By Janet K. Keeler
A short walk through the gentrified River District of Fort Myers and you’ll wish it was okay to gobble down more than three meals a day.
Maybe you can stretch out the daily allotment of eats along the coolest blocks of First Street if you treat your visit here like a progressive dinner (or lunch) party. Cocktails at Ford’s Garage followed by apps at Los Cabos Cantina & Tequila Bar then dinner at The Lodge, the most un-Florida restaurant you’ll ever visit. (Wee fake people ride a ski lift through the bar.)
Finish the night with a nightcap and dancing at Patio de Leon, an interior hideaway lined by clubs booming with live music, a pool hall and more restaurants. Or head one block over to Bay Street for rooftop selfies at Firestone Grille’s Sky Bar and then return to boogie at the Patio.
The River District is and is not a typical Fort Myers -- or Florida for that matter -- attraction. The city’s downtown has a concentration of low-profile buildings erected in the early 1900s through the Florida building boom of the 1920s.
Still, like so many of America’s downtowns, the civic operations (city hall, county courthouse, library and a U.S. courthouse, among them) couldn’t save it when suburban shopping malls beckoned. Oh, the lawyers stayed, and they still have plenty of offices on these brick-lined streets, but downtown became something of a ghost town.
Not anymore, because the place is in the midst of a full-on revival. The only ghosts you might spy now are during a historical walking tour. (Check out the schedule from True Tours, 239-945-0405). The River District’s location along the Caloosahatchee River was too desirable to stay down for long. In came investors and the area is now vibrant and enticing. And still growing.
So that’s the typical part. The River District provides a nod to the history of the City of Palms with a vision for the future, offering what hip travelers and young Fort Myers want to experience on foot.
So what’s new? If you’re looking for the usual Florida fare (grouper sandwiches and key lime pie), head to Fort Myers Beach. The River District provides another view of authentic Florida food, plus an appreciation for global cuisines including sushi, tacos and British bangers and mash. There are many indications that the easy-to-walk district brings in locals in equal measures with tourists.
Wild Florida hog is on the menu at The Lodge, a place that transports diners to the mountains of the American West with large screens projecting, of all things, videos of snow-capped peaks.
Ford’s Garage just a few blocks down First Street has a gas with vintage automobile memorabilia and cleverly named burgers that honor the history of the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford and his buddy Thomas Edison wintered in Fort Myers and their nearby homes and workshops are open to the public. (Edison and Ford Winter Estates; 239-334-7419).
Food isn’t the only thing to satisfy a walker in the River District. Shopping, live music and art are in the mix too. On a recent visit, we stayed at the Hotel Indigo, into which you enter from an historic post office arcade complete with multicolored terrazzo tile floors. The Indigo (1520 Broadway; 239-337-3446) is just off First Street, the main drag through the River District. Park your car here, drop the bags and set out on foot. There’s also a large parking garage for day-trippers. (Find a downloadable map of all businesses at myriverdistrict.com.)
Throughout the district are large sculptures by Edgardo Carmona, a Colombian artist who brings to life musicians, jugglers, card players, street vendors and more in rust-colored metal. Get a guide to the sculptures at each work of art and a self-guided walking tour of the enchanting pieces could build your appetite for a sky-high burger at Ford’s.
If you want to enjoy art inside, head to the Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center at the east edge of the district, another example of an old building that’s found new purpose. Opened in 1933 and made of Florida Keys limestone with walls embedded with coral formations and seashells, the former U.S. Post Office was vacated and neglected in the late 1990s. Civic-minded folks and art lovers saved the building and it now brings fine art, music, theater and film events to the city.
To see the district in action, consider planning a visit around one of the regular events such as the weekly farmers market and monthly art or music walks. The first Friday of each month sees bicyclists touring the area as part of the Critical Mass Bike Ride, which starts at a nearby grocery store parking lot. Into bikes that are more about vroom-vroom than pedal power? The quarterly Bike Nights have attracted hundreds of motorcyclists to the River District to show of their rides.
Best Place to Buy a Gift for Your BFF
Novelty socks with traditional designs but emblazoned with funny (and sometimes quite blue) sayings (Don’t Judge Me; I Could Use a Sandwich; I Hate Everyone Too; Do I Look Like a Team Player?) can be had at Market Earth (2224 First St.,239-226-0006). Stop here for fair trade and sustainable clothes and jewelry, plus martini glasses etched with classy faces and adorned with bowties or earrings. Lots of cute greeting cards, too.
Best Florida Taste That You Can’t Eat
Downtown has a Naples Soap Co. outlet (2273 First St., 239-226-9005), which started in nearby swanky Naples. Soaps, lotions, bath balms, candles and more smell of coconut, key lime, orange and even rumrunner cocktails. The souvenir place for the folks back home.
Best Place to See an Edison Light Bulb outside of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates
Timeless (2218 First St., 239-332-8463) boasts an interesting array of “items of illumination.” Most of the fixtures are lit with Edison antique filament bulbs that are trendy in home décor and restaurant design. Much of the work at Timeless has a “steampunk” aesthetic, blending gothic features with industrial designs. Imagine science fiction meets Victorian sensibilities. Lots of jewelry, small sculptures and wall art, too. A must-stop in the River District.
Best Sunset Selfie Spots
There are two: The River Basin plaza on Bay Street between Hendry Street and Bayview Court won’t set you back a dime for a million-dollar waterfront photo backdrop. Or cross Bay Street and head to the rooftop Sky Bar of the four-story Firestone restaurant and bar complex (2224 Bay St., 239-334-3473) for a sunset cocktail and photo. Either spot will let you capture the nightly sky show over the Caloosahatchee River with you and your buddies in the foreground, of course. Bring a selfie-stick.
Best Place to Watch the Game
Just because you’re away from home, doesn’t mean you can’t watch the big game (or any old game for that matter) and check the scores. If you can muscle a spot at the bar, head to the quirky Lodge (2278 First St., 239-433-2739) for bison pot-stickers or Ford’s Garage, (2207 First St., 239-332-3673) for a Hot Wheels tequila cocktail with a jalapeno kick, all with lots of TVs. Wonder how Ford’s Garage can display all that company memorabilia? The owners are official partners with Ford Motor Company.