A gateway to the Southwest Florida region, Fort Myers is a major tourist destination on the banks of Caloosahatchee River. Established as a Seminole War Post in 1841, Fort Myers was known originally as Fort Harvie. Being transformed from a farming and cattle community in the late 1860’s into a commercial one, Fort Myers gained by the mid 1880’s a national notoriety for local recreational fishing.
From a small community, Fort Myers (nicknamed the City of Palms) has changed its look over time, new brick buildings replacing the original wooden ones. Today, the landscape of Southwest Florida has changed dramatically from what it used to be; however, the historic neighbourhoods and landmarks continue to bring some colour to the city.
The best things to see and do in Fort Myers
Florida, the Sunshine State, is well-known for its subtropical climate. Despite the fact that Florida leads the United States in tornadoes per area, the climate and the beaches draw thousands of tourists every year. Located on the western side of the state, near the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Myers is well – guarded from the tornadoes wandering most of the time in the Atlantic.
A great place to find natural wonders, learn a bit of history, visit beautiful attractions, and watch spectacular sunsets, Fort Myers will not disappoint. If your itinerary allows, I would recommend at least two to three full days to explore all the surroundings, and fully soak up the special energy you will find here.
Strolling through the Historic Downtown River District
To get a good grip of Ft Myers downtown, you can start with River district, where pretty shops, restaurants and imperial palms line its streets, looking for historical buildings and various sculptures.
Ft Myers used to be a compact city on Caloosahatchee River’s shore. Now it is expanding to the south east side, and no wonder if one day it will unite with Fort Myers Beach.
First Street (once called Front Street) became the heart of the town. What it was a sandy trail, the street appeared on the 1876 town survey plat, occupying a central position in Ft Myers. A church, Phoenix Hall, and the Keystone hotel stood along its route. Railroad construction, and street light electrification in 1898 reflected progress, and tourism contributed significantly to the growth of the town, as well as whole South. Shortly after 1900, First Street was paved with shells, which eased the introduction of automobiles.
Fort Myers Beach
Do not mistake, Fort Myers Beach is a small town located on Estero Island, in the same County Lee, as Fort Myers. As the name suggest, it boasts with seven miles of white sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Only 25 km from Fort Myers, driving may be a drawback, depends on the traffic, as there is only one bridge at the north end of the island. Also, another drawback could be the parking fee, as it varies from $5/hr to $25/day. An afternoon visit is a must, and if you are lucky enough, you may witness an unforgettable sunset. If not, you can still enjoy the white sand, the endless sky, and the various shades of blue water, as well as one of the many terraces and restaurants along the shore.
Edison and Ford Winter Estates
Fort Myers became famous due to its most acclaimed resident Thomas Edison, who spent more than 50 winters in Southwest Florida. 20 acres of botanical gardens,15,000 sq-foot museum, Edison Laboratory, and both Edison and Ford Historic homes of their Winter Estates are opened daily to get you into a different world of discoveries, and technology. You can explore these estates on your own pace, with a map, and optional an audio guide on your phone.
Named the 20th century “Man of the Millennium” by Life Magazine, Thomas Alva Edison was awarded 1,093 US patents, discovering (along with his team) an astounding number of commercial applications for ordinary materials and agricultural products. From his first visit in 1885 to his last stay in Fort Myers in 1931, Edison created a remarkable estate, that included areas for research – in fact he tested more than 17,000 plants for possible sources of rubber. Together with Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927, and a laboratory was built in 1928 as the base of operations.
Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center
Known for Caloosa Indian villages in ancient times, this land was home by 1865 to the original fort of Fort Myers. In 1933 a 23,000 square foot US Post Office was built to replace the fort. This was the beginning of what we see it as today’s Sidney and Berne Davis Art Centre. Designed by prominent Florida architect Nat Gaillard Walker, the art center building is a rare masterpiece of Neoclassic Revival architecture in Florida. The columns were made of limestone from the Florida Keys, and the walls were embedded with coral formations and sea shells.
By 1965 the Postal Office building was converted to a Federal Courthouse, which, later on, being abandoned, was saved by the $1 million pledge from Berne Davis for the building restoration.
Today, the art center hosts a large variety of events throughout the year. Beside the first and second floor opened for monthly exhibitions, the rooftop is opened to the public since 2021. While the Grand Atrium is opened during the day time for the monthly gallery, at night time, or in the weekend, the space is changing its gown, like a Cinderella, turning it itself into a concert room, where various artists will play for the public.
There are many contemporary local art galleries showcasing the local history through paint, textiles, clay, or pictures. If you are interested in learning more about the history, and culture, you also need to include a museum in your tour. And what goes better than one you can visit for free? But while most of the events are free, donations are appreciated. Some of the events can carry a charge, you can check the list here.
Beside the museums and the galleries opened all year round, there are many concerts, and art related events during a month time. But Fort Myers boasts itself with a great amount of outdoor artwork as well, free to the public along several venues.
Often inspired by history, artists, like Jim Sanborn, will challenge the viewers with their art-works. The Caloosahatchee Manuscripts, consisting of two bronze, lantern-like cylinders grace the sidewalks in front of the Sidney & Berne Art Center. The eastern lantern-like sculpture drum contains the text of a story told by Maskoki Indian leader Tchikilli to James Oglethorpe about the migration of Native Americans into Florida, and the western drum contains the Latin names of 500 botanicals that Edison tested in an effort to develop a local source of latex from which to make rubber.
Also, in front of the Art Center lay two of Juan Miguel Vazquez’s grand pieces made from stainless steel and Corten steel, which you cannot miss: Waking Up, and Gliding in Time.
Part of sponsor-a-sculpture program, several artworks are spread throughout the city: Standing Thomas Ediso’ by Don D.J. Wilkin, Fire Dance by David Black, Allure your senses collection by Edgardo Camona to name a few.
Trying local food
Food might not be the first thing to come to your mind when speaking about Florida. But we tried enhancing our gastronomic experiences finding some places with local food. Or drinks. As first-time travelers to Florida 7 years ago, we enjoyed gator bites, so we didn’t miss them this time either.
River district has an array of restaurants you can chose from, which can boast with fancy menus, and own galleries. Trying some local beer is definitely worth it, especially when the second one comes for free.
Festivals and other events
If you are planning for staying more than few days in Ft Myers, then you definitely need to look for a free Guide-Map in one of the boxes spread throughout the city. The papers are full of adds and coupons for a gazillion of tours, cruises, or water related sports. As the dry and peak season goes on, you will expect more crowds and some pricing to go up, therefore some coupons might be very handy. Also, some planning may be required, in terms of buying tickets in advance, or booking seats for certain venues. You can also check the city for special events.
Sanibel Island is another popular tourist destination, known for its shell beaches, and wildlife refuges. More than half of the island is made up of wild refuges, the largest one being J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The only drawback is the traffic, as only a two-lane bridge is connecting the island with mainland. Be prepared for long waits, as this is one of the most popular places, not only for tourists, but for locals as well.
You can spend the whole day at the beach, as the island is gifted with sandy beaches along pretty much all its length of 28 kms (including Captiva Island), but also with shell beaches, as this barrier island is very famous for the large quantities of seashells that wash up here. Nature lovers can enjoy nature trails in the adjacent 21 km2 Wildlife Refuge, well known for the undeveloped mangrove ecosystems and birdwatching opportunities.
From the moment you arrive in Fort Myers, you are assaulted by the sunshine and nature, a salty breeze in your face and hair, and bounties of fresh seafood, and tropical fruits. Beside the hundreds of charters, cruises, tours, and rentals, Lee County invites paddlers to explore the bays, rivers, back rivers, and shorelines of Southwest Florida. The Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail is a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries.
Getting lost on purpose is one of our fun activities when we visit a new city. But this time we included in our route the History & Science Center. A family-oriented place, here you can learn a bit of history, science, technology, wildlife, and so much more.
Parks and Preserves
Nature walkers may be lured by any of the several parks and preserves around Fort Myers. Wetland ecosystems, boardwalk trails, plants, wildlife, everything invites you to spend some quality time in the middle of the nature. The preserves are very popular for their free entrance, but the $ parking is quite limited. For options and details, you can check the Lee County list here.
Key West day trip
If you feel you’ve seen enough of Fort Myers, then you might want to take a peek of what adjacent cities can offer. Our previous swift visit to Key West several years ago left me with a longing desire to visit Hemingway’s former residence, hence we decided for a boat trip this time. But we’ve seen so much more! If you are wondering how you can spend a day in Key West, you can read here.
For an unforgettable night, with live music and entertainment, Naples has few nice selections. Blue martini Lounge was our choice of the evening, and if you are in the area for a night or two, you can check here what band will play or event will take place every night.
The City of Palms
With an abundance of sunshine, you might want to have a day to do nothing, and visit nothing. If the weather permits, and you are an outdoorsy person, then hanging around the city is the best idea. The tall Royal Palms are worthy for their name. It is mesmerizing to look atop of them, all aligned in a straight formation along the First Street (and not only) in Ft Myers. The first royal palms were imported and planted in the City of Palms in 1897, and the palm-lined First Street encompasses the appeal and the image of the sub-tropical Florida.
An abundance of flowers and birds will fill your heart at almost every corner, and you might want to take picture after picture. But no matter how many you have, don’t forget to breath in the moment, to watch the sun or the clouds, to let the worries of the yesterday go, and to welcome the sparkle of a new day today!
Tip(s) of the day:
*Make sure you’re getting a free Guide-map from a local box, or download one on your cell phone, as you can get a lot of useful information, discounts, and coupons;
*Get your camera ready, and fully charged;
*Comfortable footwear is recommended, and lots of water and sunscreen for your walks;
*Make sure you book in advance your ferry if this is your option to visit Key West;
*A minimum 2 full days are advisable for maximum sightseeing;
*The best time to visit Florida is between March and May. The weather is still similar with the one over the winter, but it is not as busy and pricy as in the winter time (November to February).
~ visited in February 2022