Not-to-be-Missed Things to Do in Punta Gorda Florida and Nearby

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Beautiful sunset off of Nokomis Beach in Florida
Photo credit: Cindy Richards

This post is sponsored by VISIT FLORIDA.

The southwest coast of Florida is home to rivers, history, beaches, wildlife and some of the world’s most beautiful sunsets. Those are just a few of the fun things to do in Punta Gorda FL and the surrounding area.

Here are our favorites.

Head to the Beach

Hey! You’re in Florida, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And heading to the beach definitely tops the list of the best things to do in Punta Gorda FL!

My favorite beach close to Punta Gorda is Englewood Beach with its miles of soft sand, plenty of parking, gentle surf and (usually) small crowds. I’ve even done yoga on the beach there and, of course, spent many a Sunday night at the Englewood Beach drum circle — a not-to-be-missed Florida experience. (More on that in a minute.)

Stump Pass Beach State Park is another great option if you want to walk along a secluded beach, fish and hunt for shells and sharks’ teeth. If you find a shell, local tradition calls for you to leave it on one of the driftwood stumps and make a wish.

My kayak adventures took me to Don Pedro Island State Park, one of the Florida islands accessible only by boat. There’s a mile of sandy beach, a large picnic pavilion, hiking trails and restroom facilities. It’s a great spot for swimming and beachcombing in search of shells and shark teeth.

Looking for alligators on a Babcock Ranch Swamp Buggy eco tour.
Everyone on the Babcock Ranch Swamp Buggy Eco Tour was on the lookout for alligators. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Babcock Ranch Preserve

8000 State Rd 31

If you want to experience the real Florida–Old Florida–it comes with alligators. They are in virtually every body of fresh water, from the Myakka River to the local golf course. Nowhere, though, did we see more in one spot than during our swamp buggy ecotour of Babcock Ranch.

This working cattle ranch in Punta Gorda is a must-do activity here. Our tour group included visitors ages 5 to 70+ and every one of us was enthralled with the wildlife.

The highlight of a visit to Babcock Ranch is the 90-minute Swamp Buggy Eco Tour. The tour vehicle is not really a swamp buggy — if you want that experience, head two hours northeast to Westgate River Ranch. The Babcock Ranch “swamp buggy” is a re-fashioned school bus painted in jungle colors with the windows removed to make it easier to see the wildlife.

But, like any good swamp buggy, the bus wades through the water and rocks and rolls over the swamp!

The bus tours leave every 30 minutes. While you’re waiting, spend some time in the quaint little museum, wandering through the gift shop or getting a (surprisingly good) bite to eat at the Gator Shack Restaurant on site. Or the kids might want to just peer inside the glass cages looking for snakes and other swamp creatures. (If they’re lucky, one of the Babcock Ranch workers will take one out for an up-close look.)

Kids touching a snake at Babcock Ranch.
Kids touching a snake at Babcock Ranch. No. I didn’t touch it. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Fording the Swamp

When I visited Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County a few years ago in early March, the swamp was bone dry. On my last visit, it felt much more swampy, thanks to the 4+ inches of rain dumped on Florida’s Gulf Coast the day before. Thankfully, all of that water did not translate into a swarm of mosquitoes. But it did mean plenty of muddy water to drive through.

Whether there is water or not, the education offered by the bus driver/tour guides is top-notch. We learned plenty about the ranch and its residents — from wild hogs to Florida Cracker Cattle to the alligators.

The downside of all that water was that we saw far fewer gators during this visit. Rather than seeing hundreds of them sunning themselves along the shoreline, we had to look carefully to find those eerie eyes and snouts lying along the surface of the river.

Alligator swimming at Babcock Ranch.
An alligator floats in the storm-swollen waters at Babcock Ranch. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Fun fact courtesy of our Babcock Ranch tour guide: You can tell how big a gator is head-to-tail just by looking at his head. The number of inches from the tip of a gator’s snout to his eyes equals the number of feet long the whole gator is. So, if the gator’s snout is 5 inches, his whole body is five feet.

Read More: 6 Places to Find Old Florida and Why You Should!

Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda Florida Letters from Home exhibit.
Some letters will make you laugh. Others will rip your heart out. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Military Heritage Museum

900 W Marion Ave.

The Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Florida, is filled with military history and staffed with veterans who are happy to share their stories. Interactive exhibits allow you to fly planes on a flight simulator, experience a Special Forces parachute jump, take a spacewalk outside the International Space Station and experience the evolution of flight from the Wright Brothers to modern times.

The flight simulators are staffed by retired pilots. Choose the plane you want to “fly” – an F-16 Fighting Falcon or P-51 Mustang – and practice taking off, flying and landing while watching your progress on screen.

You also can tour the cockpit of a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter. Affectionately known as the “Huey,” it is “an icon of the Vietnam War and an angel of mercy for American troops who fought there,” the museum says. The “most recognizable helicopter in the world… the Huey and those who flew them were angels from on high.”

Don’t miss the wall of “letters from home.” It’s an emotional roller coaster. Some letters are incredibly funny. Others will rip your heart out. Plan to spend more than a few minutes reading them.

Pro Tip: To ensure Florida travel is accessible to people of all abilities, VISIT FLORIDA has recently debuted three new videos in its “Limitless Florida” series highlighting how people of different abilities can – and do – enjoy Florida’s experiences fully. For example, Kennedy Space Center offers a guide for families with autism to prepare for a visit. St. Augustine has a Braille Trail that lets visually-impaired visitors explore tactile art while listening to free audio descriptions via an app. New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach offer free non-motorized beach wheelchair rentals. Get all of the state’s accessibility resources at the VISIT FLORIDA Accessible Travel Hub.

Kayaking through mangroves in southwest Florida.
Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Kayak the Blueway Trails

If I could spend my life in a kayak, I would be a happy woman. The area around Punta Gorda is dotted with mangroves and nearly 200 miles of Blueway Trails just waiting for exploration.

Paddling through a mangrove cave makes me feel as though I am paddling back in time! On my last adventure, we ducked low-hanging mangrove branches, paddled around some branches in the water and used others to pull ourselves along when the mangroves were too close to paddle at all. We came out on the other side of the mangrove cave to find a tranquil lagoon surrounded by the mangroves and wildlife habitats.

There are many options for renting kayaks to explore on your own. Or you can choose a kayak tour with a guide if, like me, you easily get lost in nature.

A docent shows off an owl at Peace River Wildlife Center in southwest Florida.
A docent shows off an owl at Peace River Wildlife Center in southwest Florida. Photo: Cindy Richards

Peace River Wildlife Center

3400 Ponce de Leon Pkwy.

There are no alligators at the Peace River wildlife rehabilitation center, but there are plenty of beautiful birds. All of them have been injured, mostly by humans, the executive director believes, but some by other animals. The goal of the center is to rehabilitate the birds and release them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released are kept at the center.

This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood or just need 30 minutes of shade from the harsh Florida sunshine. It’s a small, peaceful place. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and used to care for the 120 permanent residents and more than 2,500 injured wildlife admissions it receives annually. The center is staffed by volunteer docents who are knowledgeable and friendly.

Fishermen’s Village

1200 W. Retta Esplanade

The Charlotte Harbor neighborhood around Peace River Wildlife Center includes Fisherman’s Village, a charming shopping, dining and entertainment complex right on the water. This is the place for a sunset dinner spent listening to live music from local entertainers. Or book a sunset cruise around the harbor and the Peace River with the King Fisher Fleet that sails from the Fisherman’s Village Marina.

Fishermen’s Village was developed in a historic fishing village. It features a collection of locally-owned specialty shops and boutiques selling clothes, souvenirs and other vacation memories.

The on-site lodging is pet-friendly and features family-friendly suites with full kitchens.

Punta Gorda skies become artist palettes. Photo credit: Christine Tibbets

King Fisher Fleet Cruises

1200 W. Retta Esplanade #16a

Florida sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are legendary. We booked one of the King Fisher Fleet boat tours expecting to see one of those breathtaking sunsets. Sadly, our hopes were dashed when the clouds rolled in and the rain started just around dusk.

But the rockin’ danceable music blasting through the boat’s loudspeakers got the teenagers up and dancing, which was entertaining enough that we hardly missed the sunset.

The fleet sails from the marina at Fishermen’s Village and cruises Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.

Statue at Peace River Gardens in Punta Gorda Florida
One of the many dramatic statues in Peace River Gardens. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens

5827 Riverside Dr.

I loved this place and can’t wait to go back. It’s equal parts lovely and whimsical.

While the gardens at the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens are lovely, the huge and life-like art in the sculpture gardens is the draw here. And, during the holidays, millions of twinkling Christmas lights highlight a walking tour of the grounds.

The botanical garden sits idyllically along the Peace River – don’t miss the boardwalk out to the gazebo for a view of the river. The place is the dream child of Roger and Linda Tetrault. It opened in October 2017 with 11 acres that are home to more than 3,800 plants, trees and bamboos and 14 sculptures.

It now encompasses 30 acres along the river and showcases five Florida ecosystems — marshlands, wetlands, mangroves, uplands, and a tidal basin.

Moving to the music of the drums on a southwest Florida beach. Photo: Cindy Richards

Dance at a Drum Circle on the Beach

No trip to Southwest Florida can be complete without a drum circle on the beach. Two beaches within an easy drive of Punta Gorda offer drum circles: Wednesdays and Saturdays at Nokomis Beach and Sundays at Englewood Beach.

We got to the one at Nokomis Beach and felt like we had traveled back in time—to the 1960s. We arrived 5 minutes too late to see a wedding. The bride was barefoot and the groom was barefoot and shirtless. There were a couple dozen drums and drummers keeping the beat. Anyone who was so moved got up and danced to the drumming that seemed to go on and on—until the sun set on the horizon.

We took a little wine, some snacks and folding beach chairs and settled in for a couple of hours of watching people move to the drumming, dresses flowing, beads clanging and smiles glowing.

It’s a not-quite-so-old Florida tradition.

Catch a Spring Training Game

2300 El Jobean Road, Port Charlotte, FL

The Tampa Bay Rays spend their spring at the Charlotte Sports Park in nearby Port Charlotte. But that isn’t the only Grapefruit League spring training within an easy drive of Punta Gorda. The other teams are:

  • Atlanta Braves: CoolToday Park in West Villages.
  • Boston Red Sox: JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers
  • Minnesota Twins: Hammond Stadium at CenturyLink Sports Complex in Fort Myers
  • Pittsburgh Pirates: LECOM Park in Bradenton
  • Baltimore Orioles: Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota

Walk or Bike the Waterfront

The beautiful Harborwalk winds along Charlotte Harbor and is perfect for a morning stroll or as a spot to watch the sunset as you wind down a long day of exploring.

Or if you prefer exploring on two wheels rather than two feet, rent a bike and ride the Linear Park trail that winds through Punta Gorda.

Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center

Alligator Creek, 10941 Burnt Store Road

This charming center manages the local preserves at Alligator Creek in Punta Gorda and Cedar Point in nearby Englewood. Together, they cover 8 environmentally sensitive lands, more than 8 miles of hiking trails, and offer a host of educational programs about the area’s rich ecosystem.

You can take a guided hike (including a night hike), wade into the estuary at Ponce de Leon Park, kayak through mangrove rookeries, seagrass nurseries, and oyster bars, attend a lecture or explore a Native Plant Butterfly Garden.

Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida

100 Nesbit St.

Located near the center of town in Punta Gorda, the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida honors the 58,300 men and women who died in the Vietnam War. It’s a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.

The memorial, located in a corner of Laishley Park called Veterans Park, was opened in 2016.

Sunday Farmer’s Market

History Park, 501 Shreve St.

Voted the “Best Small Market in Florida,” the Punta Gorda Farmers Market is open every Saturday from 8am-noon in History Park.

You’ll find vendors selling fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, Italian bakery, fresh homemade pasta, kitchenware, cupcakes, beef and fresh seafood, fresh citrus, jewelry, candles and soaps, dip mixes, Florida arts and crafts, cheese, French bakery, baguettes and olives, homemade pies, orchids, organic produce, personalized pens, kettle corn, coffee beans and drinks, native and exotic plants.

The Blanchard House Museum

406 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

African-Americans played a big role in the founding of Punta Gorda — about half of the original settlers were Black — the Blanchard House Museum was the place to learn about the town’s African-American heritage.

Sadly, the Blanchard House Museum was badly damaged by Hurricane Ian in 2022 and it remains closed.

Inside an Allegiant Airlines airplane.
Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Where to Stay in Punta Gorda, Florida

We stayed at the pet-friendly Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside. This is a basic hotel with everything you need for a comfortable stay – a comfy bed, strong wifi, a decent bathroom, OK pool and good breakfast buffet.

Location is the reason to stay here. It’s right at the edge of the Charlotte Harbor Waterfront. That makes it easy to walk to Laishley Park, HarborWalk, Gilchrist Park and just about everything in downtown Punta Gorda, including the restaurants and nightlife.

In fact, it’s sometimes easier to walk than drive, thanks to the busy one-way streets in town.

Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor

This resort is the first to be developed by Allegiant Travel Company, the parent company of the no-frills Allegiant Airlines.

But the resort will have plenty of frills when it opens in Port Charlotte, just across the Peace River from Punta Gorda. Phase 1 is slated to open in late 2023. Ultimately, the resort will include a 510-room hotel and 189 extended stay 1-, 2-, or 3-bedroom suites with full kitchens. The 3-bedroom units will sleep 10. All units will have harbor views.

In addition, the resort will have 17 restaurants and a 5,200-square-foot rooftop pool.

Allegiant, which flies into Punta Gorda Airport, will run shuttle service from the airport to the resort, so there’s no need to rent a car. But, if you want a car to explore the area, there will be a car rental agency on site as well.

Where is Punta Gorda Florida?

Punta Gorda is about a half hour north of Fort Myers, about 90 minutes south of Tampa and an hour south of Sarasota.

It’s easy to get there by flying into any of those cities along the Gulf of Mexico. Flying into the small, easy-to-navigate Punta Gorda airport is also an option. The flight choices there are limited, but Charlotte County is growing fast. I suspect the airport will, too, especially after the Sunseeker Resort opens, which is expected in October 2023.

Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of SheBuysTravel.com. She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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