Quietly nestled in southwest Florida is the growing travel and adventure destination of Charlotte County and its hub city of Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda sits along the Peace River at the confluence of Charlotte Harbor. With all that water, it’s a prime spot for boating, fishing, and watersports.
Punta Gorda and the surrounding area have grown a lot in the last 20 years. Many of the new residents are retirees, including a lot of military vets. Tourists are discovering Charlotte County as well. Things aren’t as expensive as Sarasota, or as congested as Fort Myers, making it a great destination for travelers on a budget but still looking for great things to do.
Downtown you’ll find shops, art galleries, and an eclectic assortment of excellent restaurants. In fact, there are so many good restaurants in Punta Gorda, we’re devoting an entire article just to them. One thing’s for sure, you won’t lack choices when it comes to dining.
Visiting downtown Punta Gorda is easy, and the parking is free and readily available. There are many things to do within walking distance.
The Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau provided accommodations for this trip. The reviews and narrative are my own.
Things To Do In Punta Gorda
Harbor Walk is located in the center of downtown and adjacent to the Peace River. The harbor has boat slips, a covered pavilion for community events, and a building housing stores, offices, and an ice cream shop. The shops include a Florida art shop with a large collection of souvenirs created by many local artisans.
Next to Harbor Walk is solemn Laishley Park featuring a miniature replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Just like the full-scale wall in Washington, D.C., it has all the 58,282 names of the men and women who were killed in the war, or are still missing in action. Many visitors leave small flags or candles by the names of loved ones listed on the wall.
Military Heritage Museum
Located not far from downtown, the Military Heritage Museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Revolutionary War to modern day. There are virtual reality experiences like a Special Forces parachute jump, flight simulators, and a laser firing range. There is a replica of the tiger-like cages some American POWs were held in during their captivity in Vietnam. The museum also includes a library of over 4,000 books that are available to researchers, students, and the public. The staff consists primarily of volunteer veterans.
Fishermen’s Village is a covered, open-air shopping, dining, and entertainment center with a large marina. It includes a hotel, The Suites, where newly remodeled rooms overlook the marina. Located on the Peace River, the marina has charter fishing boats, sunset cruises, and ferry service to outlying islands in Charlotte Harbor. There are even kayak and powerboat rentals. The village offers over 30 gift shops and boutiques and five restaurants. Everything is covered so you don’t have to worry about dodging the notorious south Florida afternoon thunderstorms. The village has a big fireworks display on July 3rd, and an annual Tikifest festival in August. Admission is free and free parking.
There are 31 murals scattered around on buildings in the downtown area of Punta Gorda. They depict historical events and modern-day life in the city. There is a map and a walking/biking guide published by the city’s Mural Society. Most are walkable, but some you may want to drive or bike to.
Peace River Botanical And Sculpture Gardens
The Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens is located on 30 acres and features more than 4,500 plants and 16 outdoor sculptures. In addition to American artists, the sculptures are done by artists from four foreign countries. There is a boardwalk along the Peace River, a butterfly house, a Koi pond, and outdoor botanical rooms. This is one of the few things to do around Punta Gorda that isn’t free. Admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, and $9 for students.
Peace River Wildlife Center
The Peace River Wildlife Center is a refuge for wildlife that are injured, orphaned, or displaced. Over 2,800 animals are brought to the Center each year. Nearly all are returned to the wild when they are finished with rehabilitation. Only about 100 are permanent residents. The center operates on donations and gift shop sales.
Punta Gorda Visual Arts Center
The Punta Gorda Visual Arts Center is home to local artists and instructors for everything from oil and watercolor painting, jewelry making, photography, and the little-known art of scratchboard etching. Scratchboarding involves using sharp knives and needles to etch an image in clay, using black India ink. Admission to the center, where the public can look at student exhibits, is free. All the art is available for sale.
Every Saturday morning, the largest farmers market in the area sets up in downtown Punta Gorda. It features vendors with fresh produce, fish, organic vegetables, and much more. The market was voted The Best Small Farmer’s Market in Florida a few years back and is recognized as one of the best in the country by the national Farmers Market Coalition.
Things To Do Around Punta Gorda
Across the Peace River is Port Charlotte, also a rapidly growing small city. It is the spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, which draws large crowds of visitors from the Tampa–St. Petersburg area, who come for the spring games in March each year.
On State Road 776, the road to the beach, you come across the small community of El Jobean. You have to look hard, but just off the highway is the rather funky Hatch Gallery, operated by a very laid-back Jon Hatch. His shop offers unique Florida art and souvenirs, everything from carved driftwood to T-shirts and even beach cruiser bicycles.
The closest beach is at Englewood Beach, on Manasota Key. This small beach community has low-rise condos and family vacation housing. The beach in this area is a prime spot for shelling. At the southern end of the road is Stump Pass State Park. The park is rather small and has limited parking. The park closes when the lot is full, usually around mid-morning. Cars will often wait in line at the entrance, waiting for someone to leave so a parking space becomes available.
Another beachside activity is the Loving Light Yoga class, every morning at 8:30. It usually draws a large crowd of regulars, mostly local residents. It’s free, but a $5 donation is requested.
The Cedar Point Environmental Park is located in Englewood. It has short hiking trails and a fishing dock on Lemon Bay. The park covers 115 acres and is operated by Charlotte County. It has mostly pine flat woods and scrub pines. Mangroves line the shoreline along the bay. Bobcats and grey foxes are common. Wading birds are regulars in the bay waters, and bald eagles are commonly seen in the park.
Best Hotels In Punta Gorda And The Beach
For travelers wanting to stay downtown, the Wyvern Hotel is located right on the main drag, Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41. The hotel has 63 rooms, a rooftop bar and restaurant, plus another restaurant off the lobby.
I stayed at The Suites, the small hotel located on the second level of Fishermen’s Village. The rooms were recently remodeled and nicely appointed. My suite had two bedrooms and a full kitchen, a living room, and a dining area. The suite had a balcony that overlooked the marina.
Out at Englewood Beach, I stayed at the WannaB Inn, which has an Old Florida vibe to it. The Inn is actually seven buildings located on the Gulf of Mexico. It has 900 feet of beachfront, and across the street, it has docks for up to 38 boats, and there is a boat ramp. The docks can accommodate boats up to 24 feet, and there is parking for trailers. The Inn is right at the entrance to Stump Pass State Park, so if you’re staying at the Inn, you can walk into the park without the hassle of waiting for a parking space to become available.
If the weather cooperates, sign up for the sunset cruise by King Fisher at Fishermen’s Village. You can get a great view of the sunset in Charlotte Harbor, at the channel to the Gulf of Mexico. King Fisher also has day trips to Boca Grande and Cayo Costa State Park.
Punta Gorda is a very walkable city. Park the car and spend some time walking in the downtown historic district. Get a guide and see the murals. No trip to the city is complete without spending some time at Fishermen’s Village.
Most things to do in Punta Gorda are free or for a small donation. You will find a stay here very easy on the wallet.
Special thanks to VISIT FLORIDA for helping with the itinerary for this trip; Cynthia Hinson, Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau Director of Communications and Public Relations; and Kathy Burnam, Marketing Director for Fishermen’s Village.