8 Best Sights in Sarasota, The Tampa Bay Area

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Fodor's choice

Administered by Florida State University, this 20-acre waterfront compound encompasses the entire estate of circus magnate John Ringling and his wife, Mable. This includes not only the museum built to house their enormous personal art collection, but also their Ca' d'Zan mansion and its expansive gardens; the Circus Museum; the Historic Asolo Theater, home to the Asolo Repertory Company; restaurants; an education center; and a research library.

The Museum of Art, completed in 1931, was a dream long in the making, with setbacks that included a land bust and Mable's death. Works here range from Indian doorways elaborately carved with Jain deities to paintings by Rubens and other Old Masters—all of it displayed in a seemingly endless number of gorgeously appointed rooms. Contemporary art has dedicated space here, too, as do selections from the museum's photography collection. A newer wing, with its facade of jade-tinged terracotta, houses ancient and contemporary Asian art.

Patterned after the Doge's Palace in Venice, Ringling's grand home, Ca' d'Zan, has 32 rooms, 15 bathrooms, and the 61-foot Belvedere Tower. Completed in 1925, the mansion sits along the bay, and its 8,000-square-foot terrace overlooks the dock where Mable moored her gondola. Thirty-minute mansion tours occur on the hour; if you prefer to explore on your own, show up on the half hour for a self-guided tour. Allow time to wander around in Mable's Rose Garden, a lush labyrinth surrounded by towering banyans and filled with rare blooms and haunting statues.

Although the Circus Museum offers a colorful glimpse at the history of the American circus, it's main attraction is arguably the world's largest miniature circus, a 40-year endeavor by master model builder Howard Tibbals. His impressive to-scale replica of the circa 1920s and '30s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is astonishingly detailed and accurate—from the number of pancakes the cooks are flipping to the likenesses and costumes of the performers to the names of the animals marked on the mess buckets. If you're looking for clown noses, ringmaster hats, and circus-themed T-shirts, check out the Ringling Museum of Art Store.

5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota, FL, 34243, USA
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $25 (art museum only, free on Mon.); $10 Ca’ d\'Zan first-floor self-guided tour plus museum entry; $60 Ca’ d\'Zan Experience Tour

Mote Aquarium

Fodor's choice

A renowned research facility, the Mote is also a popular attraction that draws families and others interested in its international array of ocean creatures. It has a large outdoor habitat featuring a family of frolicking river otters. In the main building, a 135,000-gallon tank lets you view various types of sharks from above and below the surface.

Other tanks contain eels, rays, and additional creatures native to area waters. Touch tanks abound here for the little ones, and the not-so faint of heart can scope out a preserved giant squid—a rare find out in the wild.

The expanded Seahorse Conservation Lab offers a glimpse into the unusual creatures' lives and how the aquarium helps them survive and thrive. Hugh and Buffett are the resident manatees, and they have lived here since 1996 as part of a research program. There's also a permanent sea-turtle exhibit.

Siesta Key Beach

Fodor's choice
Beach, Siesta Beach, The Florida Keys, Florida, USA
Dawn M Whalen / Shutterstock

This popular beach has fine, powdery quartz sand that squeaks under your feet, very much like the sand along the state's northwestern coast. You'll also find 40 acres of nature trails and tons of amenities. Don't forget to bring a volleyball—or a tennis racket. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; toilets. Best for: partiers; sunset; swimming; walking.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Orchids make up nearly a third of the 20,000 species of flowers and plants here. You can stroll through the Tropical Display House, home of orchids and colorful bromeliads gathered from rain forests, and wander the garden pathway past plantings of bamboo, ancient banyans, and mangrove forests along Little Sarasota Bay. Although spring sees the best blooms, the greenhouses make this an attraction for all seasons. A bonus is a spectacular view of downtown.

There are rotating exhibits of botanical art and photography in a 1934 restored Southern Colonial mansion. Enjoy lunch at the Selby House Cafe. The Historic Spanish Point campus in Osprey is home to the region's only butterfly experience.

Downtown Sarasota campus: 1534 Mound St., Sarasota; Historic Spanish Point campus, 401 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey, Sarasota, FL, USA
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $21 for Downtown Sarasota campus; $16 for Historic Spanish Point

Sarasota Jungle Gardens

One of the state's charming, family-owned and -operated attractions fills 10 acres with native and exotic plants and animals. The gardens date from 1939, and still have an Old Florida feel. Residents include red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, American alligators, and a variety of snakes, as well as furry creatures such as lemurs and prairie dogs. You can talk to trainers; take in the Wildlife Wonder, Reptile, or Jungle Bird shows; wander through a butterfly house and garden; hand-feed flamingoes; and learn about plants like the rare Australian nut tree and the Peruvian apple cactus. A café and a jungle-theme playground are also among the offerings.

South Lido County Park

The land for this 100-acre park, situated at the southern tip of the island, was originally purchased by John Ringling in 1920 as part of an ambitious plan to develop properties; alas, his scheme collapsed with the Florida land bust of 1926. The park sits amid four significant bodies of water: the Gulf of Mexico, Big Pass, Sarasota Bay, and Brushy Bayou.

Although it has one of the region's best beaches, swimming isn't recommended owing to the swift rip current, and there are no lifeguards. Still, the stretch of sugary sand has plenty of early-morning sand dollars to find, and there are nature trails to hike and canoe and kayak trails to paddle. The park is also a popular place to fish, enjoy a picnic, or watch as the sun sets amid the Australian pines and into the water. Amenities: showers; toilets. Best for: solitude; sunset; walking.

2201 Ben Franklin Dr., Lido Key, FL, 34236, USA

The Children’s Garden & Art Center

A hidden gem just north of downtown, this garden is a magical place for children and their families. Connect with nature and explore this whimsical world featuring more than 2 acres of gardens, old trees, and imaginative outdoor play structures. The center also regularly presents kid-friendly events—story times, nature walks, arts-and-crafts workshops, and gardening programs—and has a costume room and cottage where children can play dress up.

Turtle Beach

A 14-acre beach-park that's popular with families, Turtle has 2,600 linear feet of beach frontage and is more secluded than most Gulf beaches. Though narrower than most of the region's sandy stretches, it's also much less crowded, so it doesn't feel so narrow. It's also known for abundant sea turtles and has covered picnic shelters, grills, and a volleyball court. Locals like the 40-site campground that is also open to visitors with advance reservations. Fittingly enough, this beach is near the ubermellow Turtle Beach Resort. Amenities: toilets. Best for: solitude; sunset; swimming; walking.

8862 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key, FL, 34238, USA