THE SEA, THE SCENERY, SCIENCE AND THE CIRCUS ALL shine in Sarasota’s world-famous attractions, which highlight natural wonders and local history while ushering in the artists and innovators of tomorrow.
The area’s history spans prehistoric Native Americans and pioneer settlers, whose stories are highlighted at the South Florida Museum and can be experienced firsthand at Historic Spanish Point. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s conquests shine at the De Soto National Memorial, while plantation life takes the spotlight at the Gamble Plantation and Memorial.
When it comes to the 20th century, nothing stands out more than John Ringling’s contributions to the area: His circus, his massive Baroque art collection, and even his fondness for intricate Italian architecture are all on display at the Ringling Museum. There, you can take in the largest collection of paintings by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens outside of Paris, then experience an 18th-century opera house in the Historic Asolo Theater and a stroll through the largest miniature circus in the world before taking in the jaw-dropping wonder that is John Ringling’s 1920s, bayfront Ca d’Zan mansion. It’s a 66-acre tribute to the golden age of Sarasota.
As for future ages, look no further than the scientific breakthroughs and enduring tropical beauty at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, with its internationally recognized orchid and epiphyte research, as well as Mote Marine Laboratory and its adjoining aquarium. Plus, G.WIZ the Hands-On Science Museum and the Bishop Planetarium at South Florida Museum are teaching the next generation of Sarasota scientists to explore their world and reach for the stars.
Many of these attractions offer discount web coupons; be sure to check each organization’s site before you go.
De Soto National Memorial, 3000 75th St. NW, Bradenton. (941) 792-0458. In May 1539, explorer Hernando de Soto set foot on “La Florida” close to the mouth of the Manatee River in Bradenton. This historical hot spot is a great destination for all ages. Its 25 acres of natural beauty are home to several exhibits dedicated to the Spanish and Native American history of the area, and “living history” re-enactments performed by Conquistadors at select times during the winter and spring give insight to life in the formative years of our region. Free. nps.gov/deso
South Florida Museum/Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131. The home of a number of unique attractions, including Snooty, the 63-year-old manatee, this downtown Bradenton landmark includes the South Florida Museum, with exhibits detailing the region’s history and native peoples, and the Bishop Planetarium, with its state-of-the-art digital projection system that lets visitors explore the cosmos and stargaze at any time of day. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Adults $15.95, seniors 65 and up $13.95, children four-12 $11, free for children under four (with a paying adult). southfloridamuseum.org.
Gamble Plantation and Mansion, 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton. (941) 723-4536. Once a fully functioning sugar plantation, this is the only surviving plantation in South Florida. This former home of Major Robert Gamble is believed to have been the hiding place of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin until he could escape to England after the fall of the Confederacy. Guided tours ($6, children $4) are offered six times a day, Thursday through Monday. The gorgeous grounds feature extensive grassy areas and picnic tables shaded under live oaks. Free. floridastateparks.org/gambleplantation
Historic Spanish Point, 337 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 966-5214. Pioneer-era buildings, the extensive gardens of Mrs. Bertha Palmer (former owner of the site), and a butterfly garden that is the largest on the Gulf Coast make this 30-acre bayfront haven in south Sarasota worth the trip. Miles of paths lead through a jungle walk, pioneer cemetery and a bayside boardwalk with many native species of flora and fauna to marvel at along the way. Open daily except for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Adults $10, children 5-12 $5, seniors 65 and up $9. historicspanishpoint.org.
Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956. Set on the calm South Creek, this park is perfect for kayaking and canoeing (guides and rental boats available). There are also 15 miles of trails for hiking and bicycling. Visitors can fish or swim in Lake Osprey, or picnic and camp in select areas. $5 per vehicle for up to eight people ($4 for a single occupant vehicle); $26 (plus tax) per night to camp. floridastateparks.org/oscarscherer
Ringling Museum of Art/Cà d’Zan Mansion/Ringling Circus Museum/Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. One of North America’s 20 largest museums, this must-see destination offers a diverse collection of treasures acquired by circus maven (and Sarasota resident) John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Start outside with the expansive grounds, which feature stately banyan trees and Mable Ringling’s 99-year-old rose garden. The art museum hosts a variety of exhibits each year, but it may be best known for its collection of Baroque paintings, particularly those of Peter Paul Rubens. The Tibbals Learning Center, Ringling’s tribute to the circus heritage of Sarasota, is home to the world’s largest miniature circus.
The Ringlings’ elegant Venetian mansion, the Cà d’Zan (“House of John” in Venetian dialect), overlooks beautiful Sarasota Bay. The Historic Asolo Theater, a beautifully restored 18th-century Italian opera house, hosts performances and movie viewings. To make the world of Ringling complete, there are two restaurants, the chic, Italian-themed Treviso and the more casual Banyan Café. Open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Adults $25, seniors over 65 $20, active U.S. military, children ages six-17, students with ID and Florida teachers, $10. Free for all museum members and children under six. On Mondays, admission to the Museum of Art is free. ringling.org
Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 371-6377. Kay Rosaire, an eighth-generation animal trainer, began rescuing animals, including abused large cats, in 1987. Twenty-five years later, Big Cat Habitat is home to dozens of lions and tigers, as well as bears and birds, a chimpanzee and more. The Rosaires have made their eastern Sarasota compound a permanent home for these amazing creatures. You’re welcome to see the animals up close during regular educational demonstrations and private tours. Adults $20, children 12 and under, $10. See website for a calendar of events, tours and demonstrations. bigcathabitat.org
Crowley Museum and Nature Center, 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000. A natural and historic haven in pastoral east Sarasota County, Crowley features several 19th-century structures as well as a number of everyday pioneer tools, furnishings and items from the “Old Miakka General Store.” All those artifacts are nestled within acres of Old Florida pine forest and Myakka River marsh and connected by trails and a half-mile boardwalk with a two-story observation tower. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July. Adults $8, children five-12 $3, children under five are free. crowleymuseumnaturectr.org
G.WIZ: The Hands-On Science Museum, 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. (941) 309-4949. The Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ) offers kids of all ages the opportunity to explore nature, technology, art and more through hands-on exhibits like Mindball, Critter Habitat, the Illusion Room and many more. The museum also hosts traveling exhibitions. Facilities are available for hosting science-centric field trips and birthday parties. Adults $10, seniors $9, children three-16 $7. Group discounts available. gwiz.org
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. Home to more than 6,000 rare orchids and some 20,000 plants, this 9.5-acre bayfront property begs to be explored. Tours of Tropical Display House, grounds and butterfly gardens are available. Save some time for the gift shop, a favorite for items from orchids to tropical-themed art. Open daily except Christmas. Adults $17, children six-11 $6, children under six are free. selby.org
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441. With an aquarium displaying more than 100 species of animals, including sharks, eels, manatees, sea turtles and so many more, Mote is another internationally known scientific hot spot. Unlike some aquariums, Mote is also a fully functional marine laboratory, conducting research to gain better understanding of marine life. Hands-on activities include the stingray touch tank. Visitors can also watch the sharks being fed or peek into the working labs. Adults $17, seniors over 65 $16, children four-12 $12. Free for children under four. Open daily including holidays. For a discount web coupon, visit mote.org
Myakka River State Park, nine miles east of I-75, 13208 S.R. 72. (941) 361-6511. Whether you want to hike the 39 miles of trails, ride a horse in the wilderness or embark on any of a number of other adventures, with 38,000 acres of scenic Florida to offer, Myakka offers outdoor activities for everyone. You will, of course, see an alligator or two, but you could also spot a deer, wild hogs, and if you’re lucky, a bobcat. Birders especially must consider the Canopy Walk, high atop the trees. Plus, the park offers the best lodging deal in town: $70 for a group of up to six to stay in a rustic but comfy cabin. (To learn more, see story on page 96.) Open daily. $6 per vehicle of two to eight people, ($4 for a single occupant vehicle); $26 (plus tax) per night for a campsite with water and electricity outlets. floridastateparks.org/myakkariver
Sarasota Classic Car Museum, 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-6228. Open since 1953, this is a venue that no car lover should miss. It features more than 100 automobiles, including Ferraris, DeLoreans and even John Lennon’s Bentley. There’s also an antique game arcade and camera exhibit. Open daily except Christmas Day. Adults $7.85, seniors over 62 $6.50, children six-12 $5, free for children under six. Group rates and annual passes available. For a discount coupon, visit sarasotacarmuseum.org.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305. Open since 1940, this oasis of low-key charm and natural beauty is truly one of the last Old Florida tourist attractions. Perfect for families, whether for a few hours or an entire day, the 10 acres of tropical paradise and bird and reptile shows capture your attention. Get your picture taken with a parrot on your arm and feed the pink flamingos that crowd around for a treat. The Flamingo Café has surprisingly good food for a snack shop. Adults $15, seniors over 60 $14, children three-12 $10, free for children under two. For a discount web coupon, visit sarasotajunglegardens.com.
Warm Mineral Springs, 12200 San Servano, North Port. (941) 426-1692. Claimed by some as the Fountain of Youth, this Sarasota County attraction is home to the mineralized waters that are said to ease back pain, skin conditions, sinusitis and other ailments. Take a dip and see for yourself—or skip the water and get pampered at the spa. Open daily (weather permitting) except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adults $20, students $15, children 12 and under $10, children under two free. warmmineralsprings.com
With international scientists contributing specimens from all over the world, Selby Gardens has more than 20,000 species of plants, including more than 6,000 rare orchids.