When most people think of Florida, sprawling theme parks and Miami spice come to mind, but there's much more to do and see in the sunshine state. The Florida Gulf Coast, set against the Sea of Cortez, boasts miles of award-winning beaches, incredible cuisine, and culture. One such destination is Sarasota, a thriving cosmopolitan city centered on the beautiful Sarasota Bay with world-class beaches and activities that draw vacationers and snowbirds to the area year-round.
Sarasota isn't only a place to frolic on the beach, it is also rich with art and culture. John Ringling, one of the creators of Ringling Brothers Circus, made his home in Sarasota. His influence can be seen throughout the city, from the John Ringling Museum and Ringling College of Art and Design, to waterfront parks and unique public art.
FUN IN THE SUN
The Gulf Coast is known for calm waters and stunning tropical beaches. Siesta Key, a favorite among vacationers and locals alike, was voted the #1 beach in the country and #11 globally! The azure blue water is akin to a luxurious salt bath during the summer months, and the white quartz sand feels like powder under your feet. Siesta Key Beach is ideal for a lazy nap or body surfing. The waves are gentle and the water is shallow. Take a picnic and languish under a beach umbrella that you can pick up at a local outfitter. Some hotels have beach services available for an extra fee. If you rent a beach house, check to see if they have beach items like chairs, bodyboards, and umbrellas. 948 Beach Rd, Sarasota, FL
FEED THE FLAMINGOS
Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a lush tropical bird and exotic animal sanctuary in the middle of Sarasota. Meander through 10 acres of beautifully landscaped tropical gardens boasting many varieties of palms and wildlife. The park offers 200 exhibits, featuring native and exotic animals like birds of prey, macaws and parrots, small mammals, primates, reptiles, snakes, lizards, and iguanas. With the guidance of a zookeeper, you might get the chance to see a miniature alligator up close... without the fear of being a morning snack. A highlight of a visit to the Gardens is feeding the flamingos, who are friendly and will eat right out of your hands. Go in the morning to beat the heat and be sure to purchase flamingo food at the front desk. SarasotaJungleGardens.com
For a unique dining experience, try Shore Restaurant, located on Longboat Key in a mid-century building offering open-air dining on the edge of Sarasota Bay. Enjoy fresh seafood and craft libations with a breathtaking water view. Order the spicy kung pao calamari for starters, then the lobster, shrimp, and crab cobb salad. For your main, the miso-marinated black grouper, a favorite local fish, is a great choice. Plan ahead and make reservations, as they are often booked for weeks in advance. DineShore.com
In the mood for shopping and dining? Head to St. Armand's Circle on St. Armand's Key. Located across Sarasota Bay, the island is connected to the mainland by the John Ringling Causeway. Though the namesake comes from the original owner of the island, John Ringling eventually purchased and developed the property and you can still feel his influence everywhere. The Statue Walk, tropical plants, and patios lead to the focal point, a central park where the Circus Ring of Fame is located. Bronze wagon wheel plaques, which recognize people who made an important contribution to the circus, surround the park. Plan to spend a day exploring the boutiques, eateries, and galleries that make this island a memorable visit. StarmandsCircleAssoc.com
There are many wonderful places to lodge in the Sarasota area, but nothing is like staying at the beach.
Check out The Capri at Siesta, a boutique hotel with Crescent Beach as a backdrop and the convenience of a ten-minute drive to Siesta Key Village. This quaint resort provides top-notch customer service and well-appointed accommodations. The rooms are recently decorated and offer a variety of amenities such as Wi-Fi, kitchenettes, and flat-screen TVs. CapriInternational.com
Located in Bradenton, neighboring Sarasota, Motorworks Brewing has the distinction of having the largest beer garden in Florida. This award-winning brewery serves up their own craft beer made on site. Enjoy a meal and beverages under twinkling lights adorning a 100-year-old oak tree. Catch a live band on the weekend or sit in on trivia night on Mondays. Be sure to make this stop on your travels through the area. It's worth the detour. 1014 9th St W, Bradenton, FL 34205
John Ringling's love of art inspired him to establish the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1927. Upon his death, Florida made the museum the state's official art gallery. Located on the shores of Sarasota Bay, the gallery includes beautiful art from around the world and offers visitors the chance to explore the historical grounds and the Ca' d'Zan Mansion. Admission is free on Mondays. Ringling.org