Sarasota is a magical place, a seaside city on the Gulf of Mexico tucked into the southwest corner of FL between its better-known neighbors, Tampa and Ft. Myers. I moved here 6 years ago after enduring 45 years of Mongolian winters in the Northeast and Midwest, mainly just to enjoy year-round sunshine, salty warm breezes, palm trees, and exotic birds. I knew very little about Sarasota other than it provided all of the above and I would never have to pick up a snow shovel or pull on the Ugg boots and 14 layers of clothing again just to walk the dog. What I discovered in Sarasota, however, was far more than just a tropical climate. Chock full of artistic venues, architecturally diverse neighborhoods, fantastic dining options, stellar shopping, and the most stunning beaches in Florida, Sarasota is a hidden jewel. Here is a closer look at my top 5 reasons to visit Sarasota, this lovely city by the bay, including the best beaches in Sarasota.
1. Best beaches in Sarasota
Sarasota is best known for Siesta Key Beach as it reportedly contains the whitest and finest sand in the world. The sand is 99% pure quartz, incredibly soft, and cool to the touch due to its reflective nature. The beach itself is not only long but also massively wide. It is estimated the sand on Siesta and neighboring Crescent Beach is millions of years old, originating in the Appalachian mountains, then flowing down the rivers until it eventually deposited on the shores of the key. Located in the southern part of Sarasota, Siesta Key Beach has received numerous accolades, including “The Best Sand Beach in America” by the Travel Channel in 2004 and “The Best Beach in America” by Dr. Beach in 2011 and 2017. It was also awarded the #1 Beach in America by TripAdvisor in 2015.
Turtle Beach, also on Siesta Key and only minutes away, is a completely different animal. The sand is rough, coarse and dark. It’s a smaller, quieter alternative to Siesta Key Beach which some vacationers and many locals prefer as there are rarely crowds. There is also a boat ramp with kayak and paddleboard rentals directly across the street.
Lido Key, located north of Siesta Key and adjacent to downtown Sarasota, is home to two lovely and unique beaches. Lido Beach has a more cosmopolitan feel as it attracts visitors from all over the world, likely due to its proximity to St. Armand’s Circle, an upscale collection of shops, art galleries, and restaurants. The beach is less crowded than Siesta, albeit not as large. North Lido Beach is maintained in a natural state and features a dune system that is home to many nesting shorebirds, perfect for those looking for a more untouched experience.
There are a multitude of other beaches nearby as well. North of Lido Key you will find the private and pristine Longboat Key Beach, and Bradenton and Coquina Beaches on Anna Maria Island. South of Siesta Key are the beaches of Nokomis and Venice. Each have their own distinctive personalities and charm.
2. Sarasota’s Food
While a smallish city of roughly 400,000 residents, Sarasota boasts an astounding variety of dining experiences rivaling some of the major cities across the country. Choose from casual seaside joints like the Casey Key Fish House, Indigenous Restaurant‘s innovative and sophisticated American cuisine served in a cozy restored home, or the iconic Owen’s Fish Camp, a funky eatery that transports you to old Florida living with its campy cottage feel. For a romantic evening, try the Ritz Carlton Hotel’s Jack Dusty restaurant and bar for coastal cuisine and crafted cocktails in an upscale, nautical setting or the new Westin Hotel‘s rooftop bar and pool for unbeatable 360-degree views of the city. From ethnic to gourmet to vegetarian, Sarasota is truly a foodie’s paradise. Sarasota Culinary Tours offer guided walking and historical tours to some of the city’s finest restaurants and showcase some of the incredible gastronomic talents we have here in Sarasota. Patrons can nibble their way from place to place, meet the chefs, and get a history lesson all at once. This is a must do for first- timer’s to the area, especially to get a taste of the best food in Sarasota.
3. The Architecture
Sarasota is an architecture lover’s dream, as it is home to a variety of design styles including Mid-Century Modern, Craftsman, Old Florida, Mission, and Mediterranean Revival, as well as Contemporary. One of my favorite weekend activities is to stroll the artist’s colony of Towles Court and the Burns Court Historic District to admire the artistic touches of the various cottages and bungalows. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation offers a 2-hour award-winning driving tour called Tour Sarasota Architecture to explore the area’s rich architectural heritage and is highly recommended.
4. The Arts
One of the more surprising elements to Sarasota newcomers is its thriving artistic community. The Sarasota Opera House, Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, Ringling College of Art and Design, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offer art lovers of all genres to enjoy world-class performances, galleries, and museums without the need to travel to larger cities. Ca’ D’Zan, adjacent to the Ringling Museum of Art, is a magnificent mansion modeled on the Venetian palazzos of Venice, Italy and was John Ringling’s gift to his wife, Mable. It is open to the public and hosts an annual event known as The Wine Walk to Ca’ D’Zan for a wine-pairing experience like no other. The Marietta Museum of Art and Whimsy houses a colorful collection of eclectic paintings, sculpture, and mixed media and is a fun place to while away an afternoon. There are also the local art galleries and yearly events like the Sarasota Chalk Festival and the Siesta Key Sand Sculpture Contest to satisfy any and all artistic pleasures.
If plants are your favorite art form, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is the only garden of its kind in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytes. Set on stunning Sarasota Bay, the gardens are a living museum, research center, and tropical urban oasis. Don’t miss the Lights in Bloom event during the holiday season, in which over one million lights illuminate the gardens, creating a magical paradise of color and fantasy.
Sarasota’s eclectic nature is evident in the diversity and abundance of its shopping experiences. With its beachy, bohemian vibe, Siesta Key is the place to go for casual beachwear and fun mementos. Downtown Sarasota is chock-full of interesting and diverse shops; I love Scout and Molly’s Boutique for gorgeous women’s clothing for all occasions, from the opera to the beach. The franchise was named after the founder’s two Labrador retrievers and the store is dog-friendly – a big plus for yours truly! For the cheese lovers, make a visit to the Artisan Cheese Company, offering artisanal and farmstead cheeses as well as interesting oils, honey, jams, and chutneys. You won’t leave empty-handed. For the psychic-minded, Pixie Dust Metaphysical Boutique is a must on your shopping list. This whimsical store sells everything from spiritual jewelry to crystals to buddhas and offers frequent new-age events, psychic readings, and workshops with some of the best healers in the area.
St. Armand’s Circle has a more European shopping feel than downtown, with equally enticing shops. For upscale beachwear, Shore is my go-to clothing store, just as much for its vintage surf shop atmosphere as for its dizzying array of designer swimsuits, cover-ups, board shorts, and resort wear. For coastal décor, Fanta Sea is hands down my favorite store in all of Sarasota. I could live there. It is all about living and loving the coastal lifestyle and is a feast for the eyes with its sea-glass art, table linens, shells, bath accessories, and pillows in ocean hues.
So there you have it: From the best beaches in Sarasota to the boutiques and everything in between, there are so many reasons to visit Sarasota. Did you book your ticket yet? If you want to read more of me and my travels, check out MyMermaidSoul or simply follow my Instagram page.