-standing establishment is known for comes in many unique flavors, including Sanibel Crunch and Dirty Sand Dollar. Other sweet treats that are available include gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, pastries, and gluten-free cookies.
4. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Sanibel Island may be small, but it’s home to the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the country, which takes up an astounding 50 percent of the island. The J.N. “Ding” National Wildlife Refuge has several main purposes – to conserve this delicate mangrove forest, to protect a wide variety of animals and birds, and to educate the public about Florida’s natural wonders.
Visitors have three choices when it comes to experiencing the refuge: they 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.
Some of the animals often spotted on a journey through this lush, tropical area include crocodiles, alligators, manatees, and more than 200 species of birds. There’s also an informative visitor center on-site.
5. The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club
Enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding nature preserve when you tee off or hit the court at The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club. This immaculately-maintained 18-hole course, designed by Mark McCumber, is suitable for both amateur and skilled golfers who like a challenge on the greens.
6. The Big Arts Center
Since 1979, an assembly of local artists has been organizing and hosting various events at The Big Arts Center via three separate settings.
The Schein Performance Hall, which seats 409 guests, hosts musical performances of varying genres, including classical, folk, and jazz.
The Herb Strauss Theater, which seats 139 guests, hosts professional theater and Broadway performances.
The Phillips and Founders Galleries showcase both local and national visual artists through a variety of exhibits.
7. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
Since Sanibel Island is home to an abundance of seashells, and collecting these seashells is a popular activity among visitors and locals, it seems only natural that there would a museum dedicated to seashells.
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 learn 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.
A shell classification wheel, shell art, and fossil shells are among some of the things you will see showcased in the exhibits. A tank with live animals is on-site, and visitors can participate in an interactive experience alongside the naturalists that work with these animals.
8. The Great Calusa Blueway
The best way for nature lovers to experience the natural side of the Sanibel Island area is with an excursion along the Great Calusa Blueway. This 190-mile long paddling trail takes canoeists and kayakers along a visibly marked marine route, departing from Estero and on to Matlacha Pass, Pine Island, and Caloosahatchee.
This excursion is suitable for both beginner and seasoned paddlers. Along the way, you can expect to see beautiful bays, mangrove creeks, bird habitats, and wildlife, including dolphins and manatees.
9. Tahitian Gardens
For a unique shopping experience in Sanibel Island, Tahitian Gardens is the best place to browse for the perfect souvenir for yourself or someone back home. You never know what kind of treasures you’ll find while browsing the 16 boutique shops that carry everything from designer clothing, toys, and jewelry to novelty items and home decor. Eateries, including a gourmet Italian bakery, are on site.
10. Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens
The Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens are home to six acres of beautiful grounds with hundreds of flowers and tropical plants. Visitors have two options when it comes to seeing the gardens. You can take a 90-minute walking tour with a knowledgeable guide or enjoy a self-guided tour and take as long as you want to walk through.
As you admire the lush, colorful greenery, take note of the various insect, bird, and butterfly species that are all around. Turtles and rabbits are familiar sights as well.
11. 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, visitors can still walk around the grounds and take pictures of it towering over the Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park in the background.
This park, which is situated in a protected nature area, lies on the edge of a stunning sandy beach with views of the Sanibel Causeway. Park amenities include a picnic area, restrooms with showers, and a fishing pier.
12. Periwinkle Place
The main street in Sanibel Island, also known as Periwinkle Place, is where tourists and locals head for a day of shopping, pampering, eating, and socializing.
This is Sanibel Island’s largest shopping area, and there are 25 unique shops selling everything from quirky souvenirs and handmade jewelry to designer clothing. This is where you will also find the Sanibel Day Spa, world-class restaurants, and some of the best hotels in the area.
13. Tarpon Bay Explorers
Visitors can enjoy an eco-friendly day in nature with Tarpon Bay Explorers, which offers both guided kayaking tours and kayak rentals, so you can explore a vast, natural landscape.
Wildlife and natural landscapes are the focus of the tours, which include the Mangrove Forest tour, with the opportunity to spot alligators and a variety of bird species, and the Sunset Rookery Paddle with the chance to view local birdlife at sunset.
14. Bleu Rendezvous
There are many great places to enjoy a top-quality meal on Sanibel Island, but if authentic French cuisine in a chic, relaxed environment is something you crave, Bleu Rendezvous has just that.
Time-honoured French dishes, such as Escargot and Boeuf Bourguignon, are carefully prepared with modern twists, and the mouth-watering desserts are the perfect ending to a delectable meal.
15. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
More than 3,500 sick and injured animals across at least 200 different species are cared for at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife each year.
This not-for-profit veterinary hospital is a leader in rehabilitating these animals with the hopes of returning them to their natural habitat.
To get the best experience, take part in a daily presentation lead by a professional in the field who demonstrates the work they do with a live animal. This Wildlife Walk tour is a guided tour of the hospital that gets you behind the scenes, but you will need to register for it in advance.
One of the goals of the center is to educate the public about the work they do, and the on-site visitor’s center has a variety of exhibits, including live animal displays.