For an easygoing but fun-filled Florida family trip or skip-gen vacation, you can’t go wrong with Sarasota. From toddlers to teens all the way to grandparents, this small city on Florida’s central Gulf Coast offers an escape your entire crew will enjoy.
The Best Things to Do in Sarasota
Whether you want to log some serious time on the sand, spot some of Florida’s signature flora and fauna, or get out on the water, Sarasota is one of the best family vacation ideas in the Sunshine State. Here are seven reasons why you should set your sights on Sarasota if you’re planning a Florida family getaway.
Sarasota’s Beautiful Beaches
The beaches draw a lot of visitors to Sarasota, and for good reason. Siesta Beach has twice earned the top spot on Dr. Beach’s annual list of best beaches in America. Its wide swath of powdery white sand is great for sandcastle building and Frisbee tossing—and the sand doesn’t get hot even when the temperature does! Grab your kid-friendly sunscreen, favorite beach towels, and other beach essentials, then hit the sand around sunset on Sunday nights for the colorful Siesta Key Drum Circle and musically mark the passage of another day.
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The Fun Family-Friendly Attractions
For an only-in-Florida experience, visit Sarasota Jungle Gardens and feed its resident flamingoes. The site hearkens back to Florida roadside attractions of yesteryear but offers plenty of present-day opportunities for animal encounters amid a backdrop of tropical foliage.
Then head under the sea at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, a compact but creature-packed spot that’s home to everything from playful otters and several kinds of sharks to much-loved resident manatees Hugh and Buffett.
At Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ downtown Sarasota campus, the kids can play among the tree canopy at the Children’s Rainforest Garden and feed hungry koi fish, then the whole family can stroll through the lush 15-acre site situated along Sarasota Bay. And this spot is truly one of a kind: Selby Gardens is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads, and ferns and other tropical plants.
The Great Outdoors
There’s a park for every personality in Sarasota. Head to 58-square-mile Myakka River State Park, one of the oldest and largest parks in Florida, to spot alligators gliding through the water or sunning on the shores of Florida’s first state-designated “wild and scenic river.” Don’t miss the park’s Canopy Walkway, which includes a 100-foot expanse suspended 25 feet in the air that travels through the treetops and a 74-foot tower that offers a literal bird’s-eye view of the expansive park.
Climb the manmade hill at the Celery Fields and see how many different kinds of birds you can spot at the park; more than 200 species have been observed there. Learn about Sarasota’s ancient past at Phillippi Estate Park or look for the resident deer at Rothenbach Park. Bayfront Park offers scenic water views and a good playground and seasonal children’s fountain for the kiddos, plus two nearby restaurant options for a waterfront family meal.
The Circus History
John Ringling, one of the five siblings of Ringling Bros. circus fame, called Sarasota home in the early 1900s. His former estate is now The Ringling museum complex, where visitors can tour his Venetian Gothic mansion Ca’ d’Zan and check out his impressive collection of Old Masters paintings at the Museum of Art. The kids will love the site’s Circus Museum and Tibbals Learning Center, where they can cram themselves into a clown car, test their tightrope-walking skills, and marvel at the intricate Howard Bros. Circus Model, a 44,000-piece re-creation of an early 20th century Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
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The Circus Arts Conservatory and its Sailor Circus Academy for young performers stage several shows throughout the year that keep the city’s big-top history alive, while the playground at downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park boasts an imaginative circus theme that appeals to kids of all ages. And you might even see local circus royalty Nik Wallenda performing in town or training for his next televised tightrope walk.
The Sports Scene
The Baltimore Orioles make their spring-training home in Sarasota, and several other MLB teams have spring-training spots nearby if you want to pack your vacation schedule with ballgames. You also might find yourself in town when collegiate or Olympic rowers are competing at Nathan Benderson Park.
If you’d rather be the one flexing your athletic muscles, there are lots of golf courses and tennis courts in Sarasota where the whole family can get in on the action. Volleyball courts can be found at several local beaches, some of which also host beach volleyball tournaments throughout the year. Rent bikes to pedal the Legacy Trail, a more than 10-mile paved pathway that runs along a former railroad corridor, or go for a jog over the picturesque John Ringling Causeway bridge.
The Water Sports
It’s not just the Orlando theme parks that deliver the thrills in Florida. In Sarasota, you can kayak through mangrove tunnels on a guided tour, or rent your own kayak or standup paddleboard to explore the Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway, or Sarasota Bay at your own pace. You can also rent canoes and kayaks to peacefully paddle the Myakka River.
For something with a little more oomph, local marinas offer boat rentals ranging from pontoons to deck boats. If you’d rather have someone else take the wheel, book a fishing charter or sunset cruise. Sarasota Bay Explorers’ Sea Life Encounter Cruise helps kids get up close and personal with puffer fish, stone crabs, and other local marine life that’s temporarily brought onboard with a trawl net for observation and education.
The Fantastic Food
You can find plenty of Sarasota restaurants that deliver good eats and accommodate the whole family. Enjoy fresh local seafood at the Old Florida-inspired Owen’s Fish Camp or laid back Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar. Or head to Old Salty Dog on City Island for sweeping water views and a menu that includes not only a fish sandwich and shrimp po’ boy but also the restaurant’s famous “Salty Dog” hot dog dipped in batter and fried.
There are lots of great options for pizza and pasta. Yoder’s Restaurant, located in Sarasota’s Pinecraft area (home to a longtime Amish community), serves up decadent fried chicken and peanut butter pie. Mandeville Beer Garden offers a wide selection of drafts for adults and a kid-friendly outdoor space with games like ping pong and cornhole to keep the young ones busy while the parents unwind.
Got a sweet tooth? Try the indulgent creations at Five-O Donut Co., grab a scoop of toasted coconut or key lime pie ice cream at Orange Octopus, or pick up some to-die-for truffles at Banyan Tree Chocolate and Cafe.