We realize it's the weather and the beaches that brought you here. And who could resist the exquisite, quiet pleasures of shelling, reading a thriller under a beach umbrella or floating on your back in the Gulf while the sun makes sparkly diamond patterns on the blue-green water?
But come on-we know you really want to go shopping. Great finds are everywhere, from quirky boutiques in beach villages to full-service modern malls and huge discount emporiums. Savvy shoppers, passionate collectors or sophisticated browsers can happily spend days and weeks discovering rare pieces of blue coral, international clothing lines, the perfect bathing suit or straw hat. And while the rest of your friends and relatives are hunting up their snow boots and fur hats, you get to try on the newest in sexy strappy sandals and cotton sundresses.
So don't wait for that rainy day to coax you off the sand and into the stores. It's OK to shop while the sun is shining. Here's our handy guide.
MAIN STREET, SARASOTA
It's where to see and be seen lunching at a French café, perusing design showrooms and spacious furniture shops and exploring the town's most fashionable new food market (Whole Foods, off Main Street on Lemon Avenue).
Because this part of downtown is experiencing a high-rise luxury condominium renaissance, Main Street has a new residential glow about it that makes this part of the city a thriving local neighborhood. Main still retains its small-town charm, but now expresses a generous amount of retail hustle and bustle. Some of the eateries are open late at night if you want a stroll and a nibble after a movie or an opera or theater performance.
PALM AVENUE & LOWER MAIN STREET
Locals often refer to this area as a street of dreams, because this patch of retail real estate is particularly rich in art galleries and shops that showcase designer home accessories to make one's dwelling a haven of beauty and comfort. The area also excels in jewelry palaces and, of course, many fine places to eat indoors or outside in charming cafés and bistros where you can people-watch for hours. Parking can be frustrating, but city officials are supposed to be working on that.
BURNS COURT & TOWLES COURT
There's a bit of bohemian culture in this historic part of urban Sarasota, just off Pineapple Avenue downtown. Burns Court is your destination for a highly acclaimed art-house cinema with three screens. Explore the neighborhood and discover an eclectic assortment of antiques and gift galleries, funky secondhand and consignment shops and reliable restaurants.
Nearby Towles Court is a genuine artists' colony that features live-work-studio space for active artists in a collection of restored 1920s cottages; plan to participate in a regularly scheduled Friday night art walk, because it's a great way to discover new talent and meet people.
Just off U.S. 41 (also known as Tamiami Trail) a bit south of downtown, this is the place to experience lunch or dinner at one of the town's most famous chi-chi award-winning restaurants. The mall shops are few but select, including a New Age place where you can sign up for a tarot card reading and buy all manner of lovely, lucky polished stones and incense. The spacious all-purpose Davidson Drugs stocks gift and souvenir items (as well as a pharmacy and post office), and the mall also boasts a supermarket, hair salon and offices on an upper level.
A picturesque place for gourmets, Morton's Market dominates a small walking area of shops along South Osprey Avenue that cater to home décor and kitchen accessories, as well as boutiques that feature imported art and gift items, including fine gold and diamond jewelry. But this part of town is basically residential, and over the years small service places sprang up to make life convenient for family living. So expect a heavy sprinkling of doctors' offices, dry cleaners, a pub, bakery etc. No cinemas; street and lot parking.
Some of the restaurants are exceptional, and a tour of the surrounding neighborhoods yields delightful examples of "old Sarasota" types of residential architecture as well as those representing newer expressions of wealth.
WESTFIELD SOUTHGATE PLAZA
Pick up a bright red "sports car" stroller to keep your toddlers amused as you traverse this upscale enclosed linear shopping mall, located at South Tamiami and Siesta Drive. Bookended by major department stores, the mall offers luxury-brand buying possibilities in elegantly appointed shops (both internationally recognizable and locally acclaimed), along with a food court and casual restaurants, all under a light-filled dome ceiling. Besides specialty stores, freestanding kiosks offer unusual buys as well as a place to have your hair cut and nails done. No cinemas, but easy parking in a security-patrolled open-air mall lot.
This open-air mall is especially convenient to the south bridge to Siesta Key and is situated on U.S. 41, the main artery serving the Manatee-Sarasota-Venice communities. The Pavilion is noted for its proximity to many restaurants, but also for its off-price stores, which make it a special destination for bargain hunters. You'll recognize your national penny-pinching haunts right away. No cinemas.
Most locals find the traffic patterns and parking areas at this mall awkwardly configured, and it's always crowded, so be careful parking and exiting. Plenty of places to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner in national chains or independently owned restaurants.
WESTFIELD SARASOTA SQUARE MALL
Grandparents charged with entertaining small ones swear by this mall on a rainy day because of the soft-sculpture indoor playground for tykes. Found at South Tamiami and Beneva, this is the town's huge, everything mall where teens congregate and families shop, see movies, and enjoy relaxed meals in restaurants or the food court. The mall is fully enclosed, with smaller stores grouped around four national department stores. Easy parking in a massive lot. An ambitious renovation and improvement project is getting under way, but there's minimal inconvenience to shoppers.
SIESTA KEY VILLAGE
Situated along Ocean Boulevard on Siesta Key, this spot offers quintessential beach village loafing. Just throw on shorts over your bathing suit, slip into flip-flops and find a shirt with a pocket for your credit card. Window shop amid surfboard emporiums and boutiques that cater to all manner of sea and shore attire, from bathing suits and tennis togs to exquisite gold and silver jewelry sculpted into shells and dolphins. Of course, you can buy genuine shells and coral, too. Many restaurants feature outdoor patio dining as well as air-conditioned inside spaces, some with live entertainment after the sun goes down.
ST. ARMANDS CIRCLE
A historic location, St. Armands Key (just over the Ringling Causeway from the mainland) once belonged to circus king John Ringling, who envisioned the barrier island as a summer White House retreat for President Warren Harding. But that never came to pass, and Ringling deeded the key to the City of Sarasota when he died in 1936. The presidential names of streets radiating off St. Armands Circle are a legacy of Ringling's grand scheme.
Today, the Circle and side streets are filled with restaurants, outdoor cafés, art galleries, gift boutiques, upscale jewelry shops and clothing stores specializing in beach and tennis wear. St. Armands is both hip and international, and folks can party into the night. Street parking and public lots. It's a lovely, long stroll to Lido Beach from the Circle.
A wide avenue lined with trees and flowers, shops, restaurants and slow-walking tourists leads you right to the beach. What a perfect place to enjoy the perfect sunset over the Gulf. Seasoned shoppers say that Venice (in southern Sarasota County) has an Old Florida appeal that is irresistible. Off the main boulevard are antique and "junque" boutiques that can claim hours of time, they're so interesting. You might need another suitcase for the unique and unexpected treasures you'll unearth in quaint shops in Venice.
FISHERMAN'S VILLAGE AT PUNTA GORDA
Choose from a half-dozen lovely restaurants arranged for maximum convenience and postcard eye appeal, or rent a boat or bike to get a new perspective on a truly inviting area that claims an important part of the history of this waterside community in nearby Charlotte County. You'll find small, trendy boutiques and lots of friendly places here that will help you expand your shell supply. There's a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere about this part of Florida's west coast that makes visitors want to consider buying a second home.
This open-air collection of shops and eateries (at I-75 and University Parkway) offers both impulse buying opportunities and focused shopping, and it's increasingly popular with local residents as well as tourists because it's near several new upscale communities. Great buys on quality merchandise from clothing to fine china, furniture to fur-lined jackets; sneakers and snazzy leisure wear, children's togs, lingerie-you'll find it all here. This mall is also very near a huge national home improvement store and several quality chain restaurants.
PRIME OUTLETS, ELLENTON
The shops here are arranged village fashion, with covered walkways and lots of places to sit and rest while you plan your strategy for exploring the next collection of shops. If you truly intend to shop like the experts, plan to make Ellenton a day trip. Prime Outlets is north of Sarasota on I-75; you'll be able to spy the tile roofs and the cluster of cheerful pink buildings from the highway. Mediterranean courtyards, colorful mosaics and pretty fountains add to the allure. There's a spacious food court offering international menus and hundreds of stores that showcase clothing, sporting goods, home furnishings, fine linens for bath and table, children's apparel, kitchen and electronic accessories, jewelry and cosmetics. You can exhaust yourself at this mall, but that's an expected aspect of the total Prime Outlets experience.