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Best Things To Do in Sarasota

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Sarasota is often called the Cultural Coast. As an early wintering port for the wealthy, the arts developed along with the city. The history of that development is fascinating and you can get a glimpse of it while visiting some of the better known landmarks, such as Ringling’s mansion, Cá d’Zan and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Do all those things you come to Florida for—swim, snorkel, sun, shop—but make it a point to visit the cultural landmarks and museums.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Neighborhood: Sarasota

A notable example of the generosity of Sarasota’s wealthy patrons, the Selby Botanical Gardens is a legacy of William and Marie Selby. Selby’s father had founded an oil and gas drilling company that later merged with Texaco. The Selbys loved Sarasota and the gardens surround the modest home they once shared here. The gardens are particularly mesmerizing in the spring when the weather is perfect for strolling this peaceful retreat on the bay, with its gorgeous plant life and endless photo ops. Specializing in the preservation, study, and research of epiphytes, or plants that get their nutrition from the air, such as orchids, the Gardens are home to more than 20,000 exotic plants, among them thousands of orchids, a bamboo pavilion, a butterfly and hummingbird garden, a medicinal plant garden, a waterfall garden, a fernery, two tropical food gardens and more. Marie Selby’s home and the Payne mansion, both of which are on the National Registry, are also located here.

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Ringling Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Sarasota

John Ringling was the marketing force behind the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. He and his wife, Mable, built their dream home in Sarasota in 1925 and named it Ca d’Zan (the House of John in the Venetian dialect). It was modeled after the homes and palaces they’d seen in Venice during their extensive travels in Europe. The home is nothing short of spectacular, its terra cotta and glazed tile facade punctuated by an 81-foot belvedere tower. Inside, you’ll find room after room paneled in hand-carved oak with marble floors, stained glass windows and filled with priceless works of art. Out back there’s a nearly 30,000-square-foot rose garden. Like the homes in Newport, Rhode Island, the word “mansion” hardly does it justice; this is a palace. John and Mable were passionate art collectors and they built a museum on the scale of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, on the grounds of the Ca d’Zan. The museum alone would be a star attraction in any city in the U.S.; its collection includes numerous Old Masters (Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto, van Dyck, El Greco) along with ancient Etruscan and Greek antiquities and a growing collection of Asian art. It even has a cast of Michelangelo’s David and a replica of the Fountain of Tortoises from the Piazza Mattei in Rome. The grounds also include the Circus Museum filled with circus wagons, posters and photographs—Sarasota was the winter headquarters for the Ringling Brothers circus—along with the Tibbals Learning Center, named for master model builder and philanthropist Howard Tibbals. He spent 50 years producing the world's largest miniature circus—The Howard Bros. Circus—in exact, to-scale replicas of the 1920s and '30s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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Ringling Museum of Art  

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

Neighborhood: City Island

Anyone fascinated by marine life will love it here, and those who aren’t may just find themselves surprisingly intrigued. Touch pools, working labs and high-tech, interactive exhibits are open to the public, and eco boat tours are offered by the Sarasota Bay Explorers. The lab has been a leader in research on sharks and was an important center for rehabilitating turtles affected by the Gulf oil spill of 2010. General admission includes access to Mote Aquarium, the Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center and Immersion Cinema. Admission is $17 for adults over 12, $16 for seniors over 65, $12 for kids aged 4-12, and children under 4 get in free.

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Sarasota Classic Car Museum

Neighborhood: Sarasota
Opened in the mid-1950s, the museum’s original collection came from two Iowa farm equipment salesmen who liked to restore cars. They visited Sarasota on vacation and decided to move their fleet of antiques here. Since then the collection has expanded to include John and Mable Ringling’s collection of Rolls Royces, John Lennon’s 1935 Bentley and Paul McCartney’s Cooper Mini. Sheet metal doesn’t do it for you? There are also antique music boxes, automotive books, antique cameras, several of Thomas Edison’s early phonographs and even coin-operated arcade games—still playable at just a penny each. Open 9AM-6PM daily.

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Solomon's Castle

Neighborhood: Ona
This place is literally in the middle of nowhere, about 50 miles east of Sarasota, but it’s a fun day trip. This is a fanciful Medieval-style castle made entirely out of aluminum printing plates discarded by a newspaper. What started as a lark for sculptor Howard Solomon has grown into a gleaming 12,000-square-foot edifice with stained glass windows. It’s furnished with other discards: a chair made of beer cans and a sculpture of an elephant made from barrels. There’s a restaurant for lunch. The Castle is open 11AM-4PM every day except Mondays. It’s closed from July - September and admission is $10 for adults, $4 for children under 12.

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Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Neighborhood: Sarasota

This is one of the oldest attractions in the state, having opened 70 years ago. Approximately 85 percent of the animals that reside here are a mix of rescues and donations from pet owners who couldn’t keep them, all living on 10 acres heavily forested with tropical plants. Bird and reptile shows take place throughout the day, and if you’ve got little ones, they can play in the Kiddie Jungle, with its tree house, haunted tree, swings and wooden train. This is a good place to get a look at an alligator—and even hold one if you have the nerve. If you’re interested, there are three shows that run throughout the day—Birds of Prey & Critters & things, Reptile Encounter and Birds of the Rainforests. There is a cafe serving hot dogs and light snacks, but you can see most of this in a morning or afternoon, so eat lunch before or after. Open 10AM-5PM every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. Admission is $15 for adults, $14 for seniors (60 and up), $10 for kids aged 3-12; children 2 and under get in free.

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Florida Underwater Sports

Neighborhood: Sarasota

While southwest Florida isn’t the Keys, the water is warm and calm, perfect for getting wet, snorkeling or diving. For snorkelers there are some ledges close to shore that attract small fish, and if you’re in the mood for a full scuba experience, the artificial reefs and especially the wreck of the freighter Bayronto make enjoyable excursions. Florida Underwater Sports can set you up with everything—gear, instructions and guided tours—for a nice day on (and under) the water.

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Siesta Beach

Neighborhood: Siesta Key
Located on Siesta Key, Siesta Beach’s fine, white, cool-to-the-touch sand is made up of 99 percent quartz that originated in the Appalachian Mountains millions of years ago. The water is shallow a good distance out from shore (making it possible to wade, waist deep, quite a ways out) and there are lifeguards on duty year round. There are 800 parking spaces, but don’t take that to mean you’ll find one, even if you get there early. In addition to the superior sand and the Sarasota sunshine, you’ll also find picnic tables, tennis courts, volleyball courts on the beach, a 20-station fitness trail playground equipment, public restrooms and concession stands where you can grab burgers and cold drinks. You can bring your own cooler, but don’t pack anything in glass containers.

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Siesta Beach  

Florida Ever-Glides, Inc.

Neighborhood: Sarasota

Sure, they look goofy, but Segways are a lot of fun. The staff here will get you on one and riding confidently in no time, get you through a quick orientation and let you practice before setting off on one of three tour routes: The Historic/Scenic Tour through downtown Sarasota and Sarasota Bayfront at Island Park, which is 5 miles and 2.5 hours long ($68); the Cultural & Arts tour, which is 7 miles and 2.5 hours ($78), and the Deluxe Bay & Beaches Tour, which covers 12 miles and lasts 3 hours ($88). You can save if you book online in advance.

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Gamble Plantation

Neighborhood: Ellenton
You wouldn’t expect to find a classic antebellum Southern plantation in Southwest Florida, but the Gamble Plantation has that “Tara” look with its wrap-around second-story porches and imposing Greek Revival facade. It was built in the late 1840s by Major Robert Gamble, mostly of tabby (a homemade concrete mixture of lime, oyster shells, sand, and water), There are 10 rooms, verandas on three sides, and eight fireplaces. Today it’s a historic site filled with 19th-century furnishings and is reputed to have been the hiding spot for Confederate secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin who stayed here after the fall of the Confederacy until he could be smuggled out to England. You can walk the grounds on your own, but you have to join a guided tour to see the interior. Admission to the grounds is free; the tour is $6 for adults, $4 for children. The Plantation is about a half-hour north of downtown, but is well worth the drive.

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