With its stunning natural attractions and subtropical weather, beautiful Sanibel Island is a popular destination for Floridians as well as vacationers from all over the country. With its lighthouse marker and pristine beaches, the island promises visitors a sunny getaway complemented by tranquil waves and white sand. If you’re searching for a postcard-worthy setting where you can relax on your own, with family, or with a special someone, you should discover all the exciting things to see and do in this lovely island situated just off the coast of southwestern Florida.
Where Is Sanibel Island?
Sanibel Island is part of Lee County and is just a 30-minute drive from bustling Fort Myers. A barrier island, Sanibel was once an important settlement of the Calusa people, early Native Americans who established an elaborate trade center in the region, as well as a notorious pirate den. Today, Sanibel is better known for its tranquil beach atmosphere, picturesque walking trails, and eclectic restaurants.
Attractions of Sanibel Island
As you plan your Sanibel Island getaway, you’ll want to consider visiting some of its best-known attractions. The following sites and activities promise to make for an exciting vacation itinerary:
Sanibel Lighthouse and Beach Park
Also known as the Point Ybel Light, the Sanibel Lighthouse rises 112 feet high on its iron framework. Constructed in 1884, the lighthouse served to help guide traffic to and from Key West to the West Coast ports of Florida. In 1974, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Now electrified, the light is still operational.
Located at the eastern tip of the island, the lighthouse rises above a beach park that is regarded as one of the island’s best. It features dazzling white sand and a long stretch of coast that offers gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors to the beach enjoy visiting the lighthouse, of course, as well as collecting seashells, picnicking, and fishing. There are restroom and shower facilities for beachgoers too.
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Located on Sanibel Island, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to the nation’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem. It is situated on 5,200 acres and is home to a wealth of animal and botanical species. A favorite spot for bird-watching, fishing, and kayaking, the refuge is a wild habitat that is a must-visit attraction for nature lovers.
Many animals make their home in refuge, including alligators, bobcats, otters, raccoons, marsh rabbits, osprey, herons, spoonbills, sea turtles, and more. Depending on the time of year, various fish and sea creatures can be found in the waters near the refuge, including dolphins, tarpon, speckled sea trout, redfish, and snook. While some visitors prefer to explore on their own, the guide tours are a great way to locate the best spots for wildlife viewing.
If you’re interested in the refuge’s botanical beauties, you’ll find plenty of distinctive flora to marvel at, including Spanish moss, cabbage palm, giant leather ferns, salt marsh mallow, saw palmetto, cucumber leaf sunflowers, and black mangrove. Additionally, if you’re interested in kayaking or paddleboarding, you can bring your own gear or rent it at a nearby island shop.
Sanibel Historical Museum and Village
Sanibel’s past stretches back at least 6,000 years when the Calusa Tribe settled the area and established a trade network via the region’s waterways. Eventually, the Spanish visited the island and later, it was a favorite haunt for pirates. By the 1800s, pioneers began to lay down roots on Sanibel and modern settlements began to take shape. However, Sanibel has never been overly developed with highrises or crowded thoroughfares, which is why it retains its vacation-friendly atmosphere to this day.
The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village provides a glimpse of the island’s past and features exhibits designed to inform visitors about the Calusa people as well as more recent island history such as the establishment of its first school and post office. After a morning in the sun, you might want to take a break and visit the museum and village to check out its displays and unique artifacts.
A popular Sanibel beach spot, Bowman’s Beach is the perfect place to bring the family for a day of swimming and seashell collecting. With plenty of parking available and amenities, it’s no wonder why this beach is a popular waterfront destination. Regarded as one of the best beaches in the country, Bowman’s Beach is a must-visit attraction. Its sugar white sands, isolated stretch of coast, and picturesque dunes make it a quintessential Florida beach.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
If you’re ready to leave the soft sands of the beach behind and venture into the waves, consider enjoying a snorkeling or scuba diving adventure during your Sanibel visit. Located 15 nautical miles from the Sanibel Lighthouse, Edison Reef is a popular scuba destination. A man made reef, it is one of the largest and attracts a dazzling array of sea life to behold.
All told, there are roughly a dozen sites around the island that attract snorkelers and scuba divers. During your underwater exploration, you may catch a glimpse of barracuda, nurse sharks, and moray eels. There are various shops around the island where you can rent gear or even dive with a group.
Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
As the country’s only accredited museum devoted to seashells and mollusks, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is another unforgettable Sanibel Island attraction. The museum features more than 30 exhibits that celebrate the shell species of Sanibel Island as well as seashells and mollusks from all around the globe.
Popular museum exhibits include the record-breaking Goliath Conch, the Beyond Shells gallery of aquariums, and the Great Hall of Shells. The naturalists who work at the museum feature interactive group shows and workshops too.
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Nature Center
Located just near the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Nature Center. Featuring four miles of maze-like trails, the nature center provides a glimpse of Sanibel’s natural ecosystems. Visitors can walk through the center’s wetlands on raised boardwalks while viewing local wildlife like alligators, wading birds, turtles, and even snakes.
Within the nature center are exhibits such as special informative displays and aquariums. You’ll find maps and local information about the area's flora and fauna. Before visiting the island, check out the nature center’s calendar events; you may want to visit in time to catch a lecture or special event.
Inshore and offshore fishing are popular Florida pastimes for locals and vacationers alike. You might want to book a charter boat for your fishing holiday. If you’re planning to do some inshore fishing, you can look forward to catching tarpon, redfish, and snapper. Offshore fishing might land you catches of red grouper, yellowtail snapper, red snapper, cobia, and many others.
Saltwater fly fishing is also popular on Sanibel Island. If you’re an angler, you might want to try your hand at saltwater. There are many guides that specialize in saltwater fly fishing. Some of the fish you might expect to catch with this method include barracuda, shark, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, and snappers.
Sanibel Island Farmers Market
Mingle with other island vacationers and find great local foods and artisan crafts at the Sanibel Island Farmers Market. Held on Sundays between October and May, the market is renowned for its delectable seafood, produce, and friendly vendors. The farmers market is a great place to find a special souvenir like a piece of handmade shell jewelry or hand-woven bag. Sometimes, there’s even local entertainment to add exciting ambience to the scene.
For many visitors, the Sanibel Causeway is an attraction in its own right. The causeway is three miles long and offers vehicle access from the mainland to the island. Rising about seventy feet above San Carlos Bay, the causeway offers stunning sea and coastal views. Three separate bridges make up the causeway. Between them is the Causeway Islands Park, a popular spot for paddleboarding with its sandy beach and restroom facilities. On windy days, it’s not uncommon for the park to attract kiteboarders too.
Before leaving Sanibel Island, you might want to pick up a special souvenir like a few shells to set up on your mantel at home. Or, find a great painting of the Sanibel Lighthouse to showcase in a room of your house. A souvenir can help you commemorate your exciting Sanibel vacation. Local shops may also feature items like keychains or prints of various island attractions that make ideal souvenirs for family and friends back home.
If you’re looking for a place to relax in the sun, lovely Sanibel Island beckons with its nationally renowned natural attractions and stunning beaches. It’s the ideal place for a romantic getaway or a family vacation. On the other hand, if you don’t have time for a long stay, consider escaping Fort Myers for just a day to spend on one of Sanibel’s glorious beaches.