Beach near Fort Myers, Florida

Sunset on the beach in Fort Myers, Florida. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Fort Myers

Named after a Civil War army colonel, the Fort Myers area stretches south along the Caloosahatchee River and east into the rural interior of southwest Florida. The city was originally built as a military fort against the Seminole Indians in 1850 and started drawing serious attention a few decades later when first Thomas Edison and then Henry Ford began wintering here (guided tours of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates are open to the public). The 1898 opening of the Royal Palm Hotel brought even more tourists, and today this bustling city of about 65,000 is also famous for its spring training grounds (the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins both practice here). Its trees get high marks, too. Fort Myers is nicknamed "City of Palms," and you'll see them by the thousands—some planted by Edison himself.

Downtown Fort Myers, also called the River District, forms the core of this historic city with its art galleries and waterfront entertainment area. A number of natural attractions are a short drive from here, including Estero Bay Preserve State Park and Fort Myers Beach to the south, the white-sand barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva to the southwest, and the coral-rock Pine Island to the west. The pre-planned city of Cape Coral, founded in 1957 as a southern satellite community to Fort Myers, surpassed the former's population in the eighties, and the whole region now houses more than half a million people.

Across the Caloosahatchee River from downtown, North Fort Myers exudes Southern ambience with its moss-draped oaks, gracious horse farms, and tropical riverbanks. There's also the kid-friendly Shell Factory, which reportedly harbors the world's largest collection of shells and coral. And just to the north lies 90,000-acre Babcock Ranch; join one of the swamp-buggy safaris to look for alligators, panthers, birds, and deer.

Nature isn't the only highlight of the Fort Myers region. Man-made attractions include a casino; a 50-year-old symphony; and first-rate shows at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, on the campus of Edison State College. Nightlife is a little dull compared to other liquor-fueled Florida beach towns, but watching the spectacular sunsets over the Caloosahatchee is plenty of entertainment for most.