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Sanibel vs Captiva (& My Favorite Spots on Both Islands)

This post was written before Sanibel, Captiva, and parts of the surrounding area were absolutely blasted by Hurricane Ian in September 2022. While the intention is to rebuild, the causeway has been fixed, and the island is more or less back open to tourism, things are not “back to normal” and likely won’t be for a long time. If you’re planning to visit the area, make sure to do plenty of research to find out what’s open, what’s available and what’s just not even there anymore.

If you’re looking for the best tropical getaway on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sanibel and Captiva are always going to be in the conversation. These barrier islands off the coast of Fort Myers in southwest Florida are inextricably linked because, well…they’re linked.

You can’t access Captiva without going through Sanibel and these two islands have such a different vibe than pretty much every other place in the area so they’re often compared.

While Sanibel and Captiva aren’t radically different, I’ll do my best to break the two down:

Sanibel vs Captiva

Sanibel is a sizable island with direct access from mainland Fort Myers via the Sanibel Causeway. There’s a $6 toll to get onto the island. The causeway was built in 1963 (the island was previously only accessible via ferry) and the city of Sanibel was formed in 1974. Despite a huge push from developers, the city held their ground with strong building restrictions that were intended to protect the environment (to this day, half the island is a nature preserve) and it’s largely what makes Sanibel so quaint.

You won’t find any high rises (buildings are only allowed to be as tall as the tallest native tree on the island), any chains (except for the cutest little Dairy Queen that’s been grandfathered in), and pretty much everything is a mom and pop shop or restaurant.

There are no stoplights (only a couple of four way stops and traffic directors who help move things along in congested areas at peak times) and a phenomenal network of bike trails. Sanibel is a bike island.

Sanibel is most famous for its shelling. The way it juts out into the gulf (it’s situated more east/west than north/south) means it’s a treasure trove when winter storms stir up the billions of shells sitting out deeper in the Gulf of Mexico.

Captiva sits just north of Sanibel and it’s accessed via a very short bridge over Blind Pass. The island is a lot smaller than Sanibel (half of it’s taken up by the South Seas Island Resort), but it feels very much the same.

Honestly, I think of Captiva as an extension of Sanibel. If you’re staying on Sanibel, running up to Captiva to eat dinner or shop isn’t a big deal and vice versa. These islands are more alike than they are different.

Both have good shelling. The best shelling on the two islands is around the Blind Pass Bridge and there’s parking on both the Sanibel and Captiva sides. Captiva Cruises is the best way to get out and explore the surrounding area (Cayo Costa State Park, Useppa Island, Cabbage Key, etc.) and they leave from Captiva, but it’s an easy drive from Sanibel.

Both islands have a good selection of mom and pop restaurants and shops, although Sanibel definitely has more (it’s a much larger island though).

Both islands have the same great beaches, but if you’re coming for the day or you’re not staying right on the beach, parking at the beaches on Captiva is much more limited and more expensive than on Sanibel.

If you’re trying to decide which island to stay on, it’s really going to come down to your budget and what exactly you’re looking for. Overall, the options you’ll find on Captiva are a little more upscale than Sanibel, but both are very laid back islands without much major development. Captiva has more super high end vacation homes that sit on the beach whereas Sanibel is where you’ll find more of the condo units.

I will say, depending on the types of places you’re used to staying in Florida (or on vacation in general)…I find that 95% of what’s offered on Sanibel leaves a lot to be desired (especially for the $$). Sanibel isn’t a cheap vacation destination (supply and demand because of development restrictions) so you’re probably going to pay a premium for anything on the beach. And the standards of the condos aren’t the highest. Most places are a little worn and just not very updated.

Can you find a nice place to stay? Absolutely. But you’re going to have to dig around more than you’d think and it’s probably not going to be a bargain.

I’m not saying any of this to put you off, because Sanibel and Captiva are GREAT islands and one of my favorite places in Florida, but if you’re used to staying at more high end beach resorts in other parts of Florida, what that money gets you on Sanibel and Captiva is a lot…less. And anything called a “resort” is actually a condo with more resort-like amenities.

But it’s all about your expectations. The building restrictions here are what’s part of the charm.

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My Favorite Places on Sanibel & Captiva

Lighthouse Cafe: Best Breakfast on Sanibel

If you’ve only got time for one restaurant on Sanibel, make it this one. This place is a Sanibel institution and I’ve eaten here several times on previous trips. I’m happy to report that it was just as good as I remembered and this is 100% the place you should go if you only have time for one breakfast on Sanibel. It’s actually the place you should go if you have 2 or 3 also ; ) The breakfast sandwich was divine as were the pecan waffles. Honestly, everything is good here and the staff couldn’t be more friendly and attentive.

Mad Hatter: Sanibel Restaurants on the Water

So…I’ve had an obsession with Alice in Wonderland since I was a child. Well…turns out there’s an Alice in Wonderland themed restaurant right on the island and with only two nights on the island, it definitely earned a spot.

The Mad Hatter is one of the few restaurants on Sanibel that actually sits on the gulf side of the island so sunset is very popular. It’s also not a very big restaurant and since it’s more high end/fine dining (there are crumb scrapers, people!) it definitely attracts an older crowd so when we showed up right at 5PM with no reservations, we got one of the last tables!haha

It was a very cute place and everything I ate was PHENOMENAL (bread, cesar salad, lobster tails, cheesecake) and I was very satisfied with the pick, but it’s probably a one and done for me. And it’s probably not a spot I’d go with kids.

The Bubble Room: A Don’t Miss Experience

This was easily the most recommended thing when I told people I was going to Sanibel.

The Bubble Room is actually on Captiva and it’s a tradition that’s not to be missed. It started as a quirky little restaurant that kept their Christmas decorations up all year round and today it’s a full blown attraction. The best way I can describe it is a “local Buca di Beppo”…kind of chaotic but a lot of fun!

It’s a maze of a restaurant that’s overwhelmingly decorated with old Hollywood memorabilia, vintage toys, and every kind of vintage colorful display you can think of. Everything on the menu has a fun name and they’re famous for their cocktails and desserts.

The food was surprisingly good (you don’t always expect it to be at a place like this) and the dessert was fantastic. If you only want dessert, you can stop in Boop’s by the Bubble Room next door, but eating INSIDE the Bubble Room is really part of the experience.

The National Shell Museum

Sanibel Island, a barrier island off the coast of Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is one of the best shelling spots in the world, and in the late 1980s, a group of devoted shell collectors set out to open a museum here dedicated to shells and the importance of mollusks.

In 1995, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum opened with the mission of not just educating people about shells and the creatures who build and live in them, but connecting shell lovers around the world.

Part natural history museum and part aquarium, it’s the only museum in the US devoted to shells and mollusks and it’s a perfect little niche museum.

The bottom floor is more of an aquarium showcasing animals that have shells (plus a touch station) and the upstairs is a full fledged museum displaying everything you never knew about shells around the world with a special section about Sanibel. I learned so much in the hour and a half or so we were here and this is definitely a great place to bring the kids if you need a break from the beach or a rainy day activity. Or if the older folks need something accessible to do ; )

Admission is $23.95/adult (18+), $14.95/youth (13-17), $8.95/child (5-12), and 5 and under are free. Also active duty service members (and their families) receive free admission.

The museum hosts a beach walk with a museum scientist every day at 9AM for an extra charge which could be an interesting thing to do, especially if you have kids. More info here.

Plan to spend around 2 hours at the museum between the aquariums and the great hall exhibits. Also don’t miss the gift shop!

Gene’s Books

The holy grail of beachtown bookstores, this place is a maze of stacks featuring everything you could ever want to read. If you only have time to hit one shop on Sanibel, make it Gene’s. Actually, you’re going to need two stops because Gene’s has gotten so big that it’s actually two separate locations now.

Because this is my job, I do a little research (or a lot of research) before a trip. Figuring out where to stay, the best things to do, and don’t miss restaurants seems pretty obvious. But would you believe me if I told you that finding out whether there’s an indie bookstore nearby is usually at the top of the list? Well I was not surprised to find that an island as great as Sanibel had a bookstore, but I was still pretty impressed when I showed up.

I mentioned before that there are actually TWO Gene’s Bookstores. Because of Sanibel’s strict building regulations, they couldn’t add any more space to their original location so they opened a second location across the street.

Gene’s Books houses most of the fiction (American lit, British lit, world lit) with one of the most extensive mystery selections you’ll find anywhere in three separate “cottages,” while Gene’s II houses the non-fiction and history, sci-fi and fantasy, and kids and young adults. But really, no matter what you’re looking for, you need to go to both.

Gene’s has three separate cottages (the cute colorful ones) and Gene’s II is the location with the book balcony (that’s what I’ve been calling it-I guess it’s just a second floor, but it seems more dramatic) and baby grand piano.

Trust me, I go to a LOT of bookstores and this is a GEM. I mean…it was featured in Southern Living magazine earlier this year so that really tells you everything you need to know.

Here’s what will knock your socks off…because of the volume they sell and their years in business (connections), I would say the majority of books you’ll find here are cheaper than Amazon prices. It’s incredible. I’m used to indie bookstores sometimes costing 2X more, but this place is a bargain!!

So either go armed with a list, get caught up in wandering the stacks, or let their well curated sections inspire you.

She Sells Sea Shells

This place is a Sanibel institution and my favorite kind of shop. I love searching for shells, and buying them at a store seems a little bit like cheating, except it’s not when it’s at a place like this.

This place is just pure old Florida. I love the outside of the building and the sign so much (and that junonia mailbox!!) and the treasures inside are endless. There are sections with shells that come right from Sanibel and I can’t help drooling over the junonia that are kept nice and secure in a locked case (if you find one of those babies, it could pay for your trip!).

On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Florida vacation rentals for your trip.

Want to Read More Posts about Florida? I’ve got plenty!

Check out these destinations: Miami (Things to Do Besides Party & Where to Stay) // Key Biscayne // Sanibel & Captiva // Longboat Key & Anna Maria Island // Marco Island // 30a // St Augustine // Amelia Island // St Pete Beach // St Petersburg // Fort Myers // Dunedin // Crystal River & Weeki Wachee Springs // Honeymoon Island & Caladesi Island State Parks // Tarpon Springs // Matlacha & Pine Island // Apalachicola

Trying to narrow it down? Siesta Key vs Anna Maria Island // St Pete Beach vs Clearwater Beach // Sanibel vs Marco Island // Destin vs Panama City Beach // Destin vs 30a // Key Biscayne vs South Beach // Seaside vs Rosemary Beach

Best Beaches in Florida with Seashells

Best Florida Tennis Resorts

P.S. If you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And share my account with your travel loving friends! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!