Sanibel Island Travel Guide | Where to Eat, Play & Stay

Empty Nest Blessed by Suzy Mighell
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woman wearing cabana life dress on beach in sanibel island

I’ve gotten so many requests for a Sanibel Island Travel Guide! Sanibel Island is my second home, and my family loves the island so much. Sharing it with you brings me such joy.

woman wearing cabana life dress on beach in sanibel island

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: My Connection to the Island

My family moved every two or three years when I was growing up. Even though I had to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new home every few years, one thing remained the same — summers on Sanibel Island. My parents eventually retired there, blessing us with a beautiful place to take our kids when they were growing up. Once my parents moved off the island to a retirement community, Bob and I decided that we absolutely had to keep a presence on the island. So we bought a small, one-bedroom condo on the island, eventually adding another one nearby for our kids.

woman on beach in pink cabana life dress on sanibel island

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: Travel Basics

How to Get There

Sanibel Island is located in southwest Florida, on southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast just west of Fort Myers, north of Naples, and south of Tampa. It’s easy to access via direct flights on major airlines right to Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. From Fort Myers, it’s less than an hour’s drive to get to the island via the Sanibel Causeway ($6 with a transponder or $9 without), which features picturesque views. Sanibel’s beaches regularly land on the “Best Beaches” lists.

When to Go

Our favorite months to visit Sanibel are October and May. However, as warm weather fans, we also like June and September! In general, the summer can be very hot and humid, bringing out mosquitos and no-see-ums at dawn and dusk, with August being the most intense. The busiest and most expensive time to visit Sanibel is between January and April. That’s when the “snowbirds” from the north come to Sanibel for the temperate climate, driving prices up and backing up traffic on Periwinkle Way, the island’s main road.

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: Where to Stay

Casa Ybel Resort

There are many great places to stay (in every price range) on Sanibel Island! In our opinion, the best place to stay on the island is Casa Ybel Resort. Of course, We’re partial to Casa Ybel because that’s where our condos are! The resort was voted one of Travel & Leisure’s Top 500 Places to Stay in the World! It’s a pretty unique place, with every single unit on the 23-acre property facing the beautiful turquoise Gulf of Mexico. Every unit has virtually identical decor, a galley kitchen, and a screened lanai. Click HERE for a live beach cam that shows you the view you can expect from each unit.

casa ybel mug and beach through lanai screen
I took this photo through the screen of our lanai!

Units at Casa Ybel Resort rent through the resort itself, not through individuals, so there’s no need to contact me for rental information! Prices vary greatly based on the time of year. For pricing and availability, click HERE. For information on other lodging options on Sanibel Island, click HERE.

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: The Basics

One of our favorite things about Sanibel is the fact that 67% of the island is made up of wildlife refuges, the largest being J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The island is 12 miles long and three miles wide at the widest point, and it features 23-miles of paved bike trails! There are no stoplights, no buildings over three stories high, and there are no “Golden Arches” or big box stores.

On the southern tip of the island is the historic Sanibel Lighthouse, built in 1884. It’s a popular spot for Island visitors, with public beaches, large parking lots, restroom facilities, terrific shelling, and a fishing pier.

On the island’s northern tip sits Sanibel’s sister island, Captiva. Five-mile-long Captiva Island is much narrower and more built-up than Sanibel. South Seas Resort, which sits at the northern tip of Captiva, takes up approximately half of that, with 2.5 miles of beaches and 330-acre nature preserve all within the resort’s property.

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: What to Do

Shelling

Sanibel Island is often referred to as the “Shelling Capital of the World” because of its unique location and shape. The island, known for its white-sand beaches, is a paradise for those who enjoy seashells and is the home of The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum — the only museum in the U.S. solely devoted to shells. In fact, there’s even a name for the bent-over position that beachcombers take when searching for shells on Sanibel—the “Sanibel Stoop.”

Sanibel Island is shaped sort of like a shrimp! It curves along the coastline among a string of other straighter islands, and the east-west torque of Sanibel’s south end acts like a shovel. This allows the island to, in essence, “scoop” up the seashells that the Gulf imports from The Caribbean and other southern seas. Thanks to the abundance and variety of shells, people come to Sanibel and Captiva islands to shell from all over the world! For more on the best places to shell in Sanibel, see THIS GUIDE from the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce.

Biking

One of the best ways to explore Sanibel is by bike on one of the 23 miles of paved cycling paths. If your resort doesn’t offer bike rentals, I recommend renting from Finnimore’s Bike & Beach Rentals. (They also rent kayaks, paddleboards, and beach equipment.)

Biking along Periwinkle Way, you’ll find most of the shops and restaurants, and, if you continue past the Causeway, you’ll eventually reach the historic Sanibel Lighthouse, located at the southernmost tip of the island. In the other direction, the Sanibel-Captiva Road takes you to the island’s natural attractions (and, if you pedal long enough, eventually to Captiva Island).

Our favorite bike ride is to head out from Casa Ybel Resort and make our way to the historic Sanibel Lighthouse, stopping for lunch at Gramma Dot’s, located on the waterfront at the Sanibel Marina. Locals love this waterfront dive! We always order the mesquite-grilled grouper sandwich and house-made potato chips. Then we continue to the lighthouse, taking in some of the side streets along the way.

Kayaking & Paddleboarding

Head out to Tarpon Bay Explorers for a fun paddleboard or kayaking adventure. Schedule a guided nature tour, or rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to explore Tarpon Bay and the kayak nature trail on your own.

woman in pink sun shirt paddleboarding

Tarpon Bay Explorers is the licensed concession to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. They’re under contract with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to provide educational & recreational opportunities to the public.

Birding & Wildlife

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge features protected habitats ranging from estuary to hardwood uplands. It has a state-of-the-art education center and a five-mile Wildlife Refuge Drive open to cars, bikes, and hikers. Tarpon Bay Explorers, a nearby concession, also conducts tram, pontoon, and paddling tours of the refuge, in addition to renting kayaks, canoes, and bikes.

Birder’s World magazine lists Ding Darling among the top five birding destinations in the U.S. The Refuge hosts interpretive birding tours.

Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (“C.R.O.W.”)

C.R.O.W. is a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation clinic that treats more than 2200 patients a year. The goal of treatment is to release the patients back into their natural habitat. It conducts tours daily. For more information on C.R.O.W. , click HERE.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF)

SCCF is located along the Sanibel River and features a nature center, garden center, eight miles of hiking trails, an observation tower, and a butterfly house. SCCF staff and volunteers also host boating, beach, and other interpretative nature programs. For more information on those, click HERE.

Boating & Fishing

Boating

Several marinas provide boat rentals on Sanibel. Sightseeing, shelling, and nature excursions are also plentiful. The most popular tours take you “island-hopping” to the upper islands for lunch and secluded beach time. We recommend family-owned & operated Captiva Cruises, which leave from either South Seas Island Resort or McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva Island.

Canoeing & Kayaking

Canoe & Kayak magazine rates Sanibel Island among the top ten places to paddle in the U.S. We recommend Tarpon Bay Explorers for canoe, kayak, Hobie fishing kayaks, and paddleboard rentals.

Fishing

Surf fish from the beach, try your luck at the Lighthouse Fishing Pier, or rent a Hobie fishing kayak from Tarpon Bay Explorers. You must have a fishing license! Purchase one online HERE or on the Official Florida Fish & Wildlife app HERE.

man holding up a fish from a blue Hobie kayak in tarpon bay on sanibel island

The waters around Sanibel are home to game fish such as tarpon, snook, redfish, sea trout, and mackerel. There are many good fishing guide services on the island. We recommend Captain Joe Burnsed (239) 472-8658 for fishing charters.

Golf

There are several challenging golf courses on Sanibel.

  • Sanibel Island Golf Club – Semi-manicured nature-inspired greens run throughout the 150-acre 18-hole, full-service course. Rates vary throughout the year. Click HERE for more information.
  • Dunes Golf & Tennis Club – Award-winning course designed by PGA Tour Winner Mark McCumber. It’s located in a wildlife preserve sanctioned by the Audubon Society. Click HERE for more information.
  • Sanctuary Golf Club – This par-72, 6,657-yard course was designed by legendary Arthur Hills. It sits alongside the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and offers views of Pine Island Sound, mangrove forests, and local wildlife. Click HERE for more information.

Shopping

There are so many wonderful little places to shop on Sanibel. Many shops are located in one of two shopping centers.

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: Where To Eat

Other than the Dairy Queen, built in the 1970s, there are no fast-food restaurants on Sanibel Island! Here are the spots we recommend.

Breakfast

  1. Over Easy Cafe – Serving lunch & breakfast all day! Dog-friendly patio. Closes at 3 p.m. (Lots of GF options!) For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  2. Sanibel Cafe – Known for great food and gorgeous fossilized sea shell table tops! Located in Tahitian Gardens Plaza. Also good for lunch. For menu & pricing, click HERE.

Lunch

  1. Coconuts Poolside Bar & Grill – Located between the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Olympic-sized pool at Casa Ybel Resort. For menu & pricing, click HERE. Open 11- 6.
  2. Thistle Lodge – A great choice for Sunday brunch! For the brunch menu & pricing, click HERE. For the well-priced lunch menu & pricing click HERE.
  3. Gramma Dots – Located at the beautiful Sanibel Marina, it’s open 7 days a week for lunch or dinner, with indoor or outdoor seating. Order the Mesquite Grilled Grouper sandwich with their housemade chips. For the menu & pricing, click HERE.
  4. Spoondrift Island Bowls – With food sourced from the Sanibel Farmer’s Market, this is THE place for fresh and delicious bowls. For menu & pricing, click HERE.

Dinner (Many of these are also great for lunch.)

  1. Doc Ford’s – Order the Yucatan Shrimp or the Yucatan Shrimp Tacos. (To make them GF, ask for corn tortillas rather than flour.) For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  2. The Clam Shack – If you love fresh New England-style seafood, this casual family-owned restaurant is the spot for you! The prices are fantastic and Bob says the Lobster Bisque is the best he’s ever had! For a peek a the menu, click HERE. (Pricing is tied to market price, but it’s very reasonable!)
  3. Sanibel Fish House – Award-winning casual seafood restaurant with a large menu and fun decor. For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  4. Cheeburger Cheeburger – If your tastebuds need a break from seafood, this burger & shake spot is perfect. For menu & pricing, click HERE
  5. George & Wendy’s Seafood Grill – Don’t let the uninspiring location fool you! The menu is extensive, the food is delish and they have live music many nights! (Locals love this spot.) For menu & pricing, click HERE. (Lots of GF selections.)
  6. The Sandbar – If Surf & Turf is your jam, this is your spot! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  7. Mudbugs – If you’re a fan of Cajun food, you’ll love this New Orleans-inspired restaurant. They have indoor seating as well as great two-story patio dining and live music every night! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  8. Traditions on the Beach – Casual fine dining featuring a selection of local seafood and nightly specials. Located at the Island Inn. Live music & dancing most nights from 6:30-9:30 p.m! Check the schedule and go on the nights when Danny Sinnoff plays! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  9. Thistle Lodge – Award-winning beachfront fine dining restaurant that is consistently rated Sanibel Island’s “Most Romantic Restaurant,” The menu includes a blend of Floridian, European, and Asian flavors. For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  10. Trader’s – Creative coastal-inspired menu and unique dining experience. Trader’s has live music most nights, and an eclectic gift shop featuring unique treasures. Go when island-favorite Danny Morgan is playing! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  11. Sweet Melissa’s Cafe – Casual atmosphere featuring award-winning American cuisine that emphasizes fresh, seasonal farm-to-table ingredients. Their specialty is Seafood Stew! For menu & pricing, click HERE.

Sweet Treats

  • Joey’s Custard – A family and veteran-owned one-stop shop for sweet treats! They serve everything from custard, ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbets, and Italian ice to coffee. For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  • Love Boat Ice Cream – A Southwest Florida favorite featuring over 85 homemade flavors. For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  • The Sanibel Custard Shack – The newest sweet shop on the Island! It’s opened to rave reviews!

On Captiva

  1. Sunset Grill – Located in a brightly painted beach cottage right in between Sanibel and Captiva, they serve seafood-focused American fare. We especially like this place for breakfast and lunch! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  2. Old Captiva House – Award-winning restaurant located at National Registry of Historic Places landmark Tween Waters Inn, this restaurant is really special! For menu & pricing, click HERE. Breakfast (7:30-11 am) & Dinner (5-9 pm) only.
  3. The Green Flash – An upscale waterfront restaurant with indoor or outdoor dockside dining. Come by boat or by car! For menu & pricing, click HERE.
  4. The Mad Hatter – Intimate fine dining featuring fresh, made-from-scratch food that evolves with the season. Open for dinner only. This is the ideal romantic restaurant if you’re celebrating an anniversary or another special occasion. For menu & pricing, click HERE.

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: Two Apps That Can Help

If you’re heading to Sanibel, consider downloading these two apps to help you get the most out of your time on the island.

  • Sanibel Bound (FREE) – During peak season, Sanibel can experience daily heavy on-bound traffic congestion from 8 a.m. to noon and off-bound traffic between 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Plan your off- and on-Island trips using these 12 street cam views of strategic Sanibel locations. Download it on the Apple App Store HERE or the Google App Store HERE.
  • Shell Museum ($1.99) – This app puts a shell guide in the palm of your hand! Take a picture of shells you find and it gives you options for what kind of shell it might be, plus detailed information on the creature that once inhabited it! Download it on the Apple App Store HERE or the Google App Store HERE.

For more on Sanibel Island, click HERE.

woman wearing cabana life dress on beach in sanibel island

Coral Geo Off-the-Shoulder Dress | Earrings | Similar Sunglasses | Lipstick

Sanibel Island Travel Guide: Pro Tips

  • There are two locally-owned, full-service grocery stores on the island, Bailey’s and Jerry’s of Sanibel. They’re wonderful but pricey! We recommend you stop at THIS (nice) Walmart Supercenter in Fort Myers to stock up on your way to the Island! It’s close to the Sanibel Causeway, and you’ll save a bundle.
  • Definitely plan to rent a car. Sanibel is not a place where you can Uber everywhere!
  • Gas is expensive on the island, so fill up on the mainland prior to returning your rental car.
  • Pack an insect repellant with DEET or THIS No No-See-Um Natural Insect Repellant if you’re traveling to Sanibel in the warmer months. It’s your best defense against the no-see-ums that can be prevalent at dawn and dusk. If mosquitos love you, no-see-ums will too. They are tiny and can get through window screens, so don’t leave your windows open at night!
  • Avoid tourist-trap restaurants that you may have heard of that are not on our list. The food will disappoint, and you won’t get an authentic island vibe.

If you have any additional questions about Sanibel Island, please leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them!

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Suzy Mighell

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16 Comments

  1. How far is the island from the Tampa area? My sister lives in Reddington Shores (outside of Tampa) and we will be visiting her in March. Also, how far from Naples? My son’s girlfriend parents live in Naples and my son visits there a couple of times a year.

    1. Hi Jackie!

      Thanks for your question! I Googled the distances and this is what I found: Tampa to Sanibel is 157 miles, so about 2 1/2 hours. Naples is 53 miles and about 1 hour, 15 minutes.

      I hope that helps! Thanks for reading Empty Nest Blessed!

      xoxo
      Suzy

    2. Hi there, I live in Northeast Ohio. We have been coming down to the Redington-Indian Shores area for several years but we come in July. We stay at the Sand Dollar condos. So nice to see it mentioned, hope you have a great time!

      1. Linda,

        I’m so glad you enjoyed your time on Sanibel! It’s a pretty special place!

        Thank you so much for reading Empty Nest Blessed and for taking the time to leave a comment!

        xoox
        Suzy

  2. Thanks so much, Suzy, for all your hard work on this informative post. My husband and I will be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this year and will definitely consider Sanibel Island as our special trip, now that I know all it has to offer. It sounds wonderful!

    1. Angie,

      AW. congratulations! That is an event worth celebrating! I’m so happy for y’all. Depending on the time of year you’re considering, I think you’d love it! All I can say is reserve early because things are filling up!

      I’m so happy you found this guide helpful! It was such fun to write!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  3. My daughter was married at Casa Ybel in Decembe 10 years ago, their reception was at the Thistle Lodge…beautiful weather, wonderful accommodations, great food.Highly recommend for weddings! ..

    1. Holly,

      Oh, wow! That is remarkable! They do host a lot of weddings because it’s so spectacular and they make it a turnkey process! I hope you’ll consider going back some time to enjoy it yourself!

      Thank you for letting me know!

      xoxo
      Suzy

      1. Oh Suzy, I love everything about your posts but this one is a dream (vacay) away! I don’t get to travel often but Sanibel has moved to the top of my list and I already purchased the black maxi tank dress from Amazon as my Sanibel take-along. Looks fabulous on you, and thanks for giving me some sweet vacay dreams for now🥰

  4. Thank you Suzy for all the useful facts and photos of Sanibel Island. I’ve seen it pop up on Instagram occasionally and always wondered where it was! I’m definitely an island loving girl so if we ever fly to the States from the UK I must pay this beautiful part of the world a visit. Thanks again 🙂

  5. Caroline,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment! I think you would love Sanibel! Come see us in the US! If you do make the trip and you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me!

    xoxo
    Suzy

  6. We have a 10 lb small dog. Any suggestions for dog friendly accommodations that are still nice? Don’t want to go to a 3 star type place just bc we have to travel with the pooch.
    Thanks!

  7. Oh Suzy, I love everything about your posts but this one is a dream (vacay) away! I don’t get to travel often but Sanibel has moved to the top of my list and I already purchased the black maxi tank dress from Amazon as my Sanibel take-along. Looks fabulous on you, and thanks for giving me some sweet vacay dreams for now🥰

    1. Helena,

      You are so kind! I hope you get to Sanibel soon! (Let me know if you plan a trip because I’d love to meet you and we’re there quite often!) Thank you so much for your sweet comment!

      You will love the black Amazon maxi! It is a FIND!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  8. Helena,

    You are so kind! I hope you get to Sanibel soon! (Let me know if you plan a trip because I’d love to meet you and we’re there quite often!) Thank you so much for your sweet comment!

    You will love the black Amazon maxi! It is a FIND!

    xoxo
    Suzy

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