Sitting very prettily on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota has wintering northerners to thank for its contemporary status as a cultural hub. Wealthy ‘snow birds’ flocked here in the early 20th century to escape the harsh northeast winters. Their arrival prompted the development of the theater groups, galleries and world-class museums that line up today to entice the modern traveler, who might expect this corner of the Sunshine State to offer little more than, well, sunshine.

Add to the mix botanic gardens, beautiful beaches (including Siesta Beach, named the USA’s best), outdoor activities (try kayaking among alligators) and a lively shopping and dining scene, and it’s easy to see why Sarasota still draws visitors from all walks of life with its seductive charms. Here are some of the highlights.

ornate mansion belonging to a Ringling magnate in Sarasota Florida
The opulent, Venetian-style mansion of one of the Ringling Circus founders is just one of Sarasota's curious historical attractions © benkrut / Getty Images

The greatest show on earth

It’s hard to say what is most impressive at Sarasota’s top attraction, The Ringling. Named after John Ringling, who became one of richest men in 1920s America after making his fortune in the circus business, the complex is a world of its own. First off, there’s Cà d’Zan (House of John in Venice’s dialect), a stunning, Venetian-style, bay-front house on which no expense was spared (it didn’t need to be, given Ringling’s wealth) and home of John and his wife, Mable, who oversaw every detail of the construction. Close by, paintings by world-class artists collected by the Ringlings on their travels are housed in the State Art Museum of Florida. The garden courtyard in the center of the museum is adorned with replicas of famous sculptures, with Michelangelo’s David lording it over all of them. Last, but most definitely not least, is the Circus Museum, a tribute to both the art form that made Ringling rich and to the dedication of one man, Howard Tibbals. For 60 years (and counting), Tibbals has been painstakingly creating a diorama showing in jaw-dropping detail a day in the life of a traveling circus. Follow the miniature animals and performers from their arrival in town by train to the big top show in all its heyday glory. Before leaving, be sure to poke your head into the original Asolo Theatre, an 18th-century-Italian-inspired marvel where performances still sometimes take place.

If the lure of the circus grabs you, the Circus Arts Conservatory has classes for young and older wannabe performers, and also puts on shows.

ringling circus diorama close-up
This massive diorama is a six-decade labor of love by a Florida artist © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

All Sarasota’s a stage

It’s not just the circus that puts on a show in Sarasota. With over a dozen venues covering dance, drama and music (including an opera house), the city has a packed calendar of events throughout the year. The Players Theatre stages Broadway musicals and new plays; the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe has seen its African American actors go on to widespread acclaim; and the Asolo Repertory Theatre offers up dramatic classics as well as being home to the Sarasota Ballet.

The city doesn’t skimp on festivals, either, with something on offer each month. Highlights include January’s Forks & Corks, April’s Sarasota Film Festival and October’s Ringling International Arts Festival.

kayaks in florida state park
Kayaking the peaceful waters of Myakka River State Park © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Getting back to nature

Small enough to be walkable (a plus in Florida’s heat and humidity) but large enough to contain a pleasing variety of landscapes, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are a gardener’s and art-lover’s delight. Along with the plants (notably the orchid collection – this place is the world leader in their study), the gardens also put on rotating art exhibitions (Chagall, Warhol) with a botanical theme.

A few miles down the coast, Historic Spanish Point is another excellent place to discover the tropical plants that flourish in Florida’s climate. Built by more winter-escaping northerners, the large site has nature trails, a mangrove shoreline, and prehistoric middens (mounds of discarded seafood shells) which are evidence that this place had human inhabitants thousands of years before rich, pioneering Americans arrived.

For more active, nature-based fun, head southeast of Sarasota to Myakka River State Park, Florida’s largest. Take a kayak tour to get up close (but not too close) to the hundreds of alligators who call this watery ecosystem home; take a head-for-heights-testing canopy walk above the trees on the lookout for birds of prey; or cruise the lake on one of the world’s largest airboats.

siesta beach #1 sign sarasota florida
With its glimmering pale sand, Siesta Beach is regularly voted the #1 beach in the USA © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Sunning yourself in the Sunshine State

Sometimes all you want to do is dip your feet in the sea and relax on a pristine strip of sand, and Sarasota offers excellent opportunities to do just that.

The Sarasota Keys lie just west of the city and have a host of beaches suited to every kind of traveler. Farthest south is Siesta Beach, regularly voted the best in the US, with pure quartz sand and shallow water that’s perfect for swimming. The central section and nearby Siesta Village get busy (bordering on boisterous), but northern and southern stretches are much quieter. Lido Beach, just west of dining and shopping hub St Armands Circle, lies to the north of Siesta and is slightly more upmarket, while farther north still, Longboat Key’s beaches, particularly the one on Beer Can Island (accessible only by boat), are as idyllic as they are peaceful.

Dining in downtown and beyond

Culinary crowd-pleasers abound in Sarasota. The Downtown area around Main Street has several places taking you from breakfast (French-flavored C’est La Vie), through lunch (sandwiches and salads at Mattison’s), to dinner (fantastic fusion at Selva or a meal-to-remember at farm-to-table specialist Indigenous). Across the bay (you can drive, walk or cycle over the John Ringling Causeway) is St Armands Circle, prime grazing and shopping territory. Really just a traffic roundabout, albeit a successfully spruced up and glamorous one, top spots here for a bite to eat include Madison Avenue Café & Deli.

Clifton Wilkinson visited Sarasota with assistance from Visit Sarasota (www.visitsarasota.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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