As a Floridian of six years, I’m here to tell you that your next trip to Florida with the family shouldn’t be to Key West or Miami—it should be to the state's hidden gem, Sarasota. Originally founded in 1763 as Zara Zote, it's now home to numerous cultural attractions, museums and historic monuments, though tourists flock here for one main reason: the white sands.
While the city, an hour south of Tampa on the Gulf Coast side of the state, is most well-known as home to the best beach in America—Siesta Key Beach—I’ve found that bypassing the packed sands and opting for off-the-beaten-path Lido Beach is the best way to go. Below, more insider travel tips and tricks to make the most of your visit to your new favorite Florida vacation spot:
Visit St. Armands Circle
Before moving to Houston, I lived in the heart of Sarasota, a little place called St. Armands. Basically, it’s a ring of shops and restaurants that leads to one of the best beaches in America, and is ringed with Greek and historical statues. You can easily spend the day shopping and eating your way around St. Armands. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
- Tommy Bahamas: And no, I don’t mean the clothing store (although you can find that in the circle too). If you really want a feel of that tropical, beachy vibe, this is the place to eat. Most places in the circle can get a little pricey, so if you don’t want to spend big bucks on a steak or fish dish (although those are de-lish here too), go for a burger or the chicken breast sandwich topped with garlic aioli and fried onion strings. I ordered the chicken sandwich every time I visited for at least two years straight and would still go back for more.
- Daiquiri Deck: You’ll find most people sipping on a to-go daiquiri as they shop around St. Armands. You can either stop by for happy hour and endless combinations of daiquiri flavors or take a seat and grab a bite to go with your frozen happiness.
- Columbia Restaurant: You’re sure to notice this beautiful spot as you walk around, because no matter what time of day it is, Columbia is always packed. With an airy and open seating arrangement and traditional Spanish décor, you’re getting an experience to go along with their food. And that food… Let's just say there’s a reason it’s always packed. The famous 1905 Salad is prepared at the table and the paella is worth the extra 20-minute wait. Just order a pitcher of their signature sangria and you’ll be all set.
- Kilwin’s: With bountiful amounts of handmade fudge, ice cream, and hundreds of other treats, there's no other place that can cure a sweet tooth like Kilwin’s. You’ll smell the homemade waffle cones before you see them. It’s also on the way to and from the beach so you can stop by and grab a little something something while you walk.
This summer, you can also find events like the St. Armands Summer Sidewalk Sale or the annual St. Armands Craft Festival, held in the middle of the circle itself.
Hit Up Downtown Sarasota's Restaurants and Nightlife
Not only does downtown Sarasota have super-cute street names named after tropical fruits like Pineapple St., but it's also home to some of the best cuisine I have ever had.
- MoZaic: For a meal that makes your taste buds sing with each bite, visit this western Mediterranean-inspired gem. It's one of the more upscale restaurants you’ll find here, with colorful art and décor to match the vibrant flavors. It isn’t enough to say this is the best meal I’ve ever had in Sarasota.
- Mediterraneo: Your classic Italian with a modern twist. They even serve complimentary bruschetta to start with, and shots of limoncello to finish off the night with some zing. If you’re a cheese fanatic like me, order the mozzarella avvolta, which is mozzarella wrapped in smoked prosciutto over radicchio and baked in a wood oven. Talk about cheesy goodness.
- World of Beer: New to the downtown area, World of Beer lives up to its name. Sit outside and enjoy some music or head in to watch the game. Featuring over 450 bottles and drafts, the only thing you’ll have trouble with is making up your mind—but don’t worry, they’ll let you sample some if you ask nicely.
- The Gator Club: After dinner head down Main St. to visit “Downtown Sarasota’s watering hole since 1913.” Have a drink while you listen to the sounds of R&B and Top 40 albums, which have been embedded into the charming and historic brick walls over the years.
Don't Stop There
- Ringling Circus & Ca’ d’Zan Mansion: The best part about visiting Sarasota in the summer is that you can catch the circus that started it all: Ringling Bros. Circus puts on a Summer Circus Spectacular in their historic Asolo Theatre, adjacent to the Ringling Museum, which is also home to the massive Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, Museum of Art, and Circus museum. Even just walking around the property with its extraordinary banyan trees, rose bushes and Bayfront gardens, and view along the overlooking the ocean is an attraction in itself.
- Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium: With 10 different exhibits featuring over 100 species of marine life, including sea turtles, sharks, rays, and even otters, there’s plenty to see here. Sarasota is known for its manatees and you can see Mote Marine's own loveable sea cows, Hugh and Buffett, up close and personal. Just don’t forget to look for Dory!
- Jungle Gardens: If you want to see the animals that roam Florida on land, this is the place to visit. Feed the flamingos that wander throughout the park, visit the ring-tailed lemurs, or feast your eyes on the alligators Florida is famous for—if you stick around for the Reptile Encounter show, you might even get to hold a baby gator!
- UTC Mall: University Town Center Mall is the place to shop till you drop. Newer to Sarasota, you can find the latest fashion and grab a bite to eat either at the mall itself, or the many restaurants located around University Dr. And if you didn’t think it was big enough as it is, they’ll be expanding soon to feature even more stores and restaurants.