The Best Cultural Things to do in Sarasota (and More)

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Through the years, we’ve published many great articles about Florida destinations. And while our goal is to keep you active, there’s one city in the Sunshine State where you shouldn’t miss the culture. Sarasota!

My Itchy Travel Feet featured writer, Debi Lander of ByLanderSea, lives in Sarasota. So she’s the perfect person to share the best cultural things to do in Sarasota that boomers will love!

Sarasota distinguishes itself from other Florida cities, like Daytona Beach or Key West, as a cultural hub that heavily supports the performing and visual arts. Visitors find Florida’s usual sunshine and beaches, plus a broad range of attractions and performances.

Where is Sarasota, Florida?

The city lies south of Tampa and St. Petersburg and north of Naples and Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Summers run hot and humid, but the fall, winter, and spring bring warm, drier air with delightful temperatures.

When is the best time to visit Sarasota?

The tourist season runs from Thanksgiving through Easter, with many regulars returning year after year, some for months at a time. Retirees love Sarasota.

Cultural things to do in Sarasota: the best choices

Beautiful downtown Sarasota. Photo by Debi Lander.

Boomer visitors (as well as other travelers) will find a plethora of cultural things to do in Sarasota. From circus history to the performing arts to orchid gardens, there are many unique travel experiences to suit your interests. Come along as I share my best things to do in Sarasota.

Visit Ringling Circus history: an elaborate Sarasota cultural experience

John Ringling, the grandiose circus entrepreneur, and his wife, Mabel, established Sarasota as the winter quarters for the circus in 1927. The seasonal workplace for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus became a village.

At its height, 1,600 people worked there on 160 acres. Hundreds of railroad cars, dormitories, and two ring barns functioned as rehearsal areas for equestrian and aerial acts.

Sarasota retains its circus history. A visit to The Ringling (official website), a series of museums on one property, is a must.

Circus Museum

Step right up and enjoy the property’s Circus Museum, which includes historical items like posters, handbills, and costumes, including John and Mable’s private railroad car. An interactive exhibit lets kids and adults try to squeeze into a model of a 2-by-3-foot clown car and walk a high wire.

A small portion of the miniature tented circus at Tibbals Learning Center. Photo by Debi Lander.

Another building houses the Tibbals Learning Center featuring the “largest miniature tented circus in the world.” The unique 3/4 inch-to-the-foot scale of the 1930’s-era circus spans 3,800 square feet and encompasses eight main circus tents, a big top with 7,000 tiny folding chairs, three rings, and four stages full of clowns, aerialists, and showgirls. The total display includes 42,000 pieces, 1,500 people, 500 animals, and 55 railroad cars.

Howard Tibbals started creating his Howard Bros. Circus display in 1956 while he was a first-year engineering student at North Carolina State University. The intricate and incredibly accurate project continued for over  60 years. The display’s permanent home opened on The Ringling grounds in 1999.

Ca d’Zan Mansion

Ca d’Zan is even more gorgeous from the water. Photo by Debi Lander.

The former personal winter residence and gardens of John and Mable Ringling, named Ca d’Zan, meaning “House of John,” abuts Sarasota Bay and is well worth a tour. The immense 1924 Venetian Gothic-style mansion measures 200 feet in length and encompasses 36,000 square feet with 56 rooms. Notice the decorative tiles, original furniture, an 82-foot tower, domed ceilings, tinted windows, and masterful woodwork.

Make reservations for docent-guided tours or take a self-guided audio tour of the first floor. You’ll learned a lot about the entrepreneur.

The Ringling Museum of Art

A formal garden at Ringling Museum of Art where patches of grass with sculpture in the center are separated by concrete walkways is one of the many cultural things to do in Sarasota, Florida.
The peaceful courtyard at the Ringling Museum of Art. Photo by Debi Lander.

John and Mabel Ringling became fanatical collectors of European art. But John didn’t just purchase paintings; he occasionally bought entire buildings or rooms where the artworks were housed. He shipped them to Sarasota and built his John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1931 with specialized designs to incorporate these objects.

The structure’s style resembles the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, including columned walkways, fountains, flowers, and statues. The central courtyard highlights an exact 16-foot bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David. (David has since become the official city symbol.)

Sadly, John Ringling lost most of his fortune shortly before his death in 1936, mainly due to the collapse of Florida’s land boom and Wall Street’s crash. But, Ringling desperately wanted to leave behind a legacy and generously bequeathed his jewel, the art museum, to the people of the State. He borrowed money to do so.

Today the Ringling Museum of Art features 21 galleries packed with European, American, and Asian art including masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian, Velazquez, El Greco, Gainsborough, and Reynolds. The luscious pink building with a Renaissance façade stands as Florida’s official art museum. The courtyard in the center ranks as my favorite spot in the city.

The Historic Asolo Theater. Photo by Debi Lander.

Finally, visitors can view the historic Asolo Theater within The Ringling entrance building. Initially built in a castle in the Italian town of Asolo, near Venice, in 1789, the castle was dismantled, moved to Sarasota, reconstructed, and is now used for live performances.

In all honesty, The Ringling Museums, like a three-ring circus, offer too much to see at once. I suggest choosing one or two buildings with lunch in the café. Leave time to roam the lush tropical grounds, including Mabel’s Rose Garden, and if you bring children, let them enjoy the outdoor play area.

Attend a performance in Sarasota

The Sarasota Opera, now in its 59th  season, stages performances in an art deco opera house right off Main Street. The historic building, renovated numerous times over the years, was brought back to its original 1926 look in 2008. Since opening, the Sarasota Opera House has witnessed performers such as Will Rogers, the Ziegfeld Follies, and in 1956, Elvis Presley.

Traveling Broadway shows and top music and dance artists appear in Sarasota’s Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation-designed Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. This purple-hued theater overlooks Sarasota Bay, giving concertgoers a sense of the Floridian lifestyle.  

The Sarasota Orchestra holds the record as the oldest continuing orchestra in Florida, while the Sarasota Ballet has featured several world premieres.

A half-dozen theater companies perform comedies and dramas on various smaller stages in and around Sarasota County. You’ll find improv groups, stand-up comedians, and live music filling pubs and clubs across town.

From gardens to cars: more cultural things to see in Sarasota

Besides orchids, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has beautiful spots like this water garden. Photo by Debi Lander.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, in the downtown area of Sarasota, specializes in orchids. You’ll find over 4,000 live specimens flourishing on the grounds.

Bamboo-lined walkways meander through the property, including a rainforest garden, children’s garden, and spectacularly large banyan trees. Climb up to the raised decks with swinging bridges, and enjoy the sound of the waterfalls. The café becomes a nice spot to rest.  

Spanish Point Church. Photo by Debi Lander.

Selby’s sister property, Historic Spanish Point, lies 11 miles south of the city center, another oasis with canopy-covered trails. Sections resemble an Adirondack-style camp from a past era, except with palm trees.

A cottage used by socialite Mrs. Potter Palmer overlooks the water with a formal sunken garden, pool, and pergola. Further along, a fern garden and a butterfly garden include imaginative statuary.

Flamnigos are a popular sight at Sarasota Jungle Gardens. Photo by Debi Lander.

Children (and photographers) love Sarasota Jungle Gardens featuring the opportunity to get close and feed flaming pink/orange flamingos. Reptiles, a petting zoo, and tropical birds thrive amongst other creatures in this lush 10-acre outdoor setting. I imagined Jungle Gardens as a touristy venue but was very surprised. I loved the place–don’t miss it.

Those interested in marine life should visit the manatees, sharks, sea turtles, and otters at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium (official website). The two-fold operation aims to entertain and educate and, in my opinion, succeeds.

Visitors can explore touch pools, the undersea world with over 100 aquarium species, hands-on exhibits, and windows into the science and conservation of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. The facility is known for its research.

The Sarasota Classic Car Museum attracts automobile enthusiasts by showing vintage cars from 1885 to the present.

Cross the iconic Ringling Bridge to St. Armand’s Circle for shopping galore, noshing on ice cream, perusing art, and people-watching. The Circle Ring of Fame pays tribute to famous circus performers worldwide.

Sarasota Beaches: Siesta Key, Longboat Key, Lido Key and Venice

Relax after a cultural day with a sunset viewing at Siesta Key Beach. Photo by Debi Lander.

Beyond the arts, Sarasota prides itself on its talcum-powder soft, white-quartz sand beaches that edge the Gulf of Mexico. Siesta Key Beach appears annually on “Top Beaches in the United States” lists.

The eight-mile-long waterfront lies on a crescent-shaped barrier island. Beachgoers appreciate the restrooms, showers, and large pavilion with a second-floor restaurant.

Siesta, Longboat, and Lido Keys relish the laid-back approach and the lifestyle feels quite the opposite of downtown Sarasota. Smaller restaurants, beach bars, and surf shops span the streets.

Sunset from the pier at Venice, Florida is worth the drive. Photo by Debi Lander.

Venice, 19 miles south of Sarasota, slips within Sarasota County lines and features a spectacular shoreline. It’s earned the nickname Shark’s Tooth Capital of the World due to the thousands of fossilized teeth that wash up yearly. Once you get the hang of spotting them, collecting becomes a passion.

When it’s time to come off the beach and stroll Venice Avenue, you’ll encounter pink Italian Renaissance buildings, Mediterranean-style shops, and “umbrella-topped” date palms.

More outdoor things to do in Sarasota

In addition to lounging and swimming at the beaches, a boat tour of Sarasota Bay gives another view of the city, and a glimpse of some incredible mansions. Hire a captain and boat for a private cruise, or head to LeBarge Cruises for a daytime or sunset cocktail cruise.

Myakka River State Park (official website) offers a chance to kayak through a mangrove tunnel or bike along its 20 miles of trails. Florida’s mangrove forests form shady canals where larger boats can’t go.

Those looking for more exotic animal species can visit the Big Cat Habitat. 

Sarasota Sports: baseball, golf, polo and fishing

Watch polo on your trip to Sarasota. Photo by Debi Lander.

Professional baseball spring training games happen at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota featuring the Baltimore Orioles. You can catch the Pittsburgh Pirates games in nearby Bradenton.

The warm climate helped the Sarasota area become a popular golf destination. Many courses dot the region, including the one originally laid out for the hotel John Ringling planned on the southern tip of Longboat Key.

Golf architect Donald Ross designed the Sara Bay course in the Whitfield area. Bobby Jones was associated with the community course in Sarasota.

They call polo the fastest game on four feet. Come out for a Sunday Polo match at the Sarasota Polo Club grounds in Lakewood Ranch.

Spend the afternoon within 170 acres of manicured grounds boasting seven world-class polo fields, a regulation-size arena, and international competitors. Watch the opening parade, live-action polo match, and half-time entertainment, and participate in the fun of divot-stomping between games.

Sport fishing attracts enthusiasts because of the terrific bounty of the bay. Tarpon is the biggest draw, but gigantic gar and many other species abound.

The best places to eat in Sarasota

The sangria at Columbia Restaurant is delicious. Photo by Debi Lander.

Most Sarasota restaurants offer outdoor dining , covered terraces, and feature fresh Florida seafood. While at St. Armand’s Circle, pop into the atmospheric Columbia Restaurant for epic Spanish fare, Cuban bread, and Sangria. Only a few select cities in Florida have Columbia restaurants, the original (and most fabulous) in Ybor City, near Tampa. Also, near St. Armands Circle, the Daiquiri Deck, runs a daily happy hour special with frozen daiquiris.

Try upscale Ophelia’s on the Bay on Siesta Key for a memorable evening. Dry Dock on Longboat Key serves the best lobster tacos in the world with a great view.

Consider O’Leary’s Tiki Bar and Grill on the Bayfront for a toes-in-the-sand cocktail or casual meal. The laid-back place reminds me of a Jimmy Buffet song. Marina Jack, also on the Bayfront, becomes the place to watch boaters come in and out of the harbor.

In downtown Sarasota, my favorite dining spot is Selva Grill, a Peruvian restaurant with an excellent Pisco Sour, but Sage Restaurant likely has the best cocktails in town. While downtown, Owen’s Fish Camp offers an old Florida feel and live music. 

Visit the Amish neighborhood of Pinecraft for fried chicken and a slice of delicious pie at Yoder’s Amish Restaurant & Amish Village. (I recommend the classic double-crust apple over Key Lime.)

Breakfast suggestions downtown include the Toasted Mango and the coffee shop, Rise & Nyes, run by people with developmental disabilities.

Where to stay in Sarasota

Hotel choices are many and varied. Luxury downtown hotels include the Art Ovation, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection, The Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt Regency, Hotel Indigo, and more.

For beachside resorts, consider the Lido Key Resort or Zota.

Many individual beach properties are available for rent (check here), some apartments, and homes with weekly or monthly contracts. Contact the Ascendia Group for rentals.

Whether you choose to come south for warm weather during the winter months or bring the kids for summer vacation, Sarasota will fulfill your wishes. I ought to know; I live in Sarasota. 

Extend your trip to the Florida Gulf Coast

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