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Is Sarasota worth visiting? Your guide to one of Florida’s best cities

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If you’re wondering whether Sarasota is worth visiting then wonder no more. Give this city pride of place on your Florida bucket list as one of the jewels of the state.

United States - Florida - Gulf Coast - Siesta Key Beach with Lifeguard Hut for West Coast Florida Road Trip Itinerary

Why you should visit Sarasota

Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota has gorgeous beaches and a picturesque cityscape. It was the surprise of our west coast Florida road trip and we loved it so much, we based ourselves there and never ran out of things to do.

I’ve never dreamed of living in America – until I met Sarasota.

Its blue waters ripple, dotted with graceful sailboats. Its museums and cultural centres are world class heavyweights. It’s clean and the sun shines!

Plus, it’s a great base for day trips along the rest of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

We spent as much time here as we could on our Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip, dipping in and out of the museums and gardens, the beaches, the restaurants and the out of town parks.

So, whether you’re travelling alone or with family, you will find plenty to do in Sarasota.

Here’s a guide to the best places to visit and things to do during your stay.

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How Long Should You Stay in Sarasota

It can take you two days to see Sarasota or two weeks – it depends on how relaxed you want your vacation to be. Generally, 3 to 4 days will give you enough time to see the main attractions, spend a few hours at the beach and do some shopping. 

But if you want to feel the true vibe, sync your heartbeat with the waves and tick off some of the more unusual things to do in Sarasota, reserve at least one week.

When Is the Best Time to Visit Sarasota

Sarasota has something to offer for every season, but spring is considered the best time to visit, spanning from March to May, with temperatures ranging from 20°C to 30°C and minimal rainfall. 

Summer is also a great time to book your holiday in Sarasota as prices tend to be lower during this season since there are higher chances of rain.

In autumn, there’s still warm weather, but the possibility of facing a hurricane is higher, so this is a less popular season.

Lastly, during the winter months of December through February, snowbirds flock to Sarasota to escape the cold North. Although it is more expensive during this season, it is still an excellent time to enjoy the beach and explore the flourishing arts scene.

The Best Things to Do in Sarasota

Nature, sun, and history – Sarasota is a great place for a holiday. But where do you start?

Explore the Region’s Beautiful Beaches and Scenic Parks

Sarasota has plenty of white-sand beaches and lush green spaces, some housing volleyball courts and golf courses where you can unwind under the Florida sun, but there are a few options you really shouldn’t miss:

Siesta Key Beach

This charming beach and shopping area is home to many boutiques, fine dining restaurants, and gift shops. It is a welcoming and approachable mix of tourist-oriented clothing and gifts at affordable prices, along with unique hand-made art and oddities.

There are over 70 points of interest in the Siesta Key village, including the Village Café, The Hub Baja-Grill, Siesta Key Oyster Bar, and many more. Find breakfast options, delicious pan-Latin fare, fresh seafood, live music and drink specials, and other fun eateries. 

Siesta Key also ranks as one of the best beaches in the area, with fine sand and lots of opportunities to swim or snorkel in crystal-clear waters.

And if you head south, there’s Turtle Beach, a small public beach area where sea turtles make their nests. If you are lucky, you may see little turtles finding their way to the sea for the first time.

Lido Key Beach

Lido Key is a small barrier island in Sarasota, Florida, famous for its stunning sunsets and ecotourism. Despite its size, it offers a lot of attractions and activities for visitors.

One of the best things to do here is to visit St. Armands Circle, a popular destination for elegant shopping and outdoor dining experiences. It has over 130 shops, selling everything from art to designer clothing. The place is filled with music from outdoor speakers, and restaurants offer top notch food.

Another popular activity involves taking a Mangrove Kayak Tour, where you can paddle along exotic mangroves, looking out for playful dolphins and manatees. The tour ends with a refreshing swim at the South Lido Beach.

Anna Maria Island

Sarasota acts as a gateway to Anna Maria Island, which is the perfect destination if you want to experience “old” Florida charm, where flip-flops form the backbone to the way of life, and the speed limit never exceeds 35 mph.

Unlike most Florida tourist hotspots, this off-the-beaten-path spot offers a laid-back environment free from high-rise condos and fast-food chains. 

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to do on Anna Maria Island, from beachcombing to adrenaline-fueled activities like cycling, zip-lining, and paddling. You can rent stand-up paddleboards or go kayaking, either by renting equipment or joining a guided tour. 

But, by far, the most popular activity here is watching the sunset from the beach while longing for the old days of Florida.

Trees in Myakka State Park

Myakka River State Park

For a spectacular day in the middle of nature, head to Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County. Located on the west side of Florida, this park covers more than 37,000 acres and is home to various wildlife, including alligators, deer, wild pigs, bald eagles, and rare birds like the Roseate Spoonbill. 

The park also has the first public treetop trail built in North America. Plus, you’ll find more than 80 campsites that have electricity, bathrooms, and laundry facilities for nature lovers.

Take the Myakka Canopy Walkway to observe wildlife in the oak trees or spend your day by the scenic river that crosses the park. The internet signal is weak here, so you can get a break from online distractions if that’s something you are looking for.

Andy warhol exhibit at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota Florida

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

The Selby Gardens are the third oldest botanical garden in Florida and also home to the best scientifically documented collection of orchids and bromeliads in the entire world.

The outdoor areas feature exhibits such as the Bonsai exhibit, Cycad display, Fern Garden, towering Bamboo Garden, Banyan Grove, Butterfly Garden, and Koi Pond. There’s also a lovely Children’s Garden where kids can have a blast exploring the fun play areas and paths that take them up across suspension bridges and to cool treehouse-looking sort of buildings. 

The main campus for the surprising Marie Selby Gardens is located just south of downtown Sarasota, Florida, with fantastic views of the bay.

Oscar Scherer State Park

Oscar Scherer State Park is home to the endangered Florida Scrub-Jay and features a rare Florida scrub habitat. The park offers you a chance to swim in the only freshwater lake in Sarasota County and witness nesting bald eagles during winter.

Moreover, you can join a liquid road trip on South Creek to explore the classic Old Florida wilderness via kayak or canoe. For more unique Floridian water experiences, consider swimming with manatees in Crystal River.

Apart from these, the park offers 15 miles of nature trails, including the Florida Scrub Nature Walk and the Lester Finley Barrier-Free Nature Trail. There are also two picnic areas with grills, tables, pavilions, and playgrounds. 

Paddle along South Creek or swim in Lake Osprey, surrounded by trees and birds. The waters are inviting, and there are many spots where you can enjoy a moment of reflection.

South Lido Park

Another green space that is worth visiting in Sarasota is South Lido Park. This protected natural area extends over one hundred acres and is located at the southern end of Lido Key. It’s surrounded by the Brushy Bayou, Big Sarasota Pass, Gulf of Mexico, and Sarasota Bay.

The loop trail in the park is flat, making it ideal for all fitness levels and it offers views of serene, private havens, and mangrove islands. It eventually ends at the sandy road, which leads to Hidden Beach, a secluded area at the northern end of South Lido Beach.

Nathan Benderson Park

A magnificent outdoor destination for health and wellness enthusiasts, the Nathan Benderson Park spans 600 acres of community greenspace and features a 400 acres manmade lake.

With multi-use trails that circle the lake, it offers a great way to spend a day walking, running, biking, or rollerblading while enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Nathan Benderson Park is the only venue in North America with a permanent FISA Class A 2,000-meter rowing course, attracting many race events, including international regattas and rowing championships such as the World Rowing Championships.

The park also hosts events such as triathlons, kayak races, and charity events like the Row for the Cure regatta.

Sarasota’s Cultural and Historical Attractions

Sarasota is one of the greatest cultural destinations in the State of Florida, with lots of museums and monuments that will send you back to the Ringling times of glory. If you are a culture lover, here are some great things to explore while there:

Ringling Museum Complex

The Ringling is a must-see destination in the Sarasota area that includes an art museum, a circus museum, and Ca’ d’Zan, a 1920s Venetian-style mansion that was once home to John and Mabel Ringling.

Originally established as the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, the complex now offers visitors an opportunity to appreciate the finer things in life, learn about circus history, and tour a historic home. The stunning grounds make it easy to spend an entire day exploring the museums.

The Circus Museum houses a detailed model of the Ringling Brothers circus in the 20s and 30s, which is only one of the many fun things to see here, along with the circus’ original wagons and train cars on display.

If you are an art lover, the Venetian-style mansion is quite the sight, and the State Art Museum of Florida, with its 21 galleries, is a magnificent example of Italian Renaissance architecture you shouldn’t miss.

Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy

The Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy is quite an odd attraction, flanked as it is by giant orange and pink flamingos. But it is totally worth visiting. It showcases a diverse collection of paintings, sculptures, and mixed artwork from local artists and even some international names.

Plus, you can visit for free. The museum also holds yearly events such as Cookies n’ Cans and Groundbreaking on Groundhog Day, which are quite fun to attend.

Sarasota Classic Car Museum

In Sarasota, you can visit the second oldest antique car museum in the United States that has been continuously operating. Step back in time as you stroll through exhibits that showcase the evolution of the automobile, from its early beginnings to its modern-day counterparts.

The museum features rotating displays of antique, exotic, European, and one-of-a-kind classic cars that can be viewed seven days a week. You can even find the personal collection of Rolls-Royce automobiles owned by circus magnates John and Mable Ringling.

Sarasota Opera House

What about a night at the opera while in Sarasota? Since its establishment in 1984, the Sarasota Opera Company has put on over 70 different operas, with a repertoire including 25 works by Verdi, and its shows are really worth attending.

The company is strongly dedicated to making opera more accessible to all, providing real-time English translations, so you don’t have to worry that you may not understand what’s taking place on the stage.

But even if there’s no show while you are in town, you can still visit the historical theatre that artfully blends the opulent Mediterranean Revival style of the 1920s with contemporary theatre amenities, so stop by for a great history lesson.

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

From jazz performances to Broadway musicals that are not held on Broadway, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is the place to be for a fun night out in Sarasota.

Since its establishment in 1970, the hall has hosted notable personalities such as Johnny Cash and Bill Cosby, and it is famous for its distinctive architectural design, inspired by two seashells from the Sea of Japan. 

While here, you can walk along the bayfront and take in the stunning views of Sarasota Bay, Longboat Key, and Lido Key. Additionally, restaurants and bars are only a few blocks away in the direction of downtown. 

A guided tour is also available, providing backstage access, views of the orchestra pit and stage mechanics, and VIP room exploration.

Summer bucket list ideas - conservation ideas - seahorse in jar with marine research in Sarasota

Family Things to do in Sarasota

Sarasota is also a great place for a family vacation, with kid-friendly beaches and several fun attractions to keep everybody entertained. Here’s a list of the places you shouldn’t miss if you are bringing the kids:

Mote Marine Laboratory

For a magical marine-life experience with sea turtles, otters, and manatees, steer the whole family toward the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island. 

The founder, Dr Eugenie Clark, was inspired by her first visit to an aquarium in New York City when she was only nine years old and she put all her passion into this place, where you can see horseshoe crabs and epaulette sharks.

Save a few hours for this attraction, as it is so beautiful the kids may not want to leave.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

One of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Sarasota is to visit Sarasota Jungle Gardens and enjoy its animal shows, petting zoos, and interactions.

This botanical garden was created in the early 1930s by David Breed Lindsay and Pearson Conrad, who introduced exotic plants and trees, and planned lakes to create this subtropical jungle. Due to its uniqueness, the garden quickly became a popular attraction and started charging admission. 

Despite changing ownership a few times, the garden is still owned and operated by the same family who added exotic birds and animals, making it one of the most impressive attractions in Sarasota.

The Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota has been a popular attraction for animal enthusiasts and families since 1987. The facility offers care for exotic animals like lions, tigers, bears, and chimpanzees, and hosts bird and big cat shows with educational talks and demonstrations.

If you are travelling with young children, you should definitely check out the petting zoo, which is the perfect place for kids to interact with friendly goats and llamas.

Ed Smith Stadium

For any devoted Baltimore Orioles fan, a trip to the Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota during MLB Spring Training is an absolute necessity.

The stadium’s gorgeous Florida-Spanish architecture blends seamlessly into the established downtown area, and it has distinctive touches that make it a hybrid of its sister stadium, OPACY.

Upon arrival, you will be greeted with installations and wall art that highlight the Orioles’ accomplishments as a franchise. Additionally, the main gate is designed in the same style as the gates found at OPACY. The stadium itself is reminiscent of Orioles Park at Camden Yards, with the same dimensions, trademark green seats, and batter’s eye as the stadium up North.

A massive gift shop is also available, featuring a wide array of Orioles Spring Training exclusive items, including hats, polo shirts, t-shirts, and even golf club covers.

With a seating capacity of 8,500, every seat in the house is a great seat, and you can enjoy Maryland favorites like crab cakes and Esskay hotdogs while basking in the Florida sunsets.

Great places to eat

Sarasota prides itself on its award-winning restaurants and diversity of culinary dishes. Expect to find plenty of seafood and other locally sourced ingredients.

Here’s our recommendations:

  • Owen’s Fish Camp – a rustic seafood shack that’s known for its fresh seafood and Southern hospitality. The menu features classic dishes like shrimp and grits, fried catfish, and oysters Rockefeller, all of which are made with locally sourced ingredients.
  • Shore Diner – located in the St. Armands Circle shopping district, Shore is one of the best restaurants in the region, with a stunning outdoor patio. Besides the delicious seafood dishes, their cocktails are also a highlight, with creative takes on classic drinks.
  • Yoder’s Restaurant – for a taste of traditional Southern cuisine, Yoder’s Restaurant is a must-visit. This family-owned establishment is famous for its homemade pies – the chocolate cream and key lime are fan favourites.
  • The Rosemary – the Rosemary is a cosy neighbourhood bistro that serves up classic American comfort food with a twist. Their menu features dishes like mac and cheese with truffle oil, braised short ribs, and a daily selection of house-made pasta. 
  • Columbia Restaurant – a family-owned restaurant that has been a Sarasota landmark since 1959. It specialises in Spanish and Cuban cuisine, and its menu features dishes like paella, ropa vieja, and their famous “1905” salad. 
Fruit and vegetables on display at the Sarasota Farmers Market

Cool shopping options

From the famous Sarasota farmers market to upscale boutiques, there’s always something for sale in the region. However, the most remarkable shopping destination remains St. Armands Circle, also known as the “Jewel of Sarasota.”

The island was initially bought by Charles St. Amand for $21.71 in 1893 and became St. Armands Key. Circus magnate John Ringling purchased the island in 1917 and financed the construction of the John Ringling Causeway, which connects Sarasota to St. Armands. 

At the heart of St. Armands Circle is a park dedicated to John Ringling’s legacy, featuring a Circus Ring of Fame and marble statue from Ringling’s collection.

A visit to St. Armands involves shopping at high-end and boutique stores, dining at legendary restaurants, or pampering yourself at The Met, an independent luxury fashion house with a day spa and salon.

Where can you go from Sarasota?

Sarasota is also a great starting point for visiting some beautiful nearby destinations. We really enjoyed discovering the following towns:

  • Venice – if you are in good shape, take the 10.6-mile paved Legacy Trail that runs from Sarasota to Venice along the former CSX railroad corridor. You can either jog or take a bike and enjoy the beautiful scenery on your way. Venice will reward your efforts with gondolas and plentiful Italian food.
  • Fort Myers – this historic town includes the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as well as a museum with exhibits about their inventions and innovations.
  • Tarpon Springs – if you want a taste of Greece in Florida, head to Tarpon Springs, which is about an hour and a half from Sarasota. This historic town is known for its Greek culture, sponge diving, and authentic Greek food.

Travellers with more time might also venture further afield to Daytona Beach, or experience everything this unique state has to offer with our ultimate Florida bucket list.

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