Best Things To Do in Sanibel Island
You're probably in town to pick up a few shells – and everyone agrees that Bowman's Beach is the best place to try the "Sanibel Stoop." Identify your pickings at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, then buy a piece of the best conch art somewhere along Periwinkle Way. Of course, not everything in town is about seashells. The popular J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife are terrific diversions for families who want to learn more about the area's animals. And couples will love taking in a sunset at Blind Pass Beach.
Updated March 29, 2019
- #1View all PhotosfreeBowman's Beach#1 in Sanibel IslandBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Bowman's is well known for having beautiful, unusual shells, but you'll have to put a little effort into finding the true gems along this beach. Recent travelers found the best method is to step waist-deep in the water and dig your feet into the sand to find the shells. (You may want to wear water shoes to protect your feet.)
Beachgoers routinely praised Bowman's for its excellent shelling and expansive sands that let visitors find their own spots with ease. Several also enjoyed riding their bikes to the beach, saying that the ride is easy along the nearby path.
- #2View all PhotosfreeCaptiva Island#2 in Sanibel IslandBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Most people think of Sanibel and its quirky little sister island, Captiva, as interchangeable. True, they're both quiet spots with great shorelines, but there are a few differences. Here's a cheat sheet: Sanibel has better shells on its beaches, but Captiva's dining is more eclectic. Souvenir shopping on both islands is fairly evenly matched, but Sanibel has an inside edge on art galleries. In short, consider spending your days on Sanibel, then hop over to Captiva for a unique dining experience. Stay a few extra minutes for one of the romantic sunsets along Captiva Beach. Recent travelers found these beaches quieter than the ones in Sanibel. Even so, parking is limited, making it difficult to bring your own set of wheels. There are also fewer facilities on these beaches.
You can access Captiva Island from Sanibel by driving up Sanibel Captiva Road and crossing the Blind Pass Bridge, which connects the two isles. Parking costs $5 per hour at the beaches, but the beaches themselves are free to access. Restaurant and shop hours may vary.
- #3View all PhotosfreePeriwinkle Way#3 in Sanibel IslandFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The island's main thoroughfare is home to several restaurants and shopping opportunities. So there's no real reason to recommend you visit; there's a good chance you'll end up along Periwinkle at some point in time during your trip.
If you do need some pointers, browse through the variety of shops in Periwinkle Place as a starting point, where you'll find everything from kitschy souvenir shops like Tiki Jim's to upscale stores like Congress Jewelers. Hours of operation vary for each of Periwinkle Way's stores, but you can enjoy the picturesque scenery along the street at any time of day.
- #4View all PhotosfreeBlind Pass Beach#4 in Sanibel IslandBeaches, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Blind Pass Beach spans across both Sanibel and Captiva Islands. It's a great place to find shells, fish, sunbathe or watch the sunset. One thing you might want to skip at this beach? Swimming. Blind Pass is susceptible to strong currents. Nevertheless, it's a favorite among vacationers for its beauty and excellent collection of shells. They do warn, however, that parking is tricky and the facilities are average as there are only restrooms and showers on the Captiva side.
Parking at Blind Pass Beach costs $5 per hour and the beach is free to explore. It is located nearby Blind Pass Bridge, which connects the two islands. Visit the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce's website for more information.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Sanibel IslandMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is small but packs quite a punch. In just a few choice exhibits, you'll be able to learn more about any sea treasures you might have uncovered at the nearby seashore. Popular exhibits include the sailors' valentines (19th-century shell art that Bajan women designed for area sailors to take home to loved ones), shells from around the world and a depiction of what life was like for the Native Calusa Floridians who once lived near the Southwest Gulf.
In March 2020, the museum opened a new wing that shelters 11 different aquarium exhibits featuring live mollusks. Animals now living at the museum include giant clams, octopuses and gastropods. The new wing also has two different touch tanks to allow children to get up close to a few of these creatures.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Sanibel IslandHiking, Parks and Gardens, Zoos and AquariumsTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Parks and Gardens, Zoos and AquariumsTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Named after a political cartoonist and conservationist, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge occupies more than 6,400 acres of land and shelters mangrove forests, marshes and seagrass beds, as well as animals like crocodiles, alligators and a countless number of birds. In fact, for herons, cuckoos and ospreys, this refuge is an important stop along their southern migratory path.
You can hike or bike along the 4-mile-long Wildlife Drive, which is also open for vehicles and an open-air tram. If you'd rather walk, try the Indigo Trail (which is accessed off of Wildlife Drive) and Bailey Tract, a wetland within the refuge accessible by walking or biking only. There are additional trails throughout the area. You can also view the refuge from the water with a tour from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge's official partner.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Sanibel IslandMuseums, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseums, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife was founded by Shirley Walter in 1968 after she realized there was no facility on Sanibel to aid injured local wildlife. Since then, CROW has nursed thousands of animal patients and cared for more than 200 species. The clinic's specialists provide emergency medicine, surgery and rehabilitation to animals. Each year, they help more than 3,000 animals. CROW is also a teaching hospital where veterinary students can hone their skills.
You don't have to be a wounded bird or student to visit. CROW's Visitor Education Center has interactive exhibits to teach visitors about the clinic's history and how the organization cares for animals. You can also attend daily presentations given by a staff member and an Animal Ambassador. Presentations explain how wildlife are rescued and give more information about the different patients. You can even go on a Wildlife Walk, which is a guided tour of the hospital.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Sanibel IslandHistoric Homes/Mansions, MuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHistoric Homes/Mansions, MuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
This historic village has been cobbled together since 1984. Of the complex's 10 buildings, nine were relocated from other parts of Sanibel to the present site so that they could be preserved. The buildings date from 1896 to 1927 and include a schoolhouse, several cottages, a tea room and a packing house. Each building helps to tell the story of Sanibel's history, which spans hundreds of years. There's information about the Calusa tribes as well as Sanibel's fishermen and farmers.
Recent travelers were impressed with the museum. They enjoyed seeing the evolution of Sanibel over time and highly recommend taking the guided tour for an extra treat.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Sanibel IslandSightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDSightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
This lighthouse was in service from 1884 to 1972, and was used to light the entrance into San Carlos Bay. Now, this iconic Sanibel Island landmark on the island's eastern tip is a little worse for wear. Recent travelers did not find the lighthouse to warrant a long visit and were disappointed that the lighthouse doesn't accommodate climbers. They say the surrounding beach area is good for shelling, but note that it's constantly crowded.
The grounds of the more than 130-year-old Sanibel Lighthouse are always open to the public.
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