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Inside: All the best things to see and do in Punta Gorda Florida (& why this charming town is SW Florida’s best hidden gem!)
I never intended to move back to Southwest Florida, I really didn’t. In fact, there was most definitely a time in my life I swore I wouldn’t.
But life has a funny way of bringing you full circle.
Not long ago, my husband and I decided we’d had enough of city life in Atlanta. While not yet ready to retire, we were craving a slower pace of life. More sunsets and salt air, less traffic and congestion.
So, we embarked on a fact-finding trip to rediscover the Southwest Florida of my youth. And no one was more surprised than I was by what we found.
We explored Fort Myers (where I grew up), Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Naples and more. But it was the quaint waterfront town of Punta Gorda that immediately stole our hearts.
While Fort Myers and Naples get all the splashy press, charming Punta Gorda slips comfortably under the radar for many visitors to Southwest Florida.
Since becoming full-time residents nearly two years ago, we’ve fallen even more in love with this harborside town with each passing month.
And after spending the past 15 years writing about hundreds of far-flung destinations, I’m excited to finally share my own (new) hometown with the world.
So, let’s get started!
Where is Punta Gorda Florida?
Punta Gorda is located in the heart of Florida’s southwestern coast. It’s about 100 miles south of Tampa and a little over 20 miles north of Ft. Myers.
Punta Gorda translates as “fat point” in Spanish.
The name refers to the town’s generously pointed shape as it juts into Charlotte Harbor where it meets the majestic Peace River. One of the US’s largest natural harbors, gorgeous Charlotte Harbor is a paradise for fishermen and recreational boaters.
Punta Gorda’s fascinating history
But Punta Gorda Florida also has an intriguing history. From 1886 to 1904, Punta Gorda flourished as the “End of the Line” for the railroad along the west coast of Florida.
In 1887, the grand Hotel Punta Gorda opened with 150 rooms and modern conveniences that were state of the art for the era. In its heyday, the Hotel Punta Gorda welcomed famous visitors like Thomas Edison and W.K. Vanderbilt.
But over time the once stately hotel changed hands several times and ultimately declined to the point that it became an eyesore. Mysteriously, in August 1959, the hotel was completely destroyed in a massive fire that threatened the entire downtown area. The origin of that fire remains unsolved to this day.
Today, it’s easy to spot where the Hotel Punta Gorda once stood, it’s a vacant lot in the center of downtown often utilized for parking or festivals. But the hotel is forever etched in Punta Gorda’s rich history even though all that remains is a historical marker to tell its story.
What makes Punta Gorda so great?
Gorgeous water views around every corner, a surprisingly dynamic restaurant scene, a small-town Americana feel, and jaw-dropping sunsets pretty much every night.
What’s not to love?
But before I get to all the things that make Punta Gorda so special, you might be wondering…
Was Punta Gorda damaged by Hurricane Ian?
Yes, like much of the Southwest Florida area, Punta Gorda was impacted significantly by Hurricane Ian. But the historic downtown area came through the storm like a champ.
In fact, the weekly Saturday Farmer’s Market bounced back right on schedule just 3 days after Ian passed through (without power, I might add).
All things considered, Punta Gorda was very lucky.
But before I get to all the fabulous things to do in Punta Gorda, let’s cover some basics.
Does Punta Gorda have an airport?
Indeed it does!
And Punta Gorda’s pint-sized airport (PGD) is nearly as quaint as the town it serves. The dominant carrier here is Allegiant Airlines but Sun Country Airlines also operates a few flights. You’ll find daily seasonal connections to all the popular snowbird towns in the northern US.
There are fewer flights in the off-season, but if you can book a flight directly into PGD, it’s by far the most convenient option to get here.
If you can’t, not to worry.
Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Ft. Myers is the largest nearby airport and it’s just a 40-minute drive from downtown Punta Gorda. Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) is another good option, it’s just over an hour away.
What’s the best time of year to visit Punta Gorda?
One of the great things about Southwest Florida is that it’s truly a terrific destination all year-round. And that’s certainly true of Punta Gorda.
But like most places in south Florida, Punta Gorda has two very distinct seasons – the snowbird (high) season – or just “Season” as we call it – and the rest of the year.
Season starts in November but really hits its stride after the holidays.
From January to March, the population swells to twice its summer size. That means higher hotel and rental rates, extra traffic, longer check-out lines at Publix, and nearly impossible restaurant reservations.
But that time of year also serves up some of the best January to March weather anywhere in the world.
How do I know? My 10 trips around the world were all done in the months of January and February, so I’ve visited just about every corner of the globe that time of year.
Trust me. It doesn’t get better than Southwest Florida.
So, there’s a good reason people come. And, as full-time residents, we’ve just learned to roll with the natural seasonal fluctuation of the paradise we call home.
Around Easter each year, the part-time residents start to make their way back north. And from May to November, this part of Florida becomes a relaxed, affordable family beach destination.
In fact, that’s when we take advantage of the lower summer rates to plan our own week-long stays at the area’s lovely beaches.
And speaking of beaches…
Does Punta Gorda have beaches?
Technically, not really.
And this is the reason I think this delightful little town remains blissfully OFF the tourist radar. But Punta Gorda does have waterfront views galore along scenic Charlotte Harbor and across the Peace River.
Plus, the sunsets are truly epic.
And not to worry, there are a number of lovely white-sand beaches less than an hour away by car. (Even closer if you have a boat!)
More on those in a moment.
Best Hotels in Punta Gorda
If you’re visiting Punta Gorda, you’ve got to sleep somewhere! And luckily, downtown Punta Gorda has some great options.
The Suites at Fishermen’s Village – This all-suite resort is located just upstairs from the shops and restaurants of Fishermen’s Village. With well-appointed suites featuring full kitchens and spacious balconies, this is the best choice in Punta Gorda for a long-term stay. (Still undergoing renovations post-Ian, accepting reservations starting January 1, 2023.)
Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside – Located right on the water, the Four Points shares a parking lot with TT’s Tiki Bar. Top floor (5th floor) rooms have small balconies on the east side of the building that overlook Laishley Marina. This is a slightly older property but the rooms are clean and well-kept and the restaurant is also terrific.
Springhill Suites by Marriott Punta Gorda Harborside – Not waterfront, but let’s say “waterfront adjacent,” this hotel sits directly behind the Four Points. Rooms here are newer and modern and the central location means it’s within easy walking distance of restaurants, shops, and the waterfront.
The Wyvern Hotel – Anchoring Punta Gorda’s downtown skyline, this boutique, art deco style hotel is a popular choice with visitors. The rooftop pool and bar, Perch 360, boasts panoramic views of downtown and Charlotte Harbor. And recently renovated rooms offer luxurious touches like marble bathrooms and plush towels.
Coming Soon: Sunseeker Resort
After years of construction delays, Allegiant’s Sunseeker Resort is scheduled to open in September of 2023. The massive waterfront resort will feature 785 rooms and suites, more than 20 food and beverage outlets, a wide variety of shops, and a direct shuttle service from Punta Gorda Airport. It will also boast the biggest pool in the state of Florida (and if you’ve ever been to Orlando, you know that’s a bold statement!).
So, that covers where to stay when you visit Punta Gorda, now let’s talk about what to do!
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing vacation or an action-packed getaway, Punta Gorda has something for everyone. Here are some of the best things to see and do in this historic city.
The 10 Best Things to Do in Punta Gorda Florida:
1. Stroll the Punta Gorda Harborwalk
When Punta Gorda was founded in 1884, every waterfront block was designated as a park.
Today, Punta Gorda’s scenic Harborwalk stretches for over 2 miles connecting those lovely parks with some of the town’s best sights (like Fishermen’s Village). The Harborwalk is the perfect place to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying sweeping views of Charlotte Harbor.
A relaxing stroll along the waterfront is the ideal introduction to Punta Gorda and a great way to get your bearings.
2. A Walking Tour of the Downtown Murals
Punta Gorda’s rich history comes to life around the downtown area through a series of colorful murals. You’ll spot them everywhere you go.
Guided tours are available but you can also take a self-guided walking tour using the Punta Gorda Murals Walking Map. If you come across one of these lovely murals as you wander downtown and want to know more about it, each mural also has a QR code you can scan to learn more.
Need to Know: Group walking tours are offered seasonally on Tuesday mornings and begin and end at the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce Office. For more information, visit the Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society’s website.
3. The Punta Gorda Farmer’s Market
Established in 2008, the Punta Gorda Farmer’s Market is a downtown tradition that has been voted the “Best Small Market in Florida.” Held every Saturday year-round (hurricanes be damned!), you’ll find dozens of local vendors featuring the area’s best veggies, fruits, meats, and local crafts and products.
Plus, live music and plenty of yummy food trucks to choose from. There’s simply no better way to kick off the weekend in Punta Gorda.
Tip: Don’t miss Maria’s Italian Kitchen!
Need to Know: Open October – April from 8:00am – 1:00pm. And from May to September, 8:00am – 12:00pm. For more information and to see a list of vendors, visit the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce.
4. Explore US History at the Military Heritage Museum
As a military veteran, one of my husband’s favorite things about Punta Gorda is the town’s obvious devotion to military history.
Punta Gorda’s Military Heritage Museum was originally located within Fishermen’s Village. But in 2018, the growing museum expanded into a nearby historic university building. The museum showcases artifacts from both local and national military history. It’s a must for anyone interested in military history or just US history in general.
Don’t miss the Flight Ops simulator room and the VR experience upstairs. The “Letters from Home” wall is also a fascinating glimpse into the lives of US soldiers throughout history. You’ll want to plan about 90 minutes for your visit (longer if you’re a true military buff like my hubby!).
Need to Know: Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10:00am – 4:00pm. Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for veterans and military active duty, $9 for kids 5-14, and free for kids under 5. For more information, visit the Military Heritage Museum website.
5. Visit Punta Gorda’s Vietnam Memorial Wall
After your visit to the museum, don’t miss the incredible Vietnam Memorial Wall in nearby Veterans Park (at the entrance to Laishley Park). The wall is a 50% scale replica of the original Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. and even the granite is from the same source.
Veteran’s Park also holds a pretty amazing Memorial Day service each year with a massive field of American flags lining the harbor.
Need to Know: For more information, visit the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida website.
6. Shop & Dine at Fishermen’s Village
Fishermen’s Village is an expansive waterfront complex that features shops, restaurants, a marina, and even a small beach. It’s the perfect place to shop for souvenirs, grab a bite to eat, or hit the water on a charter fishing trip.
My favorite shops are Sea Spirit (for sea-inspired gifts), Bella Balsamic (for delicious infused oils and balsamic), and Simply Sweet (for heavenly homemade fudge).
There’s also live entertainment just about every day, so be sure to check the event schedule before you go!
Need to Know: Restaurant hours vary, shops are open Monday – Saturday, 10:00am – 8:00pm, Sunday, 10:00am – 6:00pm. For more information, visit the Fishermen’s Village website.
7. Visit the Animals at the Peace River Wildlife Center
This is hands-down my favorite place to visit in Punta Gorda. At the Peace River Wildlife Center, they care for injured, orphaned, and ill wildlife.
The star of the show here (and unofficial mascot) is Luna, a tiny leucistic (not albino) eastern screech owl. Luna was born without any pigmentation so he has no ability to camouflage himself from predators. As a result, he lives a pretty charmed life here with volunteers and visitors fussing over him daily.
You’ll also find bald eagles, white pelicans (my favorite), and many other fixtures of Southwest Florida wildlife. There’s no official tour but volunteers hang out by the entrance to walk visitors around and introduce the center’s residents and tell their unique stories.
The center itself is compact and you can easily see everything in about 30 minutes. But it’s fun to linger for a while and watch the animals. Don’t miss a visit to the gift shop before you go. It’s another terrific way to support the amazing work done here.
Need to Know: Open daily 11:00am – 4:00pm. Admission is free but a $5 per person donation is suggested (donate more, it’s a great cause!). For more information, visit the Peace River Wildlife Center website.
8. Hit the Water with a Punta Gorda Boat Tour
If you’re looking for a more active vacation, there are plenty of options. Punta Gorda is a haven for fishing enthusiasts, both freshwater and saltwater. Canoeing and kayaking are also popular activities, thanks to the city’s many beautiful waterways.
If you’re a boater, rent a boat for the day and drop your anchor at the Boca Grande Sand Bar, a local favorite. Lunch at Cabbage Key (accessible only by boat) is another top choice when spending a day exploring Charlotte Harbor.
But if you’d rather let someone else take the helm, there are plenty of local charter options to get out on the water for the day. Here are a few of the best Punta Gorda boat trips:
King Fisher Fleet – Located in Fishermen’s Village, King Fisher offers a variety of boat tours around the Punta Gorda area. Everything from sunset cruises to a day trip to Cabbage Key for a “cheeseburger in paradise.”
Take Me There Sailing – Located in Burnt Store Marina, Captain Steve and “Chief Experience Officer” Kimberly, offer all-inclusive day sails, overnight sailing charters, and a variety of extended charter options aboard their 60′ sailing yacht. They also offer lessons if you’ve always wanted to learn how to sail.
Thankful 2 Charters – Also located in Burnt Store Marina, Captain John and First Mate Pam host lively sunset cruises around Charlotte Harbor aboard their Lagoon 420 sailing catamaran. Unfortunately, their catamaran is currently in for repairs after Hurricane Ian. But, they’ll be back up and running before you know it. Check their Facebook page for the latest updates.
Cruisin Tiki’s Charlotte Harbor – For a really fun afternoon, book a 90-minute trip with Cruisin’ Tiki’s Charlotte Harbor. Located at the Sheraton Four Points on the dock right in front of TT’s, this floating tiki hut is the perfect outing for up to 6 people. Even better, guests are encouraged to bring their own adult beverages (a cooler with ice is provided).
9. Explore the Best Beaches Near Punta Gorda
Southwest Florida is home to a ridiculous number of beautiful beaches. Whether you’re looking for a place to relax and soak up the sun or you want to get active with swimming, fishing, and kayaking, there’s a beach that’s perfect for you.
And while Punta Gorda proper may not be known for beaches, it’s just a short drive from some of Florida’s most spectacular white sandy shores.
Even before Hurricane Ian, I always preferred the beaches to the north of Punta Gorda – Englewood, Nokomis, Siesta Key, and others. They’re just much more beautiful than those to the south (whiter sand, bluer water, and less touristy overall).
And now, with the beaches to the south – Ft. Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva – still deep in the midst of rebuilding after Ian, the beaches to the north are definitely your best bet.
So, for now, let’s focus on the best beaches north of Punta Gorda.
To be clear, none of these areas were untouched by Ian. However, all have reopened public beach facilities, parking lots, etc. So any one of the following beaches is a great choice for a beach day near Punta Gorda:
Englewood Beach – Englewood is the closest and most popular destination for Punta Gorda residents and visitors. With white sand and turquoise waters, it’s just a 40-minute drive from downtown Punta Gorda. There are plenty of restaurants, shops and typical beach facilities nearby.
Boca Grande – Located on Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande is known for pristine beaches and the multi-million-dollar Old Florida homes of a few famous regulars (including at least one former president). Take a scenic drive down to the south end of the island to the sugar sands of Gasparilla Island State Park and the restored Port Boca Grande Lighthouse (built in 1890). The park is a great place for shelling or just a quiet place to relax for the day with a terrific view.
Note that there is a $6.00 toll to cross the bridge onto Gasparilla Island and a $3.00 parking fee at Gasparilla Island State Park.
Nokomis Beach/Casey Key – Located near Venice, it takes a little longer (about 45 minutes) to reach these sandy shores, but it’s worth it. With wide, sandy beaches and plenty of parking, this less visited key is a great place to unwind away from the crowds.
10. Grab a Bite at Punta Gorda’s Best Restaurants
After all that exploring and beachcombing, you must be starving.
Fear not, weary traveler. Whether you’re dying to bury your toes in the sand at a tiki bar or craving some of Southwest Florida’s best fine dining, Punta Gorda’s got you covered!
One of the more delightful discoveries in our move to Punta Gorda is the number of fantastic restaurants in the area. In fact, there are way too many to discuss here.
So I was left with no choice but to cover this delicious topic in much greater detail right here:
But here’s a quick list of my 5 favorite restaurants in Punta Gorda:
1. Carmelo’s – This authentic Italian restaurant is widely considered the best restaurant in Punta Gorda. The house specialty is the “Bada Bing” – a pasta dish flambéed tableside in a giant wheel of imported Grana Padano Cheese. (Yes, it’s just as delicious as it sounds.) My favorite things on the menu are the Limoncello Martini, the Mussels Bianco, and the Sacchettini. Reservations are a must.
2. TT’s Tiki Bar – There’s no better place in Punta Gorda to chill out with your toes in the sand and a cocktail in hand. It’s also one of the best places to watch the dazzling sunsets over Charlotte Harbor. While most come to TT’s for cocktails with a view, the food is surprisingly tasty. Tip: The Passion Fruit Mule is my 2nd favorite cocktail in all of Punta Gorda (a very close second to the Limoncello Martini at Carmelo’s).
3. Hurricane Charley’s – Two words…Lobster Overdose. This New England-style lobster roll is served with a cup of creamy lobster bisque and a side of tropical coleslaw. Located right on the harbor, Hurricane Charley’s is named for the storm that devastated Punta Gorda in 2004. Memorabilia in the lobby tells the story of the storm’s aftermath and the community’s triumphant recovery. The restaurant’s “HunkerDown Deck” is another picture-perfect place for waterfront dining with spectacular sunset views.
4. Peace River Seafood – Southwest Florida is famous for blue crabs and Peace River Seafood is ground zero for this local favorite. This authentic old-Florida-style seafood shack serves up crab, shrimp, grouper, and more caught by local commercial fishers and seasoned to perfection. They also just happen to have the best Key Lime Pie in Punta Gorda (trust me on this, I’ve taste-tested them all!).
5. John Ski’s House of Breakfast and Lunch – Consistently voted the best place for breakfast in Punta Gorda, this casual diner is a must if you’re in search of a hearty breakfast or brunch. My husband’s favorite thing on the menu is the “Hangry Man” which he recently proclaimed the best breakfast he’s ever had.
And there you have it!
We’ve covered all the best things to do in Punta Gorda Florida (plus some pretty sensational places to eat once you’re done!).
From strolling along the Harborwalk at sunset to chatting up the local wildlife, there are plenty of things to see and do in lovely Punta Gorda.
So, if you’re looking for the perfect Southwest Florida getaway to a terrific small town, Punta Gorda truly is a hidden gem.
And I couldn’t be happier to call it home.