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Some say Sarasota, Florida is a three-ring circus but that didn’t stop Stephen King, Jerry Springer, and Brian Johnson, of AC/DC fame, from buying homes there. Because of its colorful past and numerous outdoor offerings, Sarasota is perfect for trips with kids.
Our family thinks Sarasota is a great place, too. My daughter and I have many fond memories of taking day trips there. It’s perfect for us because our home is less than an hour away. There’s so much to see and do in Sarasota, we keep going back! The neat thing about Sarasota is that it’s not as tourist-heavy as other, more popular, Florida destinations for family vacations, like Orlando or Miami.
Sarasota is a relaxing getaway for the whole family with fun things to do for the kiddos. Here is a list of the best places in Sarasota for families. But I promise, there is still so much more to do in this idyllic southwest Florida town.
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John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Sarasota is quite the cultural hub. That’s thanks in large part to Mr. John Ringling. Yes, the same Ringling of “Ringling Bros., Barnum, and Bailey Circus” fame. John Ringling built a palatial winter house in Sarasota with his wife, Mable (but more on that later). The effects that the Ringling family had on Sarasota are still prevalent to this day. There’s even a street named after him in downtown Sarasota!
John Ringling loved to travel the world. On his travels, he collected many pieces of art. After gathering quite a large collection, he and his wife built a grand museum to share his treasures with the public. Today, the Ringling Museum of Art is over 150,000 square feet and holds amazing paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more.
When we go, I like to start by heading to the right from the entrance, towards Galleries One and Two. There, massive baroque paintings by Peter Paul Rubens blow visitors away. Guests can then continue counter-clockwise, and eventually, arrive at the outside, grand statues courtyard. The centerpiece of the courtyard – and symbol of the Ringling Museum – is a statue of Michelangelo’s David, cast in bronze from the marble original. It’s an amazing work of art in the heart of Sarasota!
The Ringling Circus Museum
Small guests, who aren’t into Renaissance masters yet, can instead enjoy The Ringling Campus. Of course, there’s a Circus Museum at the Ringling Museum of Art! After all, John Ringling in his time was considered one of the “Circus Kings.”
Many of the performers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus followed John Ringling and moved into areas around Sarasota. Those same performers donated costumes, props, equipment, and other memorabilia that are currently on display in the Circus Museum. Plus, families can also see John and Mable Ringling’s personal railroad car, the Wisconsin. It has three staterooms, its own dining room, kitchen, and bathroom. Imagine traveling all across the country in that!
One of the best things in the Circum Museum is housed in the adjacent Tibbals Learning Center. In there is the Howard Bros. Circus — a massive 3,800 square foot miniature model of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus! It’s intricately detailed, with small figurines of circus performers, animals, audiences, and more. I have a blast admiring all the tiny details.
Remember that palatial winter house I mentioned earlier? Well, families can explore John and Mable Ringling’s mansion: Ca’ d’Zan. Inspired by Venetian Gothic architecture (the name is Venetian dialect meaning “House of John”), the house stands as a testament to the grandeur of the roaring ‘20s. Every corner of the mansion is lavishly decorated and furnished. Some classic works of art still hang on the walls.
Once inside, enjoy the Solarium, reception room, entrance foyer, and my personal favorite, The Court — complete with an Aeolian organ with over 2,000 pipes that go up to a chamber on the second floor. To complete the tour, go back out to the terrace, overlooking Sarasota Bay. The terrace is a popular wedding ceremony site. And it’s easy to see why. The view is absolutely gorgeous!
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
Florida is an aquatic wonderland when it comes to wildlife. A perfect place to see amazing sea creatures is Sarasota. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year, so you can enjoy seeing their array of sharks, manatees, sea turtles, and more.
My daughter’s favorite exhibit is the “Otters & Their Waters.” It’s great because the exhibit is very informative about the otters’ natural habitat, any North American body of water, such as ponds, marshes, lakes, rivers, and estuaries. My daughter loves it because the otters are adorable! She can watch them play, swim, and slide through their tanks for hours. They really are cute!
The Mote Aquarium is massive and covers a wide variety of marine life. There is also the laboratory side. Visitors can explore Mote’s mission to help Florida’s native nautical wildlife through the “Choose Your Adventure” tour. If you have a kid that wants to be a Marine Biologist (or just loves marine life), this is simply a must-do! On the tour, guests follow a biologist on their morning rounds, either through the fish and invertebrate galleries or the Marine Mammal Center. This is a great way to get up-close-and-personal with some amazing sea creatures!
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Big Cat Habitat Gulf Coast Sanctuary
Kids who love lions, tigers, and other exotic animals can visit the Big Cat Habitat Gulf Coast Sanctuary in Sarasota. Opened by Kay Rosaire in 1987, the long-standing sanctuary and rescue is home to incredible animals that are available for public viewing.
Obviously, the big cats are here, but guests can also see other non-feline creatures, like bears, primates, and birds. There’s even a family-friendly petting zoo, so kids can feed and pet goats!
Want to get even more wild? Big Cat Habitat also offers Wild Yoga, where visitors can participate in a yoga flow with lemurs or if you’re really adventurous, tigers in an adjacent cage!
PRO TIP: If your little ones can’t get enough animals, you may also want to check out the Sarasota Jungle Gardens. It’s only about 25 minutes away from the Big Cat Habitat and has even more exotic animals, like reptiles and tropical birds.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Downtown Sarasota for a relaxing walk through delightful flower fields and nature trails. There, guests can explore thousands of different species of plant life, some native to Florida and some not. From the mangrove walkway next to Sarasota Bay to the Bonsai Exhibit and Banyan Grove, there is much to see and explore!
There is plenty to keep the little ones occupied here. Take a walk through the Butterfly Garden and enjoy the colorful environment positively brimming with butterflies. Kids can explore the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest garden, where they can travel across swinging bridges or learn about the surrounding wildlife at the field research station. There’s also an indoor Kids’ Corner in the Selby House, so kids can cool off and learn some interesting facts about the gardens.
Guided tours are available through the gardens, the art exhibitions in the Museum of Botany & the Arts, and through the conservatory and greenhouses. Self-guided tours are also available. Grab a bite to eat at the Selby House Cafe, which offers sandwiches, salads, pastries, snacks, and more.
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You can get a good idea of a city’s “vibe” by its downtown district, and Sarasota is no different! For that, take a walk down Main Street. Here you’ll find all kinds of restaurants, bars, and stores; all within easy walking distance of the many hotels in downtown Sarasota!
The shopping on Main Street is great. Stores like Sara Campbell, J. McLaughlin, and Eleganza are standouts. There’s also the Book Bazaar or Pixie Dust: the Metaphysical Boutique for something more unique.
Where to Eat on Main Street
All types of foods share space on Main Street. We’re talking Italian (Mediterraneo or Flavio’s on Main), American (Raffurty’s or Evie’s), Japanese (Utamaro or HUMAY), and tons more! Plus, no need to leave Main Street to find dessert: just head to Gelato-Go Sarasota or The Fat Donkey to satisfy that sweet tooth.
St. Armands Circle
Main Street isn’t the only place for dining and shopping. Head over the Ringling Causeway into St. Armands Circle, a unique part of Sarasota. With a hint of European sophistication, St. Armands Circle is dotted with Greek and Roman statues, all situated minutes from one of the country’s best beaches.
The Circle is a glorious outdoor shopping mall. There are tons of unique boutique shops. If you want to relax or get pampered, there are also spas to check out.
St. Armands Circle is minutes away from Longboat Key. There are several public access beaches all along this 12-mile-long island. We recommend the one on 6399 Gulfside Road. There’s plenty of parking there, and it’s also closest to the restaurants off Gulf of Mexico Drive.
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Where to Eat at St. Armands Circle
Some of our favorite restaurants are at St. Armands Circle. The Columbia is incredible for Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine. Cha Cha Coconuts has a great laid-back beach vibe with delicious burgers and sandwiches. Lynches Pub & Grub is a quaint Irish-style pub for a cold beer and good food. The Venezia is some of the best Italian food in the area.
Siesta Key Beach
Can’t talk about Florida without talking about its beautiful beaches, right? Sarasota has one of the best beaches in the nation. TripAdvisor named Siesta Key Beach the “Best Beach” in the United States in their 2020 Traveler’s Choice Awards! In fact, they’ve crowned Siesta Key Beach “Best Beach” three times since 2015.
Siesta Key Beach is Florida’s top place for its super-fine, cool sand and blue water stretching out into what feels like forever. And since it’s on Florida’s western coast, the sun sets directly into the water. You don’t get a beach sunset on the east coast. So pull up a beach chair, open up that beach umbrella, relax the day away, and end it with a gorgeous sunset. It’s really the perfect day.
Where to Eat on Siesta Key
There are plenty of choices for food near the beach, too. Siesta Key Oyster Bar is a local favorite, with fresh food and nightly live music. Ophelia’s on the Bay is perfect for a romantic waterside dinner. The Old Salty Dog offers a unique mix of British cuisine with a Florida twist. Siesta Key also boasts great nightlife, from the Daiquiri Deck to the Beach Club.
When You Go
Sarasota conveniently has its own airport – Sarasota Bradenton International. They offer car rental services from several different companies. Of course, travelers also have the option of Uber or other taxi services. The airport is only 10 minutes away from Main Street, 20 minutes away from St. Armands Circle, and 25 minutes away from Siesta Key!
Use this interactive field to find the best flight deals for your family from Cheap’OAir!
Where To Stay In Sarasota
- For a budget stay at around $100 per night, try the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Sarasota Downtown.
- To stay in the heart of downtown Sarasota, we recommend the incredible Westin Sarasota. It can get pricey at $400 to $500 a night, but the views from the rooftop bar are breathtaking – especially at sunset. Also, there are great deals available from Booking.com
- Another wonderful splurge, that includes an incredible 18-hole golf course is the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. Book this immaculate property for an indulgent experience.
- For a middle-of-the-road option near Siesta Key, the Best Western Siesta Key has rooms at around $200 a night. Although not technically on the Key, the hotel does offer complimentary beach shuttles!
Use this interactive map to see private homes available in Sarasota from VRBO and other hotel options near where your family would like to stay.
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