City Profile: Sarasota

By: VISIT FLORIDA staff

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Museums, theaters and natural landscapes have made many consider Sarasota the cultural capital of Florida.

Sarasota exudes an air of relaxed sophistication. Long considered the cultural capital of Florida, the Ringlings and other wealthy families made Sarasota their winter playground, imparting the legacy of the arts early on. This fair city soon became a haven for artists, thespians and musicians. The powder white sands of the keys attracted more visitors and they soon developed into rustic, laid-back beach communities.

With a cultural calendar that rivals that of any metropolis, Sarasota boasts several world-class museums and arts venues. A beautiful Italian Renaissance villa-turned-art-museum, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art houses one of the most comprehensive collections of Baroque paintings, plus exquisite 17th-century tapestries. Next door, the Ringling residence, Ca'd'Zan (House of John), a 30-room mansion nestled on picturesque Sarasota Bay, is modeled after a Venetian palace. The Circus Museum on the grounds contains memorabilia from the Big Top, including parade wagons, photographs and costumes.

The Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Asolo Center) is an outstanding regional theater, as well as a teaching conservatory. Honored by the state of Florida for its high quality of artistic production and performance, the Sarasota Opera Association presents operas at the venue. A celebrated orchestra, the Florida West Coast Symphony, presents a stunning season with several internationally renowned guests. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a purple, shell-shaped landmark, is known for its distinctive architecture and excellent acoustics.

Sarasota is also rich in lush natural beauty. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, set on Sarasota's sparkling bay, is an orchid research center with beautiful and bountiful grounds that showcase these and other exotic blooms. Displays at the Mote Marine Aquarium are a means to explain the work of Mote scientists to visitors and to encourage an understanding and appreciation of the aquatic environment. The lab is world renowned for its scientific research, particularly research on sharks and the assessment of environmental pollutants. The Gulf Coast Heritage Trail, the state's first ecotourism trail, winds through Sarasota County.

Siesta Key is renowned for its ribbon of sugary beaches, some of the widest and most popular in the country. Since the 1987 "Great International White Sand Beach Challenge," the sugar-fine sand here has been officially top rated every year. Independent judges selected Siesta Key's sand over 29 other entries, including the Bahamas and Grand Cayman, as the whitest and most powdery sand in the world. Siesta Village is a vibrant area filled with boutiques and eateries. Bright umbrellas dot the casual outdoor cafés and in-line skaters and bicyclists share the sidewalks with those strolling through this lackadaisical community. Board one of the colorful Siesta Key trolleys for an overview of this beautiful barrier island.

Besides sparkling beaches, Lido Key also boasts St. Armands Circle, a European-flavored outdoor shopping area. Here more than 130 exclusive shops and boutiques carry quality merchandise from White House/Black Market, Lilly Pulitzer and Tommy Bahama. Several fine restaurants and ice cream parlors also line the circle. A horse-drawn carriage ride around the circle is the perfect evening treat.

For the more active visitor, Sarasota offers watersports, fishing and tennis galore, along with many excellent golf courses. Nearby Myakka River State Park, Florida's largest, offers sun-dappled rivers and cypress-studded paths for hikers and bicyclists.

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