Overview

Among the early tourists to be smitten by Sarasota, Florida, was circus magnate John Ringling in the Roaring '20s. He scooped up property all around the town, moved the circus's winter home there, and built himself a winter residence, an art museum, a circus museum and a college. All these years later, the city of Sarasota is still the undisputed cultural center of the Gulf Coast, but with the added allure of a string of barrier islands flanking its western side. Each of the keys maintains its own identity, with superb beach access being the central unifying theme.

Lido and St. Armands are really just extensions of downtown Sarasota, connected by a causeway and fairly urban. Started as a quiet fishing village, Longboat Key is now strictly the purview of the posh, with tall resort hotels and condominiums and a glut of golf courses. Siesta Key is much more low-rise, with a personality to match. It's relaxed and laid-back, with a high funk-factor. It's the most youthful spot on this part of the Gulf Coast. Casey Key is less of a tourist draw, mostly dotted with single-family homes.

Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.

Geography

This part of Florida's Gulf Coast contains numerous deep-water bays, an abundance of rivers, harbors and a record number of first-magnitude springs. Thus, the fishing, boating, swimming and simple beachcombing in these parts are legendary.

Sarasota's downtown streets and roads run east-west; avenues and boulevards run north-south. The main street downtown is called, fittingly, Main Street. From downtown, go east across the John Ringling Causeway to access St. Armands Circle and Lido Key.

From there, you can continue north to Longboat Key, where there's not a lot of draw beyond swanky hotels, golf courses, a few restaurants, and slightly inconvenient beach access and parking. To reach Siesta Key, head south on Highway 41 (also called the Tamiami Trail), then take a right onto either Siesta Drive or Stickney Point Road—the former takes you to the northern, residential section of the key; Stickney takes you closer to the funky Siesta Village.

History

Although it was the first state to be settled by Europeans, Florida might be the last state to have entered fully into modernity. It remained more or less a Wild West-like frontier until the 20th century, with the first paved road not appearing until 1920.

Although Sarasota was officially founded in the 1840s, it wasn't until wealthy northerners such as circus impresario John Ringling arrived that this backwater village 60 mi/97 km south of Tampa started really jumping. Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer built a mansion there on Sarasota Bay in 1910, inviting her friends to enjoy the area's many virtues. During the 1920s, Ringling followed suit, constructing a huge winter residence, Ca d'Zan, and taking his Ringling Bros. circus to winter there.

The population in Sarasota doubled during the Florida land boom of 1924-27, but the tradition of connoisseurship established by Ringling and his compadres was intractable. Today, Sarasotans are demanding about their arts, restaurants, shopping and other cultural allures—all a boon to the visitor. There's a robust "snow bird" community, meaning the winter population is greatly elevated (and thus parking, reservations and so forth become trickier to get).

Sightseeing

The arts are so dominant in Sarasota—there's the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, the Sarasota Players, the Banyan Theater Company and many others—that it's hard to tear yourself away to do much else. Still, the city and its barrier island have world-class beaches, a top-notch botanical garden, an outstanding marine laboratory, an array of spectator sporting options and numerous activities for families with young children.

If one has limited time to explore, Siesta Key Beach, with its pure-quartz white sand, is a must. (It's more like powdered sugar than granulated sugar, so each time you stand up you look like a Greek wedding cookie in a bathing suit.) The rest of the area's beaches, strung across a series of skinny barrier islands, could handily occupy sun worshippers for many days.

During the spring, one should head to Ed Smith Stadium, the spring-training home of the Cincinnati Reds. And you don't have to be a master gardener to appreciate the open-air and under-glass museum of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, with its stunning array of otherworldly epiphytes, or air plants.

Nightlife

Because Sarasota is so seasonal (snow birds flock in during the lovely December-April months), the nightlife is cyclical. Downtown Sarasota has few throbbing nightclubs at any time of the year, however. For a laid-back good time, head to the village on Siesta Key, with its cluster of margarita-and-Jimmy-Buffet-inspired cafes and bars. Many of the area's fine hotels have swanky hotel bars worth a linger (especially the Ritz-Carlton), and there are just enough dance clubs to get your groove on.

Dining

In Tanzania they say jambo. In Papua New Guinea, it's moning tru. In Australia, it's G'day. But in Sarasota, the common greeting is, "Have you been to [insert name of red-hot new restaurant here] yet?" It's one of those cities where everyone jostles in line to taste the doings of the latest macaroni maestro, the newest sushi shaman. Dining at the latest big hot spot is a form of social currency, made more delicious in the retelling. In high season, this means some tough reservations to come by.

But in the off-season, Sarasota's many culinary pearls are yours for the plucking. It's a city that has fought the encroaching raft of chain restaurants Florida seems so plagued by. Twenty-eight independent restaurants in town joined together to build public awareness about the importance of the community's unique cuisine. They formed the Sarasota Originals, the first Florida Chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA). For the visitor, this is good news. The city has a superabundance of fairly stylish restaurants and the sophisticated diners who love them.

There's plenty of fancy to accommodate the high-rolling and monied winter residents but also quaint mom-and-pop places and small ethnic restaurants to suit any taste.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$45; and $$$$ = more than US$45.

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