Scottish Heritage Society of Sarasota
Cultural exchange with Sister Cities

Sarasota's Special Relationship with Sister Cities

Learn how ‘Citizen Democracy’ is working, right here in Sarasota.

Have you ever seen the big blue sign at Island Park that says “Welcome to the Sarasota Bayfront” with two hands superimposed with a map, referencing something about Sarasota’s “Sister Cities”? And have you ever wondered what that was all about? 

Turns out it’s something very special.

The sister city concept began in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered the bold idea of ‘citizen diplomacy’ which ultimately became a program under the auspices of the National League of Cities. Its mission was to create opportunities for individuals and organizations in U.S. cities to interact with peers in foreign cities. Founders believed that well-formed personal relationships ‘would lessen the chance of future world conflicts.’ Certainly, a bold concept.

In 1963, Sarasota formed Sister Cities Association of Sarasota (SCAS) to develop relationships with communities that shared similar interests through cultural, economic, educational, diplomatic, digital, municipal and sports/youth programs. Since then, members have been focused on interactive exchanges, business opportunities and tourism growth, finding ways to build better communities and enhance quality of life.

Currently, Sarasota has nine Sister Cities: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (1990), Perpignon, France (1994), Vladimir, Russia (1994), Tel Mond, Israel (1999), Dunfermline, Scotland (2002), Treviso, Italy (2007), Siming, Xiamen, China (2007), Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico (2010) and Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland (2018).

So, how did these connections form? Here are a few examples:

Sarasota’s relationship with Scotland began in 1885 when Scots came to Sarasota with the promise of a “sunny paradise.” Unfortunately, bad weather forced them to leave, but not long after, John Hamilton Gillespie was hired to help work crews design Sarasota and make life more bearable. In addition to his planning skills, he also brought with him the sport of golf, and once Sarasota incorporated in 1902, he was elected the city’s first mayor. One visible reminder of this special relationship shows in the Mertz Theatre at Asolo Repertory Theatre, which houses the 500-seat theater originally built in 1903 as an opera house in Dunfermline, Scotland. 

Tel Mond, Israel has been a sister city since 1999. It’s a commercial city, but surrounded by orange groves. Our cities are similar in that they’re growing

and they support cultural interests, mostly within a senior population. Tel Mond was the first sister city to have a song written about the relationship called “Sarasota and Tel Mond” featuring the work of children from both locations.

Xiamen, Fujian Province, China has several commonalities with Sarasota, including coastal location, semi-tropical climate, urban planning and historic preservation efforts, tourist attractions, cultural and educational resources, a major international airport, strong economic development and environmental stewardship via marine biology research and coastal projects.

And what are some of the exchanges or collaborations our cities have shared? 

1) Bayfront Park is lined with trees donated by many sister cities. It’s a place where folks can roam while enjoying another collaboration, the Embracing Our Differences art exhibit featuring local and international artists — an event designed to ‘educate and inspire to create a better world.’ 

2) A training program facilitated by Florida Studio Theater, whereby students and teachers participate in the “Write A Play” program, part of the Young Playwrights Festival and Competition.

3) Groups highlight cultural learning opportunities, like Sarasota Highland Games & Celtic Festival organized by the Scottish Heritage Society of Sarasota.

4) Student exchanges like the one between Riverview High School and Perpignan Pablo Picasso Lycee’ with a theme of ‘sustainability through solar energy;’ Tel Mond dancers performing at Riverview High School, Sarasota Military Academy and Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee; Girl Scout and Boy Scott exchanges between Dunfermline and Sarasota; Rapperwill-Jona volleyball students playing in a Sarasota tournament; ‘Sister City Video Boot Camp,’ where students study cable news production at Sarasota High School; and students from Sarasota visiting the Perpignan Catalan Festival in France to perform a song, music & acrobatics presentation.

5) A Sustainability Conference at USF Sarasota with speakers from six sister cities and representatives from several Florida universities.

In addition, SCAS offers events and learning opportunities, like the Speaker’s Bureau, featuring presentations with partner organizations to share information about cultures and trips; the annual “One World Award” luncheon to celebrate SCAS and acknowledge individual and group recipients (in 2018,

Second Chance-Last Opportunity is one of the recipients); and free monthly Selby Library presentations about world cultures. 

In all, we’ve celebrated more than fifty years of alliances and exchanges, and our community is richer because of visionaries who saw the value of person-to-person collaborations. 

Maybe world peace really is possible, one collaboration at a time. . .

To learn more or to get involved, contact Sister Cities Association of Sarasota.


Nicole Coudal is a writer and home-chef based in southwest Florida, where she fishes and cooks using local ingredients. When not on the water, she visits farms, farmer’s markets, and other food-related venues to highlight what’s in-season and to create tasty recipes. Read more at