Urban attractions and the beautiful bayfront enliven Sarasota's cultural and business center. In the last decade, downtown Sarasota has evolved from a barren echo chamber to a bustling collection of some of the most sought-after real estate in the country. Once-empty Main Street storefronts have been replaced by vibrant new shops, trendy restaurants, a big new Whole Foods market, and a 20-screen movie complex. Residential growth is also booming.
Consider Towles Court, where artists and restaurateurs have transformed blocks of neglected traditional Florida cottages into colorful working studios and cafes. Nearby, in the one-block area of Pineapple Avenue known as Burns Court, tiny Mediterranean Revival homes from the '20s have been brightly renovated and now host a mix of ethnic restaurants, stores, including eyeglass boutique IOPTICS and various antique shops, and Burns Court Cinema.
New businesses and urban settlers are flocking into downtown, including the revived Rosemary district on Central Avenue. A host of new high-rises overlook Sarasota Bay, and old-fashioned bungalows within walking distance of Main Street have become some of the town's hottest real estate.
Downtown is also the site of Selby Library, an architectural landmark for its oversized columns and wedding cake façade, and a number of bookstores-including the hip spot for morning coffee and a newspaper, Sarasota News and Books on Palm and Main.
Down on the bayfront, residents stroll along the marina's Bayfront Park, play with children at the outdoor fountain or just relax on the grass, taking in 360-degree views of city, bay and the boats docked at Marina Jack's. A great way to see the city is a sunset tour on LeBarge (366-6116), a charter cruise vessel anchored at Marina Jack's. Or try hopping aboard a Segway (call Florida Ever-Glides at 363-9556 or visit www.floridaever-glides.com for touring information). The new Ringling bridge linking downtown to Lido Key is a favorite of fitness buffs who walk, run and bike its steep incline to enjoy spectacular views of downtown and the keys. And every Saturday morning, the Farmers Market brings vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables to early risers.
Downtown also hosts its own Fourth of July extravaganza at Bayfront Park. The event draws thousands; to escape the madding crowds, pay a small admission charge and view the pyrotechnics from the lush tranquility of nearby Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
The gardens are part of a central cultural district that few cities the size of Sarasota enjoy. It encompasses the Players Theatre, the upcoming Backlot for the Arts complex, the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Florida West Coast Symphony, all within a few miles of each other. Every January, Arts Day showcases these cultural groups in what has become one of downtown's best-attended events.
Palm Avenue bookends Main Street with a block of galleries featuring everything from paintings to glass and metal sculptures. It's home to specialty shops as well, including Whit's End, known for bizarre and beautiful trinkets and home accessories, and restaurants like Caragiulos, an authentic Italian trattoria. After dinner, check out the new Jolly, where fresh espresso complements delectable desserts. Now, that's amore.-Pat Haire
Just a short ride from downtown and near Memorial Hospital, the Hillview neighborhood along Osprey Avenue and Hillview Street is all about boutique shopping and culinary indulgences.
Designated as Southside Village, the thoroughfare is anchored by Morton's Market, a gourmet food emporium where you can spend hours browsing cases filled with fancy meats, fresh salads, international cheeses (about 400), and tempting spreads, all of which you may sample. And don't leave without a box of the rosemary-flavored breadsticks. Connected to Morton's on the left as you face the market is the bakery and chocolate shop with its own resident pastry chef, and to the right is Annabelle's, a luxury kitchen and gift boutique with everything you need to set a gracious table and cook a gourmet meal. Around the corner is a locally famous stationery and gift shop where you can order your party or wedding invitations, pick up a greeting card or invest in a full desk ensemble in fine textured leather. It's right next door to an exemplary wine store. And just a block away are design shops, a wonderful Italian import gallery, jewelry shop and other delights for recreational shoppers.
Oenophiles will sure want to dip into the Tasting Room, right across the street from Morton's, with flights of wine and a full menu of wine tastings. It's next door to Fred's American Bistro, which frequently organizes wine dinners and is known for its Sunday jazz brunch, pizzas anytime, and upmarket comfort food. The bar is a favorite hangout with Sarasota's young hip professionals. Feel free to slink in wearing your body-hugging best.
Within a few minutes' walk is reliable range of excellent restaurants, from Chutney's, known for Indian and Middle-Eastern favorites, to the stylish new Table, Pacific Rim, and golf-themed Sam Snead's Tavern.
WHERE TO PARK
Main Street: Diagonal street spaces have increased Main Street's parking substantially. The municipal lot at Lemon Avenue and State Street is free after five; and there's a parking garage behind the Hollywood 20 and another behind Silver Cricket at Osprey and Ringling Boulevard. One more lot is located on Fruitville Road and Orange Avenue.
Burns Court: You'll need to parallel park along Pineapple Avenue. If those spaces are all taken, you can usually find a spot by roaming the adjacent side streets.
Palm Avenue: Palm Avenue has limited street parking, but a public lot behind Sarasota News and Books at the corner of Palm and Main is free evenings. And there are usually empty spots along nearby Gulf Stream Avenue, right around Ringling Boulevard.
Hillview: Street spaces line Osprey Avenue and Hillview Street, and there are small lots behind and beside Morton's Market.