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 expected to begin opening to tourism in January 2023, 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 a dreamy vacation destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast…congratulations! You’ve narrowed it down to two great options! I’ve been to both several times and now I’m going to compare and contrast them for you like a middle school essay ; )
Let’s start out with the similarities…
Both are barrier islands located off Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast in the Fort Myers area. If you’re flying, you’ll fly into Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers. Sanibel sits pretty much due west from Fort Myers and it’s about a 45 minute drive from the airport (25 miles).
Marco Island is quite a bit further south (south of Naples), but since it’s all interstate, you can usually make the drive in 50 minutes to an hour (45 miles).
Both islands are pretty laid back and very family friendly but with plenty to attract couples as well.
And I think that’s where the similarities end…when we get into the details, these two islands are pretty different.
Sanibel vs Marco Island
Marco Island is a lot more developed than Sanibel, although Sanibel has a really large concentration of mom and pop shops and restaurants so I always think it feels like there’s a lot to do.
When the bridge was built to Sanibel in the 70s (there’s a $6 toll going onto the island), the community fought hard for strict building regulations, and it’s part of what makes the island so charming. You won’t find a building on the island taller than the tallest native tree, and more than half of the island is a nature preserve so it’s pretty quiet.
Marco Island doesn’t feel overly developed compared to Miami or even places like Clearwater or St Pete Beach, but it’s definitely a lot more built up. The beach on the island is pretty much lined with high rises and you’ll find a Publix and pretty much everything else you’d need on the island.
Now let’s get into some specifics…
Best Beaches: Sanibel or Marco Island
In terms of sand and water, I think the beaches are fairly similar. White sand (with a heavy concentration of shells) and blue water is the norm. For me, the standouts are Tigertail Beach on Marco Island and Blind Pass Beach on Sanibel. Everything else feels more or less the same.
As far as accessibility goes, if you’re not staying right on the beach, both islands have what I would call limited accessibility, but for different reasons.
All of the public beaches on Sanibel charge $5/hour parking, but there’s a pretty decent amount of parking and it’s easy to get to the beach from your car. The exception is Blind Pass Beach (my favorite) which has limited parking on both sides of the bridge from Sanibel to Captiva.
Marco Island has more places to stay right on the beach (and access points if you’re staying across the street), but it really only has one beach access spot with parking if you’re not…Tigertail Beach. This beach is SPECTACULAR, but there’s a little inlet (they call it a “lagoon”) that juts out so from the parking lot you’ve either to walk all the way around to get to the ocean side (solid 15 minute walk through the sand with no shade carrying all of your stuff) or wade across the knee to waist deep mucky lagoon (going to be honest…it was pretty gross) holding your stuff above your head.
It’s not a super big deal, but if you’ve got little kids in tow, it’s not the most accessible beach. The good news is that most places on Marco Island are right on the beach, so you probably won’t need beach access/parking and if you’re staying on the beach, you can walk north up to Tigertail pretty easy if you’re into shelling.
Best Shelling: Sanibel or Marco Island
Well, good news: you’ve narrowed it down to the two best shelling spots in Florida. Sanibel by far has the reputation for being the best shelling in Florida, but I’m here to tell you that it’s actually Marco Island. Trust me, I’ve done both.
Sanibel gets good shells (the area around Blind Pass is best), but there’s also a LOT of competition to find them. In the Sanibel area, I’ve actually found the best shelling at Cayo Costa State Park, but you can only get there by boat (that’s why the shelling is better). I’d recommend a shelling cruise with Captiva Cruises. If you’re shelling on Sanibel, remember: the early bird gets the junonia! Even if it’s not close to low tide, you’re going to want to be out there right at sunrise. Read about my favorite shelling beaches on Sanibel and also the shelling trip I took with Captiva Cruises to Cayo Costa State Park.
The shelling on Marco Island has similar conditions to Sanibel (same type of shells, get out there early, etc.), but north of Tigertail Beach is where you’ll find the good stuff. Called “Sand Dollar Spit” if you’re willing to walk your little legs off, you’ll find miles and miles of unpicked shells. Take a bag, plenty of water, and a hat and sunscreen because it’s a long walk. But worth it.
The real shelling magic on Marco Island is in the neighboring Ten Thousand Islands. Just south of Marco Island, the Ten Thousand Islands are the gateway to the Everglades and there’s a handful of sandy islands that offer what I will definitely say is the best shelling in Florida, which pretty much makes it the best shelling anywhere. Here’s the catch…you can only get there by boat. I 100% recommend a shelling trip with Treasure Seekers. If you’re into shelling, this is an experience you won’t want to miss. You’ll find so many sand dollars that you’ll eventually stop bending over to pick them up. This is where people find the coveted junonia (although they’re still super rare!). Read all about shelling on Marco Island here.
Best Restaurants & Shopping: Sanibel or Marco Island
I’m going to give this one to Sanibel. Sanibel has a HUGE concentration of mom and pop local shops and restaurants which is what makes it feel so special. There aren’t a ton of restaurants that sit on the water though (but there are some) and if you want more waterfront spots I’d definitely give the edge to Marco Island. Read my Sanibel restaurant recommendations here.
Best for Biking: Sanibel or Marco Island
This one also goes to Sanibel. Biking is almost the preferred method of transportation around Sanibel, and they have really nice bike paths and trails.
RELATED: Sanibel vs Captiva
Best Things to Do Nearby: Sanibel or Marco Island
Besides the beach and beach related activities, let’s talk about things to do.
One of my favorite things about Marco Island (besides the shelling) is how close it is to the Everglades. It’s only about a 45 miles drive south to Everglade City which is the gateway to Everglade National Park on the Gulf Coast. Airboat rides are a dime a dozen (go on the first ride of the day before the wildlife gets stirred up and scatters), but my favorite thing to do is lunch at City Seafood. Nosh on stone crab if it’s in season and watch all the boats go by. Marco Island is also just south of Naples which is a pretty sizable area with plenty to do (check out the zoo). Read my full list of things to do on Marco Island here.
Sanibel has easy access to Captiva (I think of it as a smaller version of Sanibel) and if you’re willing to go back over the bridge, you’re fairly close to the Edison and Ford Winter Estates (a must do in Fort Myers!), Matlacha (a sleepy fishing village turned colorful, hippy art town), and Pine Island (a drive up to Bokeelia is one of my favorite things to do).
Back on Sanibel, you’ve got the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a popular spot for kayaking and paddle boarding, but if you’re only casually interested (or just not up for a ton of hiking or physical activity), you can actually drive through. It’s $10/car and about a 4 mile drive. And you can drive through as many times as you want. You can mostly see everything from the car, but there are a lot of places you can pull over if you want a better look. There are a couple of places I would stop for sure. There’s a boardwalk through the mangroves that’s pretty cool and there’s also a treehouse/tower where you can get a good look.
I’ll be honest, I like “nature” just fine, but I had a better time watching all the older folks with their binoculars being excited about the birds! There’s a tram you can ride with a naturalist that makes certain stops and if you see the tram PULL OVER AND GO WATCH THE PEOPLE. It’s the real attraction.
Best Places to Stay: Golf & Tennis
Marco Island has better golf and Sanibel has better tennis (and pickleball!) although if you’re looking for a tennis-centric vacation spot, you’ll find better places than Sanibel (check out Key Biscayne and Amelia Island for starters).
Best Places to Stay: Sanibel or Marco Island
I can 100% without a second thought give this one to Marco Island. Finding a good place to stay in Sanibel is actually kind of a sore subject with me. Even though some places call themselves “resorts,” everything is condo-like accommodations, which isn’t really my thing, but I’ve also found most options to be pretty dated and worn considering the prices. If I could find a nice place to stay in Sanibel, it would be the ideal place to vacation in Florida. But it eludes me.
Marco Island on the other hand is home to one of my favorite places to stay in Florida…the JW Marriott Marco Island. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough good beach resorts on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but this is one of the best. You can read my full review here, but to summarize…this is the kind of place you can stay and never leave. It’s VERY popular with families, but if you’re traveling as a couple or on an adults only getaway, they have a luxury adults only tower that has some really awesome amenities including a rooftop terrace pool with incredible views.
If the JW Marriott is sold out (or it’s not in the budget), there are plenty of other good options on the island.
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