Go to main contentsGo to search barGo to main menu
Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 9:33 AM


We have our share (and then some) of headlining attractions — from superlative beaches and golf courses to top-notch cultural attractions, shopping, restaurants and festivals. Instead, SWFL Insider takes you to our best local secrets, those hidden gems shy of the limelight.
The historic Trabue Land Sales Office at the Punta Gorda History Park

Local history lessons 

How did Punta Gorda’s early Black population settle Charlotte County? What ancient discoveries on Marco Island deepened knowledge of Native American history? Who were the Baileys of Sanibel? 

Small museums and historic sites reveal the untold stories of Southwest Florida. Blanchard House Museum in Punta Gorda, for instance, tells how African-Americans settled the area and even signed the Punta Gorda charter. 

In Fort Myers, the Williams Academy Black History Museum further explores African American contributions in a historic clapboard building, part of the first government-funded Black school serving the local three-county area. 

Historic Palm Cottage, Naples’ oldest house

The Marco Island Historical Museum delves into a different culture: Its life-size dioramas illustrate the lives and times of the ancient Calusa tribe, who built towering mounds and one of their major settlements on the island. 

Williams Academy Black History Museum, Fort Myers

Other sites throughout the region concentrate on different periods and facets of local history. Naples Depot Museum (currently closed during hurricane recovery) focuses on how trains, planes, automobiles and other forms of transportation impacted the city’s development. The nearby Historic Palm Cottage, Naples’ oldest house, interprets the early days of settlement by the town’s first snowbirds. 

Stroll through the past outdoors at a number of novel historic experiences. Punta Gorda’s Mural Trail takes in more than 30 outdoor, larger-than-life paintings that revisit local scenes from marine creatures to early military aircraft. 

Key Marco Cat at the Marco Island Historical Museum

The Punta Gorda History Park features a collection of historic structures including a cigar home, a jail and the town’s oldest building. The Sanibel Historical Museum & Village (currently under post-hurricane restoration) takes visitors on a trip into island bygones, including 11 historic structures and a pioneer garden. 

“First City Council,” one of the more than 30 outdoor paintings on Punta Gorda’s Mural Trail I PUNTA GORDA HISTORIC MURAL SOCIETY

Film as art 

Film is very much alive in Southwest Florida, despite rumors that streaming has stabbed it in the back like a ruthless murder-mystery villain. 

The annual Artis—Naples International Film Festival (previously known as the Naples International Film Festival) has established a reputation in these parts for deep appreciation of indie, mainstream, documentary, domestic and foreign film. It takes place in October at various Naples venues and is the gala culmination of Artis—Naples’ popular seasonal film and lecture series called “Four O’clock at the Movies.” 

Artis—Naples International Film Festival I COURTESY PHOTO



In its wake, other festivals and series have bolstered the region’s film obsession. One of the most notable festivals takes place in Fort Myers during one week in May at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. In its 13th year, FMFF spins off from a popular T.G.I.M. (Thank God It’s Monday) monthly series that takes place in the months before the festival. 

Punta Gorda hosts its one-day Short Film Festival each March at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center. 

In Bonita Springs, the short-lived international film festival is gone, but the Center for the Arts that created it continues to run a seasonal Monday night film series in its Moe Auditorium & Film Center. 

Plant containers at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers I COURTESY PHOTO

A villain named Ian dashed this year’s plans for the long-running Fort Myers Beach Film Festival, but we’re hoping to see it return. Another casualty of the storm, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge winter film series promises to make a comeback on Sanibel Island by 2024, focusing on nature-related documentaries. 

Other film goings-on in the area fill different niches. 

Hand-made jewelry at the Visual Arts Center, Punta Gorda I COURTESY PHOTO

Three festivals, for instance, concentrate on Jewish films: the Sydney R. Hoffman Memorial Jewish Film Festival in Marco Island, the Jewish Film Festival of Southwest Florida presented by the Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties in Fort Myers, and the Beth Tikvah Naples Jewish Film Festival.


Souvenir savvy

Skip the beach snow globes (does that even make any sense?) and alligator jaws. Look instead for creations made by local crafts-folk and artists. Watch for seasonal art fairs and markets for a well-rounded selection. Many year-round, specialized shops, galleries and boutiques also carry gifts that convey a sense of place. 

A tea towel from the Nature Store at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel I COURTESY PHOTO

You will find some of the best buys at attraction gift shops. Our favorites include Naples Botanical Garden and the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, where, besides live plants, you can find garden accessories and locally made gifts. The Nature Store at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge devotes much of its space to local artisan wares. Check ahead to see if it has reopened following Hurricane Ian, or shop online in the meantime. 

Rookery Bay gift shop, Naples I COURTESY PHOTO

Art facilities throughout Southwest Florida showcase the work of local creators. The Visual Arts Center in Punta Gorda houses an art supply shop and an expansive gift gallery featuring mediums from jewelry to pottery. Downtown Punta Gorda’s Artisan Atelier affords opportunities to meet and watch artists as they create. Besides exhibition art, Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers sells one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces in its gift shop. Likewise, the visual arts component at Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs has fine arts and crafts for purchase in its galleries and gift shop. Handcrafted keepsakes, wearable art and other gifts made locally fill the airy, glass-walled space at BIG ARTS on Sanibel Island. 

Artisans Atelier, Punta Gorda COURTESY PHOTO

In the literary arts genre, Southwest Florida boasts a number of local authors whose books make great reminders of time spent here. Most well-known, Randy Wayne White pens bestselling murder-mysteries, many with a local setting. Find his books at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grill, named for his leading protagonist, or at indie bookstores such as Sanibel’s MacIntosh Books + Paper (currently living temporarily at Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers) and Copperfish Books in Punta Gorda. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates gift shop also carries Mr. White’s books. 

Naples Botanical Garden gift shop COURTESY PHOTO

Food and other products made right here in Southwest Florida also make nice souvenirs. Think Tervis Tumblers, the durable insulated drinkware available at various brand stores and other outlets throughout the area, and Sun Harvest Citrus in Fort Myers for locally produced juices, honey, hot sauces and other culinary goodies. 

Tervis Tumblers, made here in Southwest Florida
Books by local authors and set in the area make fine reminders of a visit to SWFL. I CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Must-pause places for breakfast or lunch 

Don’t even think about going to these restaurants for dinner. They do breakfast, brunch and lunch so well, they just shut down after that and call it a day. Many serve breakfast until they close, affirming its importance in the meal-of-the-day hierarchy. 

Old 41 Restaurant, Bonita Springs I CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY

The eateries range from well-loved, all-American, hash-slinging institutions to specialized houses serving global fare and vegan/vegetarian offerings. 

In the first category, Sweet’s Diner in Port Charlotte lives in a strip mall, as many of this ilk do, and touts its Breakfast Pile Up, an apt description of its monumental layering of home fries, biscuits, meat, veggies and gravy. 

The Breakfast Pile-Up at Sweet’s Diner, Port Charlotte I DESTINY SHARPLES / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Long-standing Marti’s Family Dining has a faithful following in south Fort Myers on the way to Fort Myers Beach (go for its pork tenderloin sandwich), as does 34-year-old Oasis Restaurant in downtown Fort Myers. 

Philly food fans should check out Old 41 Restaurant in Bonita Springs. Southern eats? The Rooster Food + Drink in Naples defines soul comfort food in a modern setting. 

Dine outside or in at Harvest & Wisdom, Bonita Springs. I COURTESY PHOTO

For something a bit different, Cape Coral’s Café YOU dabbles in Australian and healthy fare plus yummy baked goods. Skinny Dogz Brunchery’s scratch kitchen is all over the globe, but you can’t beat its burgers. Harvest & Wisdom at ShangriLa Springs in Bonita Springs draws from the property’s organic gardens for daily brunch. For a taste of Europe in Naples, try Jane’s Café on 3rd and The Café Kitchen & Juicery downtown or Café Crème de la Crème for ooh-la-la crepes, pastries and sandwiches.

Marti’s Family Dining, south Fort Myers I CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY