Sanibel vs Marco Island: Which is the Best Vacation Spot on Florida’s Gulf Coast?

If you’re looking for a dreamy vacation destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast…congratulations! You’ve found two of the best options! 

As a kid, I’d been to Sanibel several times with my family and always remembered loving riding bikes everywhere, eating at cute little mom and pop restaurants, and of course, spending hours shelling. 

I didn’t go to Marco Island until I was quite a bit older, but instantly fell in love with it. It has the same great shelling beaches as Sanibel but the island is a little more upscale and I LOVE staying at the JW Marriott. Plus it’s super close to the Everglades which makes for a fun day trip. 

Well last year as part of Florida-palooza (I think I did 8 trips to different places in Florida in one year!) I revisited both Sanibel and Marco Island. 

Here’s how I think they stack up: 

Sanibel vs Marco Island

Let’s start with the lay of the is(land) so you know exactly what we’re talking about…


Sanibel is a barrier island just off Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast (the southwest side). It’s about a 45 minute drive from Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) across the causeway to Sanibel. 

Sanibel is a very laid back island with a big emphasis on conservation. When the bridge was originally built to Sanibel in the 70s, 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. 

Bikes are the favorite method of transportation and EVERYTHING revolves around the beach. It’s not a fancy place. It’s as authentic a beach town as you’ll find anywhere. Locals and visitors really buy into the sense of community and everywhere you go it seems like everybody knows everybody, whether they live there or they’ve been vacationing there for decades. 

Sanibel suffered a pretty big catastrophe in 2022 when they took a direct hit from Hurricane Ian. Much of the island (including the causeway) was pretty well destroyed, but it’s such a special place that the rebuilding started almost immediately. The bridge to the island was reconstructed by January 2023 and the rebuilding has continued full tilt since then. 

It’s definitely still an island in transition, but it’s well on its way to finding its way back to that special place where families love to vacation. 

Read more about Sanibel & Captiva here

Marco Island

Marco Island is also a barrier island located off Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast, but it’s quite a bit further south than Sanibel. From Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), it’s about an hour drive south to Marco Island. 

Marco Island is a pretty laid back place (and of course very family friendly), but in a totally different way than Sanibel. 

Marco Island is a lot more developed than Sanibel, but it 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. 

Sanibel may have the most famed shelling in Florida, but Marco Island might actually have the best. Plus its close proximity to the Everglades and Naples makes for a lot of good day trips and things to do when you get tired of the beach and the pool. 

I think Marco Island hits a sweet spot when you want a more casual and less developed island (compared to Florida’s big hot spots) but like a little luxury at the same time. 

Read more about Marco Island here

***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Florida. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. In Florida, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Swan Reserve at Walt Disney World, the Vinoy in St. Pete, the EDITION Miami Beach, the JW Marriott Marco Island, and the soon to open St. Regis Longboat Key. 

Sanibel vs Marco Island: Specific Comparisons

Now let’s get into some specifics comparing the two islands…

Best Beaches: Sanibel vs 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 easily if you’re into shelling. 

Best Shelling: Sanibel vs 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. 

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!). 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount USA Car Rental. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. I started using their sister company (Discount Hawaii Car Rental) on my Hawaii trips almost 10 years ago and now I use their main site for all of my other trips. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Best Restaurants & Shopping: Sanibel vs Marco Island

This one is a little up in the area. Prior to the 2022 hurricane, I would’ve given the edge to Sanibel. Sanibel had a HUGE concentration of mom and pop local shops and restaurants which is what makes it feel so special. It still remains to be seen exactly what all will be rebuilt and what new places may open. 

Prior to the hurricane though, there weren’t a ton of restaurants that sit on the water (but there are some) and if you want more waterfront spots I’d definitely give the edge to Marco Island. 

Marco Island also has more “nice” restaurants than Sanibel. 

Best for Biking: Sanibel vs 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 plus the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. 

Best Things to Do Nearby: Sanibel vs 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). 

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: Sanibel vs 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. 

That being said, since so much was destroyed by the hurricane, I’m hoping (not that I’m glad it happened!) that what’s rebuilt is a little nicer than what was there before. 

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. It’s 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. 

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

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