By VISIT FLORIDA staff
Sarasota has a thriving theater and arts district and parallel to the coast are several islands with great beaches -- among them are Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island off Bradenton Beach.
The Ringling Estates
Circus-town heritage contrasts with cultural sophistication in a destination where beach and environmental consciousness add still more breadth to what Sarasota offers. Circus master John Ringling was among the first to discover these offerings in the early 1900s, and his impact on the town is many-ringed. Where his circus once wintered, Ringling erected an Italian palace named Cà d’Zan, or House of John. Visitors can visit this elaborate Gilded Age mansion on the bay, part of the Ringling Estates which also includes the Ringling Museum of Art specializing in the baroque, a circus museum, gardens and a state-of-the-art theater. The lovely grounds are host to special events and festivals throughout the year.
Art & Shopping
Downtown Sarasota thrives in the afterglow of Ringling's love for things artistic. The Theater and Arts District encompasses theaters from experimental to opera. Art galleries are rife, particularly along Main Street and Palm Avenue, and trendy restaurants give the town a reputation for fine and innovative dining. Historic and artistic pockets of antiquing, gallery-hopping and cafés crop up at Herald Square and Southside districts. Towles Court Artist Colony revitalized a bungalow neighborhood with sprightly paint jobs, galleries, studios, eateries and other artistic outlets. Circus Sarasota keeps alive the Big Top tradition and the high schools even teach circus skills and stage annual circus events.
Art takes to the street along downtown's bayfront, home to a charter fleet, park, name luxury resorts and the striking Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Famed shopping center, St. Armands Circle on Lido Key, remembers the circus with plaques naming its stars. Spinning off its roundabout park, some of Sarasota's finest clothing, home decorating and book stores radiate, interspersed with ice cream and chocolate shops, delis and sidewalk restaurants.
Bradenton Beach & Other Sarasota Beaches
The beach lies steps away, part of a broken chain of sand that spreads north and south. At the north end of Lido Key, Mote Aquarium conducts important research on sharks, manatees, sea turtles and their crucial habitat. Tour the facility, where you can watch sharks and manatees in huge aquariums, pet stingless sting rays, or take a nature encounter cruise.
Across the pass to the north, Longboat Key stretches past golf and tennis resorts, restaurants with a reputation, shops and lovely manicured vistas fronting affluent homes. Anna Maria Island is next in line and it contains three separate communities. Bradenton Beach, a classic beach town, in recent years has taken steps to preserve its history and character. Holmes Beach is newer and mostly residential with small boutique resorts, a beachfront bed and breakfast, and rave-review dining. Historic Anna Maria clings tightly to its hidden beach persona, revealed in old beach cottages and easy-going seafood houses.
Anna Maria Island is close to Bradenton, the city across the Intracoastal Waterway that starts off where Sarasota ends. Across the bridge from Bradenton Beach & Sarasota, time-frozen Cortez safeguards it fishing village way of life with a developing maritime museum and waterfront seafood houses. Fishing and eco-tourism excursions depart from the docks along with commercial boats.
Downtown Bradenton claims its Village of the Arts, where artists live, work and sell. Around Main Street, it resurrects a district once dependent on the Manatee River. Visit the sophisticated South Florida Museum and its manatee mascot of many years. Have lunch on the river and peruse the antique shops. Across the river, Palmetto, once strictly a tomato farming and fishing town, is becoming a tourist destination with marina activity, museums, parks and restaurants worth the trip.
South of Sarasota & Bradenton Beach, two bridges deliver you to the world-famous soft, white sands of Siesta Key, where lodging is as colorful and individual as the local population. So stay a while to shop and dine as casually or fine as you wish. Exclusive Casey Key to the south leads to Nokomis Beach, known for its fishing, particularly at North Jetty Park.
The South Jetty lies across the pass in Venice, shark tooth capital of the world (so called for the fossilized, prehistoric sharks teeth that wash upon the shores of Venice and Caspersen Beaches). The fossils roll up on the salt-and-pepper sands around the fishing pier and the annual Sharks Tooth Festival in April celebrates this dental phenomenon and the town's bounty of fish.