Sarasota County: An insider's guide to beaches and attractions
If you expect a lot from your vacation — gorgeous beaches, top-notch dining, engaging cultural attractions, outdoor experiences and diverse enclaves to explore — Southwest Florida’s Sarasota County is a destination that delivers on all fronts. With its coastal location, Sarasota's a clear choice for a beach getaway, but the appeal that lies beyond the sugary sands — while less obvious — is valuable knowledge for anyone on the hunt for their next getaway.
It helps too, that it’s easier than ever to get to Sarasota, thanks to recently added routes from airlines including Southwest, Allegiant, Avelo and Elite Airways to Sarasota-Bradenton International.
To help you get “in the know” on multi-talented Sarasota, we’ve compiled a guide to can’t-miss features, little-known gems and more inside information.
Beaches: From Fan Favorites to Secret Sands
The silken quartz-white sands of Siesta Key are the kind of fabulous that's hard to keep under wraps. So, not surprisingly, TripAdvisor members gave the beach the highest marks in the continental U.S. this year.
And the stunning sands are more than sparkly eye candy: They're hard-packed, making them ideal for waterside activities like long strolls, frisbee and paddleball games, or even bike rides with soul-soothing views. Add to that the jaw-dropping sunsets on display from the western-facing shore, and you've got all the justification you need to plan your entire trip around long stretches of beach relaxation set exactly here.
That said, Sarasota is also home to beach parks that have managed to stay under the radar despite their epic scenery. Palmer Point Beach is one such less-traveled spot, and it's accessible via a short walk south from Turtle Beach (part of Siesta Key Beach). Those willing to make that small trek will be rewarded with uncrowded sands, ripe for a peaceful beach picnic or a serene swim, plus the possibility of meeting some intriguing non-human residents: gopher tortoises. These gentle reptiles are one of the most ancient species on earth (originating roughly 60 million years ago), and Palmer Point Beach's native coastal vegetation and protected dune system provide an ideal habitat for the creatures. Palmer Point is also a great spot for fishing and boating, but keep in mind that there are no restrooms or other facilities on site.
About 10 miles south of Siesta Key, you'll find the lovely coastal community of Venice, along with its namesake beach. Thanks to the numerous prehistoric remnants visitors find in the sands here, Venice Beach has been unofficially named the "shark tooth capital of the world." And the town has earned other coveted labels as well, including one of the "best places to live on the coast," per Coastal Living magazine in 2020.
Venice Beach is ideal for those looking to stroll directly from the beach into a charming downtown lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. But when one craves some time alone with the sound of the waves and little more, nearby Chauncy Howard Park is the go-to spot. Leave your vehicle at the park entrance and stroll across a handicap-accessible boardwalk to the shoreline. The beach park features ocean-facing benches, bike racks, a post-swim rinse station and drinking fountains, making it easier for sunseekers to get there and stay all day.
Whether you aim to spend your visit people-watching on popular shores, sprawled out with a bestseller on a quiet stretch of sand or a combination of both, use the Beach Pass on the Visit Sarasota app. It's got info on 20 local beaches, including amenities, hours and directions. True beach devotees can earn prizes by checking in as they lounge, with rewards ranging from restaurant coupons, to beach-themed swag bags, to eco-friendly lunchboxes and custom-designed, locally made water bottles.
Culture: Galleries, Museums and Show-stopping Performances
As tempting as it would be to spend your entire Sarasota getaway sprawled out on the sand, an argument could be made that the cultural offerings that lie beyond the dunes are equally enticing.
The Ringling is just one (kind of mind-blowing) example. Housing six cultural and educational attractions, the estate has a history that dates back almost a century to the famous circus mogul, John Ringling. In the roaring twenties, Ringling became one of the richest men in America and owned nearly 25 percent of Sarasota's total area.
He and his wife Mable invested a literal fortune in Sarasota, building an opulent 56-room mansion (Ca' d'Zan, Venetian-Italian for "house of John") and the 21-gallery Museum of Art, modeled after the Uffizi in Florence, to house their world-class art collection (think European and American masters like Rubens, Velazquez, Boudin and Guardi).
Today, visitors can tour the grounds and the lavishly appointed first floor of the Ringling's dream home (though access is temporarily suspended for restorations). The art museum has been open to the public since 1931 (Ringling also bequeathed it to the people of Florida upon his death). The collection has grown and diversified over the decades to include contemporary pieces as well as works from Asia and Latin America.
The property also includes a circus museum, sprawling bayfront gardens with massive banyan trees and a romantic rose garden, and the Historic Asolo Theater, a 224-year-old, painstakingly-reconstructed performance venue, much of which was (no joke) brought over from Italy at the turn of the century. Today, the Asolo plays host to all manner of theater productions, professional dance performances and even community dance classes. See the full lineup here.
Speaking of theater, fans of all things thespian will be spoiled for choice in Sarasota. The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is one prime example; the diversity- and inclusion-forward theater company will put its own spin on Guys and Dolls and Dreamgirls this season, as well as Langston Hughes' Black Nativity — and that's just a snippet of the full calendar.
Specializing in contemporary work (like the Billy Joel-inspired New York State of Mind, running through Oct. 2), the Florida Studio Theatre is another celebrated venue for catching a show when you're in town. Meanwhile, the Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Ballet also have fully-loaded performance calendars. In other words, art lovers' main challenge will be figuring out how to squeeze this bounty of creativity into one trip.
Adding to that delightful dilemma, there's one local art attraction that gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at what Sarasota's contemporary artist community is up to: Towles Court Artist Studios. Show up at this lushly landscaped, residential-style property on a Saturday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to tour open studios — and perhaps take a vibrant piece of the local art scene home with you.
Events and Special Offers: The Inside Scoop on Celebrations and Savings
With its embarrassment of natural and cultural riches, filling your trip itinerary in Sarasota is pretty much an effortless activity, no matter when you go. But if your visit coincides with one of the region's fun local events, all the better. This fall, for example, guests can spectate at the U-18 Baseball World Cup (Sept. 9-18), when young teams from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania will compete for the World Cup title.
Then, competitors will flock to town to vie for a very different kind of glory: master sand castle building. At the Siesta Key Crystal Classic, 24 artists will create impossibly detailed works in the sand over a period of five days (Nov. 11-14). Visitors can watch the fast-paced projects take shape, and also take part via sand sculpting lessons, a barefoot beach party and a "vendor village" with food trucks.
On the topic of food, we'd be remiss not to mention a major event that touches down in Sarasota each spring: the annual Savor Sarasota restaurant week. During this two-week event (usually held in June; 2023 details forthcoming), participants can enjoy multi-course prix-fixe meals at celebrated local restaurants for greatly reduced prices. Last year, more than 40 restaurants joined in the promotion, making it entirely possible for culinary tourists to eat their way across Sarasota without breaking the budget.
If you can't wait until June to save big on your stay, fret not. Sarasota has a variety of ongoing special offers. Happy hours, all-you-can-eat fish fries and complimentary aromatherapy treatments are just a few of the current deals available. And you can earn a free T-shirt when you post a photo of your experience with one of these specials to your public Instagram or Facebook account using the #FunInThe941 hashtag. (See the specials page for details.)
Nature: Epic Natural Landscapes & Outdoor Activities
Sarasota's pleasant climate (average highs hover around 70 degrees even in January) make it an ideal destination for year-round outdoor activities — and the myriad public nature parks, paddle-ready waterways and other open-air attractions only add to its alfresco appeal.
The Legacy Trail — a paved 10.5-mile path spanning all the way from downtown Sarasota to the Venice Train Depot — offers an amazing opportunity to see a broad stretch of Sarasota in the open air, and with a zero-carbon footprint. Walkers, runners, inline skaters and bikers can aim to travel the entire course (there are mapped locations along the way where trail-goers can park, use the restroom and get some water), or use the trail to hop between area parks, shops and attractions.
The trails at Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park take adventurers through more rugged landscapes, spread across a densely forested 168-acre nature park. Highlights include the 1.3-mile Yellow Loop, which travels along the park's pretty creek. Leashed dogs are welcome — as are horses — and many wading birds call the area home, so expect to see some animal friends on this low-elevation, family-friendly path.
On the topic of local avian species, there are even more to observe at Oscar Scherer State Park (a stop on the Legacy Trail), making it a favored destination for birders. The 1,400-acre park provides protected habitat for Florida scrub-jays — a bright blue- and gray-colored bird, and the only bird species endemic to the state of Florida (and one of only 15 species endemic to the continental U.S.). Bald eagles also nest in the park during the winter months. Bobcats, foxes, otters, rabbits, snakes and alligators also count among the animals that reside in this urban oasis.
Paddling a kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard through the mangrove tunnels at Lido Key — or along the scenic Blueways in North Port — are yet more ways to experience Sarasota's various environments and ecosystems.
For an off-the-beaten-path experience that blends natural beauty and history, you'll want to include a visit to Historic Spanish Point in your Sarasota itinerary. Here, guests can wander through beautifully maintained botanical gardens and a boatyard outdoors, plus explore a historic homestead constructed by a family of New York transplants in 1867. Another must-see feature on the property dates back much longer: a pre-historic mound of shells, called a midden. It's believed that each of these shells once held a sea creature that was consumed and discarded by people of the indigenous Manasota Culture nearly 2000 years ago.
Of course, baseball fans already know about an especially cool perk of visiting the Sarasota area in February and March: It's the spring training home of both the Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles. The O's play at Ed Smith Stadium near downtown (fans lovingly refer to Sarasota as "Birdland South"), while the Braves play at CoolToday Park, a facility located a bit further south, opened in 2019.
Neighborhoods: From Sophisticated to Serene
On any given day in Sarasota, you could go through a handful of outfits: flip-flops and swimsuit at the beach in the morning; airy resort wear for early-afternoon boutique shopping or museum-going; dry fit gear for a post-lunch marshland hike; jean cutoffs for the beach bar or ice cream shop; and your classiest blacks for an evening bite or nightcap.
Indeed, as you move north to south, east to west across this dynamic destination, each neighborhood, block and street has its own character and vibe. This diversity is one of the area's great charms — you can essentially have a bunch of vacations in one, just by spending time in a variety of Sarasota County's cities and neighborhoods.
It's hard to imagine a lovelier downtown than Sarasota's. Set on the bay, this small yet engaging area is home to numerous cultural outposts (the aforementioned Florida Studio Theatre is located here, as are the Sarasota Opera and many art galleries) as well as popular restaurants. For a casual meal with a water view, try O'Leary's Tiki Bar & Grill, a tropical-themed spot located in peninsular Bayfront Park. Guests rave about the margaritas and the grilled grouper Reuben sandwiches.
If you prefer a quieter spot, however, head inland to try Siegfried's Restaurant, an authentic Central European-themed bistro named for its delicious potato dumplings, wiener schnitzel and selection of imported beers. If you're feeling especially festive, drink one out of "das Boot."
To experience a part of Sarasota where the locals hang out, spend some time in Gulf Gate. It's small but surprisingly worldly, with restaurants and other small businesses from around the globe. Within the neighborhood's four main roads, you'll find Polish, Italian and Asian markets; an African gift shop; Hungarian and Mexican restaurants, plus a French creperie — and that's just the beginning.
Locals and visitors head here at night as well, since the neighborhood is home to a whopping 17 bars and lounges. Favorites include the ultra-casual Hurricane Mike's (great for draft beer specials and free pool games); the upscale, Polynesian-themed Zuzu's Cocktail Lounge; and Molly Malone's Irish Pub (a low-key spot to grab a Guinness or Harp on tap).
Nary a visit to Sarasota would be complete without a visit to Lido Key & St. Armands, two neighboring islands located about 2 miles west of downtown and connected to the mainland by the John Ringling Causeway. Lido Key's big draw is its soft sand beaches, while St. Armands Circle is an artfully designed outdoor pedestrian mall.
The mall boasts more than 130 upscale shops, cafes, restaurants and bars, all dotted around a circular, sculpture-studded mini-park where you might be treated to live music or other street performances. Befitting its resemblance to a European square, there are numerous gelato shops, French bakeries and cafes set around the circle, offering plenty of options for ending a day of beach-going and exploring on a sweet note.