Last Updated on April 27, 2023
Sarasota, Florida, is located on the southwestern side of the sunshine state, about 60-miles south of Tampa. With the Gulf of Mexico’s stunning aqua blue water it is a popular beach destination and a fisherman’s paradise. The city is more laid back than Miami, but is still vibrant and adorned with art galleries, architectural buildings, and multi-cultural restaurants throughout the walkable downtown. You can find all types of cuisine, from high-end to casual fish shacks right on the water.
Sarasota is also a vibrant arts city as famous residents John and Mable Ringling made Sarasota their winter home. John Ringling was a circus magnate (Ringling Bros.), a real estate investor, and an avid art collector. In the early 1920s, the Ringlings’ purchased 20-acres of waterfront property and built an incredible mansion to entertain their friends.
They also bought the parcel known as St. Armands Key. Ringling envisioned the upscale shopping area known as The Circle and built the John Ringling Causeway to connect the mainland to St. Armands Key. His passion for Sarasota and his desire to educate young people about art and culture led him to donate his estate to the city. He left an incredible legacy behind.
The Ringling Museum of Art has developed into one of the top visitor attractions in Florida and the largest university art centers in the United States. Between the weather, the beaches, and the activities, you will run out of time before you see it all. These are the ten best things to do, but there are many, many, more.
10 Best Things to Do in Sarasota
Siesta Key Beach
Siesta Key Beach is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States. Crescent Beach is officially ranked as “the finest, whitest sand beach in the world (according to Trip Advisor and Dr. Beach).” The sand consists of 99 percent pure crushed quartz and reflects the sun so perfectly it never gets too hot.
The Key is just a short drive from Sarasota and has a ton of amenities. There’s a two-story pavilion for snacks and restrooms, shaded picnic areas and barbecues, and playgrounds for the kids. The water is turquoise water is warm and calm, and lifeguards are on duty.
Mote Marine Aquarium
Mote Marine Aquarium is a nonprofit marine research institute designed by world-class marine scientists. The focus is on conservation and sustainability through education.
While the Mote is small, the experience is incredible. Many species of local sea creatures are represented, with plans for additions in the future. They have a virtual reality experience with several choices and a preserved giant squid worth the price of admission. There are touch tanks with starfish and observation tanks for sharks and manatees. The exhibits are designed with the hope that we protect the oceans better in the future than we have over the last 200 years.
The Ringling Museum of Art
The Ringling is a campus. The entire complex covers 66 acres and includes an Art Museum, Circus Museum, Ringling Mansion (Ca’ D’ Zan), and Gardens. You may have to return a few times to take it all in.
The Museum of Art is spectacular and contains over 4,500 years of art from Europe, Asia, and America. Ringling amassed a vast collection while touring Europe in search of acts for the Ringling Brothers Circus. He built a 21-room museum based on the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to house the work. The center of the museum is a courtyard of Greek and Roman statues’ replicas, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.
If you work up an appetite walking around the attractions, don’t worry, there’s a restaurant!
Ca’ d’Zan (House of John) is the name of John and Mable Ringling’s historic home. The couple hired architect Dwight James Baum to design it in the Venetian Gothic Style of the palazzi in Venice, Italy. Mable kept a scrapbook during their European travels and wanted Sarasota Bay to be her Grand Canal.
The ornate mansion was completed in two years at the cost of 1.5 million dollars. It is 36,000 sq ft. and rises 5 stories with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. It has a gorgeous patio right on the water. Tours require an additional ticket.
New Pass Grill
New Pass Grill and Bait Shop is an “Old Florida” bait and tackle shop that has been in business since 1929. Order at the window of this shack, and sit at a picnic table overlooking the beauty of Sarasota Bay. The burgers are famous, and the fish is the freshest you can get. There are cold sandwiches, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches too. They serve beer and ice cream. This is as good as it gets.
St. Armands Circle
“The Circle” is the shopping, dining, and event mecca in Sarasota. Many luxury and boutique retail stores surround an inner circle green space. The park pays homage to John Ringling and various circus greats. Statues from Ringling’s own collection adorn the circle and boulevards, which add an alfresco art gallery to the community.
The restaurants have plenty of outdoor seating and offer a front-row for people watching and for live musical performances in the evenings. Six blocks from the center are the quiet, stunning beaches of Lido Key, known for incredible sunsets.
Lido Key Beach Sunsets
Lido Beach is six blocks from the center of St. Armands Circle, the famed shopping and dining district on St. Armands Key. The beach is less famous than Siesta Key, making it more relaxed, but with the same sand and beautiful water. The sunset here is legendary, and because there are fewer crowds, very romantic.
The proximity to restaurants and live music on “The Circle” make this a perfect place to enjoy some sunshine and lunch or sunset and a late dinner. Some folks love to keep it casual and order a pizza to go. Then enjoy a sunset and dinner right from their beach chairs.
Bay Front Park
Bay Front Park is a park and recreation area that is family-friendly. People love to jog, walk, bike, and picnic on the grass near the playground. There are also two restaurants with bayfront views. The park is free and opens 7 days a week. Along the waterfront, there are dolphin, sunset, or sightseeing charters that set sail daily. There’s even kayak tours!
The statue, “Unconditional Surrender” by J. Seward Johnson, was donated to Sarasota by a veteran and placed on the bayfront with help from the donations of various veteran groups. The statue depicts a sailor kissing a nurse upon hearing that WWII was over.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is an oasis in downtown Sarasota.
The Selby’s were wealthy but preferred a quiet life. They built a modest home on 5 acres along Sarasota Bay in the early 1920s. Marie loved nature and wanted to keep Sarasota green. When she died in 1971, she left her home to the city as a botanical garden.
Today, Marie’s garden has grown to 15 acres and features a variety of exhibits. The displays include tropical and subtropical plants from around the world and the best scientifically-documented collection of orchids. The staff botanists carry out research in the lab and the field. Since the gardens’ founding, their research at home and abroad has led them to discover or describe 2,000 plant species previously unknown.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Historic Spanish Point campus takes Florida native plants as its emphasis.
Owen’s Fish Camp
Owen’s Fish Camp is everything a Florida fish camp should be. They have fresh local fish every day. They don’t take reservations, but they have a huge backyard where live music plays nightly. People head out back to catch the band while they wait. The bar outside serves up cold beer and hot oysters, and there are picnic tables to enjoy the starters. Owen’s staff couldn’t be more agreeable as they offer the best southern hospitality alongside the menu’s southern favorites. The history is cool too. The colossal Banyan tree out front was a present to the restaurant’s namesake Owen Burns, a Sarasota Real Estate Developer from Thomas Edison.
If you’d like to get out on the water and catch some of your own, there’s plenty of fishing tours to hop on and cast a line.
Where to Stay in Sarasota
Looking for where to stay in Sarasota? Check out these hotels located in Sarasota.Booking.com
Is Sarasota Worth a Visit?
Sarasota is packed with things to do for a week or a weekend. There are art galleries, gardens, theaters, and performing arts venues throughout the city. You can charter a fishing boat for a day out on the water or rent a fishing pole to fish off a pier. There are paddle tours through mangroves and kayaking too, or biking trails all over the parks and recreation areas nearby. There’s even a dolphin sightseeing tikibar hopping boat tour!
You can sit on the beach and soak up the sun or jump in on a volleyball game. The dining choices are endless, with flavors from all over the globe.
If you want to be more casual, order a grouper sandwich at a fish shack or stroll around St. Armands Circle with an ice cream cone. You can shop in a high-end boutique or pick up a t-shirt as a souvenir. Sarasota is world-class, but it’s low-key. How you enjoy, it is up to you.