Hugging almost 40 miles of Florida Gulf shoreline, Sarasota draws you in with its beautiful beaches. But a long circus history, charming neighborhoods and bountiful nature elevate Sarasota beyond a run-of-the-mill beach town.
Check out our picks for Sarasota’s top attractions.
Soft, flour-like sand makes this picturesque stretch one of the country’s best beaches. Since the sand is mostly made of crushed mineral quartz, it stays cool to the touch, which makes us want to walk for miles in the fluffy powder. The blue-green waters don’t hurt, either.
The only downside to the paradise of Siesta Key is that it packs in the crowds. Lido Key provides a more exclusive alternative.
A stay at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota gives you access to the private Beach Club on Lido Key. Bask in the sun from a beach chaise lounge, watch the waves from a cabana hammock or soak in the heated Gulf-front pool.
No matter how you decide to while away the day under the sun, an Oh My! mai tai (a powerful combination of amber and silver rum, amaretto, lime, pineapple and dark rum float) from the hotel’s Lido Key Tiki Bar is a must.
Plan to spend a day exploring the sprawling 66-acre Ringling campus. In 1911, big-top bigwig John Ringling bought prime waterfront Sarasota property that eventually became Cà d’Zan, his winter home (be sure to tour the over-the-top pink Venetian Gothic mansion). He then relocated Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s winter headquarters from Connecticut to Sarasota in 1927.
Make other stops on the property, namely the Ringling Circus Museum, which is dedicated to the American circus’ lasting legacy; the Museum of Art, which showcases European paintings and decorative arts; and the new Center for Asian Art, which debuted in 2016.
And don’t forget the grounds: stroll through the pretty bayfront gardens, which include Florida’s oldest rose garden, and the Museum of Art’s lovely grand courtyard with classical sculptures.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Explore Sarasota’s tropical side with a visit to Selby Gardens. A leader on the study of epiphytes (non-parasitic plants that grow on other plants, like orchids), the bayfront botanical garden fills its nearly 15 acres with a banyan grove, a Children’s Rainforest Garden, a conservatory with vibrant orchids, a water-lily-covered koi pond, a mangrove of South Florida species, a tranquil fern garden and more.
Keep an eye out for interesting programming. The garden curated a special exhibit that mingled the art of Marc Chagall and his floral influences in 2017.
Burns Court Historic District
South of downtown, you’ll find a cluster of 15 Mediterranean Revival bungalows whose stucco facades sport bold colors like powder blue and magenta. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this quaint enclave includes independent movie theater Burns Court Cinema, Parisian bakery Burns Court Café and top restaurant Owen’s Fish Camp.
St. Armands Circle
More than 130 boutiques, restaurants and gourmet shops make St. Armands Circle Sarasota’s top shopping destination. The surroundings will lure you in just as much as the stores; you’ll enjoy simply walking the coconut-palm-fringed sidewalks and pausing in Circle Park, a green space in the middle of the shopping sections featuring Italian statues from John Ringling’s own collection.
Sarasota Farmers Market
Taste Florida’s fresh produce and seafood at this year-round Saturday farmers market downtown on Lemon Avenue. But come before 10 a.m. if you want to snap up shrimp and grouper from popular market veteran Maggie’s Seafood, which sells out early.
Among the more than 70 vendors, also don’t miss Kurtos, whose tubular Hungarian chimney cakes will lure you in with their intoxicating aroma (you’ll inhale the savory cheddar and the sweet walnut), and The Southern Basket, which sells homemade jams in tropical flavors like coconut mango and star fruit.
A number of courses dot the Sarasota area. Opened in 1927 by Bobby Jones and designed by Donald Ross, Bobby Jones Golf Club is a municipal course with two 18-hole championship courses and a nine-hole executive course.
Tatum Ridge Golf Links touts itself as a fun place to play. Try the Scottish-style course with preserved wetlands for yourself. Its signature hole is 504-yards, par-5 13th, a dogleg right, over water.
The Tom Fazio-designed Ritz-Carlton Golf Club is open to members and hotel guests only. The 18-hole course is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary that attracts bald eagles, snakes, alligators and more. It also boasts one of Sarasota’s top driving ranges.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
This research center and aquarium introduces you to more than 100 marine life species, including manatees, sea turtles, sharks and stingrays. But you can get a more immersive experience with Mote’s expert-led sea life encounter cruises, kayak tours and Sarasota Bay walks.
Myakka River State Park
At one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks, explore 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies and pinelands. Opt to hike through the prairies, tour the lake on the world’s largest airboats or traverse the treetops on a walkway 25 feet above ground, which will give you fantastic views of the park.