Naples Beach Sunset

Sunset along Naples Beach. Photo by Annette Thompson

Southwest Florida boasts charming downtown districts, eight stunning beaches, botanical gardens, natural reserves full of wildlife watching, and plenty of water-related activities.  The communities of Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, Bonita Springs, Port Charlotte, Pine Island, and Punta Gorda, are far from isolated, yet offer a non-hectic atmosphere with plenty to do. Meanwhile, neighboring Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva, and Marco Island are a popular among spring breakers, snowbirds, and families alike. Every visitor, no matter age or activity preference, can find the Southwest Florida that suits them. No matter where you stay and go, don’t miss the classic Southwest Florida must-see list that includes visiting the Thomas Edison House, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, outlet shopping, sunset watching, kayaking, and fishing; then keep an eye out for pockets of unexpected.

Try New Things
Stop in at the Southwest Florida Vistor’s Center in Punta Gorda for an area overview. If you’d like to get out of your comfort zone and add layers to your itinerary, check out these new things.

Captiva Beach

Beachcombing on Sanibel at Bowman’s Beach is a great way to find treasures from the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Annette Thompson

Learn about the original locals
When Edison bought property in Fort Myers in 1885, the region may have been undeveloped, but it did have locals—Florida’s indigenous Seminole Indians (finally federally recognized in 1957). Venture inland  to reach the Big Cypress Reservation. Once you leave the developed coastal cities, Southwest Florida feels more like a jungle. There, learn about history and culture at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, where you can see artifacts and stroll along a shady everglades boardwalk.

Pine Island is more than palm tree farms. It’s is home to the 67-acre Randell Research Center, which includes an archeological site of the Calusa Indians who inhabited that area. Walk the Calusa Heritage Trail, a 0.7-mile path full of history of these people and their environment. Find ancient mounds near the waterways among palm trees, ferns, and bushes.

Traders brought African slaves to the region in the early 1800s to work on plantations. And like elsewhere, post-slavery and post-civil rights era social issues haven’t been solved easily. Startlingly, Lee County schools weren’t considered fully desegregated until the late 1990s. Just a few minute’s drive away from downtown Fort Myers, find the Williams Academy Museum, a small former schoolhouse, which commemorates the history of the region’s Black communities.

Eat global
Southwest Florida might be known for fresh fish and seafood, but the area has a global culinary scene indicative of its more recent inhabitants. Join nostalgic German expats at an authentic German deli in Port Charlotte, or taste ceviche and lomo saltado at a Peruvian restaurant in Fort Myers. Listen to tango music and savor greasy empanadas, thick steaks, and painfully sweet alfajaores at a Fort Myers Peruvian-Argentine fusion restaurant. There’s even a small, authentic Mexican tacos eatery with brightly colored walls in Bonita Springs, just a few minutes walk from the historic district. If you have a sweet tooth, locals and tourists alike swoon over the gourmet treats at Norman Love Confectionary.

Walk in the jungle
Southwest Florida isn’t all about the beach. The region boasts a number of nature trails, including this one walk that’s sure to inspire.

Echo Farm produce

Echo offers different produce than you typically find in farm markets around Southwest Florida. Photo by Allison Yates

The ECHO Global Farm, a nonprofit aiming to end world hunger through creative farming education, has fashioned an organized maze of animals and exotic plants to develop food solutions in inhospitable climates. The research conducted here is dispersed to the organization’s satellite offices in Africa and Asia. This North Fort Myers farm feels like a tropical oasis in the bush. Surrounded by electric green foliage and squawking birds, knowledgable volunteers guide visitors through the striking difference between fragrant jackfruit trees and the stench of the livestock manure used to fertilize the fields. It’s the perfect opportunity to escape from your Southwest Florida escape. Try scheduling a tour on Fridays so that your visit will coincide with the farmers market to take home some unfamiliar produce grown there.

Check out a brewery
A number of craft breweries call Fort Myers home. Some, such as Millenial Brewing Company, are open-air spaces where friends gather to play board games, compete at weekly trivia nights, and listen to local live music. Many feature food trucks nights where beer can be paired with sweet (try a donut and a stout) and savory (try Nosh’s gourmet burgers at Fort Myers Brewing Company’s Wednesday night event) bites. Want to try a taste of them all? Schedule a brewery tour and sample away an afternoon. Just plan a nap afterward.

Shop local
With so many farmers markets throughout the region, there’s no reason to ever step into the big box grocery stores. If you’re from up north, the opportunity to food shop outdoors in ‘winter’ makes the experience that much more novel.  Wandering among food stalls and local artists, visitors experience the relaxed, social atmosphere. You can buy your favorite vegetables and chat with locals about their favorite spots in the area. Some remarkable markets include the Bonita Springs Farmers Market, which has live music, coffee, food trucks, and artisan vendors as well as the various Cape Coral Farmers Markets.

Cheer on your favorite team
Going to the region in March means Major League Baseball spring training. Even if baseball isn’t your favorite sport, spring training’s relaxed atmosphere and excitement entertain at small fields where players come out for autographs during the warm up sessions (be sure to buy a cap or player’s jersey in advance and bring a marker). Plus, spending a day watching basebase makes a great excuse to eat American fare such as hot dogs and Crackerjacks. The Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins welcome you to their Fort Myers parks.

Meeting new people
Southwest Florida is perfect for couples, families, and friends, but it’s also a great place to go solo. The website and iPhone/Android application Meetup.com connects people with activities, called ‘meet ups.’ For example, many groups in Southwest Florida meet weekly for yoga, kayaking, or even language exchanges. Solo travelers have the opportunity to find new people while doing an activity they enjoy.

When to Go
Southwest Florida is most crowded in winter through spring. The high season runs from late November through April, when temperatures feel the most pleasant (70-80 degrees). Snowbirds and sun seekers descend from the North and Midwest, increasing traffic and packing parking lots. This is also the time when community events such as art fairs, live outdoor music, and festivals run most frequently.

On the other hand, visiting during the off-season may mean hotter weather but less traffic and lower rent prices. Another bonus is that wait times for an open table at even the most popular restaurants can be significantly reduced.

Getting There
Two airports service the region in Fort Myers (RSW) and Punta Gorda (PGD). Both offer domestic flights from cities across the country as well as select European locations.

Getting Around
The best way to transit the region is by car. Companies such as Budget, Fox, and Enterprise have locations at both airports.

Where to Stay
The region has every type of accommodation. Motorhomes have plenty of places to park (make sure to book months ahead of time if you take an RV in high season) and vacation rentals of apartments, condominiums, and entire houses are as common as hotels. Visitors can choose beach front or urban.

Choose a location based on your activities. High season near Sanibel, Captiva, or along the water guarantees traffic to downtown Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral, or Bonita Springs, but makes more sense if you don’t plan to stay on the beaches.

A number of realtors sell short term vacation rentals, and sites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Booking.com advertise deals. You may want to check Airbnb.com too. It makes finding an affordable rental even easier. Hotels run anywhere from $100-$500 a night, and entire homes rent on Airbnb for between $30-200. Prices change with the season. Travelers on a budget can save money on food by booking a house or apartment with a full kitchen.

If you go

Where to stay
Airbnb Rent out an apartment or house from a local. Prices vary based on location, size and season.

Holiday Inn Express and Suites This midrange hotel in Fort Myers is in a central location. Prices between $150-300

The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village A waterfront luxury resort in Cape Coral. Rooms between $200-500

The Hibiscus House Bed and Breakfast A small bed and breakfast in Fort Myers. Rooms start around $150

Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club A luxury beach resort with a golf club in Naples. Prices range from $300–$600

Where to eat:
Kallis German Butcher Shop Butcher shop with fresh cut meats, bakery items and other shelf products

El Patio Peruvian food including meat dishes, soups, ceviche and other sea foods. Prices range from $10-20 for a main dish, $5-10 for an appetizer

El Gaucho Inca Argentine-Peruvian fusion food including meats, empanadas, seafood. Main dishes between $10-20

Tortilleria La Rancherita Authentic Mexican cuisine including tacos, gorditas and soups. Prices between $3-10 a la carte

Norman Love Chocolates Artisanal chocolates and desserts. Prices $5 to up to $100 for specialty products

Millenial Brewing Company Craft beer brewery. Beers $5-7

Fort Myers Brewing Company Craft beer brewery. Beers $4-7

What to do:
Lee County –Southwest Florida Visitor & Convention Bureau

Southwest Florida Visitors Center

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Musueum Adults $10, Seniors, Students & military $7.50, children under 4 and member of a tribe with ID, Free

Williams Academy Museum Adults $5

Calusa Heritage Trail Admission free, $7 donations for adults, $5 donations for children accepted

ECHO Global Farm Tour Adults $12.50

Southwest Florida Brewery Tours Tour fee $49

Second Chance Travels