It’s only a little more than two hours by car from Tampa to Fort Myers—and a pretty easy drive down the interstate, at that. But, come on! Where’s your sense of adventure? You are in Florida, after all, one of the best states to do a road trip in. It’s time to do some exploring down the road less traveled, and luckily, Florida’s Gulf Coast has plenty to see and do! From museums and manatees to beaches and parks, there’s a whole bunch of exciting stops to choose from. This is one drive where you won’t regret taking the long way!
The town of Riverview is about 30 minutes southeast of Tampa, and with its riverside location and ample amount of green space, it makes for a scenic, charming first stop in your journey down the coastline. Some of Riverview’s main attractions include the Bell Creek Nature Preserve, Bluegrass Aquatics, and the Alafia Scrub Nature Preserve. But if you have any interest in carnivals, circuses, traveling theater troupes, or America’s entertainment history in general, then there’s one place in Riverview that you definitely don’t want to miss: the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.
With a mission to preserve and celebrate the history of traveling shows in America, the Showmen’s Museum is a fun, eclectic place that’s probably unlike any other museum you’ve ever visited. In addition to its informational exhibits and a vast collection of memorabilia, you’ll also find rides and games at the museum that are sure to amuse visitors of all ages. (One last important thing to note about the museum is that it’s only open on the weekends from noon to 5 pm!)
Apollo Beach sits on the Florida Gulf Coast a little more than 30 minutes south of Tampa. Here, you’ll find a mixture of beaches, parks, and local shops and restaurants, some of the highlights of which include Apollo Beach Nature Preserve, Apollo Beach Dog Park, South Shore Boutique, and Alpha Pizza, Pasta, & Prime. One of Apollo Beach’s best-known attractions, however, is the Manatee Viewing Center at Big Bend Power Station. Of course, a power plant isn’t what comes to mind first when most people think of endangered animals—but this particular site, owned by Tampa Electric just happens to be located on the edge of Tampa Bay, where wintering manatees seek refuge from the cold.
November through April is “Manatee Season” in Florida, and during these months is the best time to see the area’s favorite annual visitors. A government-designated manatee sanctuary, the Manatee Viewing Center has grown into a full-scale environmental education center, complete with a viewing tower, boardwalk trails, and even butterfly gardens. The Viewing Center is open from 10 am to 5 pm daily from the first of November to April 15th. Plus, admission and parking are both free!
A little farther south on the coastline, you’ll find the delightful town of Ruskin, home to E.G. Simmons Regional Park, Little Manatee River State Park, Bahia Beach Nature Preserve, and the long-venerated Ruskin Family Drive-In Movie Theatre. Having hosted its first movie in 1952 (Singin’ in the Rain), the Ruskin Family Drive-In has established itself as a key Ruskin institution and a welcoming place where people can get together to enjoy the latest movies that have made their way to the big screen.
Open year-round (rain or shine!), Ruskin Family Drive-In is the perfect spot to relax while still having a novel—not to mention memorable—experience. Admission is $6 a person and includes two movies on the drive-in’s two-thousand-square-foot screen. A family establishment dedicated to maintaining an all-age-inclusive atmosphere, Ruskin Family Drive-In has a strict policy against alcohol, rowdiness, or any type of illicit activity. The driven-in also features a snack bar where you can grab refreshments like burgers, hot dogs, nachos, soft drinks, and, of course, popcorn.
Bradenton, “The Friendly City,” is a coastal town that lies about an hour south of Tampa. Seated next to the Gulf of Mexico, Bradenton is known for having gorgeous beaches, like Bradenton Beach and Coquina Beach, as well as an array of parks, such as Robinson Preserve and De Soto National Memorial Park. In Downtown Bradenton, you’ll find the lively and colorful Village of the Arts, which features historic architecture in addition to a blossoming arts scene. Also in the Downtown area, the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature (previously called the South Florida Museum) is another city hotspot and a must-see while in the Bradenton area.
As the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Bishop is a multifaceted attraction that includes a variety of exhibitions and galleries, as well as a planetarium and a manatee rehabilitation habitat. Learn about Florida’s animals (past and present); Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and pre-contact cultures; and local history when you tour the museum’s exhibitions—then, explore the planetarium, a leading astronomical education facility with a multimedia theater. Last but certainly not least, don’t forget to make a stop at the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat, where you can see rescue manatees that will eventually be released back into the wild.
Sarasota, Florida, is situated just about halfway between Tampa and Fort Myers, and with plenty of white-sand beaches, museums, theaters, and shoreline points of interest, this is one city on the Florida Gulf Coast that you definitely don’t want to pass up. But whether you’re a horticultural connoisseur, a casual gardener, or just someone who appreciates the awe-inspiring beauty of Mother Nature, a Sarasota attraction that’s always worth a visit is undoubtedly the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
Overlooking the Sarasota bay, these spectacular gardens are a breathtaking blend of creativity, history, and diversity. Collections range in themes that include rainforest, desert, local, and tropical, allowing you to see everything from bonsai to succulents. You’ll also find a butterfly garden, a cafe, and a kids’ area on the grounds—plus the elegant Payne Mansion, inside of which you’ll find the gardens’ museum. If you’ve got a green thumb yourself, be sure to take a look at the Garden Shop, where you can browse an assortment of plants, garden accessories, floral arrangements, and more.
A little over an hour northwest of Fort Myers, the city of Venice, Florida, is a hub of beach-life luxury and outdoor activity. Whether you hop on a bike and tackle the Venetian Waterway Park Trail, cast a line off of Venice Fishing Pier, or wander around Historic Downtown Venice, you’re sure to fall in love with this energetic city that’s been repeatedly voted one of the “America’s Happiest Seaside Towns” by Coastal Living. Of course, there’s one place in Venice that you absolutely have to see when you’re in town—and that, of course, is the beach!
While the city has a few different beaches, its titular Venice Beach can be found directly west of Historic Downtown. A notable feature about the beaches in Venice is that they aren’t lined with that pristine white sand that Florida is famous for. Rather, the sand in Venice is darker and more rugged—but this isn’t because the sand is dirty; it’s actually brimming with fossils! What’s more extraordinary is that the beaches in Venice are littered with shark teeth, and as a result, beachcombing is one of the most popular activities that you’ll see when you make your way down to the coastline.
Southeast of Venice—and northwest of Fort Myers—is the fun little town of North Port. Nearby, you’ll find a geological oddity that’s become a state treasure: Warm Mineral Springs Park, which houses a sinkhole that’s filled with consistently warm water. Aside from having one of the highest mineral contents of any natural spring in the country, Warm Mineral Springs is also the only public hot spring in Florida.
With water temperatures that hover at around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, Warm Mineral Springs Park is the perfect place to both enjoy a rare natural phenomenon and indulge in some next-level relaxation. You can even book spa services at the park when you make a reservation in advance! Otherwise, passes to the spring are $15 to $20 (same-day re-entry included).
Punta Gorda is around 30 minutes northwest of Fort Myers, right along the side of Peace River and Charlotte Harbor. Here, you’ll find waterfront restaurants, boutiques, and parks, such as Laishley Crab House, Pomegranate & Fig Gift Boutique, and Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. One of the area’s most remarkable attractions, however, is the Peace River Wildlife Center in Ponce de Leon Park—where, in addition to the wildlife center, you can also enjoy fishing, a mangrove boardwalk, a playground, a picnic pavilion, a beach area, and more.
The Peace River Wildlife Center is dedicated to animal rescue and rehabilitation, as well as environmental and wildlife education. The center has over 100 permanent residents and admits more than 2,500 patients every year. Most of the permanent residents, who are available for viewing by visitors, are birds—including bald eagles, hawks, owls, cranes, herons, and vultures—but tortoises, turtles, opossums, and rabbits also call the center home. While the center does not charge for admission, it does greatly appreciate donations and gift shop purchases, both of which are directly used to continue its contributions to the area’s wildlife.
Before you cross the Caloosahatchee River and head into Fort Myers, consider making a stop at North Fort Myers, which is just about 10 minutes north of Downtown Fort Myers. Some of North Fort Myers’ top attractions include North Shore Park, ECHO Global Farm, and Prairie Pines Preserve. But if you’re looking for a place to have a unique form of family fun, consider making a stop at Shell Factory & Nature Park, a versatile complex with shopping, food, a nature park, and rides.
One of Southwest Florida’s most-visited (and longest-running) family attractions, Shell Factory has been in operation for over 80 years and has grown to include its Nature Park and Scallywags Fun Park. The gift shop boasts a massive collection of seashells, fossils, and corral, as well as unique souvenirs, jewelry, and trinkets. Meanwhile, the Nature Park has more than 400 animals, including gators, tortoises, lemurs, goats, and many, many more. Stop by to do a little shopping, grab a bite to eat, see a few animals, ride some rides, and enjoy some games—then get back in the car and finally make your way to Fort Myers!
The Sunshine State is a paradise in more ways than one. And Florida’s coastline is filled with such a variety of rich, dynamic cities that it almost seems as though there are no wrong turns—beauty and entertainment are around every corner. There’s no telling what you’ll discover once you venture out of your comfort zone!