Sanibel Island Travel Guide

USA  #2 in Best Florida Beaches
Credit

Courtesy of Larry Gerbrandt/Getty Images

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 is a terrific diversion for families, and romancing couples should catch a sunset over on Captiva Island

How we rank Things to Do

Updated March 29, 2019

  • #1
    Things to do in Sanibel Island
    View all Photos
    #1 in Sanibel Island
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME 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.

    Though this area isn't as developed as other areas of the islands, it still offers a few amenities, including picnic tables, grills, bathrooms and bike racks. Plan on bringing your own food instead of visiting one of the popular restaurants located about a mile down Bowman's Beach Road, as they can get pretty pricey. Another unfortunate side effect of visiting this centrally located beach is the $4-an-hour parking fee by the shore. The beach welcomes visitors from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more information, visit the Lee County website.

  • #2
    Captiva Island
    View all Photos
    #2 in Sanibel Island
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME 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 sides of Blind Pass Bridge (which separates the two isles) 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 nice dinner. Stay a few extra minutes for one of the romantic sunsets along Captiva Beach. Recent travelers found this beach quieter than the ones in Sanibel. Even so, parking is limited, making it difficult to bring your own set of wheels.

  • #3 in Sanibel Island
    Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The island's main thoroughfare is home to several restaurants, shopping opportunities and some of the choicest hotels. 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 did need some pointers, consider purchasing a kitschy souvenir at Tiki Jim's, browsing for beaded jewelry at Valhalla and noshing on a char-grilled hot dog at Schnapper's Hots. 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. Recent travelers recommend renting a bike as there is a path that links all the shopping spots together.

  • #4
    Schoolhouse Theater
    View all Photos
    #4 in Sanibel Island
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    This bright pink Sanibel landmark started out as a one-room schoolhouse in 1896. Now, it’s the 90-seat BIG ARTS Herb Strauss Theater, a performance venue that welcomes Broadway shows, live music concerts and comedy acts. 

    Travelers rave about the fantastic performances featuring talented, funny actors and say if you have time, you should definitely stop by for a show. Performance times vary but the gift shop is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays in winter from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. Visit the Schoolhouse Theater's official website for more information on current performances and box office hours.

  • #5
    Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
    View all Photos
    #5 in Sanibel Island
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Bailey-Matthews 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), the shell classification wheel (where you can positively identify Southwest Florida shells) and the life-size models that depict what life was like for the Native Calusa Floridians that once lived near the Southwest Gulf up until the 18th century.

    Recent travelers found that the museum exceeded their expectations with the large display of shells from all around the globe, not just Florida. 

  • #6
    J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
    View all Photos
    #6 in Sanibel Island
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Named after a political cartoonist and conservationist, the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge was originally meant to conserve the Sanibel Island mangrove forest. Now, the refuge (which occupies 6,300 acres of land or half the entire island) shelters those same mangroves, 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 through one of the many refuge trails or along the 4.5-mile Wildlife Drive, which is also open for vehicles and an open-air tram. Recent visitors recommend stopping by a restroom before stepping foot on the beautiful path because there are none along the way. You can also view the refuge from the water, which some preferred over Wildlife Drive.

  • #7
    Sanibel Lighthouse
    View all Photos
    #7 in Sanibel Island
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    One of the first lighthouses on Florida's Gulf Coast, this station on the island's eastern end used to light the entrance into San Carlos Bay. Now, this iconic Sanibel Island landmark is a little worse for wear. Recent travelers did not find the lighthouse too aesthetically pleasing and recommended taking a few pictures before moving along to Periwinkle Way (less than a mile away).

    The grounds of the nearly 130-year-old Sanibel Lighthouse are always open to the public. For more information on visiting, check out the Sanibel & Capitva Island Visitors Center website.

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