Southern Living Feature: 14 Best Things to Do In Punta Gorda!

By Jennifer Prince

Florida typically draws crowds for one of two pastimes: theme parks and beaches. And while both are worthy reasons to head to the Sunshine State, the inner waterways are often the unsung heroes of those wishing for a quieter vacation. If you’re longing for a getaway with warm weather ‘year-round, consider heading to Punta Gorda, which lies within Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s western coast. With its rich history, natural resources, and thriving art scene, visiting this inviting town might be the perfect respite you’ve been yearning for.

What to Do

Discover History on a Mural Tour

As wall art covers many urban areas in the South, the city of Punta Gorda has decided to do something different with its murals. Each piece depicts local historical events, making works appeal to art and history enthusiasts. Download the Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society map for a self-guided walk, or pay a fee for a two-hour walking tour with a local guide. Pass under the bridge to view depictions of nearby sealife, or stroll around town to see how a cattle drive shaped the area.

Visit a Local Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Although admission to Peace River Wildlife Center is free, you can leave a donation to help this organization further its efforts to rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild. Because the center intakes injured and needy wildlife, you never know what species you’ll find on-site. In addition to reptiles and mammals, visitors should also take note of permanent resident Luna, the only known eastern screech owl to have leucism, which gives him lighter-than-normal coloring.

prwildlife.org, 3400 Ponce de Leon Pkwy, Punta Gorda, FL 33950

Paddle the Water

Even if you aren’t laying out on the beach, you can relax and enjoy the calm water in Charlotte Harbor. Rent a paddleboard or kayak and leisurely make your way around the harbor. To see the flora and fauna lurking underneath, rent a glass-bottom kayak, and if ability is a consideration, head to Selkie Adaptive Paddle to find a suitable mode of transportation. If you lack a sense of direction, don’t worry, as the Blueway Trails map is specifically for those navigating the inland waterways on self-propelled vessels.

Spend the Day in Art and Nature

Whether you are traveling alone or have the family in tow, everyone will enjoy spending time at the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. Do a double take as you see a woman enjoying time floating in the pool, only to discover you’re eyeing a lifelike sculpture. Enter a butterfly habitat and get close to a beautifully delicate species. The botanical areas encourage wildlife as colorful flowers emerge and small animals, such as insects and lizards, hide nearby. Before heading over, consult their calendar, as you may be fortunate enough to catch one of their rotating exhibitions or events.

peacerivergardens.org, 5827 Riverside Dr, Punta Gorda, FL 33982

Tour a Distillery

From white to dark and other flavors in between, the Voss brothers have honed their craft within the borders of Punta Gorda at Alligator Bay Distillers. A tour includes an education about rum-making followed by tasting their varieties, which the duo makes using sugar sourced from a local mill. Be sure to taste the Spiced Rum, which earned a Double Gold Medal, and if you want to take some home, they sell TSA-friendly 2-ounce bottles that you can fit in a carry-on bag.

alligatorbaydistillers.com, 25522 Marion Avenue Punta Gorda, FL 33950

Bike Along the Harbor 

With routes that range from 17 to 31 miles—don’t worry, as you don’t have to cover the entire trail—it only makes sense that Punta Gorda has a free bike loaner program. Pick up a bicycle from one of four local stations along the routes and pedal to your heart’s content. You can plan to shop and eat along the way or mosey around, enjoying the coastline and any wildlife that presents itself as you stretch your legs.

Wander and Shop at Sunday’s Market

Of course, History Park is worth a visit any day of the week as several historic homes were relocated to the 9-acre property to save them from demolition. However, on Sundays, the site turns into a lovely market where you can shop for fresh fruits and veggies. The market also attracts artisan vendors, so you can pick up a souvenir or shop for gifts. Be on the lookout for live music so you can grab a bite from a local food vendor and sit and stay a while.

Look Upward for Wildlife

Florida’s warm weather attracts birds all year round, so the area is a haven for feathered friends and birdwatchers alike. Over 330 species migrate through and inhabit the local parks, natural areas, and preserves throughout Punta Gorda and neighboring Englewood Beach. For optimum birding, head to Cedar Point Environmental Park or Alligator Creek Preserve, both of which are among the 26 local birdwatching sites recognized by the Peace River Audobon Society. Pack your binoculars, and try to spy a rare avian species like the white pelican and endangered wood storks.

Ride through Swampland

Head to Babcock Ranch Eco-Tours to board a school bus-turned-camouflaged vessel to view wildlife in Florida’s swamps in and around a working cattle ranch. During a 90-minute tour on part of the 73,000-acre property, your guide will point out birds hidden among the trees and alligators lurking in the water. If you’d rather delve deeper, the ranch also offers different activities, such as walking, night, and photography tours, depending on availability.

babcockranchecotours.com, 8502 FL-31 Punta Gorda, FL 33982

Take a Sunset Cruise

One of the highlights of a trip to Punta Gorda is boarding a King Fisher Fleet boat and heading off into the sunset for a cruise. The way the light hits the water makes the sun explode into intensified rays of orange, yellow, and red light as it sets. Get an uninterrupted view of the horizon as you sip on a beverage and reflect on time spent along Florida’s coast. If you prefer a daytime excursion, book a nature cruise or harbor tour. For those with mobility issues, King Fisher Fleet does its best to make accommodations, so let them know ahead of time if someone in your party needs assistance or early boarding.

kingfisherfleet.com, 1200 W Retta Esplanade #16a, Punta Gorda, FL 33950

Where to Eat

Dine Harborside at TT’s Tiki Bar

A harbor walk often encourages the appetite, so when hunger strikes, grab a bite within view of the water at TT’s Tiki Bar. It’s also the perfect location to head to when you crave a bit of nightlife. Offering live music several times a week, TT’s hosts musicians ranging from solo guitarists to locally renowned bands. On the menu, you’ll find classics like burgers and tacos, but it also features dishes made with mahi and grouper.

ttspg.com, 33 Tamiami Trail Punta Gorda, FL 33950

Get Fresh Crabs at Peace River Seafood

When even the mention of steamed blue crabs makes you salivate, the answer to your woes lies at Peace River Seafood, which focuses on local, freshly caught fare. As one of their most popular dishes, the crabs include corn on the cob, potato salad, and coleslaw, but other worthy selections find a place on the menu. Choose from the catch of the day or opt for shrimp, clams, or gator gumbo. If you’d rather cook at your accommodations, their market has plenty of seafood and produce to choose from.

peaceriverseafood.com, 5337 Duncan Rd, Punta Gorda, FL 33982

Try Gator Bites at the Gator Shack

An eco-tour at Babcock Ranch certainly warrants a fill-up before or after your excursion, which is why the Gator Shack Restaurant conveniently resides on-site. Of course, the highlight of the eatery is the gator bites, but other selections ebb and flow on their rotating menu. Try the mac and cheese, savor chili, or end your meal with a slice of peanut butter pie, depending on the day. 

babcockranchecotours.com/gator-shack-restaurant, 8502 FL-31, Punta Gorda, FL 33982

Dine in Style at The Perfect Caper

Sometimes, a trip calls for a special night out. If you’re in the mood for a leisurely evening of being spoiled by your waiter, head to The Perfect Caper. As a seven-time James Beard nominated chef, founder Jeanie Roland challenged—and won—against Bobby Flay on the Food Network. She combines Asian influences with French techniques to curate a unique menu with highlights like Chicken Flauta and Miso Salmon.

theperfectcaper.com, 121 E Marion Ave, Punta Gorda, FL 33950

Where to Stay

From unique Airbnb stays, such as booking a lighthouse, to relaxing at the brand-new Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor, Punta Gorda offers a variety of unique accommodations. The Wyvern Hotel boasts 63 rooms in a well-appointed space with local art, harbor views, and two restaurants on the property. Another resort option, the Manasota Key Resort often has dolphins and manatees swimming by. For a centrally-located stay where you can shop, dine, and leave for boat tours, The Suites at Fisherman’s Village is ideal for a well-rounded vacation. Their property also has a small beach area where folks can lounge and children can play in the sand.