A Sarasota visitor's bucket list
This Visitor’s Annual is filled with stories about what to do, see and enjoy here, with a special focus on our world-famous beaches, those 35 magical miles of dazzling white sand and sun-kissed surf, as well as comprehensive insider’s guides to shopping, recreation, attractions, entertainment and more. If you didn’t already know that Sarasota offers more sightseeing, natural beauty and cultural excitement than anyone could experience in a lifetime, you soon will.
But what if you don’t have a lifetime—or even two weeks—to explore and enjoy our city?
Not to worry—we editors, who collectively have accumulated more than a century of Sarasota experiences, have come up with a Sarasota “bucket list”—the 10 top things every visitor should do before they depart our sunny shores.
We started with notebooks full of ideas but decided we’d omit the obvious (“go to the beach”) and the ubiquitous (most resorts have good shopping) to focus on experiences that could only happen in Sarasota. Some are well-known and others are off the beaten path, but even we old-timers still thrill to each and every one.
Walk on the beach when the moon is full. One night a few years ago, an enormous moon hung low in the sky, and I decided I’d take my dog down to the beach. (You’re not supposed to do that, but at 10 p.m., I figured there’d be nobody there to see.) But as we walked down from Point of Rocks towards Siesta Public Beach, we soon became part of a surreal parade. Lovers holding hands, moms pushing strollers, kids running into the surf—an army of night stalkers, totally visible in the bright light, marched along the sand. I walked for miles, marveling at the eerie scene and gazing out at the Gulf, which sparkled with silver moonbeams. If you’re here during a full moon, see for yourself.
Ride on the Gator Gal. Every Sarasota visitor must see an alligator—up close and in the wild. And the best place to do that is at Myakka River State Park, about 20 minutes east of town. Once, when I was kayaking there during their mating season, two enormous bulls on the bank bellowed and dove towards us with a splash that rocked the boat. You’ll feel calmer (and drier) on the Gator Gal, an airboat that takes you out on a beautiful lake, where the guide points out diving ospreys and more alligators than you can believe.
Stroll through the treetops at Myakka River State Park. After your airboat ride, take a short walk off the main road to the Canopy Walk, a narrow pathway through the tops of cabbage palms that gives you a bird’s-eye-view of the ecology up there. The walk ends with a climb up an observation tower to a heartstopping 360-degree view. Everywhere you look, high above the hawks riding the air currents, you see green forest, the blue curves of the river, and the primeval splendor of a Florida that looks untouched by man.
See Circus Sarasota. If you’re here during February, you absolutely, positively must go to a performance of our own Circus Sarasota. Founded and operated by two circus greats—aerialist Dolly Jacobs (daughter of the legendary clown, Lou Jacobs) and her husband, South Africa’s Pedro Reis, this homegrown success story carries on our city’s circus tradition by bringing some of the world’s most brilliant circus acts to its one-ring tent. I go at least twice every season.
Take the Private Places Tour of Cà d’Zan. Every visitor can see the spectacular public areas of the Venetian-style bayfront mansion of John and Mable Ringling, but touring the upper floors gives you a wonderful sense of how this rich and famous couple lived during the Roaring ‘20s. You can almost see guests like Will Rogers waking up in the ornately furnished guest bedrooms and marveling at the warm winter sunshine streaming through the jewel-colored window panes. The game room on the third floor is a showstopper, with its strange and wonderful ceiling paintings by Willy Pogany, and the view from the Belvedere Tower of the lush grounds and Sarasota Bay make you realize what a wonderland the Ringlings created in what was then a remote little Florida settlement.
Cruise on LeBarge. Yes, it’s the ultimate touristy thing to do, but there’s a reason everybody takes a sunset cruise on LeBarge, the double-decker boat with the giant palm trees moored at downtown’s Marina Jack’s. The two-hour trip is a wonderful way to mellow out with a drink and live music and see Sarasota at its absolute best—from the water. If this town is about anything, it’s about luxury waterfront living, and you’ll peek into the lush back yards, pretty pools and other outdoor living areas of some of the most gorgeous homes in town—a few of them inhabited by genuine celebrities.
Go to a spring training game. I’m not a baseball fan, but even I can get into the spirit of the game on a balmy March day at cozy Ed Smith Stadium. People relax in the sunshine, chat about the season past and upcoming, and get closer to the players than they possibly could up North. Our contributing editor (and baseball fanatic) David Grimes explains the allure of spring training this way: “Often the game itself is an afterthought. What matters is the green field, the blue sky and the sight of grown men hitting, throwing and catching a ball. Baseball is back and hope springs eternal. If you don’t believe it, just asks Cubs fans.”
Marvel at the orchids in the Tropical Display House at Selby Gardens. We have the world’s best collections of orchids at the 10-acre Selby Gardens, and scientists and orchid enthusiasts come from all over the globe to see them. Best viewing: the Tropical Display House, which replicates the warm, moist conditions of a lush rainforest. Look up, down, and all around to take in the amazing variety of colors and forms on display. Orchid-fanatic volunteers will happily point out the rare and exotic to you, and if you like, you can buy your own top-quality specimen in the gift shop when you leave.
Eat some pie at Yoder’s. Sarasota is home to many Mennonite and Amish people, who, like the rest of us, first discovered the town on vacation and then moved here, where many started businesses, including a number of restaurants that specialize in hearty comfort food. Maybe the best is Yoder’s, right in the heart of Pinecraft, the Mennonite community on Bahia Vista Street. Whatever you order for your main course, finish with a piece of pie. My favorite is the peanut butter, but I’ve never tasted a Yoder’s pie I didn’t love.
Watch the sharks get fed at Mote Aquarium. Mote is a world leader in shark research, and you can come face-to-face with these mysterious and often misunderstood predators at the 135,000-gallon shark tank. The best time to visit is during the daily shark feeding. This is not a crowded Sea World spectacle but an intimate look at scientific work in progress, as volunteers feed and observe the sharks, which are trained to come to certain spots for their food. The tank is in a spacious, shaded outdoor area with other informative exhibits. Afterwards, head to the Shark Attack Theater to watch a 12-minute movie that helps you feel what it’s like to be a shark.
Find the Fun
Cincinnati Reds spring training, Ed Smith Stadium, 12th Street and Tuttle Avenue. (941) 954-4464
Circus Sarasota, (941) 355-9335.
Le Barge, 2 Marina Plaza. (941) 366-6116.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave.. (941) 366-5731.
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway. (941) 388-4441.
Myakka River State Park, 14 miles east of Sarasota on S.R. 72. (941) 361-6511.
Ringling Museum of Art and Cà d’Zan, 5401 Bay Shore Road. (941) 351-1660.
Siesta Public Beach, 948 Beach Road, Siesta Key.
Yoder’s Restaurant, 3434 Bahia Vista St. (941) 955-7771.