BY GINA BIRCH
FORT MYERS LOCAL EXPERT
The Fort Myers area is full of famous attractions and many of them are very affordable. But forking over a few dollars here and there eventually adds up. Don’t worry, there are plenty of things to do that won't cost you a dime while providing hours of enjoyment. The beach is considered and generally assumed to be a free activity, so that is why none are mentioned on this 10Best list. There are lots of public beaches that won’t cost anything but a little effort to walk through the sand; and possibly parking.
Here you will find family-friendly activities such as Art Walk in downtown Fort Myers, the first Friday of each month. Galleries stay open late and provide entertainment along with special exhibits. For free fun in the great outdoors, don’t miss Lee County's Manatee Park. At this spot, you can see the gentle marine giants gathering in the warm waters produced by a nearby, former power plant. The best time to see most sea cows is between November and March.
In fact, these months host lots of free events as they are considered the area’s “high season” for tourists wanting to escape the cold. That being said, there enough freebies year-round to keep you and the family entertained in Fort Myers.
You don't need to go to a zoo or an aquarium to get an up-close look at manatees; see them for free at Lee County's Manatee Park. Between the months of November and March, manatees swim into the canal of this 17-acre park to escape the cooler Gulf temperatures. The animals are drawn to the warm-water discharged from a former power plant. The water is also shallow, making it perfect for viewing the creatures in their entirety. The park offers free, guided walks and lots of educational activities like Manatee Bingo. Kids can enjoy a playground and the entire family can check out the butterfly garden. Pack lunch as there are picnic facilities, but leave your dog at home when visiting this park.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It's the best place to get an up-close look at the fascinating, giant Manatees when they seek shelter from cooler waters.
Gina's expert tip: Consider renting a kayak or canoe to get even closer to the manatees.
Located on Estero Island, Matanzas Pass Preserve is one of the few natural habitats left on the island that is also home to Fort Myers Beach. Not only is it free to the public but also home to 1.25 miles of trails that wind through mangroves, and an oak hammock along the Estero Bay. This 60-acre unspoiled sanctuary offers the perfect escape from the area's well-populated tourist scene. Take time to hike and explore, and be on the lookout for diverse wildlife, including raccoons, rabbits, hawks, owls and turtles. This park is a sanctuary for native plants and a designated site on Great Florida Birding Trail. There is free parking but it is limited.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: An unspoiled 60-acre sanctuary offering trails through dense mangroves and lots of opportunities for wildlife sightings.
Gina's expert tip: Bring bug spray as it can be buggy, especially after it rains.
Each year, on the first weekend in February, ArtFest is held on the riverfront in downtown Fort Myers. It has grown to become one of the most respected art events in the area, with some 70,000 people participating in the three-day festival. Most of the 200 artists booths line Bay Street, parallel to the Caloosahatchee River and Centennial Park. The park is the perfect backdrop for food vendors and performance stages. The award-winning festival uses profits to promote art in local schools year-round. There are young artists tents and an Art Yard; an area for your kids to create a masterpiece of their own, while you shop for that perfect new sculpture or painting.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This has become one of the most renowned art shows in the area with lots of entertainment and kids' activities to boot.
Gina's expert tip: Free Trolleys run from parking sites on MLK and McGregor Blvds.
Walking the 2.5 miles of paved and unpaved paths at Lakes Park is free and there are fitness stations scattered around the water for your workout. The small water park is free for kids to cool off and concessions are available, however, the boats come with a fee. Check out the Miniature Railroad that offers a 15-minute ride by a small scale village. Look for exotic vegetation and the occasional alligator in the 158 acres of freshwater quarry lakes; fishing is allowed. You'll be able to spot birds like the Ibis and Heron, enjoy the fragrance garden, a seasonal community garden and rest in the gazebo or the many covered picnic areas. The park is also home to many cultural and music festivals and a seasonal Farmers Market on Wednesdays.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: A fun place for the family to spend the entire day with lots of trails, wildlife, concessions and water activities.
Gina's expert tip: The paths are wide and safe for a morning run or bike ride.
Few things are more sacred in Southwest Florida than the sunset. The Sunset Celebration at the Cape Coral Yacht Club has grown to become quite a popular place to be the first Wednesday of each month. The Yacht Club Beach offers several pavilions for live entertainment and vendors; some 40-50 local artists and entrepreneurs. Food trucks are also on hand, so once you find a place to park, you can stay for hours. Be sure to pack a beach chair or blanket, stretch out on the sand and enjoy the beautiful view of the Caloosahatchee River as it stretches to the Gulf of Mexico. The hours for this free event change with the seasons, roughly; 4-7 November-March; 5-8 April-June and October, with time off July-September.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This monthly celebration at Cape Coral Yacht Club brings entertainment, artists and food vendors together in celebration of the area's amazing sunsets.
Gina's expert tip: There is additional parking at the Veterans Museum, with free shuttle service to the beach from January through April.
Budget-conscious travelers don't have to sacrifice anything but a few dollars at the parking meter when visiting the Sanibel Lighthouse; the stroll around the historic landmark is 100% free. Since 1884, this stunning structure has been guiding ships into port along Florida's west coast and it's still fully functional today. You can see the beaming beacon from the shores of Fort Myers Beach. While the lighthouse itself is not open to the public, visitors are permitted to tour the grounds and read about its history. There is a pier for fishing and lots of white sand for walking and shelling. The nearly 100-foot tall lighthouse is the most photographed site on Sanibel Island.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The beach is beautiful and the historic, still functioning lighthouse is an impressive structure, the most photographed on the island.
Gina's expert tip: Bring a bucket or bag, the surrounding beach is good for shell collecting.
FORT MYERS BEACH
Photo courtesy of Gina BIrch
Beaches in the Fort Myers area are full at sunset. Some people watch in reverence as the sun slips away into the great Gulf of Mexico. However, others like to celebrate, like a victory in a sporting event, the conclusion of another day. These are the people who gather on Fridays and Saturdays for the Sunset Celebration at the so-called Times Square area of Fort Myers Beach. The square is a pedestrian area at the foot of the beach pier, full of shops, restaurants and bars. But for weekend sunsets, the paved space is taken over by artists, musicians and other performers, gathering to celebrate the mighty sun. The activity starts around 5:00 and can continue as late as 10 pm. It's free and it provides great people watching.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Every weekend, artists, musicians and sun-worshippers gather at the foot of the Fort Myers Beach Pier to celebrate the sunset.
Gina's expert tip: The beach trolley roams the beach, stopping a block away from the celebration.
One of Fort Myers' most popular annual events, the Edison Festival of Light is a three-week spectacle that honors the area's most famous winter resident around his birthday, Thomas Edison. The festival has grown from its inception in 1938 to include block parties, coronation balls, car shows, craft shows and a Science and Inventor's Fair, the majority of which are free. Festivities kick-off at the end of January and culminate the second weekend in February with the Festival of Light Grand Parade, the largest nighttime parade in the Southeast, and a 5K race. Weeks prior to the parade, residents use chalk and duct tape to reserve sections of sidewalks along the parade route. Some even tie old lawn chairs to lamp posts to save their spots and amazingly, most spectators respect the unofficial booking.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This three-week festival honors the area's most well-known winter resident, Thomas Edison, with music, art and science events along with a famous parade.
Gina's expert tip: Pick a spot on the Grand Parade route early, set up your chair, pack your cooler and people watch.
The Green Market takes place every Saturday, all year long, at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers. Promoting more than just healthful eating, the market hosts a popular, free yoga class on the lawn. There are some shaded spots but the sun doesn't stay still so if you are sensitive to the light, wear sunscreen. Bring your gear and your friends, as all levels are welcome at this open class. Instruction begins at 9:30, taught by friendly professionals from the neighboring YogaBird Studio. After class, wander through the market where you'll often find music and free cooking demos. Enjoy sampling local treats and pick up something healthful for lunch.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: A healthful and happy way to start a day: free yoga, outside, followed by tasting local goods at the Saturday market.
Gina's expert tip: Bring water; it can get hot even in the shade.
Photo courtesy of Art Walk
The Downtown River District of Fort Myers really comes alive during the monthly Art Walk and Music Walk events. Art Walk is held the first Friday of each month, where from 6-10 p.m. Galleries, museums and shops stay open late, with special exhibits and activities. There's even a free trolley to take you to shops and galleries outside the immediate downtown area. While some shops have live entertainment during Art Walk, the music takes center stage on the third Friday of each month for Music Walk. Starting at 7 p.m. performers and bands take to the streets and dozens of venues, playing jazz, rock and roll, top 40 and everything in between. Many shops and galleries offer wine, while bars and restaurants often sell drinks from booths set up on the sidewalk in front of their establishments.