Planning a trip and looking for things to do in Sarasota, Florida? For most people, mention of the Ringling Brothers conjures thoughts of the famed circus they owned. However, for the residents of Sarasota, Florida, the Ringling name means a lot more. Learn about the history, the beauty, and all of the fun that awaits you in this beautiful beachfront town from one former resident. Kidding Around Contributor, Melanie spent a good chunk of her adolescence there and can’t wait to share the area with readers!
For more fun in Florida, check out Kristina’s Guide to family fun in Daytona Beach.
This article contains Stay22 affiliate links.
When my family decided to move to Florida when I was a child, my classmates told me that school was on the beach and people went to Disney every weekend. Honestly, it sounded great. Then my dreams were dashed, and I learned that most Floridians rarely make it to the beach, and Walt Disney World might as well have been a million miles away. I recently returned to Sarasota with a new perspective. I went as an adult traveler, with young children, in a place I hadn’t ever explored in that way. I had many new experiences and learned a few things about a place I resided in for most of my youth.
I even learned that a bunch of you, our loyal readers, lived here, too! If there is a place I don’t mention that you expected me to mention here, make sure you tell me in the comments so I can check it out next time! `
The City A Circus Built: The Ringling’s of Sarasota
In the early 1900s, John and Charles Ringling started buying up land in the seaside town of Sarasota. They planned to turn the area into thier circus’ winter home base and bought an obscene amount of land. John and his wife Mable, worth an estimated 200 million at the time, built their winter home on beautiful Sarasota Bay. The mansion is now part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum that includes the Ca’D’ Zan, the couple’s 56 room home. If you saw the 1998 Gweneth Paltrow movie, Great Expectations, you have seen some of the Ringling Estate, as it was used as the primary filming location for the movie.
Mable Ringling amassed an extensive collection of art that is now on display in an art museum on the estate grounds. The Ringling’s not only collected art, but they also helped to create a prestigious art school, The Ringling School of Art and Design. While visiting the grounds, you can enjoy Mable’s rose garden, the oldest continuously growing rose garden in Florida.
Tickets to visit The Ringling start at $5 per person for access to stroll the grounds and go upward to $35 for adults to access everything open to the public. This includes the bayfront gardens, the rose garden, the circus museum, the art museum, and the first floor of the Ringling mansion.
More Information about The Ringling can be found online.
Fun On The Water in Sarasota
Bird Key Park
At the end of the John Ringling causeway, the small island is a perfect place to splash and play. If you have a paddleboard or kayak and need a place to go, Bird Key Park offers zero-entry input, picnic tables, and protection from the open ocean’s currents.
More information about Bird Key Park, Sarasota, can be found online.
Guide to Suncoast Beaches
The Suncoast beaches are among the most revered on the country’s East coast, if not the whole country. The much anticipated annual “Dr. Beach” list almost always includes one from the area. Sarasota’s Siesta Beach is a staple of “World’s Best Beaches” lists as well. One visit to this unique beach and you will see why. The sand is nothing like the beaches of the eastern seaboard.
A good deal of property tax revenue is directed at maintaining these public beaches, and it is apparent. If you didn’t know better, the sand would appear to be powder or flour thrown on the ground. And all of this beauty and salty fun is yours to enjoy, for free. There are no parking fees for the beaches in Sarasota!
For more info about area beaches, check out our Guide To Suncoast Beaches.
More Things To See & Do in Sarasota
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens include two separate campuses. The 15-acre, original garden and home of William and Marie Selby and the recently added 30-acre Historic Spanish Point campus.
The Botanical Gardens might not seem like it would be something that would retain a child’s interest, but when I asked my children towards the end of our trip where their favorite adventure in Sarasota was, my son said the garden. There are so many places to explore and a wonderful interactive children’s area; I don’t know why I was surprised. If your children are young, and you use a stroller, I recommend bringing it. My daughter’s little legs got tired, and we had to leave because carrying her in the Florida heat and humidity was not an option. There are restrooms and a cafe with outdoor dining for when you need to take a break.
Admission to the downtown campus starts at $10 for children ages 5 to 17, and adult admission is $20. Access to the Spanish Point campus is $10 for children ages 5 to 17 and $15 for adult admission (children ages four and under are free). Both campuses participate in the Bank Of America “Museums on Us” program, allowing cardholders to gain general admission for free at participating locations.
More information about Marie Selby Botanical Gardens can be found online.
Myakka River State Park
At a whopping 58 square miles, Florida’s largest state park is a bargain activity for a family! You can spend the entire day exploring the wilderness of old Florida inside the park. With a little bit of planning and early arrival, you can also hike to a mysterious sinkhole where alligators congregate by the dozens.
Learn more with our review of Myakka River State Park.
Nathan Benderson Park
This new park doubles as an Olympic training facility but has something to offer non-olympiads too! The park provides visitors an enclosed playground, paddle sport rentals on the lake, a track to walk, jog, or bike around the lake, regularly scheduled family events, and will be the home of the new Mote Marine Laboratory.
More information about Nathan Benderson Park can be found online.
Seated in the middle of downtown Sarasota, and the Bay is Island Park. This bayfront park and marina is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, and people-watch. It is also a place where, if you are lucky, you will catch a glimpse of the circus performers who still call Sarasota home. Most of the famous circus families still reside here and love practicing in front of people. If your trip takes you there during the summer, there’s a children’s splash pad (the splash pad is currently unavailable due to covid).
There is a tightrope set up in Island Park so that anyone can hop up and put on a show. It’s also a place to make out that list for Santa. While you are on the Marina side, you will probably see some pretty opulent yachts and possibly a celebrity!
More information about Island Park is available online.
Mote Marine Aquarium
Planning your day at Mote Marine will need to include pre-purchased, timed tickets, and masks during the current health concerns. The Aquarium located on City Island is a great place to spend the day. The neighboring bird sanctuary and park offer enough entertainment to fill your itinerary for a day.
For more information, check out our Review of Mote Marine Laboratory.
I was able to slip away from my kids for a rare moment of alone time. My parents still reside in Sarasota, so the kids got some time with Grandma and Grandpa, and I got acquainted with a sharp fella. Throwing sharp things is pretty cathartic, I must say! It turns out I’m not terrible at it either. If you happen to follow me on Instagram, there’s a video of me hitting a bullseye, that is pretty impressive if I do say so. Ok, if I’m honest, I don’t think I could do that again if I tried. The owner of Axe and Bull is patient and will help you get comfortable with throwing an ax.
More information about Axe & Bull Indoor Throwing can be found online.
If these Tube Dudes look familiar, it’s because they should. There are only two places with Tube Dudes on display publicly.
Sarasota is where the Tube Dudes are born, and several of them just happen to call the City of Greer home. These pieces of art are all over the place in Sarasota.
More information about the Tube Dude can be found online.
To see more from our trip, check out our Sarasota, FL story highlight on Instagram
Places To Enjoy A Meal in Sarasota, Florida
There is no shortage of award-winning restaurants in the Sarasota area. Anything your heart desires can be found here! From fresh seafood to ethnic food, it’s all here! I could dedicate an entire article just to the places to choose from in the area.
The University Town Center is a large shopping center with a mall and exterior shops with over a dozen dining options nearby. Popular chain options like Blaze Pizza, Shake Shack, and locally owned options too. If you are having a hard time deciding where to go, head here – the options are infinite.
St. Armands Circle includes one of Florida’s oldest restaurants, The Columbia Restaurant. For over 100 years, they’ve been feeding guests delicious Spanish dishes and quenching their thirst with some of the best Sangria you’ll taste anywhere. You almost can’t visit Sarasota without a stop here. Other restaurants at this popular destination include Tommy Bahamas, Cafe L’Europe, Cha Cha Coconuts, Daquiri Deck, and more. Just a block from the beach, you can enjoy a meal and then fill your lungs with some sweet, salty air before bedtime.
Main Street in Sarasota is home to several popular places, including two that I worked for in my younger years. Il Panificio is the place to go when you want authentic Italian anything. Pizza, Deli items, Cannolis, literally anything you are missing if you used to live in a northern state, you could find here. I know because I worked there and ate my fair share of cannolis while doing so. Grab a sub or a pizza and head to the waterfront for the perfect meal.
Main Street is also home to where my alter-ego used to be the resident DJ on the weekends. Sports figures, celebrities, and regular folks would enjoy cocktails and music together at The Gator Club. It is still there and worth a date night trip to dance the night away if you have child care.
Where to Stay in Sarasota, Florida
Staying near the beach is ideal when you are visiting some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We’ve found a few cute and affordable rentals for you to enjoy time on the beach.
This section contains Stay22 Affiliate links.
Siesta Beach Cottage
This little cottage is perfect if you plan on spending all your time out and exploring Sarasota. It’s within walking distance to Siesta Beach and the local village, where you can shop and dine. You won’t need your car at all if you don’t choose to!
- 4 guests
- 1 bedroom · 2 beds · 1 bath
- Walking distance to Siesta Beach
- Book Siesta Beach Cottage on Booking.com
Beautiful home with pool, one mile to the beach
This home is perfect for a relaxing family vacation. Both bikes and kayaks are included with the home, so you can bike to Siesta key or launch the kayak at a local park just a short walk from the home. The pool can also be heated, perfect for cooler weather vacations.
- Sleeps 6 guests
- 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom
- heated pool
- bikes and kayaks
- one mile to Siesta Key
- quiet neighborhood, but walking distance to reastaurants and parks
- Book this Sarasota, FL rental with heated pool on VRBO.
Looking for more places to stay by the beach in Florida? These Florida beach vacation homes all have private pools.
There are so many beautiful things about the Suncoast of Florida, and I hope you and your family have a chance to visit soon!