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A Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary from Naples to Tampa

Yellow-crowned night heron spotted on Sanibel Island, Florida
What better way to spend a week than on a Florida Gulf Coast road trip? I love to combine business and pleasure, that's a key principle here at Sidewalk Safari that my regular readers know. We also use a similar philosophy when planning family trips; building in some time to explore new places. I'm lucky because I have family in Naples, Florida, a lovely place to visit along the west coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. We recently embarked on a Florida road trip from Naples to Tampa. Not only did we spend time with my family, but we encountered wildlife, creativity at its finest, and even had the chance to run off and join the circus. Read on for more about our one week Florida road trip itinerary, one of several southeast USA road trip ideas you might consider..

Florida Gulf Coast Travel Destinations: Naples

Birdwatching in Pelican Bay

shorebird on the beach in Florida
We started our road trip in Naples. Naples' Pelican Bay is a popular spot for birds because of the combination of seaside location and protected mangrove swamps nearby. We spent time with our family in Pelican Bay and took time to marvel at the resident birds. We spotted a rare wood stork...
wood stork in Naples, Florida
...pelicans with impressive wingspans and hundreds of migrating seabirds including different species of terns.
Birds on Pelican Bay Beach near Naples, Florida
Terns splashing around in Naples, Florida
We enjoyed watching sandpipers darting in and out of the surf looking for their next meal.
Sandpipers running in the surf in Naples, Florida
We also discovered that Pelican Bay is home to a significant number of pairs of nesting osprey. We were lucky to spot this fellow perched on a naked tree branch. Look at those talons!
Osprey on the beach in Naples, Florida
Pelican Bay is a private beach and boardwalk so you'll need to know someone (or rent a condo from someone for your vacation) in order to get to the beach and wildlife trails.

Spiders on the Clam Pass Boardwalk

Florida Gulf Coast Travel Destinations: Clam Pass Boardwalk in Naples, Florida
Clam Pass Park is adjacent to Pelican Bay in Naples but is open to the public. We walked to the entrance to the boardwalk (to avoid the steep fee to park) and took a long stroll along the wooden structure. The mangroves formed a shady canopy over the path. As we looked closer, we discovered a number of intimidating spiders who had taken up residence in the trees along the path. This fellow closing in on his next meal made my spine tingle.
Spider moving in for the kill in Clam Pass Park, Florida

Funky Cocktails at the Blue Martini in Naples

Cocktails at the Blue Martini in Naples, Florida
Naples isn't just about beaches and wildlife, it also boasts wild nightlife. We visited the Blue Martini on a Tuesday for half-priced cocktails and a funky cover band. Naples is mostly a city of visitors and transplants so when the band asked "who's visiting from out of town?" and my father shouted "they're from Ireland!", I wasn't surprised at all when two gents rocked up to introduce themselves: Oliver from Sligo, and Billy Belfast. Both had relocated to Florida's Gulf Coast many years ago. 
The House Band at the Blue Martini in Naples, Florida

Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary: From Naples to Sanibel Island

Gopher Tortoises at Lovers Key State Park

Florida Gulf Coast road trip stops: Lovers Key State Park Sign near Ft. Myers, Florida
After a most excellent 3 days in Naples with family, we hopped in the car for the vacation portion of our roap trip. We were headed from Naples to Tampa before our return flight to Dublin and aimed to see as many Gulf Coast travel destinations as possible during our trip. Our time in Florida was short but fortunately for us, Florida packs a lot into every square mile between Naples and Tampa. We pulled into Lovers Key State Park not far from Fort Myers. The park was eerily quiet. We took a short, tentative walk in the midday heat along one of the marked trails. 
Portrait of a Gopher Tortoise at Lovers Key State Park in Florida
We were feeling somewhat 'meh' about the park when my husband touched my arm and pointed. A gopher tortoise was sitting at the edge of the trail munching on grass. What a spectacular and unexpected wildlife encounter!
Gopher Tortoise at Lovers Key State Park in Florida

Eureka Moments at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers

Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip: Edison and Ford Winter Estates near Ft. Myers, Florida
Our next stop allowed us to tap into Florida's spirit of invention and creativity. You could say that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were snowbirds and escaped the cold of the north for the warmth and sun of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. Highlights of our road trip stop at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates included a number of early model Fords. 
Early Model Ford at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers, Florida
There is a museum on site that highlights Edison's prolific inventions across a wide range of scientific and engineering disciplines. We also got to see Edison's fully stocked lab with many original bottles of reagents and solvents perhaps labeled in Edison's own hand.
Reagents in the Edison Lab at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers, Florida
As an added bonus, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates sit right on the Gulf for lovely views.
Views of Florida's Gulf Coast from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers

Sanibel Sunsets over the Gulf Coast

Sunset over Sanibel Island, Florida
We arrived on Sanibel Island just before sunset and were given the keys to our room at the Island Inn. We were just a short walk from the beach so we walked along the sand as the sun sank lower in the sky.  Florida Gulf Coast sunsets are always special but this particular sunset on Sanibel Island was especially memorable. Our short Florida Gulf Coast road trip was off to a great start.
Sunset over Sanibel Island, Florida

Seashells by the Seashore on Sanibel Island

Seashells on the beach in Sanibel Island, Florida
Sanibel Island is known for a prolific number of shells on the beach. We awoke early the next day to catch a guided shell walk that departs from the Island Inn each morning and is run by the curators at the Baily-Matthews National Shell Museum nearby. Our guide, a bonafide marine biologist showed us different types of shells and some unique variants. For example, if you see a perfectly round hole in a shell, that's a mark of predation. Squiggly indentations, on the other hand, are indicative of a symbiotic relationship. It was all very fascinating. The shell walk was free to guests at the Island Inn.
Seashells on the beach in Sanibel Island, Florida

Dolphins on the Beach Along Florida's Gulf Coast

Dolphins off the coast of Sanibel Island in Florida
The shells on Sanibel Island were fascinating but I have to say that the frolicking dolphins were even more so. While we were on our shell walk, a pod of dolphins including some playful juveniles made an appearance close to shore and really stole the show. We spent about 30 minutes watching the dolphins splash about. Their playful behavior really put us in a good mood for the day.

Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary: From Sanibel Island to Sarasota

Sanibel Island's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

 J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge sign
A large chunk of Sanibel Island serves as a protected wildlife habitat. We drove to the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge during our visit to Sanibel. If you pay $5 USD, you can drive the one way loop road through the refuge pulling over when it takes your fancy to look for interesting birds and wildlife. We spotted a yellow-crowned night heron with a kill.
Yellow-crowned night heron spotted on Sanibel Island, Florida
I also spotted this juvenile yellow-crowned night heron crossing the road in the distance.
Juvenile Yellow-crowned night heron spotted on Sanibel Island, Florida
Stunning butterflies flitted about.
Butterfly spotted on Sanibel Island, Florida
The terrain ranged from open pools of water to tightly knitted mangrove swamps.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island
Mangroves in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida
We had a great time exploring and birdwatching along the way.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for U.S. destinations with a healthy dose of nature that will make you say "wow"? Check out ten things to do in Arizona.

Sarasota: The Land of Art Deco and Whimsical Flamingos

Art Deco drycleaners in Sarasota, Florida
Our next Gulf Coast travel destination was Sarasota which is known for fine beaches and lots of Art Deco architecture. We enjoyed spotting the stepped towers, speed lines, and neon signs that are the hallmark of the Art Deco style as we strolled around town.
Art Deco move theatre in Sarasota, Florida
We also learned that Sarasota has a creative and whimsical side. We saw at least three bicycles decorated with different colored plastic flamingos. So much awesome!
Flamingo bicycle in Sarasota, Florida

Running Away to Join the Circus at Ringling Bros. Ca' d'Zan

Entrance to the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida
Arguably, Sarasota's best attractions are situated further away from downtown and are a perfect addition to a Florida Gulf Coast road trip. We drove out to the Ringling Bros. Museum and Ca' d'Zan, the Ringling Brothers winter estate. In the decades of the traveling circus, the show would ride the rails bringing joy and wonder to children of all ages during the warmer months. What do you do with hundreds of rail cars worth of performers, gear, and show animals in the wintertime? Apparently, you take the whole thing to Sarasota, Florida to ride out the winter.
Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida
The Ringling Museum featured various train cars and gear to get a sense of the scale of the operation. It also showcased a number of jaw dropping and death defying feats that were a regular part of the circus. While not really death-defying, I did manage to squeeze myself into a miniature clown car.
In a clown car at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida
Another highlight of the Ringling Museum was the intricate mini-circus diorama. This miniature masterpiece took up an entire floor of the museum and was historically accurate down to the tiniest detail.
Miniature circus diorama at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida
Miniature circus diorama at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida
We also strolled around the outside of Ca' d'Zan itself which sits right along the Gulf of Mexico. The Moorish-inspired building simply lights up during the golden hour when the sun starts to set. It's amazing to think of the wealth that the circus generated for the Ringling Brothers and their entourage.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other ideas for a short U.S. road trip? Why not take a Houston to Austin drive for awesome road side attractions and spectacular landscapes or a New England road trip from Boston to Portland Maine for sea views, fantastic craft beer, and a few measures of American history.

Ca d'Zan Ringling Bros Estate in Sarasota, Florida
The grounds of Ca' d'Zan also feature dozens of classical sculptures that look lovely against a backdrop of enormous banyan trees.
Banyan trees and classic sculpture on the grounds of the Ringling Brothers Estate in Sarasota, Florida
Also on the grounds, the The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art features world-class artists and often hosts musical performances in the grand courtyard. 

St. Armand's Circle

Chocolate covered bacon from the Fudge Factory of St. Armand's in Sarasota, Florida
Also on the outskirts of Sarasota, St. Armand's Circle features high end shops and eateries. Planned and built by John Ringling, St. Armand's is worth a stop before leaving Sarasota to continue the road trip, especially to try the chocolate covered bacon at the Fudge Factory of St. Armand's.
Art Deco building in St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota, Florida

Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary: From Sarasota to St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg's Weedon Island Preserve

Skeleton of a small mammal at Weedon Island Preserve near St. Petersburg, Florida
Moving on from Sarasota, we continued our Florida Gulf Coast road trip to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg has a big city feel but also captures the spirit of wild Florida within its borders. We stopped at the Weedon Island Preserve and perused the boardwalk trails. The most startling thing we saw was the skeleton of a small mammal, picked entirely clean! I'm guessing the victim was a raccoon based on other telltale signs that we saw nearby. I'm morbidly curious about how it met its end. Weedon Island Preserve is similar to other areas of natural preservation and conservation in Florida. We didn't spot a ton of wildlife or birds but it was still a lovely spot for a simultaneously relaxing and spine-tingling walk. 

Sawgrass Lake Park

Anhinga at Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida
We also visited Sawgrass Lake Park in the heart of a residential neighborhood in St. Petersburg. We visited early which could very well be the reason we saw all sorts of cool wildlife on our visit: from an anhinga with wings spread wide to an alligator lurking just below the boardwalk.
Alligator at Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida
We even spotted an enormous frog. The boardwalk trails through the mangroves were well-shaded and this was truly a great spot for a bit of exercise.
Frog at Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida

Cuban Food at La Teresita

Tostones and mojo from La Teresita near St. Petersburg, Florida
No Florida road trip itinerary is complete without a stop for Cuban food! We got our fill at La Teresita in Pinellas Park just outside of St. Pete. The savory plantains (tostones) with mojo sauce were simply outstanding.
Cuban meal from La Teresita in Pinellas Park, Florida

Out and About in Downtown St. Pete

You are my sunshine street art in St. Petersburg, Florida
We parked our car in a local garage and set out to explore downtown St. Petersburg for a day. All the action is along Central Avenue.

St. Petersburg Farmers Market

Flowers and fruit for sale at the St. Petersburg Farmers Market
We started our exploration at the St. Petersburg Farmers' Market featuring juicy produce, colorful flowers, local musicians, and plenty to eat. The St. Petersburg Farmers' Market takes place every Saturday morning downtown.

Craft Beer in Downtown St. Pete

Green Bench Brewing Company in St. Petersburg, Florida
St. Petersburg is a city committed to craft beer and there are a number of breweries along Central Ave. We sampled a fine dry cider (Abricot) and Beemo Saison at Green Bench.
Beer taps and pretzels at Green Bench Brewing Company in St. Petersburg, Florida
We followed that up with a pitstop at Cycle Brewing for a heavier Hazelnut Cream and Sugar, Please stout. Sipping this beer felt like drinking an iced hazelnut coffee. Very creative.
Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg, Florida
Hazelnut Cream and Sugar, Please stout from Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg, Florida

Folkfest St. Pete

Fiddler playing Folkfest St. Pete
We happened to be in St. Petersburg for Folkfest St. Pete and joined other locals sitting in the sun and enjoying local bands.

Fun Street Art

Street art in St. Petersburg, Florida
Downtown St. Petersburg also showcased some of the best street art that we saw anywhere on our Gulf Coast road trip between Naples and Tampa. I especially love this scene of a hostile alien invasion of St. Pete!
Street art in St. Petersburg, Florida

Brew D. Licious

Coffee mugs from Brew D. Licious in St. Petersburg, Florida
The true test of a city is how well it does coffee. Brew D. Licious in St. Pete served a fine cuppa in huge statement mugs. The espresso drinks were served from high end beans. Brew D. Licious is definitely worth a stop to rest and recharge on a visit to St, Petersburg before hopping back in the car to drive to Tampa.

Florida Gulf Coast Travel Destinations: Tampa

Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa

Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida
Driving across the bay to Tampa from St. Petersburg, our next stop was the Henry B. Plant Museum. It's no secret that we love to travel and the Henry B. Plant Museum is a homage to early Florida tourism. Now part of the University of Tampa, the museum and university administration is located inside what was once the first tourist hotel in Florida. Situated at the end of the rail line, Plant was responsible for bringing the first snowbirds to Florida. It's fascinating history.
Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, Florida

Tampa's Ybor City

Ybor City street art
We spent the last evening of our Florida Gulf Coast road trip exploring Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood. Formerly known for producing fine cigars, this is still the neighborhood to go to for a smoke if that's your thing. For us, we were more interested in the boxy architecture, shops, bars, and restaurants.
Cigar Store Indian in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida
We sampled Spanish/Cuban fusion cuisine at Columbia, Florida's oldest restaurant.
Columbia: Florida's Oldest Restaurant
Our favorite stop of the night was, hands down, Cigar City Cider and Mead. We toasted the end of our Florida Gulf Coast road trip with a Wise Prick and Ginger Kid's craft cider.
Pints of cider from Cigar City Cider and Mead
Cigar City Cider and Mead cidery in Ybor City, Tampa
We were pleased to discover that there are plenty of Florida Gulf Coast travel destinations between Naples and Tampa to keep visitors busy for at least a week. Check out the map below for a recap of the ground we covered and some of the highlights of our one week Florida road trip itinerary.

What Florida Gulf Coast travel destinations do you recommend including on a road trip between Naples and Tampa?

Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Map

Click on the image of the map below to open up an interactive Florida Gulf Coast road trip route including points of interest in Google Maps.
Florida West Coast Road Trip Map

One Week Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary Summarized

  • Day 1: Arrive in Naples
  • Day 2: Birdwatching at Pelican Bay in Naples
  • Day 3 (day): Walk the Clam Pass Boardwalk in Pelican Bay
  • Day 3 (evening): Cocktails at the Blue Martini in Naples
  • Day 4: Drive from Naples to Sanibel Island with stops at Lovers Key State Park and the Edison and Ford Winter Estates
  • Day 5 (day): Drive from Sanibel Island to Sarasota with a stop at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
  • Day 5 (afternoon/evening): Ringling Bros. Museum and Ca' d'Zan
  • Day 6: Drive from Sarasota to St. Petersburg with stops at Weedon Island Preserve and Sawgrass Lake Park
  • Day 7: Explore downtown St. Petersburg plus a drive to Tampa
If you have more time, I recommend adding in a day trip from Naples to see manatees in the Florida Everglades at the edge of Everglades National Park. Or, start your trip in Miami and spending a day in the Miami South Beach Art Deco Historic District.

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Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip ItineraryFlorida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary


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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: A Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary from Naples to Tampa
A Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary from Naples to Tampa
Find out about things to do on a Florida Gulf Coast road trip between Naples and Tampa. Explore Gulf Coast travel destinations on a one week Florida road trip itinerary.
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog
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