Here’s our inside guide to unusual and unique things to do in Sarasota, Florida. It’s part of a series that makes up the two week Florida West coast road trip itinerary here.
Unique Things to do in Sarasota Florida
Florida’s overlooked Gulf Coast sweeps from live oaks and manatees to white sand and art routes. But it was the variety of unique things to do in Sarasota that made me rethink fly-drive travel in general.
Instead of driving from A to B and on to C, stop for a while in Sarasota. Keep the car and take day trips, mini trips and deliciously lazy drives to the beach.
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Cool, unusual and unique things to do in and around Sarasota, Florida
Here are some of the best things to do in Sarasota: art, science, wildlife, beaches and food. Let’s have a look in more detail.
1) Taste Some Amish Delicacies
In a curious quirk of fate, certain areas near Sarasota have become key travel destinations for Amish communities based in the north in Pennsylvania.
But they welcome everyone and you can, quite literally, get a taste of this intriguing culture through their food.
Key spots are Yoder’s and Der Dutchman where you can stop for a comforting, homemade meal or ‘made-from-scratch cooking’ as they call it. Der Dutchman’s pies and desserts are legendary, involving ripe cherries, pumpkin and cream pies that involve, well, lashings and lashings of fluffed white cream.
Related: A Road Trip from Boston: A Two Week Mix n Match Massachusetts Driving Itinerary
2) Go Eye to Eye with Alligators at the Myakka River State Park
If you thought that Florida was all palm trees and sandy beaches, it’s time to think again. It’s time to enter into the realm of alligators and still waters.
Myakka River State Park opened in 1942 and the Myakka River was designated a Florida Wild and Scenic River by the State legislature in 1985.
So what does this mean? It means that legislation preserves and protects the 34 mile portion of the river that runs through Sarasota County and the result is a serene scene of green.
- Small tours run on low pontoon boats, and children are allowed to board too as long as they don’t fall in (!)
- Expect to see turtles and of course the watchful eye of an alligator. Or two or three.
- The brave can then go fishing, canoeing and kayaking…
Related: Fly Drive Florida: A Two Week Itinerary & Adventure
3) Visit Siesta Beach and Siesta Key: Officially the Best Beach in America
Want to hear something crazy? There’s a type of sand that doesn’t get hot in the sun. It comes from pure quartz, filtered from the Appalachian mountains, and it winds up looking bright white, peppy and pretty on Siesta Beach on Siesta Key.
And that’s not just folklore. I’ve stood on said sand, rummaged and scrummaged and buried my toes in it and I have to agree. The result is as cool as a cucumber.
Beyond the white sand, though, you’ll find lifeguard huts in candy-popping colours at regular intervals and sea an ice- blue cool.
Siesta beach runs long and straight, with plenty of shaded (free) parking beneath the scent of pine.
Expect burger stands and pizza podiums as well as arts and crafts markets and the young, the old and the beautiful (sometimes all at the same time, right? Ed?! I mean you three were there. Bwahahahahaha!)
4) Immerse yourself in the Marie Selby Gardens
Feel underwhelmed at the suggestion of a botanical garden? Time to think again. The Marie Selby Gardens are the best of a botanical garden: an art gallery, adventure centre, cool café and meditative retreat all in one.
Oh, and I did I mention that they’re number one in the world for research into orchids and her cousins? That’s right, the Marie Selby Gardens are the world centre for epiphyte research. And for those not in the green-fingered know (like me) that’s orchids, ferns and bromeliads.
Trying a bit of Andy Warhol on my own image…
Founded by billionaires William and Marie Selby, a constellation of different gardens overlook Sarasota Bay: banyan groves, clumping bamboo, staghorn ferns and local Floridian mangroves.
Greenhouses show rotating exhibits. When we were there, Andy Warhol prints came to life in six foot high florals while music pumped out over the sound system.
5) Wow yourself with art at The Ringling
Next up, let me introduce the vast Ringling Museum: an Italian fantasy ground and world class museum founded by another of the region’s wealthy philanthropists.
The European section involves room after room after room of well-loved Italian and Flemish Baroque paintings. The Asian art collection focuses on sculptures and ceramics before leading to a Japanese tea house (chashitsu)and the 66 acres of gardens that overlook Sarasota Bay.
With or without children, you’ll need at least a day here.
6) Explore the underwater world with Sarasota Bay Explorers and the Mote Aquarium
Yes, it’s another world-beating educational complex. This time about marine life at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
But it’s the Sea Life Encounters cruise that brings the under and overwater world to life.
Run in partnership with the Mote, small boats head out onto the Bay in search of dolphins, snappers, puffer fish and more. A qualified marine biologist scoops animals out of the bay and into glass tanks so that you can watch and learn right in the environment itself.
They then throw them back in to the water to keep these studies sustainable.
Even without the education, it’s a beautiful experience to glide across the water, past the mansions and the palms with dolphins skitting alongside.
7) Shop and dine at St. Armands Circle (And look for the mysterious clues to the past)
At first glance, this is a shopping and dining area. An upscale, beautiful one with more than 130 locations in a well organised wheel that’s close to the beach and with ample parking.
But a shopping and dining area nonetheless.
Closer inspection reveals antique statues and a sign that links Sarasota to its philanthropic millionaire heritage once more.
St. Armands Circle is the vision of its founder, John Ringling. Stroll around the “Circus Ring of Fame,” which honours numerous circus performing legends and have a think about the level of vision and influence that John Ringling embodied.
Then shop and have a bite to eat :-)
8) See Unconditional Surrender On Sarasota Bayfront
As a separate area to the beach, Sarasota Bayfront combines marinas, splash pads, palm trees and an unmistakable statue.
Unconditional Surrender reflects the iconic photograph taken at the end of the Second World War with a sailor and nurse locked in an embrace.
There’s nothing that specifically links this artwork to the area except for the fact that, well, it’s there.
And it’s a curious place to visit. Half fun in the sun, with visitors replicating the pose. Half poignant reminder of struggle and relief at the end of war.
I’m not afraid to confess: it moved me to tears.
Related: 7 Unusual Things To Do In The USA
9) Visit the Lido Beach and Learn About the Story of Segregation
Within walking reach of St Armands Circle, parking at Lido Beach is a little busier than elsewhere but still easy to manage. The sand is still white, the water clear.
Look out for the Sarasota County Historical Commission signs on segregation in the 1950s. Not the 1850s. The 1950s.
And realise just how much we all still need to be the change for social justice.
More Unique Things to do in Sarasota Florida
What can I say? I love this city and you loved this article about it. And so, I researched and reached out to people who know the city well. And now, we can share more unique things to do in Sarasota with you. Here goes!
10) Get a Venetian Vibe at Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
Built by the famous New York architect Dwight James Baum, the Ca’ d’Zan was the Ringlings’ winter residence, a spectacular building that overflows with both outside and in.
It has no fewer than 36,000 square feet of concrete and brick, terracotta, stucco, and glazed tiles inspired by the Gothic style of the Venetian palazzos the Ringlings admired during the years they spent in Europe.
After John Ringling’s death, the house slowly degraded. It was in such a desperate state that in 1996 it served as Miss Havisham’s house for a Hollywood remake of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Today, though, it is back to its initial splendour.
Ca’ d’Zan means “John’s House” in Venetian dialect, and the Ringlings adored it. The living room on the first floor was the heart of the house, and it’s where you will start your visit.
As you climb the stairs to the second floor, be prepared to be see their bedrooms and the servants’ quarters.
One more flight of stairs, and you are on the third floor, where you’ll find the game room where Ringling used to entertain some of the big names of the Roaring Twenties.
The fourth floor has an embellished guest room with a bath surrounded by large windows on all four walls.
Finally, climb the 82-foot-high tower to see views of Sarasota. Back in the day, everything you could see from here was land that belonged to the Ringlings. Imagine that!
You can go on your own, take an audio guide, or book a guided tour.
11) Feed the Pink Flamingos at Sarasota Jungle Gardens
How would you like to pet a baby alligator? Or a giant tortoise? Or a cold-blooded snake?
Sarasota Jungle Gardens make it possible. Ten acres of botanical plants house birds, reptiles, pink flamingos, and even farm animals like goats and pigs.
Kids love the petting zoo, playing with the rabbits or giggling with primates on their shoulder. The zoo also organises animal shows, where you can learn a lot about the sanctuary’s conservation efforts.
But the biggest attraction by far is the feeding of the pink flamingos. You can buy food for them as you enter the gardens or at a small shop on the premises called The Flamingo Café.
This place started as a botanical garden, so keep an eye out for exotic plants as well. You cannot miss the Australian nut tree or the bunya-bunya tree with its large fruits. Other gorgeous trees you will find in the gardens are the strangler figs, royal palms, and bald cypress trees.
12) Try Lemur Yoga at Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary
An alternative to the Sarasota Jungle Gardens is the Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, home to many lions, tigers, bears, primates, and birds. It is run by a non-profit organisation, so all the money they collect from tickets and fees goes to expanding the sanctuary and improving the living conditions for the residents.
The big felines are the stars here, and you can see them in shows or admire their mightiness as they go on with their lives in their enclosed spaces.
If you have more time, here’s a crazy idea. Buy a ticket for lemur yoga. Or fox yoga. You will have the chance to meditate and relax with a certified yoga instructor whilst being surrounded by the curious animals. The lemurs will even climb on you, so see if you can maintain your pose.
13) Sample Local Honey at the Central Sarasota Farmers Market
A place for business, socialisation, and entertainment… this is probably the best way to describe the most important fresh produce market in Sarasota county. It takes place on Saturday mornings from 8 to 1 and tends to get crowded, so get there early if you want to take your time strolling around the stands. You will also get the best selection of produce at this time of the day.
What’s special about this market is that none of the vendors are resellers. They are farmers who grow their own fruit and vegetables and sell them in the market. Meat, cheese, honey… they are all from reliable sources.
Another bonus? Local artists perform live music right in the middle of the market.
14) Attend a World-Class Performance at the Sarasota Opera House
One of the most popular unique things you can do in downtown Sarasota is to attend one of the shows at the Sarasota Opera House. Don’t worry if you haven’t packed your smartest clothes: both black tie and casual clothes are accepted.
Sarasota Opera prides itself on being the only company in the world to have staged all of Verdi’s operas, all within a Mediterranean Revival style building surrounded by palms.
There’s an air of intimacy as you step inside, even though it’s a 1119-seat theatre. And the acoustics are phenomenal.
15) Watch a Broadway Show at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Sarasota is all about show business and at any moment of the year, you will find a show or a performance to attend in the city. The main centre is the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a huge building overlooking Sarasota Bay and illuminating the area at night.
Watching a Broadway musical here is one of the best things you can do on a summer night, with an electric atmosphere. You can also attend comedy shows, symphony orchestra performances and dance recitals given by national and international artists, many of them world-renowned.
Romantic things to do as a couple in Sarasota
Although we’ve covered a lot of family travel ideas here, there’s no doubt that Sarasota is a great spot for couples. Here’s what to do in Sarasota Florida with someone special…
- Soak up art at the Ringling
- Kiss beneath Unconditional Surrender on Bayfront Park
- Watch the sunset on Siesta Key Beach
- Surround yourself with flowers at the Marie Selby Gardens
- Snuggle up in a romantic beachfront hotel
16) Get Nostalgic at Sarasota Classic Car Museum
No matter if you are a car aficionado or not, you must stop at the Sarasota Classic Car Museum and admire these masterpieces of engineering.
Take a closer look at the one-of-a-kind classics, including Jaguars, Porsches, Maseratis, Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Shelbys. This is the second most important antique car museum in the United States and one of the best Sarasota attractions to visit with kids.
Before leaving, make sure to stop by the gift shop and get yourself a miniature car souvenir, a work of art on its own.
17) Go Boating at Nathan Benderson Park
The place where rowers train, locals walk their dogs, and tourists go boating… this is Nathan Benderson Park. A natural marvel of lakes and land, of birds and human engineering.
Hiring a boat is the easiest thing to do, and boating is one of the best ways to spend the day. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, they’re popular here and often seen hovering over the water, looking for prey.
Nathan Benderson has been hosting regatta competitions since 2009, so if you are lucky, you may stumble across a main event with big crowds cheering for their favourites and setting up stall on picnic tables.
But otherwise, the park is peaceful, with paved walking trails and spaces where yoga enthusiasts gather for their courses.
18) Expand Your Creativity at Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy
Definitely unique through its oddness, Marietta’s Museum doesn’t have the sobriety of a world-class arts venue but it’s more of a place for relaxation. You’ll find whimsy art exhibits and may even come across the artists posing next to their pink dragon piglets or fish plants.
Visiting this museum is one of the many fun things to do in Sarasota, and it won’t even take a lot of time. So, make sure to stop here for a boost of amusement and creativity.
19) Visit the Historic Spanish Point
Technically in Osprey rather than Sarasota, Historic Spanish Point has a beautiful waterfront with lush vegetation. Inhabited since 300 A.D., you can see small mountains of shells in the park, a reminder of the Manasota who used to live here.
In 1867, the land was claimed by the Webb family who ran a citrus business. You can visit their Packing House and stop at Mary’s chapel, where the Webbs are buried in the cemetery.
Then there’s the story of Bertha Palmer, a businesswoman and philanthropist who built a great home here, surrounded by stunning gardens. And you can still explore them today. The butterfly garden is one of the most popular unusual things to do in Sarasota to take a flutter and give it a go.
Sarasota: how to make it happen
Sarasota has its own airport but unless you’re fairly local, it usually makes sense to fly in to Orlando and visit Sarasota as part of a larger trip through Florida. You can easily pick up a rental car in either location.
- Check out our West Coast Florida itinerary to help you plan your trip.
- Check out fellow luxury travel blogger Mrs O’s guide to A Luxury Weekend in Sarasota.
More on Travel in Florida
Want more than just unusual and unique things to do in Sarasota? Explore the rest of the sunshine state with these articles:
Disclosure – My trip to Florida involved many partnerships, including with Hertz UK, Visit Sarasota and Visit Florida. But this unique list of things to do has been tested and curated by yours truly. Some were hosted, some were not. I’m only recommending them because I think they’re interesting. What is the point otherwise?!