By Nicole Hutcheson
There are some places that are better experienced by foot than by car. Downtown Fort Myers' historic district is one of those places. The area has the largest concentration of historic structures still standing in all of Southwest Florida.
Clustered within a few miles of each other are historical landmarks like the estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. And architectural standouts like the Collier Arcade and the Old Lee Company Bank.
It's what makes Fort Myers such a great place for walking tours.
Everything is within walking distance," said Gina Taylor, owner of True Tours, a tour company operating in downtown Fort Myers. "You can park on one side and walk to the other."
For the past seven years True Tours has offered a variety of walking tours of Fort Myers’ downtown historic district. From art history to architecture, and haunted lore, True Tours shows off the best of downtown Fort Myers by foot.
Fort Myers River District
Also known as the River District, Fort Myers' downtown historic core encompasses 540 acres from the Caloosahatchee River to Victoria Avenue and from West First Street to Billy’s Creek. The historic district is broken down into four areas: Dean Park, Edison Park, Downtown, and Seminole Park. These areas along with about two dozen other historic landmarks just outside these zones constitute the official historic downtown area.
Within these districts are a maze of narrow streets, alleyways, courtyards, and brick lined sidewalks flanked with palm trees. Tucked away within that area are an abundance of small boutiques, galleries, theaters, restaurants and cafes. Along with a bunch of shaded places to tuck away for a chat and park benches to catch a rest.
It is a far cry from when Fort Myers was settled in the 1840s as a scrappy military post during the Seminole War. After the war ended, the town would become a farming community. With an optimal river side location Fort Myers soon began a top location for commercial ventures. When the building boom of the early 1900s hit Fort Myers it was no stopping its growth into a residential and vacation spot. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford bought summer estates in the area.
Through the 1920s, the town boomed. But during the depression commerce declined and much of Fort Myers historic gems fell into disrepair.
It was not until the early 1980s the city created the Downtown Redevelopment Agency (DRA) in an effort to combat the decline of the downtown corridor. A special tax was assessed to redevelop the historic area. As a result a resurgence of the area began in the 1990s, and it hasn't slowed yet.
In 2010, Fort Myers history buff Gina Taylor opened True Tours after noticing an increase in visitors to downtown. The town’s combination of restored buildings, signature architecture and historical significance made starting a tour guide agency a good fit. After opening, the public demand prompted Taylor to expand her tours.
"You can't truly experience Fort Myers unless you're walking," she said.
Self-Guided Downtown Fort Myers Walking Tour Maps & Guides
Like True Tours, there are many guided tours in downtown Fort Myers. But you can also download maps and guides online and go on a self-guided walking tour of downtown. A great option is the City Walking Guide and Fieldtrip. You download them onto your phone and pick the tour you’d like to go on.
Another option is to check out artist and writer Tom Hall’s public art tour. The well known Fort Myers resident has compiled a very walkable list of 14 of the city’s most notable public art installations on his well-read blog ArtSWFL.com. The tour starts in Centennial Park at the Fire Dance by David Black sculpture and makes pit stops along the way at art like The Great Turtle Chase statue on Heitman Street and the illuminated Caloosahatchee Manuscript at the Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center. This walking tour can go as fast or as slow as you want since it’s self-guided. Go here for a full listing of art to see.
If you want a narrated walking tour, there are a wide variety of tours in Fort Myers to fit your needs.
History buffs will get a well-rounded look at the history of downtown Fort Myers architecture during The River History Tour. This 90-minute narrated walking tour highlights the historically maintained buildings in the district and the colorful people who built them. The tour begins in the heart of downtown at the Franklin Shops on First Street in Historic Downtown Fort Myers.
Crave something a little more macabre?
How about exploring the darker side of downtown Fort Myers during the Haunted History Tour. True Tours guides takes walkers on a stroll at night through the city’s streets and alleys checking out locations that have a reputation of being haunted. Take the First National Bank Building downtown on First Street. Built in 1914, the building has a resident ghost. No wonder it was used in the zombie film Day of the Dead.
Art and music lovers can explore the city by foot with ease.
The River District Alliance offers a monthly Art Walk Tour. Always on the first Friday of the month, this tour showcases the art galleries and exhibitions in downtown Fort Myers and the Gardner's Park area. The Art Walk tours are free to the public from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Many galleries offer special activities during the walk.
Dance, don’t walk through downtown Fort Myers during the monthly Music Walk Tour. Musicians will provide the soundtrack to your walk around downtown Fort Myers playing various genres from jazz to R&B and Blues. The walk takes place every third Friday from 6p.m. to 10 p.m.
Love a good challenge?
Follow the clues during the River Alliance’s Mystery Walk Tour. Held on the second Friday of the month you can explore the historic district core by following carefully laid out clues that will help you move on to the next. This family-friendly event is free. Clues range from Fort Myers’ history, to movies and current events. You’re given a score card and your first clue at registration. You’ll see the beauty of First and Hendry streets during this tour.
Keep the clues going with Fort Myers’ Let's Roam, a scavenger hunt style walking tour. The hunt is designed for a team. Adults and kids are welcomed. Your team will get two hours to complete the hunt. Along the way you’ll see famous Fort Myers’ sites like Centennial Park, Murphy-Burroughs House, and Thomas Edison’s estate.
A trip to Fort Myers' wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Just outside of the downtown core, but still in walking distance, are the summer homes of inventor Thomas Edison and Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford. The homes are adjacent to each other and located along the Caloosahatchee River bank.
The estate provides guided tours providing information about the lives of the men, their families and their bond. During the tour you’ll see the homes, botanical gardens, Edison’s lab and learn some unknown information about his inventions. A tour of the museum is also included.
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