Most of the attractions in Southwest Florida are outdoor venues or learning centers, which educate and inform visitors about the region’s bountiful nature and wildlife. You will find no shortage of nature in Southwest Florida, where the great outdoors ranges from gorgeous, award-winning beaches to the raw wilderness of the Everglades ecosystem.
Take Naples, for instance, where the most visited attractions include the Naples Botanical Garden and Naples Zoo. The garden, which opened a new visitors’ component with a café in 2014, showcases subtropical vegetation in settings that reflect the culture of Brazil, the Caribbean, Asia and Florida. The zoo began as botanical gardens in 1919 and today is home to wild animals from around the world. In 2016 it debuted a special Florida panther exhibit to house a local cat blinded by a shotgun blast.
The Collier County system of museums occupies five unique venues in Marco Island, Naples, Everglades City and Immovable—all of them family-friendly. The Naples Depot Museum unveiled a restoration of its 1947 tavern car in February 2017. The town’s most family-friendly museum, Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, sits next to every kid’s favorite, the Sun-n-Fun Lagoon water park in North Naples.
Naples is also known for its superlative golfing opportunities;USA TODAY readers voted it No. 5 among the top 10 US golfing destinations. Besides playing on lush, natural golf courses, adults and kids alike can get their game on at various golf schools and programs in the area. Around Naples and Everglades City, a number of state and federal parks and preserves safeguard fragile Everglade habitats; they are home to myriad birds and fish, deer, Florida panthers, bobcats, manatees, alligators, crocodiles, turtles and river otters. Big Cypress National Preserve, the most massive of the public lands, provides inimitable opportunities for recreation among wildlife. Everglades National Park and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge protect the seas and wetlands of the so-called “River of Grass.”
Beach glamour begins in Marco Island and Naples with award-winning strands that cover the gamut from the municipal beach and its historic fishing pier to the wild Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park.
In Fort Myers, the Southwest Florida Museum of History dwelled in a former train depot but is being merged with the nearbyhands-on Imaginarium Science Center. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates, one of Southwest Florida’s finest historic treasures, offers guided and self-guided tours and recently debuted a special family audio tour and petting zoo events.
On Fort Myers Beach, the Mound House, under development for several years and the town’s oldest standing structure, opened a cultural museum in late 2015 examining the Calusa Indians, who built the shell mound on the property. Go inside and take a peek.
For families in Sarasota, the canopy boardwalk in the Children’s Rain forest Garden at Marie Selby Gardens is a don’t-miss. Other family musts include the circus museums at The Ringling, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and Sarasota Jungle Gardens. Some superlative beach areas include Captiva Island and Lovers Key State Park, which are often listed in the most romantic category, and Siesta Key in Sarasota, where the sand is famously soft and blindingly white, so don’t forget to pack the shades.
Bradenton’s history dates back to Hernando de Soto, and a national historic site recalls his first landfall. The South Florida Museum and Parker Manatee Aquarium nicely displays de Soto-related exhibits, plus prehistoric animal recreations. Manatee Village Historic Park gathers the town’s history in an oak-framed park setting.
Bradenton’s Cortez community retains its feel of an Old Florida fishing village with a working waterfront and maritime museum. A number of charter boats depart from the docks to take you deep-sea or back-bay fishing. Plan on dining at the Star Fish Company before or after your excursion.
Head east of town for a little extreme adventure at TreeUmph!, an aerial obstacle course with zip lines.
What do travelers, and particularly families, find so endearing about local beaches? The soft, white sand, gently sloping sea bottom and tot-friendly waves win raves. Certain beach destinations have reputations for distinctive characteristics, such as the seashell overload on Sanibel and Captiva islands and shark teeth findings in Venice. The best shelling beaches around Sanibel include Bowman’s Beach and offshore Cayo Costa, which is accessible only by boat. A number of charters will take you there to collect shells. In Venice, head to the fishing pier at Brohard Beach or to Caspersen Beach to sift for shark teeth in the sand.