Neighborhood travel guide: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

By: Chelle Koster Walton

  • Fort Myers
  • Fort Myers Beach
  • Cape Coral
  • Sanibel & Captiva Islands
  • Barrier Islands
  • Pine Island & Matlacha
  • Boca Grande
Photo: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
We all have different feelings about traveling right now. When you’re ready, we hope you feel safe, inspired, and excited to join us on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

Pack your favorite flip flops and your swimsuit. Throw in your affinity for Mother Nature, and bring along that cultural curiosity you thought you wouldn’t be needing — this pocket of Southwest Florida isn’t just about sunshine and relaxation. Well, it is about that, make no mistake, but the various communities of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel are primed to shatter expectations. In a good way.

Our guide below outlines seven vastly different neighborhoods around Fort Myers — aka the City of Palms — and what to look forward to when you’re there. Some claim their own bustling artist towns, some have massive island wildlife refuges, some are best explored by kayak. Each defies expectations in its own way, and here’s how.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.

Note: Some of the businesses or organizations listed below may not currently be operating as described due to safety guidelines. Please contact all locations prior to visiting.

Fort Myers

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River water runs through Fort Myers’ veins. From the historic River District, the great Caloosahatchee flows into the Gulf — and into surprising corners where nature, history, and superb beer-crafting somehow coalesce.

Downtown Fort Myers River District

This is where art and elegance fill the nights...

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Downtown Fort Myers River District

This is where art and elegance fill the nights—and copious amounts of delicious food fills your stomach. Always lively, the historic River District is lined with walkable brick-lined streets leading to charming shopping and dining alongside seemingly endless local art galleries.

The excellent restaurant scene thrives morning, noon, and night. Options range from the venerable Veranda—housed in two grand circa-1900 homes—to The Lodge, with its ironic setting of après-ski revelry. Here, you’ll never be hungry...or bored.

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Edison and Ford Winter Estates

When it comes to local history, this is Southwest Florida’s brightest spot...

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Edison and Ford Winter Estates

When it comes to local history, this is Southwest Florida’s brightest spot—and that’s not just thanks to the light bulb puns. Here, you’ll tour the former winter homes of two American geniuses—Thomas Edison and Henry Ford—and explore Edison’s lab and his lush riverside gardens.

Next door, have lunch at Pinchers (choose from a variety of local catches), head straight for a river eco-tour with Pure Florida, or just wander to the banks of the Caloosahatchee and contemplate what Edison and Ford would’ve made of the electric car.

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Fort Myers Brewing Company

Fort Myers Brewing Company kickstarted the local craft beer scene...

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Fort Myers Brewing Company

Fort Myers Brewing Company kick-started the local craft beer scene back in the early 2010s. Now uber-popular and growing, it’s spawned a trend of craft breweries around town, including Millennial and Palm City.  

Their flagship Gateway Gold is a sturdy option for nearly all palates—beer-shunners, though, might prefer to settle down to their house-crafted spiked seltzer.

Photo: Brian Tietz


Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

Getting some one-on-one time with Mother Nature is easy here...

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Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

Getting some one-on-one time with Mother Nature is easy at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve—you’re practically guaranteed wildlife sightings from the elevated one-mile boardwalk.

Your experience will vary greatly depending on the time of year, with June through September bringing out the wildlife that thrives in the rainy season and its higher, faster waters. Be sure to attend a guided walk, regardless of season, to get the most out of your trip.

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Fort Myers Beach

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Barefoot and carefree, Fort Myers Beach provides the archetype for the ultimate Florida seashore vacation. The sands are soft and white, the Gulf waters are warm, and it all runs for seven unobstructed miles, stretching practically to the horizon.

Fort Myers Beach Pier and Times Square

You’ll find much of the action concentrated around Fort Myers Beach Pier and Times Square...

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Fort Myers Beach Pier and Times Square

You’ll find much of the action concentrated around Fort Myers Beach Pier and Times Square, the beating heart of Estero Island. Especially popular for sunset, this area draws fisher-folk, families, foodies, and beach bums for street entertainment, outdoor dining, and incredible views.

Water sports concessions, fun-time bars, and sidewalk restaurants congregate around the pedestrian zone. Abandon the car at Lynn Hall Memorial Park and get walking.

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Lovers Key State Park

If you crave a little solitude and lots of wildlife with your beach experience...

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Lovers Key State Park

If you crave a little solitude and lots of wildlife with your beach experience, Lovers Key State Park is as romantic as its name. It’s technically made up of four barrier islands, with tidal lagoons, pristine marshes, over two miles of sand, and plenty of spots for dolphin-spotting shared among them.

Kayak, hike, fish, or simply laze in talcum-soft sands. The doing here isn’t the idea—the being here is.

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Mound House

Yes, you can find plenty of history and culture in Fort Myers Beach as well...

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Mound House

Yes, you can find plenty of history and culture on Fort Myers Beach as well. Case in point: Mound House, the island’s oldest standing home. And its history goes back much further than the house’s early-1900s construction—about 2,000 years further, when the Calusa people amassed the shell mound that the house sits upon.

Believe it or not, you can walk into a cutaway of the mound. It’s one of several historical exhibits that make this day-in-the-park literally multi-layered.

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After sunset on Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach has the area's best nightlife...

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After sunset on Fort Myers Beach

Fort Myers Beach has the area’s best nightlife, where dancing starts in the sand even before the sun goes down. It’s even better as a nightcap to dinner that overlooks the water and another perfect sunset.

A walk along the wide-open beachfront always leads to the Pier and more live music in the air.

Catch the action around Times Square—shout-out to The Cottage Beach Bar & Shuckers—and mark next September on your calendar for the annual Island Hopper Songwriter Fest.

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Cape Coral

Stunning nature preserves, wild festivals, a bright indie dining scene, and plenty of rum — Cape Coral has grown from a quiet residential community to the “it” neighborhood for the whole family.

Cape Coral Yacht Club

Close to where the Caloosahatchee River meets the Gulf...

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Cape Coral Yacht Club

Close to where the Caloosahatchee River meets the Gulf, Cape Coral Yacht Club provides instant access to boating life, Old Florida style.

At Yacht Club Community Park, you’ll find a public beach, fishing pier, seafood restaurant, and swimming pool, in addition to boat docks and a ship’s store. One of the town’s first landmarks, this is the site of community festivities such as the monthly sunset celebrations.

Photo: Shutterstock/Nadezda Murmakova


Downtown Cape Coral

Along the Cape Coral Parkway corridor, there’s never a shortage of dining and nightlife...

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Downtown Cape Coral

Along the Cape Coral Parkway corridor, there’s never a shortage of dining and nightlife scenes to explore—both visitors and locals unwind together in this upbeat neighborhood. 

If you’re also in search of food, check out one of the funky restaurants with entertainment, like Cork Soakers—they do “chicken & donuts” at brunch—and Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge.

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Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery

In addition to a number of craft breweries, Cape Coral has its own award-winning rum-maker...

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Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery

In addition to a number of craft breweries, Cape Coral has its own award-winning rum maker. Wicked Dolphin uses Florida cane sugar and other local ingredients to create a variety of excellent rums—along with 100-proof “rumshine,” made with strawberries, blueberries, or apples.

Come for a free tour and tasting, or even nab an opportunity to volunteer on the bottling crew. How’s that for a unique experience?

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Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve

This green space preserves a slice of nature amid an urban setting...

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Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve

This green space preserves a slice of nature amid an urban setting for the enjoyment of hikers, paddlers, and regular ol’ get-away-ers. Check out the 1.1-mile boardwalk that starts in a landscape of coastal prairie and winds into the mangroves along the Caloosahatchee River.

Note: Kayak rentals are available on weekends, November – May. 

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Sanibel & Captiva Islands

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Perhaps the most precious gems in Fort Myers’ necklace of islands, Sanibel and Captiva appeal to beach-lovers, nature-lovers, adventure-lovers, and life-lovers. You could spend your entire trip exploring either one — here’s just a little of what’s in store.

The Seashell Capital of the World

Say Sanibel Island to anyone who loves collecting seashells...

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The Seashell Capital of the World

Say “Sanibel Island” to anyone who loves collecting seashells, and they’ll talk your ear off. Sanibel is known as the “Seashell Capital of the World”—the local Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum pays homage to this reputation for shell-strewn sands.

Bonus: Captiva’s beaches win awards for their romance, mainly thanks to the fabulous sunsets. Toast one with your partner at the beachside Mucky Duck Neighborhood Pub.

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J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

This 7,600-acre national wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island is renowned worldwide...

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J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The islands’ “good nature” starts at this 7,600-acre national wildlife refuge, renowned worldwide for its more than 245 species of birds (and 51 species of reptiles and amphibians!). You’ll have to hike, bike, drive, and paddle to take it all in. Find it gracing the entire northern shore of Sanibel Island.

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Sanibel on two wheels

More than 25 miles of paved shared-use paths crisscross Sanibel Island...

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Sanibel on two wheels

More than 25 miles of paved shared-use paths crisscross Sanibel Island, plus off-road trails take you into hidden wildlife habitats. You decide: the shopping route or the nature route?

Note: The aforementioned J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge features the four-mile paved Wildlife Drive, which is also suitable for cyclists.

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Captiva’s Buck Key Paddle Trail

The Buck Key Paddle Trail reigns as one of the most unforgettable kayak excursions...

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Captiva’s Buck Key Paddle Trail

The Buck Key Paddle Trail, in the bay waters off Captiva Island, reigns as one of Southwest Florida’s most unforgettable and peaceful kayak excursions. You’ll get deep, deep, deep into the mangroves—just you and several families of native and migratory birds.

Outfitters on Captiva and Sanibel can also set you up with a paddleboard. The whole trail is about four miles.

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Barrier Islands

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A favorite pastime for visitors to Fort Myers, island-hopping takes you through waters replete with dolphins and other marine life to castaway islets accessible only by boat. These lesser-known spots might just be where you find your Florida.

Cayo Costa State Park

Play Robinson Crusoe with an excursion to this beach-lined park...

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Cayo Costa State Park

Play Robinson Crusoe with an excursion to this beach-lined park, known for its stellar seashells, nature trails, rustic rental cabins, and primitive tent camping on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

And here, primitive means primitive—the park is only accessible by boat, and supplies are limited to the emergency items sold in the camp store. If you need it, bring it with you! 

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Cabbage Key Inn

On its own little island on the bayside of Cayo Costa...

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Cabbage Key Inn

On its own little island on the bayside of Cayo Costa, this 1930s-era inn sits atop a 38-foot Calusa shell mound (practically a Floridian mountain!). Stop in for a quick cold one and a “cheeseburger in paradise,” or spend the night as away-from-it-all as you can get. Don’t forget to leave a signed dollar bill on the walls of the funky bar and restaurant.

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Sunset at sea

Hop aboard a naturalist-guided cruise to learn about local wildlife...

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Sunset at sea

Hop aboard a naturalist-guided cruise to learn about local wildlife, or book an excursion to toast the end of another glorious day in your happy place. Tour and charter boats come in all shapes and sizes to satisfy each and every sea-bound sunset fantasy. (And you’ll probably catch a dolphin sighting or two, too!)

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Useppa’s Collier Inn

Depart from Captiva Island on a luncheon cruise to historic Useppa...

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Useppa’s Collier Inn

Depart from Captiva Island on a luncheon cruise to historic Useppa—this island has been a luxury-resort hotspot since the 1800s.

While you’re there, you can lunch at the Collier Inn, where tarpon fishers have been landing for decades. Check out the island’s history-packed little museum, and walk its trails for a peaceful afternoon.

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Pine Island & Matlacha

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The colorful, artsy village of Matlacha is the one-of-a-kind welcome gate you pass through on a trip from the mainland to the quirky fishing and farming communities of Pine Island. Get ready to see a different side of Southwest Florida.

Matlacha

Excellent fishing, kayaking, and a thriving artists’ community make for quite a day...

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Matlacha

In Matlacha, excellent fishing—the bridge from the mainland into Matlacha has been dubbed “the Fishingest Bridge in the World”—kayaking, and a thriving artists’ community make for a day filled with unique shopping opportunities, time on the water, and the freshest seafood you can swallow. Head to Blue Dog for local everything, and follow it up with a stop at Bert’s to sip and party with the locals.

Tip: When you’re ready for a breather, grab a seat and watch for manatees swimming in the bays and channels.

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Tiny Village

Matlacha just might have invented the tiny house...

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Tiny Village

With its charming old cracker-box houses, Matlacha just might have invented the “tiny house.” Today, the new Tiny Village restructures trailer homes into charming and ultra-affordable accommodations. Most of the brightly colored houses sleep four to six and include a full kitchenette—if you want to do Southwest Florida on a shoestring, this is exactly where you should be.

(By the way, its pronounced mat-la-shay.)

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Calusa Heritage Trail at Randell Research Center

Pine Island’s past stretches back thousands of years...

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Calusa Heritage Trail at Randell Research Center

Pine Island’s past stretches back thousands of years, back to when the Calusa Indians established a settlement at Pineland and built mounds—now an archaeological site—and a canal. Tour the visitor center, walk the interpretive trails, and then cross the road for lunch at the historic Tarpon Lodge & Restaurant.

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Fishing around Pine Island

Snook, mackerel, cobia, seatrout—there’s a whole ’nother world going on here...

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Fishing around Pine Island

The Bokeelia Fishing Pier, stretching from the northern tip of Pine Island into Charlotte Harbor, is a favorite among local anglers. But there’s no need to restrict yourself—all the waters around these parts are known for their tremendous catches, largely thanks to state protection. Snook, mackerel, cobia, seatrout—there’s a whole ’nother world going on here.

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Boca Grande

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A historic outpost for avid tarpon anglers, Gasparilla Island’s Boca Grande combines bygones with nautical obsessions. Water is nearly everywhere — and so are opportunities for memory-making.

Port Boca Grande Lighthouse & Museum

Located on Gasparilla Island’s southern tip...

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Port Boca Grande Lighthouse & Museum

Located on Gasparilla Island’s southern tip, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse & Museum is part of Gasparilla Island State Park. That means you can pair a day at the park’s long-stretching beach with a history lesson about Boca Grande’s 130-year-old lighthouse and its days past: Boca Grande was once a deepwater port for transporting phosphate, a hotspot of Gulf-front mansions. And now? It’s a cozy, Old Florida village home to just under 2,000.

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Gasparilla Inn & Club

Dominating the island like the grande dame she is, this circa-1913 hotel...

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Gasparilla Inn & Club

Dominating the island like the grande dame she is, this circa-1913 hotel once housed wealthy winterers with names like DuPont and Rockefeller. Spend the night in one of its rooms or cottages, or plan to grab a seat in its stately dining room for breakfast or dinner. (Yep, it’s open to the public.)

Before the end of the night hits, order a Planter’s Punch at the Pink Elephant restaurant. You’ll soon see why Travel + Leisure voted this one of the best hotel resorts in the country.

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The Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World

Avid tarpon fishermen have been drawn to the island since the early 20th century...

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The Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World

The aforementioned Port Boca Grande Lighthouse overlooks deep and wide Boca Grande Pass, which has drawn avid tarpon fishermen to the island since the early 20th century. Why? Supposedly, there are more tarpon in and around Boca Grande from March to October than anywhere else in the world. It’s carried the moniker of “Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World” since the early 1900s.

Break up the day with lunch (and homemade ice cream) at the Loose Caboose, grab dinner back at the Gasparilla Inn, and rent a bike or golf cart to get around when you’re not on the water—Gasparilla Island is only a mile at its widest! 

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Boca Grande’s memorable side streets

Historic churches and homes lie along Boca Grande’s side streets...

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Boca Grande’s memorable side streets

Historic churches and homes lie along Boca Grande’s side streets, some with names like “Damfino” and “Damficare” (that’s “Damn if I know!” and “Damn if I care!” respectively.) That should tell you a little something about Boca Grande’s founders.

Though certainly a less exciting name, don’t miss Banyan Street—its canopy of eponymous, gargantuan trees begs for a selfie shot.

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This post is proudly produced in partnership with The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.