14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Sarasota, FL
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Sarasota, on Florida's Gulf Coast, has so much going for it: 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.
Sarasota is also one of the best places to visit in Florida for a beach vacation. 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. And 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.
For more sightseeing ideas, read our list of the top things to do in Sarasota.
1. Run Away to the Circus at the Ringling Museum
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," as they branded their circus.
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 Florida's preeminent cultural treasures.
The must-visit Circus Museum houses the greatest collection of circus memorabilia and art anywhere. Spread over two buildings, the museum is filled with colorful displays and a huge model of the circus in its heyday. No matter how old you are, it's an unadulterated fantasy for everyone to enjoy. The photos and backgrounds of the freak show performers are especially interesting.
It's a strange feeling to step into the Museum of Art after touring the Circus Museum. The art on display is definitely not to everyone's taste, and unless you appreciate the work of artists from the 16th century, you may find yourself passing quickly through the galleries. That said, a few highlights include Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek by Peter Paul Rubens in gallery two, Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese in gallery six, and the cast of Michelangelo's David in the center courtyard.
In addition to the two museums, the former home of the Ringlings is also a must-see. Built to resemble a canal-side home in Venice, the 36,000-square-foot home is clad in glazed tile that shines in the hot Florida sun. Be sure to walk around the front of the home and out to the large patio area on the waterfront, where the most impressive views (and photos) can be had. Self-guided tours of the first floor are available for an additional fee and must be purchased when you enter at the front gate.
Be sure to spend time exploring the grounds and gardens: they're every bit as impressive as the works of art inside. Towering old banyan trees and an expansive Rose Garden speak to the passion that Mabel Ringling had for nature.
If art's your thing, you may also want to pay a visit to the Sarasota Museum of Art. Part of the Ringling College of Art + Design, the museum focuses on contemporary art and artists from across the globe.
Address: 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, Florida
Official site: www.ringling.org
2. Hit the Beaches on Siesta Key
A trip to Sarasota would be remiss without a trip to one of the spectacular beaches on Siesta Key. The largest and easiest to access is Siesta Key Public Beach. A visit here is a must for the softest sand on which you'll ever step, as unlike most other beaches, which are coral, its sand is made of quartz. It's also cool to the touch when you walk on it.
The shallow areas extend far from shore, making this an ideal family beach. 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. Extensive free parking is available off Beach Road.
Drive a bit farther south, and you'll come to Turtle Beach. This spectacular beach is a laid-back place to visit, with black and white, salt and pepper sand. Bring your kayak and explore Jim Neville Marine Preserve or Palmer Point Park.
For a hidden gem of a beach with a very natural feel, seek out Sarasota Beach at beach access #7. Here, the beach is backed by sea oats and cabbage palms, and the homes and condos are set a long way back, giving the place a park-like feel.
If you are on Siesta Key late in the day, be sure to walk from Siesta Key Village down Columbus Blvd to Sunset Beach to watch the sun descend into the Gulf of Mexico.
3. Stroll around the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Fronting Sarasota Bay, the 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 15-acre grounds, so you can linger and soak up all the scenery. You can also venture along a wooden boardwalk through mangrove forests and see beautiful views of the bay.
Botanical highlights include one of the world's most spectacular displays and collections of orchids and bromeliads. Other impressive specimens include, 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. This popular area features hanging bridges, a waterfall, an Amazon village, and an adventure trail with treetop-views of the tropical plants. After admiring all the botanical beauties, you can shop for souvenirs in the on-site gift shop.
If you still want to be awed by more botanical specimens, head south to the Historic Spanish Point Campus in Osprey.
Big plans are afoot at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. A 92-million-dollar, three-phase plan is just starting that will see a new research center, archive facilities, a restaurant, restoration of the original mansion plus a new parking garage, a greenhouse, and pedestrian promenade.
Address: 900 S. Palm Ave, Sarasota, Florida
Official site: http://selby.org/
4. Learn about Life under the Sea at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
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. Interestingly, 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
5. Learn about the Birds at Save our Seabirds (SOS)
If you've spent any time in Florida, you will have likely noticed the abundance of birds wading on the beach, soaring in the sky, or dive bombing into the water. To learn more about these fascinating avian creatures, swing by the Save our Seabirds facility. Easily combined with a trip to the Mote Aquarium, just across the parking lot, this non-profit operation is devoted to rehabilitating birds to be returned to the wild.
However, some birds are non-releasable due to the severity of their injuries and have become residents at the facility. Seeing and learning about these birds, which you can see up close, is fascinating, and makes for an excellent family-friendly thing to do.
Address: 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Florida
Official site: https://www.saveourseabirds.org/
6. Shop and Dine at Saint Armands Circle
For shoppers and gourmands, be sure to visit Saint Armands Circle. Located on a small island just across Sarasota Bay, this shoppers' paradise consists of a large circle of 130 luxury stores and high-end restaurants just waiting to be explored. Pull up a chair at any one of the eateries in this pedestrian-friendly area, relax, and watch the world go by.
Saint Armands Circle was envisioned by John Ringling and built in 1926. The Depression caused it to fail and wither under the onslaught of the elements, until the 1950s, when it slowly came back to life. Today the area has towering palm trees, 33 statues from John Ringling's collection, the Circus Ring of Fame, wide sidewalks, and colorful tropical plants.
Official site: https://starmandscircleassoc.com/
7. Walk on the Wild Side at the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary
Residents of the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary range from cute domestic critters like 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 kept 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." All admission fees are used to house, feed, and care for the animals.
Devotees of yoga may want to participate in Lemur Yoga. In this interactive class, two ruffed lemurs join you on your mat and help you with your practice. Other interactive yoga classes are with silver foxes and tigers. Don't worry, the tigers remain in their cages!
Another interesting animal experience can be had at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, a 10-acre tropical setting that includes an opportunity to hand-feed flamingos.
Address: 7101 Palmer Boulevard, Sarasota, Florida
Official site: www.bigcathabitat.org
8. Kayak through Mangrove Tunnels
Mangroves are stands of smallish trees that grow only in marshy, subtropical wetlands. There's such a place in Sarasota where these little islands actually form green tunnels. One of the best ways to see this environment is on a kayaking tour.
On a guided kayak tour through mangrove tunnels, you'll enjoy the peace and serenity of these winding, placid waterways. And while the wildlife is always watching you, you can often spot it, too. You'll see a wide variety of birds, among them osprey, little blue herons, pelicans, wood storks, and, occasionally, even bald eagles. You'll also see a variety of swamp-inhabiting smaller animals (but no alligators).
These eco-tours 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
9. Travel Back in Time at Manatee Village Historical Park
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 once the chief crop around here).
You can also visit a blacksmith shop; a boat-crafting facility from settlement days; and the Wiggins General Store, built in 1903. You'll be hard-pressed to walk out without buying one of the unusual gifts, housewares, or delicious treats on offer at the store.
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. Admission is free.
Address: 1404 Manatee Avenue East (SR 64), Bradenton, Florida
Official site: www.manateevillage.org
10. Experience a Different World at the Pinecraft Amish Community
In the little Amish 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"!
11. 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 such attraction, 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, a time when 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 to 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
12. Enjoy a Segway Ride by the Sea
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 sandy 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. There's also a unique 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: 103 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach, Florida
Official site: www.segsbythesea.com
13. Immerse Yourself in Nature at Myakka River State Park
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.
Camping is available, and park tours come highly recommended.
Address: 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, Florida
Official site: www.floridastateparks.org
14. Visit The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature
Like The Ringling in Sarasota, The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature 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 land.
The exhibits start 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 Manatee Habitat provides an intimate look at the life and environment of the endangered "sea cow," the lovable, friendly manatee. These beasts 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.
Also popular, the 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
Official site: https://bishopscience.org
Where to Stay in Sarasota
Whether you choose to stay in a luxury hotel in the historic downtown district of Sarasota, at a family beach resort overlooking the Gulf of Mexico - or even an affordable budget motel on the outskirts of town - you won't be disappointed by the selection available. To help you choose the best accommodations option, be sure to bookmark and review our list of the best resorts in Sarasota, Florida.