Want to indulge in a soothing, stress-free and rejuvenating beach escape? Forget Miami Beach! For a true slice of paradise on earth, visit Sanibel Island. With its pleasant sea breeze, endless summer, and sugar-white sand beaches, this island will give you an unforgettable seaside getaway.
While it’s known as an exquisite and relaxing respite, the island offers ample opportunities for outdoor fun and adventure too. What’s more, the island is ideal for shelling, and it boasts a bundle of artsy attractions.
So, whether you’re itching for a serene retreat or high-octane thrills, you are sure to find your bliss on Sanibel Island.
Inspired to visit this haven of irresistible tropical beauty? Well, you’re in a treat today, as we’ve listed down the top things to do in Sanibel Island.
We explored Sanibel Island while road tripping down Florida’s Gulf Coast. Be sure to check out The Best Stops Along the Gulf Coast of Florida to learn more.
Sanibel Island, Florida Highlights Map
HOW TO USE THIS MAP: Above you’ll find a map of our highlights for the best things to do in Sanibel Island. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places we mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version.
15 Best Things to do in Sanibel Island, FL
1. Shelling at Bowman’s Beach
Kick-start your island vacation on a high note with a visit to the pristine and gorgeous sandy expanse of Bowman’s Beach.
With its spotless waters and soft sands, this beach is a prime spot for classic beach activities, like swimming, sunbathing, sailing, and building sandcastles.
And guess what? The beach is also beloved for its unusual and curious shells. As a bonus, this strip has picnic areas, a playground, bathrooms with clean showers, and BBQ grills.
If your searching for shells we suggest getting up early and going out right after a storm. This is when you can find the best shells like common conchs and Whelks.
The pros will be out with flashlights during this time. Another good time is right after high tide, but you don’t have to be a diehard like that to get some impressive shells.
We arrived at 7:30 A.M. and found some pretty amazing shells even though the beach was picked by many shell searchers. Please only take what you need and be careful with what you pick since some may be alive. It is not allowed to collect live shells.
Bowman’s Beach also has the most parking out of all the beaches located on Sanibel Island.
If you’d like to see video from our visit to the Fort Myers area, click here to watch our Fort Myers Instagram stories
2. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Fond of wildlife and nature? Do yourself a favor, and put the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge at the top of your list of things to do in Sanibel Island.
With a bevy of natural attractions and activities, you’ll have a blast enjoying the creations of Mother Nature at this preserve.
Open for free to the public, the park’s visitors’ center is a terrific spot to learn more about its animals and ecosystems. Furthermore, the visitors’ center shares fun tidbits about the founder of the refuge, Jay Norwood Darling.
You may also take a 90-minute tour of the refuge led by a bona fide naturalist. With their knowledge of wildlife, these guides will show you where the otters, bobcats, wading birds, and alligators hide out.
Admission is charged to enter the park and do the scenic drive, however, they do accept the America the Beautiful Pass if you have one of those.
3. Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
Set on the island’s eastern edge, the Sanibel Lighthouse operated between 1884 and 1972. Today, it’s one of the top and most popular attractions on Sanibel Island. Standing at 112 feet, this lighthouse is a sight to behold.
The beach park also features some of the best things to do in Sanibel Island. Not only does it offer a fabulous beach, but it also has picnic tables, showers, restroom facilities, and large trees. Did we mention that it’s home to the Sanibel Fishing Pier?
This is also a great place during low tide to search for shells. Those who are in search of aquatic creaturs you should also explore the tidal pools during this time.
4. Sanibel Historical Museum And Village
History buffs will, no doubt, have a blast exploring the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. With its costumed interpreters and old-fashioned architecture, a visit to this village feels like traveling back to a bygone era.
In fact, this attraction will give you a glimpse of what the island looked like from the 1889s to 1940s. Through its seven wondrous buildings, visitors will have a taste of the old ways of life here. Inside these buildings, you’ll find a plethora of antiques, like beds, personal items, and chairs.
There’s also a packing house, a tea-room, several cottages, and a schoolhouse.
5. Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
Don’t let its size deceive you! Although the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is a bit small, it’s packed with exhibits that share interesting information about the different kinds of shells.
Not to mention, it shelters some of the world’s largest shells, including the horse conch, lightning whelk, Atlantic trumpet triton, and Goliath conch. In 2020, the museum opened a brand new wing housing 11 aquarium displays that feature live mollusks.
Animals that now live here include gastropods, octopuses, and giant clams. Additionally, the new wing has a couple of touch tanks where kiddos can enjoy a close encounter with these creatures.
6. Blind Pass beach
Spanning across Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Blind Pass Beach is an excellent place to sunbathe, fish, and hunt shells. Since it faces the west, it’s a superb spot to catch the dramatic sunset views.
We don’t recommend swimming at this beach though, as its rip currents are often pretty intense. So if you’re searching things to do in Sanibel Beach with kids, look for other beaches and attractions.
7. Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens
Encompassing six acres, the Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens is an oasis that serves as home to hundreds of tropical plants and flowers. You can see these fragrant wonders either by a self-guided tour or a guided 90-minute tour.
Either way, these gardens will tantalize your senses with their colorful flowers and lush greenery. For animal lovers, you’ll also spot rabbits, turtles, butterflies, birds, and insects in these gardens.
8. Have a Meal at Bleu Rendezvous
Satisfy your taste buds with a mouth-watering time-honored French meal at Bleu Rendezvous. At this restaurant, you’ll enjoy carefully prepared French dishes with a modern twist, like Boeuf Bourguignon and Escargot.
Then, you may cap off your meal with any of the restaurant’s luscious desserts. As for the ambiance, guests will definitely adore its relaxed and chic environment.
9. Periwinkle Way
The primary thoroughfare of the island, Periwinkle Way, teems with shopping opportunities and numerous tempting restaurants. A godsend for shopaholics, this road has a ton of stores offering jewellery, souvenirs, and clothes.
Along this pathway, you’ll also see and experience all kinds of attractions. The scenery here is incredibly scenic with its eye-catching palm trees. Trust me, it’s one of the best things to do in Sanibel Island for photography connoisseurs.
If you’re not sure where to start here, head to Periwinkle Place where you’ll find upscale stores and kitschy souvenir shops, such as Tiki Jim’s
10. Drive the Sanibel Causeway
Stretching for three miles, the Sanibel Causeway isn’t just a path that connects mainland Florida to Sanibel Island. With its aesthetic brilliance and outstanding construction, this engineering wonder is also an irresistible landmark and a stellar sight.
The causeway is made up of three separate bridges, and in the middle of these structures, there’s Causeway Islands Park.
Known for its sandy beaches, the park is well-known for outdoor pursuits, like kitesurfing and paddleboarding. It is also a great place for sunset.
11. Sanibel’s Best Homemade Ice Cream (Formerly named Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream)
Take a break from the sunny, salty, and sandy fun by indulging in a luscious cold treat at Pinocchio’s. For years, this establishment has been known for serving delectable homemade ice cream flavors, including Dirty Sand Dollar, and Sanibel Crunch.
Of course, there are tons of other sweet treats available at Pinocchio’s, such as gluten-free cookies, pastries, sherbet, sorbet, frozen yogurt, and gelato.
12. Clinic For The Rehabilitation Of Wildlife
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a wildlife rehabilitation facility that cares for over 3,000 orphaned, injured and sick migratory and native wildlife patients per year.
Unlike your typical zoos, this veterinary hospital rehabs these creatures and aims to return them to their natural habitat.
To make the most of your visit, join their daily presentations, which are led by a pro. Likewise, you may take a guided, behind-the-scenes tour of the veterinary hospital.
13. Head to Captiva Island
Captiva Island, the enticing neighbor of Sanibel Island, is a wonderland for outdoor adventurers. Besides offering miles of sandy beaches, Captiva Island also has bird-watching opportunities, bike paths, and hiking trails.
From adorable starfish to bizarre giant frogs, you’ll find a cornucopia of wildlife along the island’s shore.
Meanwhile, seafood lovers will have a swell time savoring the fresh ocean bounties at the top restaurants in Captiva Island. Best of all, this oceanfront hub offers breathtaking sunset views.
14. Sanibel Island Farmers market
Held at the City Hall on Sundays, the Sanibel Island Farmer’s Market features over 25 different vendors selling practically everything.
At this market, visitors will have plenty of choices when it comes to tropical plants, locally grown vegetables and fruits, homemade goods, and fresh seafood. It’s filled with colors too, making it an irresistible spot for photographers and Instagrammers.
Before leaving the market, make sure to sample any of their delightful fresh smoothies. They are a treat and extremely satisfying after spending some time under the Florida sun.
15. Sanibel Day Spa
Need to relax and replenish your energy? You might want to pamper yourself from head to toe at the Sanibel Day Spa. With a relaxing atmosphere and deluxe treatments, this spa facility guarantees to remove stress and alleviate weary muscles.
So relax, and take your pick from an array of spa services at this facility, including salon services, pedicures, manicures, reflexology, facials, and massages.
16. Sissi Janku Art Studio
Unleash your creative energy and channel your inner Picasso by joining one of Sissi Janki’s painting lessons at the Sanibel Community House.
Sign up for her weekly painting classes and learn priceless lessons and techniques on how to create a masterpiece. You may also catch her exceptional works at the Island Style Gallery.
17. Play Golf
Aching to play a round of golf? Lucky for you, the area has a bundle of first-rate courses to offer golf aficionados.
Our top picks include the Sanctuary Golf Club and the Sanibel Island Golf Club. You may also play tennis or golf at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club.
18. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille
If you are going to put one thing on our list, you must stop and eat at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill on Sanibel Island or Captiva.
It’s a casual Florida beach-themed restaurant with local eats and a raw bar plus cocktails with a large rum list.
We recommend that you order the Doc Ford mojito along with an order of the Yucatan Shrimp. You will not be disappointed and you can thank us later!
19. Bike Around Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is one of those places that you can truly go anywhere on a bike. There’s a great biking path that spans the whole length of the island and allows you to get to many of the great beaches that have limited car parking.
You can bring your own bike or you can rent them. Be sure to wear a helmet and have a chain to lock your bike up properly when you want to explore on foot. Also, don’t leave any valuable behind on an unattended bike.
20. Take in a Sunrise or Sunset
If you are someone who loves a good sunrise or sunset Sanibel Island is the place for you. You truly cannot go wrong with either on this little island.
There’s plenty of great stops to sit back and relax as the sun rises or sets. There’s also plenty of great backdrops throughout the island. I can tell you the truth that they cannot be found in the Fort Myers Beach area.
Staying on Sanibel Island vs Fort Myers Beach
The age-old argument is whether to stay on Sanibel Island or in the Fort Myers Beach area and that really depends on what kind of experience you are looking to have.
Below we will highlight the two areas and give you some insight on the advantages and disadvantages of staying in them.
Staying on Sanibel Island
Staying on Sanibel Island has its advantages and disadvantages. We recommend it if you are looking for a beach island getaway that has an upscale feeling to it.
If you plan on relaxing, shelling, and just enjoying your time, Sanibel Island is the place for you.
Below we will list out our Pro’s vs Con’s for staying on Sanibel Island along with where we recommend staying.
- You are there, minutes from the beach, no need to drive around waiting in traffic.
- You can avoid the busiest times by getting up early and staying out late when the daytrippers have gone home.
- There’s more of an upscale island feeling than the party-type feeling you get in Fort Myers.
- You can have a more private experience.
- No need to worry about finding a parking spot at the beach since you can walk to it or bike to it.
- It can be expensive compared to staying in Fort Myers.
- Restaurants are limited compared to Fort Myers.
- If you are looking to do more than just enjoy Sanibel Island you’ll have to take a day trip.
- If you are a social butterfly and want to party you’ll have to head to Fort Myers Beach.
- Good luck finding a parking spot down at Fort Myers Beach.
Our recommended places to stay on Sanibel Island:
- Kimball Lodge – 305 – At The Historic Island Inn!!! – Only 100 yards to the Beach!
- Family-friendly vacation condo -Sanibel Serenity
- Sundial A301: Beautiful Gulf Front Paradise, Corner Unit w/ Wrap Around Lanai
Staying in Fort Myers
Staying in Fort Myers has its advantages and disadvantages. If you’re looking to explore the Fort Myers area it’s best to stay somewhere like Fort Myers beach compared to Sanibel Island.
Below we will list out the Pro’s vs Con’s for staying in Fort Myers.
- More to do, you’re right in the middle of the action.
- More restaurant options compared to Sanibel Island
- There’s a wide range of accommodations and prices to meet everyone’s budget.
- No need to worry about parking if you are staying in a place right on Fort Myers beach.
- It can be loud since Fort Myers has more of a party scene.
- You’ll have to plan a day trip to Sanibel Island (which for many people is fine).
- If your someone who wants more of a private vacation, Fort Myers isn’t it.
- You’ll spend lots of time in traffic when visiting Sanibel Island.
- Parking can be limited at many of the popular beach spots on Sanibel Island.
Our recommended places to stay in Fort Myers:
- Spacious studio right on Fort Myers beach. (Where We Stayed!)
- Beach Bar 2 – Beachfront 2 Bedroom Apartment
- Beachfront right on the sand!
Tips For Visiting Sanibel Island
- Have a plan, just driving around won’t work since this island is extremely popular.
- Get up early because parking can be limited at many of the popular beach/shelling spots.
- You could get stuck in traffic from 8:00 A.M. – 9:00 A.M and 4:00 P.M – 6:00 P.M. so plan in plenty of time. During high season it can take up to an hour just to go 5 miles.
- Keep in mind people live on this island.
- If possible, use the beach roads instead of Periwinkle (the main road).
- Many of the roadways are small so if you have a large vehicle it can be hard to get around. This can be also difficult during the day with UPS trucks and other delivery vehicles making their rounds.
- While driving watch out for people, bikers, and golf carts.
- Cars are not allowed on the beach.
- If you are looking for wildlife you should search during the early morning or at dusk for the best sightings. Skip the middle of the day.
- We suggest filling up with gas before driving over to the island since this will save you time and money. Gas prices tend to be higher on the island.
- Parking can cost from $6.00 an hour up to $60.00 for the whole day. (And yes they do check if you pay for parking, so don’t think you can get away from not paying).
- Bring and drink lots of water.
- Stop up at a grocery store before heading over.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen.
- Bugs can be bad, so make sure you pack some repellent.
- If your visiting with a dog, it’s required to keep it leashed at all times. This is the law and please make sure you clean up after it at all times.
- Drones are restricted as Sanibel Island is a nature preserve.
- Alcohol is permitted from November through May.
- Always leave the beach how you found it. Please pick up and dispose of any garbage properly. It is best to take it with you back to the mainland.
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