As a Floridian, I am very familiar with some of the best spots to dine, play, and stay in Florida.
Sarasota, Florida is an excellent place to take a vacation. Located on the west coast of Florida about an hour south of Tampa, Sarasota offers beautiful beaches, cultural activities, historic landmarks, lush gardens, and pristine golf courses as some of its main attractions. If you have been to other parts of Florida, but never to Sarasota, then please allow me to show you what you have been missing. For those who have never been to the Sunshine State, please read on to find out why the Sarasota area deserves your consideration as your next vacation spot.
When to Come
The best time to come to this part of Florida is late-February through mid-May, and mid-October through the end of November, when the weather is at its loveliest. December and January can be nice, but there are often unpredictable cold snaps during these months that would spoil a beach vacation. It gets very hot and humid during the summer (90+ degrees during the day), so unless you are used to such heat it may make most outdoor activities during your visit rather unpleasant. The biggest drawback to coming during "season" (January—April), though, is the crowds. Large numbers of people flock to the area to live during the winter months, and most of the month of March sees the beaches inundated with spring break visitors from the northern states. There are some strategies for overcoming these crowds if you want to come at this time of year, however:
- Eat dinner early (4:00-5:00 pm) or late (7:30-8:30 pm) to avoid the worst of the crowds at the restaurants. Eating early also has the advantage of getting "early bird" prices at some restaurants.
- Get to the beach early (before 10:00 am) or late (5:30 or 6:00 pm). Parking is at a premium during the busy times, and you do not want to waste a lot of time searching for a parking space. The beach itself is normally less crowded at these times of the day. If you come early, leave the beach early also. Many of the roads leading to the beaches can become a quagmire of traffic when everyone starts leaving the beaches for dinner. Believe me, you do not want to be on the roads leading away from the beaches between 4:30 and 6:00 pm, especially if you are not actually staying on the keys. If your hotel is right by the beach, the traffic won't be a problem, unless you have to drive to a restaurant for dinner.
- Go shopping earlier in the day. The stores get more and more crowded as the day goes on. During the school year, peak shopping times tend to be after the grade schools let out (3:30 to 4:30) and after dinnertime.
If you decide you would rather brave the heat than the crowds, or cannot come until summertime, then there are ways to enjoy your time without getting scorched.
- Plan most of your outdoor activities for the morning or after dinner.
- Save your indoor activities, beach time, or pool time for the hottest part of the day (about 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm).
- If you do plan to venture outdoors during the afternoon (other than to the beach), wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, put on plenty of sunscreen, and bring along a bottle of water.
Be aware, however, that summertime is also the beginning of hurricane season in Florida. Sarasota has a history of typically not taking a direct hit from most tropical systems, but you should come prepared just the same. (Take a look at my article, Travel Tips: How to Plan for a Trip to Hurricane Country for advice on what steps to take to make your vacation hurricane-ready.)
Many Places to Stay
Where you stay in Sarasota or the surrounding area will have an impact on your visit to the Suncoast. If your chief desire is to visit the beach while you are here, then staying on one of the keys near the beaches is best as you will normally be within walking distance of the beach and can avoid the fight for a parking space on busy days. Be aware that accommodations on the keys can be more pricey, however, so if budget is a concern, know that if you stay somewhere on the mainland you will not be that far away from the beach (about fifteen to twenty minutes in most cases). If you want to take in more of the sights and activities Sarasota has to offer, I would recommend staying on the mainland. You will be more centrally located and can avoid having to constantly battle the traffic coming on and off the keys, which can be a hassle. If you desire a quieter, more laid-back vacation, you may want to look into staying in one of the communities south of Sarasota, such as Nokomis or Venice, which tend to be less crowded but are still within a reasonable driving distance from most attractions.
There are a large variety of options available for accommodations in the Sarasota area. There are dozens of chain hotels in the area, from a more basic type like Quality Inn to the high-end Ritz Carlton. There are also plenty of locally-owned hotels and inns located near the bay and on the keys. If you are thinking about a more extended stay, there are condos, bungalows, and vacation homes available to rent. The Banyan House is a lovely historic property located near Caspersen Beach in Venice, and offers weekly and monthly rentals. The Cottages at Siesta Key is a great choice if you want to stay a week or more on Siesta Key. For those who enjoy travelling in their RV for vacation, there are RV parks in the area. The most notable RV park is Sun Outdoors Sarasota, which is located just a little east of I-75 in Sarasota. This RV park is actually a resort complete with a pool, outdoor sport activities, fishing lake, and crafting workshops. If you do not have an RV, Sun Outdoors Sarasota also features vacation homes which are available to either buy or rent. You can also park your RV and camp out at the two state parks in the area (more info below in the "Things to See and Do" section.)
Dining in Sarasota
Sarasota and the communities around it have dozens and dozens of restaurants from which to choose. There are some excellent locally-owned choices in every category, and below are some of my family's favorites. I have divided them by type of food since there are some in the same category that are equally worth mentioning.
One of my favorite places to eat in Sarasota is Mi Pueblo, a Mexican restaurant which has three locations serving the area. My favorite location is on Tuttle Avenue, right off of University Parkway. Mi Pueblo is known for its good food, so be prepared to wait in line if you have fewer than six people in your party (they do not take reservations unless you have six or more in your group). Some of my favorite menu items include their chimichangas, soft chicken tacos, and shrimp quesadillas. As is typical at many Mexican restaurants, they serve chips and salsa after seating you, but their salsa is hard to stay out of because it is so flavorful. All of their food is served hot and fresh, with a minimal waiting time (making it a good place to take hungry kids!). Mi Pueblo is open daily for lunch and dinner, low to mid-range prices.
If you like Italian food, make sure to visit Cafe Baci on Tamiami Trail (US 41) in Sarasota. Their menu features a variety of northern Italian cuisine sure to please any palate. They are well-known in the area for their excellent food and my parents have always enjoyed every meal they have eaten there. Cafe Baci is open Tuesday—Sunday for dinner. Their prices are moderate to high-range. Reservations can be made online or by calling the restaurant directly.
There are a lot of great pizza places in Sarasota, but I would have to say my favorite local pizza place is Solorzano Brothers Pizzeria. Solorzano Brothers has tasty Jersey-style pizza with several different toppings or specialty pizzas from which to choose. Their "Centrella" pizza is particularly good. Solorzano Brothers also serves up delicious calzones, subs, salads, and other side dishes. Solorzano Brothers on Webber Road is open Sunday—Saturday for lunch and dinner. Menu prices are mid-range. Carryout and delivery are also available.
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The Old Salty Dog has two locations in the Sarasota area (one on Siesta Key and the other on City Island), as well as a location on Venice Island. The City Island restaurant is located right on the water, making it a fun place to eat. The Old Salty Dog has the distinction of being dog-friendly, with outdoor seating area set aside for those who want to bring their pets along to dinner. Whichever spot you decide the visit, a must-try is the namesake dish, the "salty dog", which is a hot-dog dipped in batter, deep-fried, and served with your choice of toppings such as cheese, onions, and mushrooms (at an extra charge). If you like hot dogs, the "salty dog" is worth the calorie splurge! The seafood and sandwiches at this restaurant are also worth trying. All three locations are open seven days a week for lunch and dinner; the City Island location serves breakfast Friday—Sunday. Menu prices are in the moderate range.
Gecko's Grill and Pub has been a local favorite in the Sarasota area for 30 years. They serve a variety of seafood, burgers, Tex-Mex, salads, sandwiches, and other items; much of their food is made with locally-sourced ingredients. My personal favorite is the southwest bowl with grilled chicken. My family and I can all agree this is one spot we all like to go to for a meal! Gecko's has four locations in Sarasota; I like the one on N Cattlemen Road since it has outdoor deck seating. All locations are open daily for lunch and dinner, with low to mid-range menu prices.
Southside Deli, which is located on Hillview Street in Sarasota, is an excellent place to stop and have breakfast or lunch while visiting Sarasota. Featuring homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and sides, Southside Deli is usually packed with locals and visitors alike for the noon meal. If you do not want to wait in line, they offer call-ahead carry-out which can be picked up either inside the store or at the drive-by window. If you do brave the line, know that the food is worth the wait. Their chicken gyro is delicious, and they make a great caesar salad that is topped with homemade croutons. If you have room left after partaking of lunch, try some of their creamy gelato or vanilla soft-serve. Southside is open Monday—Saturday for breakfast and lunch; only gelato and other desserts are served in the evening. Low to mid-range prices.
The Main Bar Sandwich Shop on Main Street in downtown Sarasota is a long-time local favorite for lunch. Originally opened in 1958 by former circus performers, the restaurant still features the old circus photos they placed on the walls. A line forms here every day when offices and the courthouse take a break for lunch, so come early. The sandwiches here are loaded with toppings and will leave you wanting to come back for another one. The Main Bar is open for lunch, Monday—Saturday. Low to mid-range prices.
A great place to eat either breakfast or lunch while visiting Sarasota is Millie's. Millie's' reputation for a good, home-style meal is well-deserved. Their menu boasts a tempting array of omelets, pancakes, sandwiches, and salads, along with a host of other things. Everything my family and I have tried there has been excellent. My mother likes grits, and finding good grits while eating out is sometimes difficult. Millie's grits did not disappoint my mother, however. This restaurant's pancakes, eggs, and home fries are all cooked to perfection. The portions at Millie's are more than generous, so if you decide to go there, go when you are extra-hungry! Millie's is open seven days a week. Low to mid-range prices.
There is a sizeable community of Amish and Mennonites in Sarasota, and there are several good restaurants to prove it. Der Dutchman on Bahia Vista Street is one of the most well-known of these establishments. Their ample dining areas can accommodate large parties easily, so if you have a sizable group going out together this is a good place to go. Their menu contains a tasty variety of home-style dishes from which to choose. If you have a hard time deciding what you want to try, opt for their buffet and salad bar. The fluffy homemade mashed potatoes are a buffet feature of which many have a second helping. They also have a well-prepared breakfast bar every morning that is definitely worth getting up early to try. Der Dutchman is open Monday—Saturday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; low to mid-range menu prices. Call-ahead carry-out available.
Another well-patronized Amish restaurant is Yoder's, which is also located on Bahia Vista Street. Though smaller, they serve food that is as equally good as their competitor's food. Their breakfast here is hearty and never a disappointment; my favorite breakfast item is their giant homemade muffins. Their made-from-scratch peanut butter pie (or any of their pies, for that matter) is a scrumptious way to end a meal here. Yoder's is open Monday—Saturday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; low to mid-range menu prices. Call-ahead carry-out available.
Other Ethnic Fare
Columbia on St. Armands Circle is a lovely restaurant serving Spanish and Cuban-style cuisine. The first Columbia restaurant opened in Tampa in 1904, and now there are several locations in the state. It is a must-visit restaurant in Florida, and for a good reason. Partaking of their flavorful dishes, from their signature salad to their delectable entrées, are a wonderful way to end a day shopping or relaxing at the beach. The crusty Cuban bread served with each meal is nearly enough on its own to make you want to go back a second time. The Sarasota location has indoor and outdoor seating available, and reservations are accepted. They are open seven days a week for lunch and dinner with mid-range to high menu prices. Call-ahead take-out is available.
Bangkok Restaurant on Swift Road is an excellent choice if you like Thai food. It is also a great place to be introduced to Thai cuisine if you have never tried it! They have a delicious variety of curries, stir-fries, noodle dishes, and more on their menu, most of which can be made with your choice of meat or seafood. They also have several dishes made with vegetarians in mind. Whatever you may choose to eat here, you will not be disappointed. I have never had a poor meal there. My favorite dish is their Thai broccoli stir-fry with chicken, and several of my family members love their curry dishes. The pleasantness of the meal is augmented by the Thai-style decor and the friendly and helpful service staff. Bangkok Restaurant is open for dinner daily, and for lunch Monday—Friday. Mid-range prices on most menu items.
The Apollonia Grill is a family-owned, Mediterranean-style restuarant with two locations in the Sarasota area. Their perfectly-cooked gyro meat alone makes the restuarant worth a visit, not to mention their delicious tzaziki sauce, seafood dishes, and chicken dishes as well. My family and I have always had good meals whenever we go there! Both the Cooper Creek Boulevard and Tamiami Trail locations are open for lunch and dinner daily, with identical menus featuring mid-range prices.
If the desire for an authentic French pastry overcomes you while you are in Sarasota, C'est La Vie on Main Street is the place to go. A true bistro complete with sidewalk seating, they offer classic French breakfast, lunch, and dinner items as well as a wide selection of bakery goods. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to inspect the pastry case, for there are many tantalizing things from which to choose, such as chocolate croissants, macarons, éclairs, Napoléons, and beignets. (As much as I like croissants, I never found chocolate croissants to be appetizing—until I had one from C'est La Vie, that is!) The restaurant is open Sunday—Thursday for breakfast and lunch/early-bird dinner; dinner is also served on Friday and Saturday.
The Marina Jack II offers a different sort of experience for lunch or dinner by combining a buffet-style meal with a boat tour of the intercoastal waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. The food is well-prepared and the scenic views are spectacular. The Marina Jack II sails daily from the Marina in Sarasota Bay for lunch and dinner cruises; reservations are recommended.
Big Olaf Creamery is a local creamery that makes homemade ice cream in the Mennonite area of Sarasota. They offer a staggering list of flavors to choose from, all of which are offered at several ice cream shops in the area (most operate under the Big Olaf name). The original Big Olaf shop is in Siesta Village, right down the road from Siesta Key Beach. Other locations include shops on St. Armands Circle and Bahia Vista Street. Whichever location you stop by, know that you will be getting a delicious treat.
Things to See and Do
Sarasota offers a good variety of activities friendly to children as well as adults. While most people think only of the beaches when visiting Sarasota, there are actually several other places that are worthy of your time if you come to visit. Below are some of the many attractions and activities that are available in the Sarasota area.
Museums and Aquariums
Mote Marine Laboratory is a stellar Sarasota attraction that people of all ages enjoy. Featuring an aquarium with sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, sharks, and a host of fish and other small marine creatures, Mote gives you an exciting and interactive view of ocean wildlife. As a functioning marine laboratory, Mote also frequently has injured aquatic visitors that have been brought there for recovery before being released back into the wild. In addition to the aquarium, Mote also offers boat tours that educate the passengers concerning coastal Florida marine life and wildlife (additional cost). Mote Marine Laboratory is located on City Island, just north of St. Armands circle, and is open year-round to visitors.
The Sarasota Classic Car Museum is a place every car enthusiast will want to visit. The museum is well-stocked with dozens of antique vehicles, some with former ties to famous people. The museum also gives a history of cars through the years. The tour is self-guided, but there are docents available to give you helpful information. The Classic Car Museum is located on US 41, right across the road from the Ringling Museum. They are open seven days a week throughout the year, closing only on Christmas Day. They often have a discount coupon available on their website, so check there before you go.
The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art is a world-class art museum featuring the artwork that John Ringling had accumulated during his lifetime. At the museum there is also a gallery of modern artwork and a space set aside for the exhibition of special collections that are on tour throughout the country. The museum has an extensive collection of paintings done by the Old Masters, including some enormous pieces measuring fourteen by fourteen feet and larger. Aside from the art museum, the property also features the Florida home of the Ringling's, gardens, the circus museum, and the historic Asolo theater. The Ringling's Venetian-style mansion, Ca' d'Zan, is elegantly arranged inside to depict it as it would have appeared during the Ringling's time there. The gardens on the property include a magnificent circular rose garden near the mansion house, as well as a newly-built children's play area among the massive banyan trees. The circus museum has an extensive collection of circus memorabilia that gives an excellent picture of circus life and the people who lived it. There is also a large, beautifully-done scale model of an old-time circus on display at this museum that you will not want to miss. The historic Asolo theater is an 18th century Italian theater that was painstakingly dismantled and shipped from Italy to Florida by John Ringling in the 1940s. It was then reconstructed upon arrival to the states and has been in use for most of the time ever since then. A schedule of performances is available on the Ringling website if you are interested in attending one while visiting Sarasota. Tickets for the theater are separate from the admission to the rest of the property. Since the property has so much to see, I would recommend planning to spend most of the day there if you do decide to go. You may either view the exhibits on your own or go on a guided tour. The property is open every day of the year except for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day.
Historic Spanish Point, which is located just south of Sarasota in the little community of Osprey, offers a glimpse into native American and pioneer history on the central-west coast of Florida. An exhibit which is actually cut into the side of an old shell midden left by early Florida people groups gives a picture of how people lived before the arrival of European explorers and settlers. An original settler's home built in 1901, along with a replica citrus packing plant and chapel, shows what life was like in Florida during the last half of the 19th century. Rounding out the property are a nature trail, butterfly house, gardens, and a cottage with an exhibit about the life of Mrs. Palmer, a wealthy landowner and socialite who during the early 1900s helped to shape the Sarasota area into what it is today. The property at Spanish Point was owned by Mrs. Palmer at one time. Spanish Point is open seven days a week.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens sits right by the bay in Sarasota and is a favorite place of anyone who loves plants and flowers, especially tropical and sub-tropical species. The orchid collection at the gardens is stunning, as are the massive banyan trees on the property. There is also a butterfly garden and a fish pond that will delight any young visitors. Selby Gardens is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day.
Featuring a mixture of native Florida creatures and other wildlife, Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a great place to take your children if they like animals. Highlights include a presentation about alligators and a bird show designed to both entertain and educate. The grounds of Jungle Gardens are delightful and a trip there would be worthwhile even if the animals were not present. Exotic plants are interspersed amongst the Florida fauna, creating a tropical world that beckons you to relax and enjoy as you stroll down the pathways. Sarasota Jungle Gardens is open daily year-round, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check their website before going; guests who buy tickets in advance via their website currently receive a small discount.
Myakka River State Park is a beautiful fifty-seven square mile natural area located to the east of Sarasota. For those who enjoy camping, there are cabins, RV sites, and campground areas available to rent at the park. It is suggested by the park service that you make advance reservations if you want to camp, though, as the spaces fill up quickly, especially during the cooler months. Whether you want to camp there or just visit for a day, Myakka State Park worth seeing as it is a good example of old Florida backcountry. The park has a hiking trail and a scenic drive for those who cannot or do not want to walk; the scenic drive can also be used by cyclists (bicycles available to rent on-site). Along one of the hiking trails is a bridge built up in the trees, which leads to an observation tower that gives you a view of most the park. Another way to view parts of the park is to rent a kayak or canoe at the concession stand and glide along the waterways. The concession stand is located next to Upper Myakka Lake. A boat tour of Upper Myakka Lake, the larger of the two lakes in the park, launches from here year-round. Bird enthusiasts will enjoy the bird walk that extends out into Upper Myakka Lake. Many species of Florida waterfowl and other birds can typically be seen along this boardwalk. If you look carefully, you may also see alligators in the lake or in the river. For those who want to pack a picnic lunch to bring along with them on their outdoor excursion, there are several lovely little picnic areas dotting the park at which you may eat. The park is open year-round. Admission is per vehicle (up to eight passengers); boat rides and rentals of campsites, bicycles, canoes, and kayaks are all separate charges.
Though smaller than Myakka State Park, Oscar Scherer State Park is still a piece of Florida nature waiting to be explored. Located just south of Sarasota off of US 41 between the towns of Osprey and Nokomis, Oscar Scherer is a great place to visit if you find yourself in the mood for a picnic or short hike while visiting the area. The nature trails lead through a Florida scrub jay habitat, making the park of special interest to bird watchers. You may also take a floating tour of the park via the canals in a canoe (available for rent) or kayak. They also have camping sites available for RV's and tents if you prefer to stay at the park; reservations are necessary if you desire to camp there. Oscar Scherer Park is open daily throughout the year. Admission to the park is per vehicle (up to eight passengers).
Nathan Benderson Park is the Sarasota area's newest outdoor attraction. This park features a premier rowing center that hosts international, national, and regional rowing competitions. If you wish to see whether there are any events taking place during your Sarasota vacation, check the calendar on the park's website. In addition to the rowing center, this lovely park has a paved walking/cycling trail that follows the shoreline of the lake, making it the perfect spot for a morning stroll.
There are several gorgeous beaches in the Sarasota area, and each has features that make it worth visiting. The most well-known beach is Siesta Key Beach, which has become world-famous due to its white, sugar-fine sand. Another lovely beach on the keys, however, is Lido Beach on Lido Key. While Lido Beach's sand is not as fine as the sand on Siesta Key Beach, it is still white and relatively soft. Lido Beach is divided into three different sections. North Lido Beach is good place to look for seashells and sand dollars during low tide. Lido Beach is the best one of the three at which to swim since there is a lifeguard on duty there year-round. South Lido Beach has a picnic area shaded by Australian pine trees and also features a short walking trail and a canoe launching spot. The swimming area on South Lido has a lifeguard on duty on the weekends during the summertime only. The currents around the north and south beaches are strong, so caution should be used if you decide to enter the water. There are parking lots and restrooms at Lido Beach and South Lido Beach; North Lido Beach lacks facilities and you must park along the street to access it.
The key south of Lido Key is Siesta Key, where Siesta Key Beach is located. Siesta Key Beach is the most popular beach in the Sarasota area. Siesta Beach is very wide and accommodates quite a crowd of locals and vacationers on most days. The expanse of sparkling white sand leading out to the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico is a view you will not want to miss. A sunset walk along this beach provides an opportunity to take some gorgeous photographs. There are shady picnic areas, playgrounds, concessions, and restrooms located near the large parking lot at this beach. There are also several volleyball nets where you can engage in a game of beach volleyball. Aside from the main entrance, there are several smaller access points along Beach Road, each with its own little parking area, so if the main parking lot is full you can check these spots for a place to park. Siesta Beach has lifeguards on duty every day of the year, making it a safe place to enjoy the waves.
Turtle Beach, along with its associated campground, is situated on the southern part of Siesta Key. Turtle Beach acquired its name from the fact that during a certain time of the year sea turtles come up onto this beach to make their nests. Turtle Beach is not visited by as many people as some of the other beaches, so the relative quiet there on most days can be welcome if you want to relax in the sun and read. The campground at Turtle Beach offers a different sort of camping experience for those who like to stay in their RV or in a tent since one can enjoy the beach and camp all in the same spot. The campground has amenities like restrooms, a beach volleyball pit, playground, and canoe/kayak launch to ensure you have a pleasant and interesting stay. If you decide to take a walk south along Turtle Beach, you will run into Palmer Point Beach, which extends from the end of Siesta Key to the top part of neighboring Casey Key. Palmer Point Beach is even less frequented by tourists than Turtle Beach, which makes it a nice place to walk and think. Please note that neither Turtle Beach nor Palmer Point Beach have lifeguards on duty, so swimming must be done at your own risk.
The Nokomis Beach and North Jetty Park run along the Gulf side of Casey Key in Nokomis, Florida. Nokomis Beach is a pleasant place to spend the day, and features a boardwalk along the back end of the beach for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the waves without getting their feet sandy. The North Jetty Park is so named because of the jetty that runs out into the Gulf of Mexico at one end of the beach; you can walk out onto the jetty and go fishing or watch for boats or marine life. Both the beach and the park have restrooms and other amenities. There are lifeguards on duty year-round at both places.
There are two beaches in Venice, Florida, that are worth a visit if you are staying nearby. Venice Beach, while being one of the smallest in the area, is still a great beach at which to relax and swim. There is a snack bar, restrooms, and picnic spot at this beach to make your day enjoyable. There are lifeguards posted at Venice Beach every day of the year, so you can swim in safety. Caspersen Beach, which lies farther to the south in Venice, is a good place to go if you want to collect shells and possibly find a shark's tooth. This beach also has a short nature trail on which you can hike. There are no lifeguards at this beach, however, so this beach is best for walking and tanning only.
For more information on any of these beaches, visit the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation website.