This seven-and-a-half-mile isle includes Anna Maria to the north, Holmes Beach at the center and Bradenton Beach to the south. The Island Trolley connects them all. Northernmost Anna Maria offers piers and parks. Holmes Beach hosts the Zagat-acclaimed Beach Bistro right on the Gulf. Bradenton Beach’s Coquina Beach is a family favorite with concessions, a playground and boat ramp. Together, the communities exude a retro ambience preserved by a building height restriction and an environmental sensibility.
Old West meets Old South in Arcadia, home to the All-Florida Championship Rodeo, antiques stores and storied structures (an active historical society and Main Street Program keep things in town lively). You can observe barrel racing and bronco bucking during the rodeo, and there’s even a kids’ calf scramble and a shoot-out that recalls the rambunctious days of Arcadia’s turn-of-last-century cattle wars.
The north end of Bonita Beach belongs to Bonita Beach Park. You’ll appreciate amenities like picnic shelters, a playground and a sand volleyball court; you’ll admire the shell-strewn Gulf shore. Inland, shop amid waterfalls, palms and Mediterranean architecture at The Promenade or its counter, mega Coconut Point Mall. The Imperial River Boat Ramp provides access to the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail (and several local sites of interest: Follow the Blueway north of Bonita Springs to Estero and Koreshan State Historic Site, a former 19th-century Utopian community).
With seemingly ever-present vistas of the Gulf, Manatee River and bays, Bradenton’s vibe is scenic and slow. Downtown, Village of the Arts is filled with galleries, shops and cafes painted fuschia, lime and violet. Learn about Hernando DeSoto’s local landing and feeding a 64-year-old manatee named Snooty at the South Florida Museum, Parker Manatee Aquarium and Bishop Planetarium complex. En route to the beaches, the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez Fishing Village tells of the area’s angling heritage.
With skate, water and “family fun” parks (featuring mini golf, paintball and the like), Cape Coral caters to kids. But this city bounded by Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee River knows how to spoil nature-lovers, too. At Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, kayak or meander the boardwalk to see wildlife.
Fishing isn’t the only thing that’s sweet in Clewiston, though its seat on Lake Okeechobee makes bass fishing a no-brainer here. Hire a guide out of a local marina (airboat tours run for those who prefer catching scenery to catching fish). Agriculture is the other attraction, and the chamber’s Sugarland Express gives visitors an up-close look at harvesting and processing for both citrus and sugar.
In downtown Englewood, wander amidst the boutiques, bistros and galleries along Dearborn Street – a mural project makes the very buildings a canvas. Some of the area’s most memorable sights exist inside three state parks along its barrier islands: Stump Pass Beach, where you can sift the sand for shark teeth or fish for tarpon; Don Pedro Island, where boat-only access protects pristine beaches; and Gasparilla Island, where you can tour the circa-1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. On Boca Grande, find more shopping, noshing and classic resorts with a coastal chic culture.
With Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands as neighbors, it’s not difficult to imagine what Everglades City stands for. If you can resist the call of the wild, duck into the Museum of the Everglades. From Everglades City, just follow the signs to reach Everglades National Park's Gulf Coast Visitor Center. One-third of its 1.5 million-acre subtropical wilderness is waterlogged. Fish the flats, paddle the Everglades Wilderness Waterway Trail or take an airboat tour just outside national park boundaries – plenty of outfitters operate back in the “city.”
Many Fort Myers visitors know that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were neighbors here once. You may not know that Edison’s experiments centered as much on his tropical gardens as on his lab – tour both, and Edison and Ford inventions, original Edison Ford antique cars and artifacts, at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Downtown, a statue at Centennial Park brings the visionaries back to life alongside their friend Harvey Firestone, and the Caloosahatchee River lends the area its nickname “The River District.” River cruises, art walks and the annual Edison Festival of Light (with a parade and science and engineering fair) unfold here. The 1908 Arcade Theater building, home to the Florida Repertory Theatre, shows the past.
Even the nights are bright here as crowds shift between souvenir shops, bars and restaurants on the strip. Times Square wraps it all into one and leads to Lynn Hall Memorial Park, where a bait shop serves anglers who prefer to cast from its pier. Annual festivals include the American Sandsculpting Championship and the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival and Parade. Carve out some quiet time at Lovers Key State Park.
A town built on rest and relaxation, you can fish, golf and paddle here. Nearby Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park includes a fishing pier, canoe and kayak landing and hiking trails amid pines, marshes and cypress swamps where alligators, tortoises and otters thrive.
This island respite between Bradenton and Sarasota is known for its luxurious appeal. Chef-owned and operated (and oh-so-sophisticated) Euphemia Haye and The Haye Loft are loved locally for their globally inspired selections, dessert lounge and live music. Favorite beaches bear the names Greer (natives know it as Beer Can Island), Conrad and Whitney.
Resorts here specialize in eco-themed activities and provide access to the area’s four-mile shoreline. Dunes along Tigertail Beach contrast island high-rises, and its butterfly garden and birding opportunities add interest (the beach is a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail). Shift your gaze to dolphins and manatees along the Paradise Coast Blueway.
One luxe label isn’t enough to support this discerning destination, so two Ritz-Carltons (and a host of other refined resorts) accommodate visitors here. Golf is debonair, as is the scene along Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South, where the carefree congregate in vogue galleries, boutiques and eateries. The Naples Art Museum and Philharmonic Center fit right in, but the outdoors are equally enthralling. Fish from the historic pier at Naples Municipal Beach, eye for the elusive and endangered ghost orchid inside Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary or comb Gulf beaches to revel in their signature soft sand.
You’ve likely heard more about its more well-known neighbors Sarasota and Venice, but Nokomis fills some of the space between. It has a jetty for fishing, and you can surf near there, too. Nokomis Beach and North Jetty Park call to toes-in-the-sand types.
High-rising Riviera Dunes Marina may symbolize the Palmetto of late, but waterways and an agricultural museum suggest the town’s beginnings. Tour the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, the 1914 Carnegie Library and a 1935 schoolhouse at Palmetto Historical Park. Emerson Point Preserve evidences natural Palmetto; paddle or bike past beaches and canals thick with mangroves.
Port Charlotte and Charlotte Harbor
Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River virtually swallow the landscape, drawing all kinds of nature enthusiasts near. You’ll find recreational lands, fishing charters and paddling outfitters, along with a few surprises: Port Charlotte operates history-minded trolley and boat tours, and maintains both a symphony orchestra and a community playhouse.
Its perch on Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River never goes unnoticed by anglers and nature-seekers. It also inspires resident and visiting artists, who have fashioned a creative hook for this fishing village. More than 24 hand-painted murals depict local flora, fauna and founders. On and around Marion Avenue, you can shop and lunch amid the arts (and palms, old-style street lamps and brick streets). Fishermen’s Village presents more of the same, as well as fishing charters and scenic cruises.
Even the shells travel all the way from the Caribbean to visit conservation-minded Sanibel and Captiva, loved for their colorful collection of original galleries, eateries and shopping villages balanced by ubiquitous pedestrian trails, preserved lands and oh, those beaches. Thank the currents for bringing in far-from-home shells, including the rare junonia. There are even charters dedicated to the “sport” of shelling, taxiing novice and veteran collectors to neighboring bridgeless islands including Upper Captiva and Cayo Costa. Life is similarly remote inside the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
The arts are the keepers of this city by the bay. Become a patron of the opera, ballet or theater (the Asolo Repertory Theatre Company performs in a 19th-century opera house originally from Dumferland, Scotland). Visual arts are a cornerstone of The John and Mable Ringling Museum, where the awe-inspiring Rubens Galleries are part of a large collection and display of European art. The museum also features a stunning variety from antiquities to Asian and American, as well as contemporary art. Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringlings' Venetian-style winter mansion, is another look-don’t touch stunner, and a circus museum on the grounds tells of Sarasota’s big-top heritage. Appreciate the city’s historic architecture, named, appropriately, the Sarasota School style; the bright-hued buildings of Towles Court Artists Colony house galleries and studios. Downtown, Pineapple Avenue and Main Street are known for its restaurants and annual events. At St. Armands Circle, shop and snack all the way to the beach.
Despite its sleepy name, energy underscores Siesta Key. At beloved Turtle and Siesta beaches, you can spike a volleyball into the sand, jam to the sounds of the Sunday evening drum circle, throw out a picnic blanket and then do what you came to do: snooze (the sands really are as soft – and white – as you’ve heard).
Well-preserved Mediterranean Revival structures and beautiful water views are responsible for the Venetian vibe here. Browse the museum at The Triangle Inn and tour the Venice Train Station, both restored since their 1927 completion. If prehistory is your passion, make plans to visit during the annual Shark’s Tooth Festival.