Though the beaches in and around Sarasota are about as good as they come, sometimes visitors feel the urge to get up off their sand chair and see the sights. And in Sarasota and its surrounding area, there are plenty of sights to see! From museums to amusement parks to fun and educational natural attractions, this part of west central Florida has it all.
The majority of Sarasota's attractions are suitable for all ages, and because the weather is so pleasant all year around, even the outdoor attractions remain open throughout the year, with few exceptions.
Getting to these attractions is easy as well. Many are located within the Sarasota city limits or just outside, and can be easily reached by car or even via the city's public transportation system. Others are in the nearby Tampa metro area, which is just an hour's drive from downtown Sarasota. For some attractions, you'll want to set aside an entire day to truly appreciate the experience. Others will require just an hour or two, leaving you with plenty of time to sit on the beach!
Best Bets in Sarasota
- The John and Mable Ringling Estate – This is indeed Sarasota's premiere attraction and is actually three attractions in one. Once you've reached this wonderful estate on Sarasota Bay, you can start your visit at the circus couple's incredible waterfront mansion, Cà d'Zan (House of John), where a guide will show you all the details of this Venetian Gothic palace. Once the center of social life in Sarasota, the home now belongs to the city. When you're through visiting the mansion, hop the on-site tram and head to the Museum of Art. John Ringling was a prolific collector and his collection of Old Masters paintings was among the best in the country. See works by Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Hals, and Velazquez, just to name a few, as well as decorative arts pieces and Greek and Roman antiquities. Once you've gotten your fill of great art, travel to the Circus Museum for a whimsical look at circus history. You'll see artifacts spanning decades, including performing props, tents, posters, handbills, wardrobe, and circus wagons. Don't miss the wonderful miniature replica of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum and Bailey Circus, complete with tiny animals, performers, and wagons – the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. While at the estate, you can also enjoy lunch at the Treviso Restaurant or purchase tickets for a show at the Asolo Theater. The John and Mable Ringling Estate is family-friendly, but little ones may be bored with the mansion and art museum.
- Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium – Though it's not as large as the nearby Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is still a delight to visit. One of the major differences is that Mote focuses on a broader range of marine animals than the Florida Aquarium. At Mote, visitors can view the sharks, touch the stingrays, and browse a number of other eclectic exhibits. If you have time, visit the manatees at the adjacent Marine Mammal Center, and take the 2-hour narrated sea-life cruise with the Sarasota Bay Explorers to view bay sea-life up close.
- G. Wiz Science Museum – Specially designed for the elementary school set, this two-story science museum has lots of hands-on fun for kids. Learn about everything from music to motion to math and optical illusions. There's also a great area called the Explore Zone that features rotating exhibits on loan from San Francisco's renowned Exploratorium. Allow at least 2 hours to visit and at least another 30 minutes to explore the Gift Shop. Very reasonably priced.
- Mary Selby Botanical Gardens – A big hit with lovers of plants, this attractive botanical garden sits near Sarasota Bay and boasts one of the country's best collections of orchids – about 6,000 in all. Add another 15,000 plants and trees and you have one of Sarasota's most beautiful attractions. Bring your camera!
- Solomon's Castle – The kids will love this one…and so will the adults! Not a castle in the traditional sense of the word, this is a wacky structure built by one man from aluminum printing plates discarded by a local newspaper. Add to that an abundance of "trash" including beer and soda cans and oil drums, and you have one of the most unique structures in Florida. Howard Solomon himself sometimes leads tours of his creation. Be sure to stay for lunch at Solomon's other creation, a Spanish Galleon known as the Boat in the Mote restaurant. (This attraction is closed July through September.)
- Myakka River State Park – As natural attractions go, this is one of the best in the area. Located about 10 miles east of Route 75, Myakka is the oldest state park in the Florida system and is a great place to view wildlife native to the area. Take an airboat ride to explore the river and a tram trip for a look at the backcountry. Check out the Myakka Canopy Walkway for a look at Myakka from 35 feet in the air. It's an awesome sight!
Best Bets near Sarasota
- Historic Spanish Point – Situated in Osprey, just south of Sarasota, Spanish Point is the site of one of the first homesteads in the area. The attraction includes a museum that outlines the area's history (guided tours available), archaeological exhibits and Indian mounds, formal gardens and a butterfly garden, and an interesting museum store. At certain times during the year, volunteers present living history performances. Kids will enjoy Spanish Point as it's largely an outdoor museum.
- Busch Gardens Tampa – Also known as Busch Gardens Africa, this attractive theme park is home to some of the nation's most incredible coasters, including the new Gwazi, a gigantic double wooden coaster. Visitors of all ages will love the shows and little ones can play in a land all their own where the rides aren't quite so scary. Open all year long. Adults who enjoy beer should check out the Brewmasters Club, located in the Hospitality House, where they can sample Anheuser Busch beverages. (Must be over 21.)
- Florida Aquarium – Ranked among the best aquariums in the world, this Tampa gem concentrates on educating the public about the marine animals and fish of the Tampa Bay, though you will find displays of other fish here as well. In all, there are 10,000 aquatic plants and animals on display. Also consider an eco-tour aboard the aquarium's 64-foot catamaran as an added treat. A little pricey but worth it!
- Museum of Science and Industry – Affectionately known as MOSI, Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry is a favorite with kids but adults will love it, too. Try out the flight simulator, experience the "Gulf Coast Hurricane", hobnob with dinosaurs, ride the hire-wire bicycle, or check out the state-of-the-art planetarium and IMAX Dome Theater.