This vibrant waterfront community covers over 14 square miles and sits where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor. It's one of Florida's oldest cities...
First, you may ask, “Where’s Punta Gorda, Florida?” Then, when you discover this hidden gulf coast treasure, you’ll want to know more. Like, what is there to do in this harbor haven? And how did it go from a rough-and-tumble end-of-the-line fishing/railroad town with a mile-long dock to one of Florida’s best small towns with a story historical travelers love?
This vibrant waterfront community covers over 14 square miles and sits where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor. It’s one of Florida’s oldest cities, originally inhabited by the Calusa Tribe in pre-Spanish times. Pioneer life in Punta Gorda was not for the weak of heart, mind, or body. Early settlers took to fishing and cattle to carve out a life and a living while constantly faced with the challenge of taming the rough tropical terrain. Today, visitors and residents enjoy an active, easy life around the water. You can walk, run, roll, paddle, and sail on miles of trails and waterways.
Before it was officially named Punta Gorda, the town was known as Trabue after the city’s founders, Colonel Issac, and Virginia Trabue. However, because the Trabue’s could not complete the town’s infrastructure, the name ultimately returned to its Spanish origins.
Murals depicting Punta Gorda History
Miles to Paddle on the Blueway Trails
Miles of Uncrowded Beaches
Historic Districts Along the River
Punta Gorda, pronounced “Punta” as in “punt” the ball, or Punta, as in “Winnie the pooh,” depending on who you’re talking to, was the name used for the area long before it was anything else. Roughly translated from Spanish, it means “Fat Point or Tip.” Either pronunciation is accepted, so don’t be worried about getting it wrong!
No matter what you call it, time spent in this seaport town will leave you with a new appreciation for Old Florida style while enjoying today’s amenities. You’ll discover why Money Magazine named it the “Second best place to live in America” and the “Number 1 small place to live in America.” You’ll also understand why others are asking: Where’s Punta Gorda Florida?
Sun, fun, and celebrations of history surround you as you enjoy great food and drink, time around the water, and beautiful sunsets.
Charlotte County, Florida, was in the path of Hurricane Ian in September 2022. My visits to Punta Gorda were the summer before the storm. Recovery after a hurricane is mixed; some happen quickly, and others take time. There is always a balance of wanting to get back to normal, supporting the small businesses as soon as possible, and having patience when some infrastructure or businesses are not back to pre-hurricane levels. Call ahead, or check the business’s social media to get the most up-to-date information and have some grace when things are not as planned. Punta Gorda, Florida, is a great place to visit and play!
In this post, we’ll share some of Punta Gorda’s historical highlights. Then, find where you can eat and sip in some fantastic historic buildings. The atmosphere alone is worth the trip. Let’s get started!
Punta Gorda: Historical Fishing and Railroad Town on the Gulf of Mexico
Did you know that Punta Gorda was once the railroad’s “end of the line?”
Colonal Isaac Trabue, founder of Punta Gorda, and his wife were instrumental to brining the railroads to town
Punta Gorda's Wild & Colorful Past
Settlers looking for a new beginning…
Punta Gorda has a wild and colorful past. This frontier town was located at the last Southern Railroad stop in Florida. Settlers looking for a new beginning, opportunists looking for a change of luck, folks running from the law, and wealthy winter guests found themselves sharing the streets of this beautiful and untamed tropical landscape.
In the late 1800s, one of the earliest families called this port town “The Italy of America.” Now, I’m not sure how Italians feel about that; however, Italy or not, it had a post office, church, public school, luxury hotel, and four brothels before the turn of the century.
Colonel Isaac Trabue was instrumental in bringing the railroad to town, and the railroad helped the town grow. Like many early settlements, a grand hotel and rail line were a package deal. Railroad hotels popped up all over the country as tracks were laid to give easier access to remote locations. Wealthy travelers followed, and towns were born. Some of these towns flourished and remain vibrant today, while others perished and are memories laid to rest in history.
As you walk the streets of Punta Gorda, the names of the earlier settlers remain on street signs and buildings, paying homage to some of those who dared to dream and tame the wild Florida frontier.
Best Historical Sites in Punta Gorda, FL
Charlotte Harbor anchors the three historical districts in Punta Gorda.
Take a stroll along the river and appreciate the parks, art, and murals along the way
Punta Gorda Historic Districts
Charlotte Harbor anchors the three historical districts in Punta Gorda. The streets in the districts run from Charlotte Harbor along sections of West and east Retta Esplanade, West and East Marion Avenue, then back five or six blocks from the water. There is a lovely river walk by which you can see the neighborhoods. Public access to the river is intentional, and you won’t find high-rises crowding out your view. Take a stroll and appreciate the parks and murals along the way that speak to the vision of the early pioneers. Each district has a little over 20 blocks, and you can download a map of the area.
National Register Historic District
The National Register Historic District was created in 1988 and covers about 22 city blocks. The boundaries are irregular. Roughly, it’s bounded by Berry Street on the southwest, West Retta Esplanade on the northwest, Taylor Street on the northeast, and West Virginia Avenue on the southeast.
It includes 125 primarily residential structures dating from the mid-1880s to the late 1910s. The architecture is mostly Queen Anne-style wooden homes and frame vernacular; however, Punta Gorda City Hall’s Neo-Classical Revival style reflects the optimism of the 1920s Florida Land Boom.
Downtown Commercial Historic District
You’ll find a nice mix of old and new with key historic buildings like the Punta Gorda Ice House on Tamiami Trail, an important business that kept the fish fresh and the fishing industry thriving, the Punta Gorda Woman’s Club on Sullivan Street, which was more than a place for gossip and sewing, and the Old First National Bank of Punta Gorda on Marion Avenue.
Bethel-St. Mark Historic District
By the 1920s, local businesses and organizations along Cochran Street met most of the community’s needs. It was a busy commercial and social area where people of all colors and backgrounds gathered from Punta Gorda and the surrounding cities. Today, it’s called Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and is part of Bethel-St. Mark Historic District, which recognizes the contributions of Punta Gorda’s traditionally African American population to the city.
Maintaining the museum which shares the history of black residents in Punta Gorda was part of the contract when ownership of the Punta Gorda Train Depot changed hands
Black History in Punta Gorda
It’s been said that history becomes an anchor for an individual’s soul and for a community. It’s why including all contributions is essential. As the stories from men and women of all races, creeds, cultures, and colors are uncovered and included in our collective history, the richness of the past truly comes alive.
The first black citizens in Punta Gorda came with the railroad. When railroad construction was finished in 1886, those five (some say seven) construction workers stayed. By 1935, there were 656 African Americans in and around the Punta Gorda area. Some owned property, signed the city’s Articles of Incorporation, and assisted with voting. Prominent men and women came from the families of those earliest settlers and contributed to the growth of this burgeoning town, including, but not limited to:
Dan Smith organized the first religious services in a palm-thatched open-sided “brush arbor.” They continued to meet here until the arrival of Robert Meacham in early 1888.
Mr. Robert Meacham was born the illegitimate (and acknowledged) son of an enslaved mother and white plantation owner. Meacham was educated. He was a Florida state senator from 1868-1879, helped write Florida’s Constitution of 1868, and was Punta Gorda’s postmaster from 1890 to 1892. The A.M.E. conference hired him in 1887 to organize churches at Key West, Punta Gorda, and Fort Myers. The Bethel African American Episcopal Church at 260 East Olympia Ave, Punta Gorda, is not the original building (that was destroyed in a hurricane) but is the legacy of his early church works.
Benjamin Joshua Baker was the first teacher in a two-room wood-frame “colored school” built on East Marion Avenue at the foot of Cooper Street.
George Brown was the owner and operator of the biggest shipyard in the area and a landowner who eventually sold some of his parcels to Charlotte County. The County Courthouse is built on some of that land. Brown had a successful career and was among the first to buy an automobile. When he retired, his younger sister managed his business and personal affairs.
Baker Elementary School
The Baker Elementary school is included in the Florida Black Heritage Trail publication. Thirty-one-year-old Benjamin Joshua Baker was recruited in New Orleans to teach in a two-room wood-framed schoolhouse. School enrollment grew, and a four-room building, Baker’s Academy, was built on the corner of Mary Street and Showalter Avenue. The Cooper Street Recreation Center sits on that location today. After Baker’s death at the age of 68, the city opened a new school for Black children a block away from Baker’s home on Charlotte Avenue. Baker Elementary School is named in his honor. Charlotte County schools were integrated in 1964.
You can learn more about the contributions of the black community at the Blanchard House Museum of African American History and Culture of Charlotte County, Bailey Brothers Park. 361 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Punta Gorda, FL 33950, and the museum located inside the Historic Train Depot.
Punta Gorda Historic Train Depot
Be sure to visit the Bernice A. Russell Colored Waiting Room Museum in the Punta Gorda Train Depot to learn more about the contributions to the city by the African American community, as well as other vintage train memorabilia.
The train depot’s interior is reason enough to stop by for something cool at Downtown Kava, the outdoor patio, friendly atmosphere, and live entertainment is reason to linger
However, the dream was never realized. Henry Plant gained control of the Florida Southern Railway, and rather than split his focus and financial assets, he decided to put all his energy into Tampa as the deep water port on Florida’s West Coast. The Punta Gorda dock served as the shipping dock for cattle headed to Cuba.
While Punta Gorda remained an important port, its fate as a major port was sealed, perhaps to the benefit of today’s visitors and residents. It would not grow in the same way Tampa has, retaining much of its natural charm. The Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) succeeded the Florida Southern Railway and built a new depot with a masonry tile roof and Spanish flare at the original depot location.
Be sure to visit the Bernice A. Russell Colored Waiting Room Museum in the Punta Gorda Train Depot to learn more about the contributions to the city by the African American community. There is a Kava tea house (more about that below) in the train depot now, and the museum is intact for visitors to enjoy.
The murals were created by local artists and volunteers as part of a public art initiative to beautify the city and celebrate its unique heritage
Punta Gorda Historic Murals: The Florida Mural Trail
Punta Gorda is home to several other works of public art, including sculptures, mosaics, and more. Many of these pieces can be found throughout the city’s downtown area.
I love the one at Fisherman’s Village where the school marms are rowing a boat across the water to get to school. Another must-see is the WWII mural near the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a small-scale replica of the one in Washington, DC, located at Veterans Park. The grounds are peaceful and beautiful.
One of the most prominent murals in Punta Gorda is “A Brief History of Punta Gorda,” which is located on the side of the A. C. Freeman House in downtown Punta Gorda. This mural depicts significant events in the city’s history, such as the arrival of the first settlers, the development of the fishing and farming industries, and the impact of the devastating 2004 hurricane. Other notable murals in the city include “The Life and Times of Lu the Hippo,” which honors a beloved resident of the city’s former zoo, and “The Landing of Juan Ponce de Leon,” which commemorates the explorer’s arrival in the area in the early 16th century.
In addition to these murals, Punta Gorda is home to several other works of public art, including sculptures, mosaics, and more. Many of these pieces can be found throughout the city’s downtown area, which has been designated a National Register Historic District. Together, these murals and artworks serve as a testament to Punta Gorda’s unique history and cultural heritage.
Love history and sailing? This story may interest you
Fisherman's Village in Punta Gorda
Remnants and markers from the past are scattered along the Punta Gorda Riverwalk, like this one with Fisherman’s Village in the distance
The Punta Gorda fishing conditions were so famous that its most popular snowbird and teller of great fish tales, Teddy Roosevelt, caught a devil fish of epic size. His story of that catch lives on today in the hearts and imaginations of fishermen and women, near and far. Punta Gorda’s growth was enhanced with World War II. Red meat was rationed; fish was not, so the seaport town fed the bellies of many families across the continent.
Location: 1200 W Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Historical Marker: Hotel Punta Gorda
The hotel is gone; however, you can see the marker at the intersection of W. Marion Avenue and Taylor Street. An ad in the New York Tribune stated that the luxury hotel would open on February 20, 1887. It stood three stories high, had 135 water-facing rooms, and promenade verandas to enjoy the fresh Florida air. According to the Punta Gorda History Center, 3,320 guests arrived for the hotel’s first season. While luxury travelers enjoyed the amenities and the local economy enjoyed the financial boost, many locals saw the big, “unsightly building” as an eyesore and a curse to the community. After a few ownership and name changes, the Hotel Punta Gorda, aka the Hotel Charlotte Harbor, was destroyed by fire in 1959. Pictures of the former hotel are at the Punta Gorda Historic Train Station museum.
Barron Collier Bridge and Gilchrist Bridge
The Barron Collier and Gilchrist bridges will get you from Point A to Point B, and when you take in the view from the top, you are rewarded with endless views of the sometimes shallow Peace River and everything beyond. Both bridges are named after men who were important to the history of Punta Gorda. One had many things named after him, like Colliers Magazine, the County of Collier, and Collier’s Punta Gorda Hotel. That was his idea of legacy. Governor Albert Gilchrist’s idea of legacy was to write into his will that all Punta Gorda children who wanted ice cream on Halloween should get it. A must-read article about these bridges was written by James Abraham and published in the Florida Weekly.
Punta Gorda’s Woman’s Club
Judge Cooper donated land to the Women’s Club. The building you see today was home to stage productions, dances, dinners, and large meetings. It served as a USO during World War II and was home to the area’s first library. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Location: 118 Sullivan Street, Punta Gorda, FL
Punta Gorda History Center
See online exhibits and more information about Punta Gorda history.
Location: 512 E. Grace Street, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday: 12:30 pm-3:00 pm, or by appointment
The Smith Arcade
The year was 1926, and the Florida Land Boom was in full swing. Henry Smith built the first shopping arcade as brick streets were laid in Punta Gorda. Smith was the proprietor of the Bayview Hotel and a baker. His vision was to create a post office location and a half-dozen shops. Now closed, the Smith Arcade was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on July 25, 1991. As an interesting side note, A Herald-Tribune archived story reported that a “half-ton, cast iron, 4 1/2-foot-tall dough mixer was unearthed after construction workers in Punta Gorda ran into the obstacle 5 feet underground.” It was found beneath the Smith Arcade as workers for the new owner were doing construction on the site.
Location: 121 E. Marion Ave, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
History Park opened as an outdoor museum in 1999. You can enjoy historic buildings, a butterfly garden, and a community garden
History Park opened as an outdoor museum in 1999. You can enjoy historic buildings, a butterfly garden, and a community garden. The Trabue Land Office, the oldest standing building in the city that also served as the first Post Office, was restored and moved here. It’s free to explore and open to the public from dawn to dusk. You can enjoy the Farmers Market in History Park on Sundays from 9:00 am-1:00 pm
Location: 501 Shreve Street, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Military Heritage Museum
The Military Heritage Museum offers a comprehensive collection of artifacts and exhibits that highlight the history of the United States military from the Revolutionary War to the present day. This museum includes a special focus on Florida’s contributions to the country’s defense.
Location: 900 W. Marion Avenue, Punta Gorda
Open Tues-Sat: 10am – 4pm
Flight Simulator and Virtual Reality Rooms 11 am-3 pm (Summer Hours)
Continue Your Where’s Punta Gorda History Journey
This South Florida landmark was mostly destroyed by Hurricane Charley, but the building’s owners refused to demolish it…we are so glad they made that decision!
Punta Gorda Restaurants in Historic Buildings
There are so many historic buildings that have been repurposed into restaurants, cafe’s, and coffee shops. Explore the town and find your new favorite!
Ice House Pub
Hurricane Charley all but destroyed the Ice House Pub building when it tore the roof off, and the south wall collapsed, but the building’s owners refused to demolish this South Florida landmark pledging to rebuild it. And they did. Enjoy a burger and beer on tap, play a game of darts, or enjoy the vaulted brick ceilings where ice was stored to support the town and its thriving fishing industry.
Location: 408 Tamiami Trail North, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Located in the Historic Train Depot, they say they are Punta Gorda’s first and only Kava Bar. When I went, I didn’t know much about kava, so I just asked the barista to surprise me. I loved the earthy taste of the refreshing tea. The interior of the building is reason enough to stop by for something cool to drink. The outdoor patio and friendly atmosphere with live entertainment is reason to linger. Across the street, you’ll find a vintage gas station with those cool gas pumps with the red flying horses, and one of the murals depicting the early pioneer days covering several panels of a commercial building.
Location: 1009 Taylor Street, Punta Gorda, FL
Located at Fisherman’s Village, The Pier has great waterfront dining. I enjoyed the poke bowl.
*There are several restaurants to choose from at Fisherman’s Village.
1200 W. Retta Ave., Building 15, Punta Gorda, FL 33950
Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante
Carmelo’s restaurant is located in a historical residence in downtown Punta Gorda that has been renovated and expanded to meet the restaurant’s needs. They have three outdoor eating areas in addition to a full bar. This one is on my list to try. The patios look amazing, and it gets high marks for food.
Location: 321 W. Retta Esplanade Punta Gorda, FL 33950
The Perfect Caper
Fine dining restaurant at The Perfect Caper, culinary home to Chef Jeanie Roland, 7 time James Beard Award nominee, is located in a beautiful 1910 home that has been meticulously restored to its original grandeur. Iconic The menu features creative, contemporary cuisine with an emphasis on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
Location: 121 E Marion Ave, Punta Gorda, Florida 33950
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