When I think of Florida’s west coast, I don’t immediately think of hip restaurants with trendy rooftop bars, and arts that rivals any major city, but that is exactly what I found on a quick weekend getaway. In fact, there are so many things to do in Sarasota Florida that you might just need more than a long weekend.
Read on to find out where to sit on alligators, walk through the trees, perform on a tightrope, and my two must-do activities while you are in the area.
Two of my favorite things to do in Sarasota, which is just one hour south of Tampa, are kayaking the mangrove tunnels on Lido Key, and drinking in the skyline from the rooftop bar of the Art Ovation Hotel. But that is just the tip of the sandcastle. Here are 40+ more ideas for every type of visitor.
Top Things to do for First Timers
The Ringling. Whether you are a circus fan or not, you’ll definitely want to block out some serious time to visit The Ringling. Stroll through 66 acres of grounds, and gardens, plus a renown museum of art, and the less serious circus museum.
View some of the Ringling’s 28,000 works of art, including paintings from well-known Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Tour the Ringling’s mansion Ca’d’zan, which means House of John. Stand on the patio overlooking the bay and pretend you are at one of the couple’s swinging parties where circus performers greeted guests.
My favorite part though is still the circus museum. Test your skills as a circus performer walking the tightrope, or stuff into a clown car.
Leave plenty of time to view the 44,000-piece model of circus life by Howard C. Tibbals. Just like trying to watch three rings at once; you won’t know where to look first.
Insider tip: The Ringling is free on Mondays.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens. Have you ever wanted to feed a flamingo, sit on an alligator, or maybe have your picture taken as you hold a reptile? This is your chance. Sign me up for the Flamingos, I am not into reptiles for my Instagram moment.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is 15 acres of per beauty. The gardens are best known for orchids, and a commitment to plant preservation. The elevated Rainforest Children’s Garden is an adventurous one-acre escape to one the wildest places on earth— the tropical rainforest, home to half the world’s known plant and animal species.
Circus Sarasota. John Ringling made Sarasota a circus town, but sadly the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is no more. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t see a show in town under the red and white big top.
For the adventurous, take a circus arts class at the Sailor Circus Arena. Try the trapeze, or perhaps perfect your aerial silks.
Romantic Things to do in Sarasota with Your Sweetie
Paddle Through the Mangroves. Ok, so I did this with a bunch of other travel writers, but it would be a fun couples outing. We kayaked through the bay first in search of manatee and as luck would have it, one swam right under my watercraft!
The best part however, was floating under the tangled branches of the mangrove tunnels. The labyrinth of paths was originally cut to help mitigate mosquitos, but now, paddling through them is a popular thing to do for locals and visitors.
Insider Tip: Take a guided tour from Kayaking SRQ. Owner Greg Gregory grew up with this water as his backyard, and it’s fun to hear his stories.
Garden of the Five Senses. Sharpen your senses at this unique park in North Port, just south of Venice. The serene 16-acre park is designed for visitors to slow down, relax and get in tune with their inner self.
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Do something very Sarasota on your date, take your sweetie to see a show at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. If nothing on the schedule is to your liking, you can always just stroll the Sarasota trail system that goes around the venue.
Snook Haven. This is more of a fun daytime date than a romantic evening. Head down the dirt road to this restaurant where you’ll find live music and boat tours of the Myyaka River. Riding down the river makes you feel like you are heading on a real-life jungle cruise ride.
Best Things to do in Sarasota with Kids
Summer Fun Runs. Each summer every Tuesday and Wednesday evening head to the beach with your kids for one of several beachside fun runs.
On Tuesday Siesta Beach is the place to be for a one-mile fun run for kids and a three-mile run for teens and adults.
Insider Tip: Frontier Airlines has non-stop flights to Sarasota from Atlanta, and a Kids Fly Free Program.
On Wednesday Brohard Beach in Venice hosts an evening one-mile run. To make it more enticing, there are popsicles at the finish line. Be sure to bring a bathing suit for a post-run dip in the ocean.
Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. Not just for exotic animals, the Sanctuary is a haven for all types of rescued animals including lions, tigers, bears, primates, and tortoises. There is also a petting zoo with llamas and goats.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. This is the best place in Sarasota to see sharks. You’ll find lots of them in the aquarium’s 135,000-gallon tank. No touching here, but you can feel the stingrays, sea cucumbers and other, less toothy sea life.
Insider Tip: Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11am at the Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium, watch as the trainers feed the sharks and explain how they are trained
Smugglers Cover Adventure Golf. It wouldn’t be the beach without miniature golf right. This pirate themed course has your usual hazards, and then some very unusual hazards – live alligators!
Free Things to do in Sarasota for Budget Friendly Fun
Drum Circle. One of the coolest free things to do in Sarasota is to hang out on the beach at sunset. To make that event even more special, come a little early for a drum circle!
The most popular is on Sundays in Siesta Key between lifeguard stands 3 and 4. The second, also on Sunday is on Englewood Beach at 2100 North Beach Rd. The third is on Nokomis Beach at 207 Casey Key Rd. where they gather on Saturday and Wednesday.
Walk the Ringling Bridge. Any time of day or evening, you’ll see people, walking, running and biking this Sarasota landmark. When you are done, head to the park underneath the Ringling Bridge. You’ll find a playground for the kids and a pier for fishing.
Find Sea Turtles. Longboat Key Turtle Watch hosts morning walks each Saturday in July where you can stroll the beach and look for turtles. Florida’s sea turtles nest between May and October, coming ashore in the dark of the night to bury their eggs in the white sandy beaches. I never see a turtle on these walks, but you just might.
Sarasota Scavenger Hunt. A sailor kissing a nurse. A turtle’s egg, a colorful lifeguard stand. These are just a few things that are on the totally free Sarasota Scavenger Hunt. If you are Instagramming, be sure to tag your photos with #mysarasota
Things to do at Night (Fun After Dark)
Rooftop Bars. Get a babysitter for the kids and head to one of Sarasota’s rooftop Bars for a spectacular view of the city and the ocean.
The Art Ovation is a new hotel in the heart of downtown. Relax by day around the pool, then pump it up at night. Your views are accompanied by thumping music, colored lights, and even an artist painting while you watch. The crowd is diverse, from trendy 20-somethings to hip retirees.
Sage Rooftop is located downtown in a historic building that once housed the local newspaper. Put your name in for the restaurant before heading up to the rooftop bar, and ask for Josh as your server. I’ve never met anyone that could describe a menu in such unique detail – the sea bass was an explosion of color. I wanted to hear his version of everything on the menu.
Things to do in Downtown Sarasota
See a Show. Sarasota is called Florida’s Culture Coast for a reason. There is the Sarasota Opera, The Symphony, the ballet, several community theatres, clubs with live music or comedy, and the quirky named Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall where you can see traveling Broadway shows.
The best part about Sarasota’s theatre scene is that many of these facilities, like the Florida Studio Theatre where we took in a show, are right downtown, within walking distance of great restaurants and hotels (or a short drive away).
Sarasota Farmer’s Market. Held year-round on Saturdays, you’ll find lots of local vendors here, as well as kids activities and a bizarrely cool Antique’s Roadshow performance with a local antique dealer. So grab yourself some fresh produce, and get grandma’s clock appraised all at the same time.
UpTown Art Gallery. Take a break from shopping in Downtown Sarasota with a visit to the Uptown Fine Art Gallery on Main Street. Meet the artists every Friday from 6-9 pm and Saturdays 11 – 5 pm.
Rainy Day Options in Sarasota
Sarasota Classic Car Museum. You don’t have to be a car aficionado to enjoy this museum with more than 100 vintage cars from 1885 to the present including John Lennon’s Psychedelic Bentley.
St Armands Circle. The shops may be what draws most people to St. Armands Circle, but for me, it is the ice cream. Six ice cream stores serving up everything from snowballs, and soft serve to hard packed and gelato. I’m gonna need a big tasting spoon.
Unique Things to do in Sarasota
Myakka River State Park. Myakka is one of Florida’s oldest and most scenic parks. Take a stroll through the foliage on the treetop canopy walk for a different perspective of this 37,000-acre park. Top off the day with an airboat ride on the Myakka River.
Marietta’s Muesum of Whimsy. Perhaps it was the name Marietta that struck me, but this funky museum right off the road on your way to Venice caught my eye. The giant neon flamingos flag you down, then inside the gates, you’ll find an outdoor sculpture garden. Time it right here, the museum is only open Thursday through Saturday from 1 to 4 pm.
Architecture Tours. Sarasota has some amazing mid-century architecture and a fun way to see it is via a self-driving tour. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation has put together a free driving tour that takes about two hours. Here’s a link to the brochure.
Atlanta Braves Baseball. There are seven major league teams that play spring training games near Sarasota County Florida. The latest to move is the Atlanta Braves, who played their first spring training game in the brand new Cool Today Field in 2019, and I was lucky enough to be there for the game.
The stadium is intimate. Although you may have a seat, you don’t need to stay in it for long. Take a walk around the field, grab a beer at the Tomahawk Tiki Bar, watch kids roll down the grassy hill at Coca-Cola Corner. Stroll further and see the pitchers practicing literally below you. When you do take a seat, you’ll have a great view of the field, no matter where you sit.
Baltimore Orioles Baseball. I grew up near Baltimore, so before I was a Braves fan, I was an Orioles fan. The Braves may have just arrived in Sarasota for spring training, but the Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota has been known as Birdland South since 1989.
Legacy Bike Trail. The Legacy Trail is a 12.5-mile multi-use trail that runs between Sarasota Near Palmer Ranch and Venice, including through Oscar Scherer State Park. Take a break at the park and walk out to see the two eagles nests. They are HUGE. And who knows, you just might see a few of the majestic birds too.
Which Sarasota Beaches Are Right for Your Visit
Sarasota has six barrier islands with sugary white sand beaches. Which one is right for you? Well, we’ll tell you.
For the History Buff
Lido Key Beach. Once upon a time, Lido Beach was for whites only. In fact, at one time less than two miles of Florida’s beaches (not Sarasota’s, but ALL of Florida) were open to African Americans.
In the 50’s and 60’s residents of Newtown, a community in Sarasota, decided to stage wade-ins at Lido Beach, similar to lunch counter sit-ins, to protest the injustice.
The Newtown African American Heritage Trail was recently added to the U.S. Civil Right Trail. Take a tour from Newtown Alive! to hear the whole story. You’ll most likely hear that story from one of the residents who actually lived it!
Siesta Key Beach. With sugar white sand beaches and lots of condos for rent of various sizes, Siesta Key is a perfect choice for the family getaway.
Build Sandcastles on the beach, and play in a giant one off the beach at the Siesta Key playground. This fun beach themed playground has a giant sandcastle that you can climb inside and it is located just off the beach at the southern tip of Beach Road at the public beach access.
Venice Beach. Called the shark’s tooth capital of the world, Venice beach is a collector’s dream. According to The Fossil Guy, the morning, during low tide, after a storm is a trifecta for fossil hunting.
You don’t need any equipment to sift through the sand, but if you want to make it easier, you can rent a sand sifter from Papa’s Bait and Snack Shop on the Venice Fishing pier.
For Sea Shell Collectors
Mansota Key. This long, natural stretch of shoreline is in South Sarasota County. You’ll find lots of colorful shells and gorgeous photo ops. For the best shelling, head out to the beach about an hour before low tide immediately after a storm.
Tip: Head to the less-frequented Blind Pass Beach on Mansota Key for smaller crowds.
Sarasota Golf Courses
According to the Visit Sarasota website, the town is on the brink of being named among the top golf destinations in the country. I like their confidence.
Although we did not golf on our trip, my husband was asking me about the courses, so I thought I’d share.
The Highlands Golf Course. Part of the Meadows Country Club, the Highlands course is a “trip through Old Florida with solid mature oaks, pines and ponds.”
Tatum Ridge Golf Links. According to Visit Sarasota, “the signature 13th hole is a tough par 5 dogleg over a huge lake. Cut the corner to try for your birdie, but bit off too much and your ball will get wet.”
University Park Country Club. Although this club does have memberships, the public is also welcome. “The greens are top notch, with speed and true rolls, and the course is noted for it’s great overall condition.”
Sarasota Festivals You Don’t Want to Miss
Shark’s Tooth Festival. Held each spring, this festival attracts a crowd that voraciously devour three days of food, fossils, arts and crafts, music and fun for the whole family.
Sarasota Chalk Festival. This event is held twice a year, April in Sarasota and November in Venice. Come see artists transform simple sidewalks into incredible works of art.
Crystal Classic Sand Sculpting Competition. Watch master sand sculptors from around the world vie for thousands of dollars in prize money. This event is one reason to schedule a beach trip for November.
Super Grand Prix Boat Festival. If you have a need for speed than visit Sarasota in July for the Super Grand Prix Boat Festival to watch the power boats zoom through the water. This.Is.Nuts.
Where to Stay: Hotels in Sarasota Florida
The Art Ovation Hotel. One of the coolest hotels I’ve ever visited. As soon as you walk into this downtown Sarasota Fl hotel, your shoulders relax with a whiff of the signature white tea and thyme scent, feel free to pick up a candle of your own in the hotel store, which is more like a museum gift shop than hotel sundry store.
The lobby at Art Ovation doubles as an art gallery with rotating works and daily tours. Each day there is an artist discussion. I overheard a musician debating the merits of different songwriters with some teens, and got the backstory on a painters travels to Cuba. In the evenings, live music fills the atrium.
The art theme doesn’t stop after you get in the elevator, each floor has a different set of prints. Guests are encouraged to vote for their favorite via an app. In the rooms is a mandolin for late night playing, and sketchpad with colored pencils. Each bathroom has it’s own signature rubber ducky, mine was Gene Simmons from KISS. Even the Do Not Disturb sign has an artful twist. Check off your reason for needing privacy – writing my acceptance speech, or painting a masterpiece.
All this is in addition to a comfy cozy bed, and a location in the heart of Downtown Sarasota right across the street from the First Studio Theatre and within walking distance to shops and a multitude of restaurants. They even have a shuttle to the beach.
Home2Suite Hilton Nokomis. As of this writing, there aren’t a lot of hotels near the Braves new spring training field, but I’m sure that is only a matter of time. Close by and very near the darling city of Venice is this Home2Suite which opened in 2017.
Home2Suite is a great option for families because, in addition to a full breakfast, they also have wide counter space, oversized fridge, and microwave in each room, plus a pool and fire pit for hanging out at night.
Turtle Beach Campground. I found this gem researching the Sarasota area. Visitors can pop a tent and camp right at the beach at this Siesta Key campground. If you are lucky, you may see turtle tracks from the sea turtles that laid their eggs on the beach.
Thank you to Pineapple PR and Visit Sarasota for inviting me on a press trip to explore the area as is common in the travel industry. This post is all my opinion and I only recommend places where I’d love to return…like Sarasota! 365 Atlanta Traveler is a Visit Florida Digital Marketing Program Partner.