Making your way through Southwest Florida? Leave space in your itinerary for exploring all the fun things to do on Sanibel Island. Famous for its beautiful beaches and warm waters, Sanibel Island is a natural paradise within steps of Fort Myers.
Although a popular destination, the island maintains a small-town feel, offering spacious beaches and relaxing hospitality. Come to Sanibel Island for some of the best shelling anywhere on earth before capturing the sunset at a beachfront bar.
Not sure what to do on Sanibel Island? Check out this complete guide to the best places to visit on Sanibel Island, FL.
Must-see places to visit in Sanibel Island, FL
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
If you love nature and wildlife, set aside time to explore the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Begin at the visitor center to learn about the park’s unique ecosystems along with its top outdoor activities.
A wonderful way to explore the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is by completing the journey down Wildlife Drive. There are two ways to experience this: On an open-air tram with a certified guide or on your own four wheels. Either way, keep your eye out for alligators, bobcats, and otters.
To explore on two feet, there are several hiking trails in the park, including the Indigo Trail. The 4-mile round-trip will bring you close to nature, including herons, ospreys, and roseate spoonbills. The trail is also connected to the park’s Wildlife Education Boardwalk.
Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
As you make your way onto Sanibel Island, you’ll probably spot the historic Sanibel Island Lighthouse. Opened in 1884, the lighthouse stands over 100 feet tall within Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park. History buffs will love carving out time to explore the lighthouse, located on the island’s eastern edge.
Sanibel Lighthouse isn’t the only attraction here. A sparkling white-sand beach engulfs the lighthouse, offering a stunning spot to enjoy the sun or go for a swim.
Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park also features several giant trees for shady reading, along with picnic tables, restrooms, and showers.
Anglers can also make use of the local fishing pier for a relaxing afternoon by the water. On a clear day, you’ll also enjoy fantastic views of Fort Myers Beach.
The remote coast of Bowman’s Beach offers some of the finest shelling opportunities on Sanibel Island. As one of the most popular beaches near Fort Myers, visitors can not only collect beautiful conch shells but enjoy the clear water or simply take a romantic walk along the beach.
The mid-island location of Bowman’s Beach also comes with a consistent breeze. On any given day, you’ll spot windsurfers and sailors making the most of the windy conditions. For those that just want to sit and relax, the spacious beach comes with plenty of room to spread out.
Stock up at the local grocery store before setting up your beach chairs and umbrella for an afternoon of zero stress. To escape the sun, head to the shaded picnic areas where you can fire up the BBQ for lunch.
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
One of the top points of interest in Sanibel Island is the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. On an island with some of the finest shelling in the USA, it’s no surprise that the museum is extensive.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is home to some of the largest shells, not just on the island, but around the world. Over 30 exhibits are on display to showcase these amazing finds. These include horse conches, lightning whelk, and an enormous Goliath conch, which is the largest of its kind in the world!
Beyond shells, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has interactive experiences, including on-site naturalists working with live animals. You might even get a chance to take part!
Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
Sanibel Island has a long and storied past dating back to the 1800s. To keep their history alive, the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village was founded. Since opening in 1984, the museum has told the stories of the island’s early residents.
The museum is spread between seven buildings, which were once the homes of original community members. Moved from their starting locations, the homes are now on a beautiful property and a part of a historic village.
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The homes at Sanibel Historical Museum and Village help inform locals and travelers alike about the history & culture of the Calusa Indians, the Spanish colonial era, and the pioneers. They’re complete with period furniture and original household items. Some of the prominent buildings include the old Sanibel Schoolhouse and the original farmer’s packing house.
Tarpon Bay Beach
Often referred to by locals as Sanibel Beach, Tarpon Bay Beach is a long stretch of white sand with mesmerizing sunrises. The ample parking makes it a popular gathering place with room for RVs to set up.
Tarpon Bay Beach comes with many amenities for everyone to make use of. Along the brief paved walkway towards the beach, you’ll pass shaded picnic tables to enjoy along with showers and restrooms.
One of the most popular beaches on Sanibel Island, the sprawling sandy beach is the perfect place to bask in the sunlight. With no palms overhead, be sure to pack along your umbrella and beach gear.
Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens
One of the most beautiful things to see on Sanibel Island for nature lovers is the Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens. The gardens have a fascinating back story as it all happened by accident. Sanibel Moorings Resort hired a gardener to maintain the outdoor areas, but such was his passion that the outdoor space unintentionally became the island’s top garden.
Over the years, each successive gardener upgraded the collection of unique plants until 2009, when it officially became a botanic garden.
Roam the Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens to explore a collection of native and non-native tropical plants including orchids, palms, and cacti. The beauty of the garden is clear in its colors as well as its visiting butterflies and singing birds.
Blind Pass Beach
If you only have one day on Sanibel Island, make a beeline for Blind Pass Beach. Arguably the most picturesque stretch of sand on the island, Blind Pass offers an idyllic day by the water.
Blind Pass Beach stretches well into the distance, giving beachgoers plenty of room to enjoy, along with the opportunity for some fantastic Sanibel Island beach walks. Surrounding the beach are only a handful of buildings and no facilities, giving Blind Pass a remote feel and adding to its aura.
Be sure to stock up on beach eats and sweet treats so you can relax under the umbrella all day long.
Tarpon Bay Explorers
A great way to embark on some Sanibel Island sightseeing is with the help of Tarpon Bay Explorers. Based within the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve, the outfitter escorts guests on fun-filled wildlife and kayak tours.
With the help of your resident expert guide, explore Sanibel Island’s fragile mangrove forests on a kayak. Keep your eyes peeled for roaming alligators and birds creating nests in their natural habitat.
Another memorable tour and a fantastic way to take in the island’s blazing sunset is on their Sunset Rookery Paddle. Great for photographers and bird-lovers alike, the tour will let you spot herons, ibis, and cormorants before ending the trip with a spectacular sunset.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille
If you’re on the lookout for a delicious meal and an island cocktail, look no further than Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille. The restaurant is a local institution and was named after a character from a Randy Wayne White novel. Mr. White, being a resident of Sanibel Island, is often caught working on his latest novel at Doc Ford’s.
Beyond renowned novelists, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille is known for its spacious outdoor patio and its refreshing Island Mojitos. For your appetizer, don’t skip out on their delicious Yucatan shrimp. Go for the peel-and-deal or order them in the amazing shrimp tacos.
Just north of Sanibel Island is another must-see island in the chain. Captiva Island is a brief and beautiful 20-minute drive away, connected to Sanibel via a small bridge. Captiva is much smaller than Sanibel but is just as picturesque.
With less development, much of Captiva Island feels like an escape akin to the movie Cast Away. Like the island to the south, you can embark on a shelling adventure here with multiple beaches offering copious amounts of sea ‘gifts’.
For more adrenaline-pumping fun you can go parasailing and windsurfing along the coast or slowly maneuver around onboard a SUP. Captiva Island is also a top spot for joining a yacht charter to spot dolphins and manatees.
BIG ARTS Sanibel
Getting a little tired of the sun? Luckily, Sanibel Island isn’t all about the beach. BIG ARTS Sanibel is a wonderful local center, focusing on resident artists. The venue has a little something for every visitor to the island.
Since opening in the late 1970s, the center has offered everything from jazz to pop to country concerts along with a series of professional theater shows. The Herb Strauss Theater is a small 139-set arena; there’s no such thing as a bad seat in the house.
Aside from performing arts, BIG ARTS Sanibel throws several gallery exhibits throughout the year. Promoting local and national talents, the gallery space is also used for classes and workshops.
Sanibel Island Farmers Market
Many farmers’ markets run through the summer months, but the Sanibel Island Farmers Market has flipped the switch. Operating every Sunday from October to May, this local market is a happening place. It’s the perfect spot to load up on fresh produce and treats for the week ahead.
The Sanibel Island Farmers Market occurs in the island’s city hall and offers visitors local veggies, seafood, flowers, meats, and cheese. (Basically, everything you need for a delicious charcuterie board on Blind Pass Beach.)
With over 30 vendors, the atmosphere of the market is as enjoyable as the food itself. Take the time to mingle with locals and enjoy a fun insight into island life.
Great Calusa Blueway
The adventurer within us is always looking for a way out. If you’re itching for an exciting journey while on Sanibel Island, check out the Great Calusa Blueway. There’s no better way to explore Florida’s Gulf Coast than by completing this 190-mile kayaking adventure.
The Great Calusa Blueway is suitable for all skill levels, from beginner to expert kayakers. The water trail is well-marked and will guide you through the breathtaking Lee County waterways.
Causeway Islands Park
When driving to Sanibel Island from Fort Myers, you first have to cross the Sanibel Island Causeway. The bridge is just under 3 miles long, offering amazing views of the vast San Carlos Bay. The entire causeway comprises three bridges with two small islands, breaking up the brief journey.
These two islands combine to be Causeway Islands Park. Also known as Island A and Island B, they’re a great spot for a different kind of beach day in the Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island area.
The shallow waters at Causeway Island Park are great for families, with Island B providing bathroom facilities. Both spots are perfect for stand-up paddleboarding, or, when the wind’s up, kitesurfing.
Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
Alongside the national shell museum and the wildlife refuge, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is one of the coolest Sanibel Island attractions for nature lovers. Beginning at the visitor center, you’ll enjoy a variety of hands-on displays exploring the many types of wildlife found in Southwest Florida.
From here, take a step back and see the many live animal exhibits, comprising armadillos, turtles, and even snakes.
To make the most of your visit to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, arrive in time for the 11 am presentation. Watch as a professional naturalist spends time with many of the resident animals and walks visitors through the important work that helps bring them back to full health.
Dunes Golf & Tennis Club
From shelling and swimming to SUPing and windsurfing, there’s much fun to be had on Sanibel Island, But if you’re keen to break out the golf clubs for a swing, make your way to the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club.
Created within a wildlife preserve, the popular golf course mixes stunningly with its surrounding environment. The unique golfing experience centers around an 18-hole championship course, unleashing endless nature views.
If you’re not up for a round of golf, swing your racket at the local tennis courts instead. There are seven Har-Tru-style courts on offer, with a gourmet meal at the Club House waiting in the wings.
Gulfside City Park Beach
Looking for a quieter stretch of sand on the barrier island? Beeline for Gulfside City Park Beach. Although wedged between several resorts, this pristine stretch of sand is surprisingly tranquil compared to other beaches on the island. It’s a great escape, especially if you’re traveling to Sanibel with the kids in tow.
Other than relaxing on the warm sands, Gulfside City Park Beach, also known as Algiers Beach, is another great spot for shelling with the whole family. Sort through its abundance of shells, keeping your eyes peeled for an elusive sand dollar.
Gulfside City Park Beach is also a hotspot for spotting endangered wildlife including sea turtles and nesting shorebirds. During turtle nesting season, keep on the lookout for signs and barriers to avoid damaging the sensitive environment.
No visit to Sanibel Island is complete without hanging out on Periwinkle Way. The island’s main avenue is home to an array of boutique shops, shopping centers, and restaurants. It’s the perfect antidote to Sanibel’s historic, coastal, and natural charms.
On your Periwinkle Way adventure, shop for souvenirs at the popular Island Gifts boutique or for unique arts & crafts at Three Crafty Ladies.
Periwinkle Way also hosts some of the tastiest places to eat on Sanibel Island. For succulent fresh seafood, pull up a chair at The Island Cow or the Sanibel Fish House.
Top off an exquisite meal with a visit to Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream. Opened in 1980, the famed ice cream parlor dishes out unique flavors inspired by the island, including Sanibel Krunch and Dirty Sand Dollar.
Recommended places to stay in Sanibel Island for sightseeing
Get worlds away from the streets of Sanibel among the swaying palm trees of Kona Kai. The inn offers luxurious amenities at a superb value, including an outdoor pool and BBQ area. The hotel is a quick walk to the Sanibel Lighthouse.
Located off the coast, the Seaside Inn charms guests with its vistas of the Gulf of Mexico. At this mid-range guesthouse, you’ll enjoy private beach access, tennis courts, free bicycle rentals, and a swimming pool.
Sitting on the beachfront, Song of the Seas offers guests well-appointed rooms, including a kitchenette and flat-screen TV. After renting a bike to explore the island, soak in the hot tub and grill dinner on their BBQs. The hotel is a quick drive to the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club.