9 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do on Sanibel Island
Beaches, wildlife, and nature are some of what draws visitors to Sanibel Island. As you drive over the Sanibel Causeway, you can almost feel yourself begin to relax. The busy roads of Fort Myers, just 30 minutes away, transform into small, two-lane roads as you drive through the lush vegetation to beautiful beaches, wildlife preserves, and funky restaurants. You'll also find an extensive network of bike trails, making it possible to park the car and cycle to many of the attractions, if you're up for the exercise. For a look at how to spend your time here, see our list of things to do on Sanibel Island.
1. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is the premier destination in the area for seeing nature and wildlife. The visitor center, open to the public free of charge, is a great spot to learn about the ecosystems and animals, as well as the history of the refuge's founder, Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling. To actually get out and see the refuge, visitors can take a 90-minute trip on an open-air tram led by a certified naturalist. These guides know where the alligators, wading birds, bobcats, and otters hide out. If you prefer, you can self drive the same route as the tram.
The refuge is noted for its four hiking trails, including the short Indigo Trail and the Wildlife Education Boardwalk. Other popular things to do include fishing, stand up paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking, and bird-watching. Note that the nature drive is closed on Fridays.
2. Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
The Sanibel Lighthouse is located at the eastern tip of Sanibel Island. If you are touring the island, this is a good starting point. Set on the edge of the beautiful white-sand beach, this historical lighthouse dates from 1884. It stands 112 feet high and is in active use, sending out a flashing light to boaters every six seconds. It is not open to the public.
The beach wraps around a point, with one small section looking out towards the Sanibel Causeway and another much larger and longer stretch of beach facing the Gulf of Mexico.
The park has picnic tables, large trees that provide shade, restroom facilities, and showers. Also in the park is the Sanibel Fishing Pier. There are two parking areas. If you are interested mainly in the lighthouse or fishing, use the northern lot, if you are only going for the beach, use the larger southern lot.
3. Bowman's Beach
Bowman's Beach is a stunning stretch of white sand backed by a lovely natural area. The beach is a perfect place to go for a family outing. In addition to the beach, where you'll have no problem finding your own perfect patch of sand to set up, the park also offers shaded picnic tables, barbecues, restrooms, and a children's playground in the forested area behind the beach. There is no shade along the beach, and no vendors, so you'll need to bring your chair and umbrella.
The beach is about a quarter mile from the parking lot. The trail is easy and shaded part of the way, but it can feel long if you are carrying equipment. There is plenty of parking here, and the parking fee is per hour.
4. Blind Pass Beach
This beautiful stretch of beach at Blind Pass is a popular place not only for the sand and sea, but also because on the opposite side of the highway are a number of cute restaurants with patios serving casual fare. You would barely notice the small cluster of buildings at Blind Pass as you drive along, except the beach houses and retail are painted in colorful hues, making it hard to miss this little area.
You will know if you've gone too far because Blind Pass is located at the western end of Sanibel Island, the farthest point from the Sanibel Causeway, and beyond here is the short bridge to Captiva Island. Blind Pass Beach runs from this small bridge eastward, and gets wider the farther east you go, eventually meeting up with Silver Key Beach, and beyond to Bowman's Beach.
If you are interested in shelling, you may want to cross the bridge to Captiva Island and check out the piles of shells that wash ashore at the breakwater on Turner Beach.
5. Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
If you've always wondered what creatures created and lived in all the shells you see along Sanibel's wonderful beaches, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a great place to find out. The museum displays over 30 exhibits showcasing not just the shells of Sanibel, but amazing shells from all over the world. One of the most fascinating displays is titled Record Breaking Shells, where you can see a massive Goliath Conch.
In addition to the shells, the museum also has live tanks in the basement in a classroom setting, where naturalists work with live animals and the audience has a chance to participate.
6. Sanibel Historical Museum & Village
A great option away from the beach is the Sanibel Historical Museum. Centrally located on the island, the museum has a wonderful collection of items from Sanibel's past, starting from the Calusa Indians to the Spanish era, the pioneer families from the 1800s, right through to more recent history.
The museum consists of nine historical buildings from the late 1880s to the early 1920s, including a post office and school. These buildings have been meticulously restored to their original condition and inside are interesting artifacts and memorabilia displayed with information panels providing background. Also on show is a fully restored 1927 Model T truck.
7. Sanibel Causeway
This three-mile-long causeway provides vehicle access to Sanibel Island, but it's also an impressive site. The roadway rises up 70 feet over beautiful San Carlos Bay and offers views over the aquamarine waters.
The causeway consists of three separate bridges and in between, you'll find Causeway Islands Park. The park is spread over two islands, A & B, and has sandy beaches and is a popular place for stand up paddleboarding. Restroom facilities are available on Island B. If the wind is up, you'll likely see kitesurfers racing back and forth across the shallow waters on the Fort Myers side. There is a one-way toll for traffic heading towards Sanibel.
8. Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Nature Center
Just past the National Shell Museum is the SCCF Nature Center. This is an ideal spot to get an understanding of the ecosystems on Sanibel as you walk along the Sanibel River and above the wetlands on raised boardwalks.
The boardwalks form a four-mile maze of trails that feature frequent sightings of turtles, snakes, alligators, and wading birds. Inside the nature center, you'll find displays and aquariums, maps, and all kinds of information on local animals that occupy the islands. Children are admitted free.
9. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
CROW is located in the same area as J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, and a visit to this attraction is worthwhile if you are visiting either of the other two. A visitor center provides a variety of interactive displays on the wildlife of Southwest Florida along with live animal displays consisting mainly of snakes, turtles, frogs, and an armadillo.
The best way to experience CROW is to time your visit to arrive for a daily presentation, happening most days at 11am. During these presentations, naturalists work with live animal "ambassadors" and speak about how they have been injured and subsequently rehabilitated by the doctors.
Where to Stay in Sanibel
Sanibel Island is 12 miles long and three miles wide. Accommodation options tend to be independent hotels or resorts, and small inns. Most places offer condos with kitchens and are considered mid-range.
- Luxury Hotels: Sanibel Moorings has a prime beachfront location, not far from Lighthouse Beach Park, and is ideal for families and longer term vacationers. One-, two-, and three-bedroom condos have screened balconies and are set around a lush garden area with a large pool and tennis courts.
Offering beachfront hotel rooms and suites, along with airy cottages ideal for large groups or families is the Island Inn. The hotel has a popular restaurant along with a whole host of amenities, including a heated and cooled pool, kayaks, paddleboards, and bike rentals.
Newly renovated, the West Wind Inn has rooms with kitchens or kitchenettes and balconies. All rooms have ocean views and are set around a courtyard pool and sundeck. Keep an eye out for the resident rabbits hopping around. Two beach-side restaurants offer al fresco dining.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Fans of mid-century modern will appreciate the Seaside Inn. Restored 1960s-style cottages are set around a pool, and the beach is just steps away. Some rooms have full kitchens, others have small appliances, including fridges and microwaves. A daily breakfast is included in the room rate.
A romantic option is the quaint and cozy Song of the Sea Inn. Here, you'll find 30 rooms with screened balconies, and kitchens overlooking an outdoor pool and hot tub area. Breakfast is served on the outdoor patio and is included with the room rate.
The Shalimar Cottages and Motel is perfect for a group with different accommodation needs. Accommodation options include motel units, one-bedroom cottages, and two-bedroom apartments. It's located right on the beach and has a lovely pool fringed by towering palm trees.
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Around Sanibel Island: If you are in the area, be sure to check out the sites and beaches of nearby Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach. Less than an hour south, it's also worth while taking time to explore Naples. And, if you decide you want to spend a couple of nights here, dining along 5th Avenue or strolling the glorious beaches, have a look at our article on the Top Resorts in Naples.