Insider’s Guide to Sarasota, Florida

christmas 2018-1-2.jpg

When it comes to vacationing in Florida, it can be hard to choose where to visit. Between family-friendly Orlando, party central Miami, glitzy Palm Beach, and everywhere in between, the Sunshine State offers something for everyone. Often overlooked is the sugary-sand coastline of Florida’s West Coast, which if you have yet to discovered, now is the time. With its pristine beaches, calm waters and quaint beach towns, it’s easy to fall in love with the Gulf Coast, and I recommend introducing yourself to this side of the state with a visit to Sarasota.

Just south of Tampa, Sarasota is a unique town pairing world-class beaches with a thriving arts and culture scene. Here you’ll find towering palms, turquoise waters and barrier islands - Siesta Key, Longboat Key and Lido Key - all waiting to be explored, while just minutes away lies downtown, the hub for museums, galleries and venues such as the Sarasota Opera, Florida Studio Theatre and the Sarasota Ballet. This town holds a very special place in my heart. My grandparents moved here when I was just a few years old, making it a second home of sorts for me the past 27 years. Every other Christmas, most spring breaks and visits in between allowed me to become more than familiar with this Florida gem. As if I didn’t need more reason to forever hold Sarasota close to my heart, Greg and I also got married here, creating special memories with our family and friends in 2015. With all of this experience I feel like an insider, so below is my guide to everywhere you should go and everything you should do while in Sarasota. These are the places I return to over and over again.

What To Do

Visit the Ringling Museum Complex - As I mentioned, Sarasota has a thriving art scene and there’s no better place to experience it than at the Ringling Museum of Art. In the 1920s, John Ringling made Sarasota the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His former estate just north of downtown contains two world-class museums, his namesake art museum and circus museum. John and Mable Ringling’s lavish Venetian Gothic home, Cà d’Zan, is also on the property and can be toured. All three museums are worth visiting and the art museum’s stunning grounds are worth the visit alone (see the pink photos below).

Shop and dine in St. Armands Circle - St. Armands Circle is hands down my favorite place in Sarasota! It’s a charming outdoor shopping area lined with palm trees just across the bay from downtown on Lido Key, steps from the beach. With over 130 stores you can spend hours window shopping from a variety of local souvenir shops to brand names like Lilly Pulitzer and Tommy Bahama. Plus, there are plenty of outdoor dining options mixed in. A few of my favorite stores are Garden Argosy, Fanta Sea and Little Bo-Tique. But no visit is complete without getting a scoop or two of ice cream at Kilwins, which will be easy to find - just follow the heavenly scent of chocolate and waffle cones.

Spend the day at Siesta Key Beach - What draws tourists to the area more than anything else is Siesta Key Beach, whose powdered sugar sand lands it on numerous beach rankings including “#1 Beach in the USA” and "the finest, whitest sand beach in the world." The sand is so white that even on the hottest, sunny days it stays cool. It’s hard to beat that! The Gulf’s calm waters and beach’s numerous activities (volleyball nets, picnic tables, tennis courts) make it an extremely popular (aka busy) spot, but thankfully its large size means you’ll have no problem finding a spot to relax. Just go early enough in the day to get a parking spot.

Tour Marie Selby Botanical Gardens - A tropical, urban oasis featuring unparalleled horticulture displays and a Sarasota bayfront setting, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the conservation of orchids, with more than 6,000 on the property. Activities include a children’s rainforest garden, tropical glass house conservatory and 15 acres of lush grounds with two historic homes.

Stroll Bayfront Park and Marina - The most picturesque part of Sarasota is the downtown bayfront where sights of the city skyline and John Ringling Causeway Bridge meet the boat-filled harbor. The best place to take it all in is Bayfront Park and Marina. I love taking strolls here, especially right before sunset, looking out over the water and admiring the sailboats anchored in the bay. And don’t leave without getting a photo in front of the 26 foot tall “Unconditional Surrender” statue, an oversized recreation of the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in celebration of WWII ending (trust me, you know the photo).

Kayak the mangrove tunnels off Lido Key - Excellent kayaking opportunities abound in the Sarasota area, but for nature lovers looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, paddle the half-mile-long mangrove tunnels off South Lido Key. More than a dozen kayak companies offer daily guided tours of the mangroves, and companies such as Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures will start your trip with an hour-long loop on the open bay so you can spot manatee and dolphins before heading into the tunnels.

Start your day with yoga on the beach - So this I’ve never done but I’m adding it to the list for a future visit. As many as 500 people gather on Venice Beach every morning at 8am in high season to salute the sun. The class is targeted at beginners and is free! Just bring a beach towel or yoga mat.

Where To Eat

Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant - Walt’s is an institution - a 100 year old institution - that’s been serving up fresh seafood to locals since 1918! The menu consists of fried seafood baskets, stone crab claws and the fresh catch of the day. It’s all delicious and worth the wait you’ll most likely experience! One thing I’ll say is don’t judge a book by its cover. We drove by Walt’s on Tamiami for over two decades and never stopped because it seemed like an unlikely location for some of the best seafood in the area, but after finally giving it a shot, it quickly became a go-to!

Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar - Just down the road lies another popular seafood joint decked out in old-school nautical decor and picnic-style tables overlooking a small inlet. If you’re lucky, you may catch sight of manatees drifting lazily by. The seafood-heavy menu features standards like fish and chips, oysters and tropical drinks. It can also be very crowded, but it’s quite large inside and the wait isn’t typically too long. Phillippi’s is just the type of restaurant you expect to eat at while in Florida!

Jack Dusty - This is hands down my favorite restaurant in Sarasota! Lunch on the outdoor terrace overlooking the inlet with an iced tea in hand and Cobb salad on my plate makes for a wonderful afternoon in my book. Again, all the food is delicious but the best part is the Naval Brown Bread they deliver to your table! The restaurant has a laid back coastal atmosphere and is located inside The Ritz Carlton downtown. Its lounge has a lively energy making for a great spot to end the day, as well.

Shore - Located in St. Armands Circle, Shore is a resort lifestyle brand with a clothing shop downstairs and a cool, open air restaurant up above. The menu is creative, with everything from Kung Pao Calamari to Diner Meatloaf, and is equally date night appropriate and family friendly. They also have a great Sunday Brunch and Happy Hour everyday from 3-6pm.

Nancy’s Bar-B-Q - If you’re looking for a casual, quick bite to eat, Nancy’s Bar-B-Q downtown, serving authentic North Carolina style pulled pork bbq, can’t be beat!

Where To Stay

The Ritz Carlton - Since we always stay at my grandparent’s house I’ve never needed a hotel room in Sarasota, but I have stayed at The Ritz for special occasions like our wedding night and second anniversary and I must say, it is wonderful! The Ritz welcomes guests to the beautiful Gulf Coast with luxury amenities and five-star hotel accommodations you expect from the brand. In short walking distance to Bayfront Park and downtown’s attractions, and a scenic 5 minute drive to St. Armand’s and the beach, it’s the perfect location for your visit. And while the hotel isn't situated directly on the ocean, nearby there's an exclusive beach retreat with a pool, restaurant, tiki bar, and beach access reserved for guests. Rooms from $199/night.

Hyatt Regency - Directly across the inlet from The Ritz Carlton is the Hyatt Regency. When you step inside the resort you instantly feel like you’re on vacation. The lobby is bright and welcoming, decorated in Lily Pulitzer-esque prints with floor-to-ceiling windows highlighting the dramatic waterside setting. The lagoon pool, on-site water activities and multiple dining options make it a fantastic, family-friendly home base for your Sarasota vacation. Rooms from $160/night.

Art Ovation Hotel - If you’re looking to completely submerge yourself in the local culture, book a room at Art Ovation Hotel. Just a block off Main St. and the Marina Bayfront, this hip property offers visual and performance art exhibitions, luxury accommodations, dining and a rooftop pool bar. The hotel’s mission is to provide guests with as many opportunities as possible to experiences the arts. Whether relaxing in your room or hanging out in one of the common areas, you can interact, design, perform, listen and learn with multiple creative opportunities. Each room even comes with an artist sketchbook for you to use during your stay! It’s a member of the Marriott family and rooms start at $250/night.

Courtney Brown - ALL LOGOs - Final - Blue on White-04.jpg