Things To Do on Sanibel and Captiva Islands 

Whether you’re a history buff or want to sneak away to a secluded beach, here are the best ways to spend your time on Sanibel and Captiva.

 

1. Bailey Homestead Preserve

Home to one of Sanibel’s first families in the late 1800s, the Bailey Homestead Preserve is now part of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation preserve system. The 28-acre property is part of a multi-use complex for conservation, recreation and education purposes. The original Bailey home lies at the heart of a native nursery with demonstration gardens. Trails traverse a wildlife corridor, and a retail garden center sells native plants and offers plant-related classes and workshops.

 

2. Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

Renovated in 2020 to include a ground-level aquarium gallery, the Sanibel museum, which showcases seashells in a cultural and scientific context, has dialed up its conservation mission to educate the public about mollusks—the at-risk, little-understood invertebrates of the sea. The Great Hall of Shells is still there, but downstairs, 11 tanks interpret sea creatures from scallops to a giant Pacific octopus. Special programming includes daily beach walks and monthly After Hours in the aquarium.

 

3. BIG ARTS

A local leader in the arts for more than 40 years, BIG ARTS debuted a new, design-forward building in 2020. Visit for a show at the high-tech Christensen Performance Hall—the acoustics and unobstructed stage views make it highly worthwhile. Besides music, dance and theater, it hosts a film and lecture series. Also, step into the modernized Dunham Gallery for exhibitions that have grown grander and more far-reaching since the $15 million razing and rebuilding of the facility. 

 

4. Bowman’s Beach 

One of the most secluded places to prop your umbrella on Sanibel Island, Bowman is also where you’ll spot the best seashells—especially at low tide. (Get there early, before the spoils get picked over.) It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the sand. The scenic trek takes you over an estuary bridge to a long stretch of beach that is virtually unmarred by structures. Amenities include restrooms, showers, picnic tables, grills and a playground near the parking lot. 

 

5. Cabbage Key

You’ll feel like you’re in a Jimmy Buffett song—especially while eating a cheeseburger at the open-air restaurant at Cabbage Key Inn’s restaurant that’s covered in thousands of signed dollar bills. It’s always crowded for lunch, even though it requires a boat ride. Several local tours and charters deliver you to the 100-acre island for lunch at the historic, Old Florida-style inn, followed by a short nature hike and, for the full experience, a castaway night in a circa-1930s cottage.

 

6. Captiva Cruises

Whether you’re interested in a sightseeing cruise, an excursion for lunch on a castaway island or a serenaded sail into the sunset, family-owned Captiva Cruises can navigate your journey through Southwest Florida’s waters and barrier islands. Some cruises specialize in spotting dolphins and other wildlife, while others drop you at Cayo Costa State Park—home to one of the best shelling beaches. The elegant Lady Chadwick offers a cash bar on its sunset cruises. 

 

7. Captiva Chapel by the Sea

Once a schoolhouse where religious services took place on weekends, the Captiva Chapel by the Sea is where locals and visitors have worshiped and wed for more than a century. One of the most picturesque spots on the islands, the steepled, clapboard chapel still holds interdenominational services on weekends in season. At the seaside Historic Captiva Cemetery, marble gravestones covered with flowers and shells date back to the 1800s.

 

8. Cayo Costa State Park

Just north of Captiva and south of Boca Grande is an untouched island paradise accessible only by boat or helicopter (you can catch a ferry or water taxi from Captiva Island). Cayo Costa State Park offers 9 miles of beautiful, pristine beaches and more than 2,500 acres of pine forest and mangrove swamp. Known for its shelling and secluded shores, it’s also a favorite for overnighting in the great outdoors and features rustic cabins and campsites.

 

9. Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)

In 1968, one woman’s concern for birds injured on the Sanibel Causeway led to the formation of CROW, one of Florida’s first animal hospitals. Today, the nonprofit features a Visitor Education Center with behind-the-scenes views of the facility’s animal care through live camera feeds, interactive displays and daily presentations. The veterinary hospital—one of the leading in the nation for native and migratory wildlife—cares for more than 5,000 animals a year.

 

10. Dunes Golf & Tennis Club

The semi-private golf club boasts an 18-hole championship course on Sanibel Island, where birds and the occasional alligator are part of the scenery. Har-Tru tennis courts and soon-to-come pickleball courts cater to sports enthusiasts. The pro shops offer rentals and instruction, and a waterfront clubhouse restaurant overlooking the 18th green serves lunch and cocktails year-round (and dinner in season).

 

11. Gulfside City Park

Gulfside City Park is known locally as Algiers Beach for a steamboat that pulled ashore here in 1959 and was turned into a home. After years of disuse, the Algiers was dismantled, but the beaches still offer plenty of other attractions—including abundant seashells. The water is calm and shallow, making it family-friendly and great for swimming. There are also picnic facilities, nature trails and an interpretive, hands-on exhibit to keep visitors entertained when they’re not in the water.

 

12. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to nearly 6,500 acres of wetlands teeming with birds and other wildlife. Visit the interactive exhibits at the free Visitor & Education Center for an easy-to-digest tutorial on the local ecosystem. Then, drive, bike, hike or take a tram tour of the four-mile Wildlife Drive, which has several offshoot trails to explore. If you want to get out on the water, stop at Tarpon Bay Explorers for nature tours and rentals.

 

13. Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF)

A 50-plus-year guardian of the island’s wildlife habitat with a focus on water quality, SCCF is a private nonprofit that has purchased 1,200 acres of Sanibel land for preservation. It started on Sanibel Captiva Road, where nature trails lead to an observation tower on the Sanibel River. Six of its preservation tracts also have trails for hiking and biking. In recent years, the foundation has expanded to include Sanibel Sea School and Bailey Homestead Preserve’s native gardens.

 

14. Sanibel Historical Museum and Village 

With its nine relocated, restored historic buildings, plus a replica packing house and a garage housing a 1927 Ford Model T truck, the living history museum takes visitors on a well-rounded trip into the island’s past in an easy-to-stroll and handicap-accessible location along the Sanibel River. The village’s original structure, the 1913 Rutland House, opens up to a museum that explores island history from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer days of the 1800s. 

 

15. Sanibel Lighthouse

Built in 1884 to guide sailors through the tricky waters of Point Ybel, the wrought-iron Sanibel Lighthouse’s skeletal, pyramid-like structure is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. A historic landmark on Sanibel’s east end, the light tower marks a 45-acre beach and park, which wraps from Gulf to the bay and overlooks the Sanibel Causeway and T-shaped fishing pier. There is also a nature trail that winds between the pier and beach. 

 

16. Tarpon Bay Explorers

As the official recreation concession for the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, the outfitter operates out of the Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. Book ahead for kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals, lessons and tours. Paddling tours explore mangrove canopies while nature cruises head out on the bay. The popular sunset nature cruise combines a visit to the touch tank aquariums with a peaceful excursion to watch birds roost on Tarpon Bay’s Rookery Islands.

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