O'Leary's Tiki Bar
O'Leary's Tiki Bar

Experience the Spirit of Sarasota at These Trip-Defining Locales

Once a quaint fishing village, then a booming circus town, and now the visual and performing arts hub of Florida's Cultural Coast: Sarasota's unique history and Florida charm make visiting the area a one-of-a-kind experience—especially for those who know what to look for.

Award-winning beaches, world class theatre and dining, scores of art galleries, and sun-soaked adventures await the entire family in Sarasota County. Map out a plan now to hit five "must see" spots that highlight the best the area has to offer, as well as five "hidden gems" that capture the spirit of Sarasota for an unforgettable experience when visiting Florida's Gulf Coast.

Five 'Must See' Spots that Set the Sarasota Scene

We're willing to bet you may have heard about our beaches—with Siesta Key consistently ranked in the top three (#2 in 2016) on Dr. Beach's annual list of the best beaches in the United States—so we're including these as a freebie: if you've yet to dig your toes into the sand, get thee to Siesta or Lido Key immediately—and then check out these places.

St. Armand's Circle and Lido Key

Lido Key Beach is accessible via St. Armand's Circle, the first stop on our official list of "must see" spots in Sarasota County. Chic shopping and sumptuous dining define today's St. Armand's—much the way the Circle was originally imagined by circus mogul John Ringling, who in the 1920s envisioned a world-class luxury tourist attraction featuring stops, hotels and fine dining. Although St. Armand's is sophisticated, its proximity to the beach lends to a relaxed, casual atmosphere—meaning that if the weather calls for sandals (and it almost always does), feel free to wear them at St. Armand's.

Architecture buffs will also appreciate a visit to the Lido Shores neighborhood, just minutes from St. Armand's Circle and Lido beaches, where several iconic buildings from the Sarasota School of Architecture are located. Landmarks such as Paul Rudolph's Umbrella House and the Hiss Studio, designed by Tim Seibert, are excellent examples of this regional, midcentury-modern style.

The Ringling

Sarasota owes much of its development, charm, and personality to John and Charles Ringling—brothers who are best known for their Ringling Circus empire spanning the twentieth century. The Ringlings established a winter headquarters for the circus in Sarasota in the 1920s. Beyond the circus legacy, John Ringling is remembered for his love of fine art—which he collected during his travels and left to the State to display in the galleries of his sprawling estate, The Ringling, upon his death.

In addition to world-class art galleries featuring Baroque and Renaissance art, Modern art, and the art of Asian antiquity, the Ringling estate also houses one of the world's most comprehensive museums of circus memorabilia and models, and is home to the breathtaking Mediterranean Revival-style Ca d'Zan ('House of John') Mansion, wife Mable Ringling's award-winning, historic rose garden, and most recently, the extraordinarily inventive David F. Bolger Playspace for kids.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Experience the Gulf Coast "life aquatic" at Mote Marine, an internationally-recognized laboratory and aquarium specializing in marine research, conservation and sustainability. The Mote Marine aquarium includes two touch tanks, a 135,000 gallon shark habitat, and more than 100 species of marine life—including 'local celebrities' like Hugh and Buffett the manatees, and Hang Tough, Harry and Shelley the sea turtles.

Mote offers a variety of unique experiences, including "Breakfast with the Sharks", "Full Moon Paddle" kayaking tours, seahorse conservation lab tours, eco-boat tours, and research charters offering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to become a marine scientist for a day.

While you're in the area, pay a visit to Mote Marine's neighbor, Save Our Seabirds, an outdoor education and rehabilitation center for native coastal birds and other feathered friends which doubles as a "living museum." More than 120 birds call the three-acre Wild Bird Learning Center their home.

Downtown Sarasota at Five Points

Five Points Park sits at the center of downtown Sarasota, and serves as the hub for action, activity and exploration in the area. Get your bearings at Five Points to locate the downtown theatre district, home to the historic Sarasota Opera House and Florida Studio Theatre, as well as fine dining at the Bijou Cafe—a 30-year standard in Sarasota cuisine, housed in a charming, vine covered historic pumping station from the 1920s.

Five Points provides access to the Downtown Sarasota Farmer's Market along Lemon Ave. and State St. on Saturdays, as well as shopping, dining and nightlife along Main Street. Five Points also offers walkable access, via S. Pineapple Ave., to the charming historic Burns Court District, where visitors can find cute sidewalk cafes, boutique and antique shopping, and independent cinema, as well as the tucked-away local classic dining spot, Owen's Fish Camp.

Each of the aforementioned downtown locations is located within less than one mile from Five Points Park.

Bayfront Park and Marina

An afternoon enjoying the sun, shade and bay breezes at Bayfront Park is one of the most pleasurable experiences Sarasota has to offer. This peninsular park makes for the perfect picnic spot, featuring shady Banyan trees, swing-style benches along the water, a playground and waterpark for kids, and sidewalk with ample space for strolling, longboarding or rollerblading the waterfront perimeter of the park. Dogs (on a leash) are welcome, with plenty of grassy space to romp and relax.

Bayfront Park is home to the popular O'Leary's Tiki Bar and restaurant, where guests can dip their toes in the water while enjoying beach bar bites, beers and cocktails. Arrive in the late afternoon to experience a ride on LeBarge Tropical Sunset Cruises, departing from the docks at Bayfront Park.

Don't Overlook These Five Hidden Gems

Beyond the main attractions, a trek off the beaten path reveals some of the coolest details about the Gulf Coast Florida region—including a fun local arts scene, "old Florida" charm in south Sarasota County, abundant nature, and homestyle classic Florida cooking.

Towles Court Artist Colony

Located at the southeastern edge of downtown Sarasota, Towles Court Artist Colony is so well tucked away it's easy for the untrained eye to overlook. Spanish moss-draped live oak trees shade this charming enclave of historic 1920s bungalows and cottages, which have been re-purposed as artist studios, shops, salons and more. From small souvenirs to high quality original artwork, Towles Court artists capture the spirit of Sarasota in their work.

Get a taste for classic "old Florida" Sarasota, particularly as it looked in the 1920s and 1930s, by strolling through Towles Court—especially during the monthly Third Friday Art Walks, during which artists open their doors for extended hours from 5-9pm, offering complimentary small bites and wine, as well as live entertainment.

Downtown Venice

Drink deeply of that classic "Old Florida" charm in Downtown Venice, an area that exemplifies the unhurried, "no worries" vibe for which Florida's Gulf Coast is known.

Palm tree-lined avenues offer plenty of shopping and dining to occupy a day, as well as a splash fountain at Centennial Park, theatre at the Venice Theatre and Venice Performing Arts Center, the Venice Art Center, and the Venice Symphony.

Explore the Mangrove Tunnels

It doesn't get much more "off the beaten path" than in the mangroves in Sarasota County. Of Sarasota's marine habitats, the mangrove tunnels found at Ted Sperling Park on Lido Key and at Caspersen Park in Venice are some of the most uniquely Floridian, wild exploring spots in the County.

Rent a kayak to explore the waters of southern end of Lido Key via Ted Sperling Park, where paddlers may encounter everything from small fish and crustaceans in the Gulf sea grasses, to hawk-eyed osprey, wading snowy egrets, and even manatees among the mangroves.

In the south county, Caspersen Park in Venice offers nature trails through saltwater and freshwater marshes and dune walkovers, as well as a kayak launch for marine exploration and wildlife viewing. As a bonus, Caspersen is recognized as one of the beaches that give Venice its claim to fame as the "Shark's Tooth Capital of the World," for the abundance of collectable, prehistoric shark's teeth that wash ashore.

J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Cafe

Originally used for packing locally-cultivated celery back in the 1920s, J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Cafe is a tucked-away gem in Sarasota, featuring Florida-style southern and Caribbean-inspired cooking, as well as live bluegrass, folk and acoustic music and cold beer.

A neighboring structure fire put J.R.'s Old Packinghouse Cafe out of of commission for several months in 2015, much to the dismay of locals who flocked to the restaurant for its mouthwatering diversity of distinctly Florida fare: Cuban pork sandwiches and classic 'ropa vieja', catfish filet, black beans and rice, and homemade key lime pie and bread pudding.

As of February, 2016 the local standard is back in business—and the prime place to experience authentic Florida cooking and local entertainment.

Tito Gaona's Trapeze Academy

A visit to the former winter headquarters of the world-famous Ringling Barnum & Bailey Circus wouldn't be complete without the opportunity to experiment with that lifelong dream of running away and actually joining the circus.

Head out to Tito Gaona's Trapeze Academy in Venice for a one-of-a-kind hands-on immersion into the world of circus acrobatics. Not only does Tito's offer the bragging rights of hitting the trapeze with world-renowned aerialist, Tito Gaona—whose famous family, the Flying Gaonas, are known as the "First Family of Circus," having performed for five generations with the Ringling Circus and the Big Apple Circus—but the experience encapsulates the exhilarating spirit of the circus upon which Sarasota is built.

Tito Gaona's Trapeze Academy offers classes year-round for kids and adults, noting that they've had "flyers from 6 to 85!" ...And what could possibly be a more memorable way to remember your visit to Sarasota than by flying above it on a trapeze swing?

Discover Your Sarasota

Sarasota is a place of many flavors. From the fine arts to the circus scene; the charming "old Florida" streets of Venice to sophisticated modern architecture of Lido Shores—to the spakling-sand beaches, freshwater marshes and saltwater mangrove forests of the Florida coast: there's something to take in no matter what your style of adventure.

So get to exploring—and discover your Sarasota today.