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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Sarasota

Sarasota, on Florida's Gulf Coast, has beautiful beaches, world-class cultural amenities, and a city of white buildings fronted by azure waters filled with sailboats. It's known for the world-famous Ringling Museum of Art, as well as a collection of excellent performing arts companies and an active community of artists and craftspeople creating unique works. Beaches lie only minutes from downtown, and you'll also find fun family tourist attractions; prestigious golf courses; and nature preserves where you can hike, kayak, and fish.

Within a few minutes' drive of town, you can be immersed in the tropical vegetation, wetlands, and wildlife of primeval Florida, and neighboring Bradenton also offers great attractions. But if you want to find the real essence of Sarasota, face west at the end of the day. Here, you'll see the fiery sun dropping into a watery horizon without end, and it will take your breath away.

1 Explore Three Museums in One at The Ringling

Ringling Home
Ringling Home
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Come one, come all, folks! See the greatest circus museum on Earth, and see a great art museum and Asian art museum along with it. John Ringling was one of five brothers who created "The Greatest Show On Earth!" In the early 1900s, John and his wife Mable decided to build an Italian palace on twenty acres in Sarasota. They named it Ca d'Zan, and on these grounds today stands one of the world's preeminent cultural treasures. The Ringling Museum of Art houses the greatest collection of circus memorabilia and art anywhere; it's filled with vivid colors and unadulterated fantasy for the whole family. Attached is an equally-impressive, multi-faceted collection of art, ranging from European and decorative art to Modern works, as well as a new Center For Asian Art. The grounds and buildings are every bit as impressive as the works of art inside.

Address: 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.ringling.org

2 Stroll around the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
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Fronting Sarasota Bay, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a beautiful spot for a relaxing stroll even if you're not a garden enthusiast. Peaceful sitting areas punctuate the grounds, so you can linger and soak up all the scenery, and you can also venture along a wooden boardwalk through mangrove forests and see beautiful views of the bay. Botanical highlights include spectacular displays of orchids, as well as bromeliads, bamboo, ferns, cycads, and magnificent old banyan trees that are almost 100 years old. Kids love the koi pond and butterfly garden, and the elevated children's rainforest garden, with hanging bridges, a waterfall, an Amazon village, and adventure trail, gives them a treetop-view of the tropical plants. After admiring all the botanical beauties, you can shop for souvenirs in the gift shop on-site.

Address: 900 S. Palm Ave, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: http://selby.org/

3 Visit the South Florida Museum

South Florida Museum
South Florida Museum Jared / photo modified
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Like The Ringling in Sarasota, the South Florida Museum in Bradenton offers three family attractions in one. A day of exploration here will take you up into the heavens, deep into the sea, and across dry ground. The Art Museum starts out in ancient times, with skeletons of the terrifying creatures that roamed Florida millions of years ago and artifacts from the humans who followed them. It then flows into modern times with decorative arts and a look at the maritime culture that symbolizes this part of Florida. The Parker Manatee Aquarium provides an intimate look at the life and environment of the endangered "sea cow," the lovable, friendly manatee, which can weigh up to 3,500 pounds. You can also see Manatee County's most famous resident, Snooty, the oldest known manatee in the world. The Bishop Planetarium's state-of-the-art projection experience takes viewers on a multi-million-mile trip into the heavens for a whole different perspective.

Address: 201 10th Street West, Bradenton, Florida

4 Luxuriate on Siesta Key Beach

Lido Beach, Siesta Key
Lido Beach, Siesta Key
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Newspapers and magazines all over the globe have called Siesta Key Beach the most beautiful beach in the world. In fact, it was recognized in one media poll some years back as having "the whitest and finest sand in the world." Siesta Key Public Beach is not only one of the softest on which you'll ever step - because it's quartz, unlike most other beaches, which are coral - but it's also cool to the touch when you walk on it. The shallow areas extend far out from the shore, making this an ideal family place. If you'd like your day to be an active one, there are beach volleyball and tennis courts, and if you want to just relax with the family, there are also picnic tables and playgrounds.

Address: 948 Beach Road, Siesta Key, Florida

5 Immerse Yourself in Nature at Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park at sunset
Myakka River State Park at sunset
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At Myakka River State Park, it seems as though nothing has changed in a million years. The Myakka River flows through an area of 58 square miles, which will never be touched by human development. In addition to the scenic river and its diverse array of wildlife, there are also two lakes here, with great canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Those who prefer foot-power can hike on rare Florida dry prairie, and those who like to sit back and relax while letting someone else do the driving can travel via the two largest airboats in the world or the Safari Tram Tour. Here, the silence is beautiful, the stunning natural vistas seem to flow on forever, and you'll see plenty of wildlife.

Address: 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.floridastateparks.org

6 Experience a Different World at the Pinecraft Amish/Mennonite Community

In the little community of Pinecraft, the way it is, is the way it was. Here, some 3,000 Amish and Mennonite residents live the way their ancestors did, using their own hands to make or bake whatever they need. They create one-of-a-kind-crafts and housewares as well as unusual culinary treats for visitors. When you shop at one of Pinecraft's interesting little markets, you'll want to bring home the wonderful baked goods and homemade jams, and when you visit the shops and galleries of the local craftspeople, you'll find beautiful homemade quilts and hand-crafted furniture and old-fashioned utilitarian crafts that will last as long as you do. Stop by Yoder's Amish Restaurant for the chocolate cake or the best pies in town. Ditto for Der Dutchman Restaurant for comfort food with a capital "C!"

7 Kayak through Mangrove Tunnels

Kayaking in mangroves
Kayaking in mangroves
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Mangroves are stands of smallish trees that grow only in marshy, subtropical wetlands, and there's such a place in Sarasota where these little islands actually form green tunnels. Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures can take you there, where the silence is beautiful; the winding waterways are placid; and the wildlife is watching you, even though you may not always see it. But you'll see a wide variety of birds, among them osprey; little blue herons; pelicans; wood storks; and, occasionally, bald eagles. You'll also see a variety of swamp-inhabiting smaller animals (but no alligators). In addition, these eco-tours can also take you out into Sarasota Bay, where both manatees and dolphins are abundant. The tours will take you into a world you may never have seen before but one that you'll always remember.

Address: 100 Taft Drive, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.kayakfl.com

8 Travel Back in Time at Manatee Village Historical Park

Manatee Village Historical Park
Manatee Village Historical Park
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When you walk into Manatee Village Historical Park, you're stepping back in time and right past a 1913 locomotive lovingly called "Old Cabbage Head" by the locals. The attractions here include a courthouse from pre-Civil War days (1860), a church from 1887, a one-room schoolhouse from who-knows-when, a wooden house from Old Florida times, and the Sugar Cane Mill and Smokehouse (sugar cane was the chief crop around here in the old days). You can also visit a blacksmith shop; a boat-crafting facility from settlement days; and the Wiggins General Store, built in 1903, where you'll be hard-pressed to walk out without buying one of the unusual gifts, housewares, or delicious treats. There are 14 landmarks in total here, each of them revealing a glimpse into a long-gone time when Florida was one of America's new frontiers.

Address: 1404 Manatee Avenue East (SR 64), Bradenton, Florida

Official site: www.manateevillage.org

9 Walk on the Wild Side at the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary

Lion
Lion
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Residents of the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary range from little goats, sheep, and donkeys in the petting zoo to magnificent lions. Other animals here include huge tortoises, birds of some very beautiful feathers flocking together, monkeys and apes, camels, bears, ligers (half-tiger, half-lion), and tigers. All are in naturalistic environments, and many have been rescued and nursed back to health. You can see dozens of rare and exotic species here, many of which you may not have seen before. The two daily shows are "Parrots In Paradise" and "Big Cat Encounter," and all admission fees are used to house, feed, and care for the animals. Address: 7101 Palmer Boulevard, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.bigcathabitat.org

10 Find Your Old Dream Car at the Sarasota Classic Car Museum

If you can't find your old dream car here, you probably can't find it anywhere. The Sarasota Classic Car Museum is the nation's second oldest, and you'll be drawn into a sweet, sentimental, technicolored world of gentler times as you make your way past one fantasy machine after another. Here, you'll find icons from the halcyon early days of the automobile, where the headlights stood out in the front and the jump-seats stood out in the back. You can also see once "futuristic" fantasies that barely made it to the streets before manufacturers discovered that no one - either in the present or the future - was going to want them. Other exhibits include the "muscle cars" of the 50s-70s and collections spanning the range from John and Mabel Ringling's big Rolls-Royces to Paul McCartney's cherished little Mini Cooper. You'll also find special revolving exhibits and a gift shop with wonderful memories of your youth.

Address: 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.sarasotacarmuseum.org

11 Enjoy a Segway Ride By the Sea

Segway touring
Segway touring
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Anna Maria Island is one of a string of tiny, picturesque beach towns here, and now there's a fun way to see it - on a Segway. You'll get an up-close, intimate look at this beachy hideaway, the surrounding islands, and, of course, the blue ocean at its doorstep. Riding a Segway affords you the freedom to see the sights at your own pace and stop to take a closer look whenever you like. Segs By the Sea has state-of-the-art, self-balancing Segways. The company offers both guided and self-guided tours, and they'll be happy to create a customized tour just for you. Anna Maria is a seven-mile-long barrier island with a bunch of interesting properties for rent and a village centered by Pine Avenue, which is lined with funky eateries, novelty gift shops, and two piers with dolphins coming for a visit and incredible views of Tampa Bay.

Address: 102 Bridge Street, Bradenton Beach, Florida

Official site: www.segsbythesea.com

12 Learn about Life under the Sea at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Jelly fish at Mote Marine Aquarium
Jelly fish at Mote Marine Aquarium Walter / photo modified
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At the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, the focus is not only on nursing injured marine life back to health and caring for them afterward but also on using what scientists learn here to help humans. This is a true research facility, staffed by a group of world-class scientists who spend their lives pushing boundaries. The research extends from citizens of the sea such as manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks to coral reefs and other ocean ecosystems, and some of this work may actually have implications for curing human diseases. As for the exhibits, you can touch all sorts of rays, and you can see sharks swimming, delicate seahorses, and brilliantly-colored fish.

Address: 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Florida

Official site: www.mote.org

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