(UPDATED JULY 2022) Sarasota is South of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf coast. Its most well-known claim to fame is that it was the winter home to the Ringling Brothers circus. While no longer the Circus Capital of the World, Sarasota prides itself on being a fashionable city with world-class attractions and cultural opportunities. It is the gateway to some of Florida’s finest sugary-sand beaches, including Lido, Siesta, and Longboat Key. Here are the best things to do on a road trip to Sarasota, Florida.
Explore The Ringling, Not Just a Circus Museum
John Ringling was the most well-known of the five Ringling brothers who formed the Ringling Bros World’s Greatest Shows. Whether strolling the 66-acre immaculate grounds, soaking up the Circus Museum’s relics, or roaming Ca’ d’Zan, you are in for a real treat, visually and figuratively, when you come to see The Ringling.
One of the biggest misnomers is that The Ringling is “just a circus museum.” Yes, it has fantastic exhibits showcasing the joyous attraction we have all known and loved from childhood, but it is much more.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a world-class art venue with immaculate grounds adorned with statues and gorgeous waterfront views. This one-of-a-kind property is also home to Ca’ d’Zan, a 56-room Venetian Gothic revival mansion on the bay that was the winter home to the Ringlings.
My Ringling favorites are the clowns, acrobats, and announcers’ costumes from past shows in the Circus Museum. The small-scale Howard Bros. circus model that recreates the circus in 44,000 pieces is mind-blowing! A fun fact is that The Ringling was the first official museum in Florida.
Downtown Sarasota (Five Points) is the city’s civic and cultural district at the intersection of Main Street, Pineapple, and Central Avenues. You will find chic cafes, gorgeous art galleries, and plenty of shopping mixed in with other businesses.
Historic Burns Square is the most popular downtown area, with eateries ranging from upscale Italian to local seafood, a foreign film cinema, and many interesting antique shops. The Sarasota Opera House lies in downtown Sarasota and offers four operas in the winter season plus concerts and recitals.
My favorite Sarasota area is St. Armand’s Circle, outside of town. It is a beautiful area, great for window-shopping the high-end stores, enjoying a glass of wine or a great meal, and people-watching.
Statues of Greek and Roman gods dot the St. Armand’s Circle landscape, a gift from Mr. Ringling in the 1920s. You’ll find really cool shops here, one of them being the Wyland Galleries of Sarasota. They occasionally have guest artists, and I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Barton, one of my favorite Disney artists and creator of the fun and attractive Wavy frames.
Explore a Phenomenal Garden
The alluring Marie Selby Botanical Garden has over 22,000 plants to enjoy, including a rare orchid garden at this 15-acre property. Selby Gardens is the only garden in the world dedicated to studying and displaying epiphytes (orchids) and their ecosystems. This attraction will give your senses a workout!
Selby Botanical Gardens are devoted to research, education, and conservation, which is apparent in daily practices. Signs display information about every type of flower and tree you come across on the pristine grounds. Have your camera ready when you reach the Butterfly and Bromeliad Gardens.
My favorite part of the gardens is the Baywalk, which gives you an up close and personal view of mangroves, a tidal swamp ecosystem that thrives in Florida. You can also see the wide array of bamboo, ferns, and Banyan tree groves.
Have lunch at the Selby House Café by Michael’s on East, which offers delicious salads, sandwiches, and other grab ‘n go items. Beer, wine, coffee, and tea are also available.
Discover the Arts
Sarasota has a surprisingly large number of cultural and art attractions for a town its size. The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe offers dynamic musical productions and intimate live dramas with 205 seats (and a great outdoor venue).
The Players Centre for Performing Art, 90 seasons in Sarasota, offers classes, workshops, and theater productions showcasing music and dance. The Florida State Theatre, a part of the fine arts college, also provides the FSU flying high circus, lectures, ballet performances, and music.
The Bayfront of Sarasota affords impressive waterfront views and the famous 26-foot-tall, larger-than-life “Unconditional Surrender” aluminum statue. Visitors love stopping by the area for a photo op.
Beautiful Sarasota County beach towns are within minutes from Downtown Sarasota, so a drive to Lido Key and Siesta Key are highly recommended. Lido Key has cool spots for picnicking and walking trails. Siesta Key is your primo destination for epic sunsets and white sugar-sand beaches.
To learn more about visiting Siesta Key, check out our article about the best things to do here.
Incredible Breakfast Dishes
Sarasota has many raved about restaurants, cafes, and diners. From the handful of meals I’ve had in Sarasota, I can vouch for them all being fantastic. Buttermilk Handcrafted Food, Simon’s Coffee House, and Toasted Mango Cafe are three of the best for breakfast and coffee.
Discover Sarasota’s best-kept secret at Simon’s Coffee House, a whole foods restaurant serving gourmet breakfast and lunch, emphasizing raw foods, vegan, and vegetarian fare. The Costa Rican Crepes are incredible! Another delicious breakfast spot is the Toasted Mango Cafe, featuring tasty French toast, omelets, and waffles. The Breakfast Banana Split is quite impressive.
Buttermilk Handcrafted Food is off the beaten path but well worth the effort to get there. Inside an adorable and stylish building, Buttermilk has a fabulous coffee and tea selection and lip-smacking good biscuit creations. I pick is the sandwich with Benton’s bacon, pimento cheese, and baked egg. It was epic!
St. Armand’s Circle has an arsenal of delicious eateries for lunch or dinner, Shore being one of them. Choose from Grouper Tacos, Crab Cake Salad, or the Shore Burger (with Tillamook cheddar and bacon jam) at the al-fresco coastal eatery of the clothing store by the same name. Another excellent choice is Columbia, Florida’s gem of Spanish restaurants. Try the half and half combo with the signature salad and Cuban sandwich to sample the two most popular dishes.
A unique lunch offering in Sarasota is Yoder’s, an Amish restaurant. This massively popular restaurant offers window ordering curbside, a thriving dine-in, and carry-out orders. Yoder’s Roasted Turkey Breast and Stuffing with green beans, a side of cranberry sauce, and mac & cheese are exceptional. Save room for Yoder’s main attraction—gourmet pies and cakes.
There is also a produce and deli market and gift shop on the property. Yoder’s has exceptionally good food with an affordable price tag.
Divine Dinners and Dessert
For a special dinner, drive to Siesta Key, literally five minutes from town, and enjoy an impeccable French-inspired menu from Miguel’s. I loved the tableside Caesar salads and Cherries Jubilee (or Bananas Foster) that made this dining experience one to remember. The food is excellent, and Siesta Key is a Florida hotspot.
Keep it casual with a BBQ meal from Stottlemyer’s Smokehouse, serving pulled pork, pizza, taco, and much more. Stottlemyer’s Smokehouse has an enormous covered outdoor dining area with live music. Don’t miss the collard greens. They are sensational!
To satisfy your sweet tooth, Choulala and Kilwins can do the trick. I first discovered Choulala on a visit to Winter Park and was thrilled to see a location in St. Armand’s Circle. These babies (French pastries filled with confectioner’s custard) are small but satisfying and a real treat. My favorite flavors are passion fruit, chestnut, and pistachio.
At Kilwins, enjoy a dip of original recipe ice cream or a sundae drenched in homemade caramel sauce. Confections, Mackinac Island fudge, gourmet apples, and chocolates are also available. If in season, try “The Perfect” Apple Pie with the caramel topping—oh my stars, it is fantastic!
Unique Lodging in Sarasota
Enjoy the comforts of staying in a park model RV at Sun n Fun RV Park. Sun n Fun, an award-winning luxury RV resort, has over 1500 spaces for RV parking (back-in and pull-through) or park model vacation rentals. If you aren’t familiar with this term (park models), they are similar to small cottages but have the exact layout of an RV without having to drive and pay for gas for one.
I stayed in a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom unit courtesy of Go RVing (a trusted resource for everything about RVing, including where to go, where to stay, etc.) with a large living room, fully furnished kitchen, and dining room area, and enormous screened-in porch. There is parking for two vehicles in front of the park model RV. Units are family-friendly, many sleeping up to six people, and even linens are provided.
Sun n Fun RV Park guests can enjoy the amenities (active lifestyle offerings) throughout the resort, including the Olympic-size heated pool, tennis courts, fitness center, group activities, shuffleboard, and much more. Sun n Fun RV Park is pet-friendly, and there are even two bark parks for your four-legged babies to explore.
The park model vacation rentals are fully stocked with dishes, silverware, wine tools, coffee maker, toaster, microwave, and oodles of storage. Being in Florida, I can attest that the AC worked very well to keep the unit cool and comfortable. Cable, Wifi, and washer/dryers are also available, and some of the units are handicapped accessible.
A Sarasota Road Trip Is Sure To Satisfy
Sarasota is a beautiful Florida city with a host of fun things to do. Its lovely skyline and bay views are a visual stimulant, while its laid-back vibe will satisfy locals and tourists. I hope you will make your own special memories at the places listed above like I did on your road trip to Sarasota.
Thanks to Visit Sarasota County for tickets to the garden and Ringling Museum. As always, all opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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