If you’ve never been to Sarasota, you are in for a real treat. Sarasota is a place where visitors feel at ease. You can easily spend a weekend here relaxing on one of the top-rated beaches in the United States, Siesta Key, or fill your days with countless activities ranging from museums to the great outdoors. There is no denying that Sarasota is the cultural capital of Florida. It’s truly a hidden gem, especially when it comes to the arts. I fell in love with the area upon arrival when I noticed how many beautiful murals were adorned on every corner in the downtown. In this guide, I will take you through all of the wonderful things you can do on a three-day weekend in Sarasota!
Why Visit Sarasota
First of all, I wanted to give my honest opinion on why Sarasota should be on the top of your list of places to visit. If you didn’t already know, the circus LITERALLY came to town in Sarasota. The Ringling Brothers decided to move their winter circus quarters to Sarasota in 1927 during the Roaring Twenties. Their influence in the area is very obvious and it’s fascinating to explore. The Ringling Museum is a staple when visiting and can’t be missed. Above all, Sarasota is a place where you can enjoy museums, art galleries, performing art venues, and much more.
Sarasota is well known for its calm gulf waters, beautiful white-sand beaches, and outdoor activities. My absolute favorite beach in Sarasota is Siesta Beach, located in Siesta Key. It is a barrier island that acts as a gateway between Sarasota and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s widely recognized as one of the best beaches in the world known for its brilliant quartz sand and turquoise clear waters. One of the reasons why I love this beach so much is its proximity to Siesta Village, a quintessential beach town. It’s known for having amazing restaurants, bars, ice cream parlors, cafes, and great shopping.
How to Get to Sarasota
The most convenient way to get to Sarasota is by flying into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. The airport is five miles from downtown Sarasota. When looking for flights, I always check surrounding airports to see if I can score a better deal using a website called Skyscanner. Here is a list of all of the airports around Sarasota and their proximity in miles to the downtown:
- Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (5 miles)
- St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (48 miles)
- Tampa International Airport (56 miles)
- Orlando International Airport (133 miles)
Note: Orlando International Airport is the furthest away from Sarasota. You may run into a lot of traffic in Orlando, so it’s not the best option if you’re on a time crunch. I included this airport on my list of airports to fly into because there have been some incredible flight deals out of Orlando as long as you don’t mind driving over two hours to get to Sarasota.
Transportation for a Weekend in Sarasota
Depending on your itinerary, you may or may not need a rental car in Sarasota especially if you fly directly into Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. For convenience, we chose to have a rental car and never had any issues parking our vehicle around town. Listed below are some ways you can book your car rental for Sarasota:
Sarasota County’s bus system is another way to get around town. You can pay for a roundtrip ticket or purchase consecutive day passes with cash only. The bus route stops near major attractions such as The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Marie Selbie Botanical Gardens, and the heart of downtown Sarasota.
Note: The busses don’t usually run on Sundays and there is limited evening schedules Monday through Saturday.
Where to Stay
The Art Ovation Hotel in Downtown Sarasota exceeded all of my expectations. If you’re a fan of the arts, this hotel is for you. Inside you’ll find countless collections from local artists that you can purchase directly off the walls of the hotel. The lobby is adorned with beautiful art and there is restaurant on-site called the Overture Restaurant & Gallery Lounge. We had so much fun exploring the surrounding downtown area outside of the hotel. All of the great bars and restaurants were within walking distance. The area was very safe and we loved searching for murals all over downtown! It is a great choice for a weekend in Sarasota.
The Siesta Key Palms Resort is a tropical oasis. I stayed here on a previous trip to Sarasota and it was amazing. There are two pools at the resort, one of which is adults-only. The resort is just a few minutes from Siesta Key Beach. The room I stayed in had a kitchenette, couch, a very comfy bed, and a fenced in private backyard area with tables and chairs. There is a common area outside complete with a fire pit, relaxing fountain, and hanging lounge chairs. I loved that there were hammocks everywhere to lay and relax in after a long day at the beach. The resort offers free bike rentals which is very convenient because of the short distance to the beach and Siesta Key Village.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Our first stop was Sarasota Jungle Gardens which is home to over 200 native and exotic animals. My favorite part about this experience was hand feeding flamingos! It was incredible and definitely one of the highlights of my weekend in Sarasota. There are plenty of other animals to interact with and it was so relaxing to walk around all of the lush grounds of the gardens. I really enjoyed the butterfly garden as well as all of the exotic birds on display. We really enjoyed our time at the gardens and highly recommend this experience when visiting Sarasota.
The Ringling: Circus Museum, Ca' d'Zan, and Museum of Art
Our next stop was The Ringling estate, a 66 acre property featuring the State Art Museum of Florida, Circus Museum, Ca’ d’Zan mansion, and Bayfront Gardens. This property was previously owned by John Ringling, one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” John Ringling and his beloved wife Mable both shared a love for the arts, Italy, and Sarasota. They decided to make Sarasota their winter residence in 1911. This is one of the top rated activities in Sarasota and can’t be missed. You can purchase tickets for The Ringling in person or on their website.
Our first stop on the Ringling estate was the Circus Museum. It was established in 1948 and inside you’ll find costumes, paintings, and unique props used in the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey® Circus. You can easily spend an hour reading all of the fun facts about the circus and how it evolved over the years. My favorite thing to see in this museum were the beautifully carved parade wagons. You will also find some interactive activities inside. I tried my luck at walking the wire, but I quickly found out that I wouldn’t be cut out for the circus after breaking my shoe. There is something for everyone to enjoy in this museum and I found it very interesting.
Next we walked over to the Ca’ d’Zan, which was the winter home of John Ringling and his wife Mable. Stepping into this home was like stepping back into the 1920’s. This 36,000 square-foot Venetian style mansion is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. The Ringlings drew inspiration from Venice’s Ducal Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grunwald Hotel after a year long trip to Italy. Mable Ringling came home from Italy with a suitcase full of sketches, photographs and notes she shared with architect Dwight James Baum. The view of the Sarasota Bay behind the Ca’ d’Zan is magical. It felt like time stopped for a moment as I sat on the stairs overlooking the water with the mansion behind me. I enjoyed frolicking around the mansion imagining I was a wealthy socialite from the 1920’s.
Ringling Museum of Art
We continued our tour of the grounds by stopping into the famous Ringling Museum of Art, the official state art museum of Florida and part of Florida State University. Inside you’ll find twenty one galleries filled with over ten thousand objects including paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts from all around the world. I was in awe of the 16th-20th century European paintings and tapestries hanging up throughout the galleries. You can spend as little or as much time as you’d like viewing all of the beautiful art in here. We ended up walking around this museum for over an hour learning about the different styles of art over the centuries. Outside of the art museum you’ll find a stunning courtyard filled with beautiful statues and gardens.
Note: The Museum of Art and Bayfront Gardens are free to the public on Mondays. Regular admission pricing applies to visit the Circus Museum or Ca’ d’Zan. This is good to know in case you don’t get around to seeing everything in one day and want to come back.
Bahi Hut Tiki Bar
I am a sucker for tiki bars and had to stop when I noticed Bahi Hut Tiki Bar on our way to the hotel. It turns out this is the first tiki bar ever opened in Florida in 1954. It has maintained a mid-century tiki bar atmosphere over the years. Their famous secret recipe drink is called the “Sneaky Tiki” and the classic “Bahi Hut 1954 Mai Tai.” Just a fair warning, the drinks are STRONG. This is why Bahi Hut got its nickname “Bye Bye Hut.” Their happy hour runs from 3-6 pm. I definitely recommend stopping in after a day at the Ringling. You won’t be disappointed and it’s a great place to unwind during your weekend in Sarasota.
Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection
Our next stop was The Art Ovation Hotel in Downtown Sarasota for check-in. This Marriott Autograph Collection hotel made a GREAT first impression. The first thing I noticed was all of the beautiful artwork hanging from the walls of the hotel lobby. There was also a grand piano and music filled the halls as someone happened to be playing as we walked in. Check-in was quick and the staff was very pleasant. The hotel room was unique and I loved the small artistic touches throughout. I found a sketchbook in the room purposefully left there for guests to doodle in and I loved going through the pages seeing what others left behind. If you happen to stay in the same room as I did, you’ll find a sketch left by me on one of the pages!
Perspective Rooftop Bar at Art Ovation Hotel
The best part about staying at Art Ovation Hotel is you have access to their Persective Rooftop Bar! The views of the downtown are amazing from the rooftop and the atmosphere is very fun and lively. They have private cabanas for rent during the day or you can choose to lay out on one of their many lounge chairs. The rooftop is open til 1AM on the weekends and they bring in a DJ weather permitting. The drinks and food at the rooftop were really good and you can view their menu here. To make reservations for a cabana, cocktail party, or private event at the rooftop bar, you can submit an inquiry on their website.
Dinner at Boca Sarasota
For dinner we chose Boca Sarasota, a great downtown restaurant within walking distance from our hotel at Art Ovation. The restaurant is farm to table meaning everything is fresh from local farmers. You know you will get a quality meal coming here! I really enjoyed the skirt steak I ordered and the drinks were very delicious. I definitely recommend making reservations for Boca Sarasota ahead of time because it can get busy, especially on the weekends. They have indoor and outdoor seating as well as a view of the open kitchen where you can watch chefs prepare your food.
Drinks at Pangea Alchemy Lab
After dinner we stopped at Pangea Alchemy Lab, a speakeasy in downtown Sarasota that was recommended to us by a local bartender. I probably would have never found this place on my own. The speakeasy was hidden in an alley and it was a quick walk from Boca Sarasota. We got in through the white door marked 1564 pretty quick despite it being a Saturday. I am not exaggerating when I say this is the best cocktail bar I’ve ever been to. The bartender was so nice and he made my first time trying absinthe a blast. I also ordered a martini called “Not Michael’s Twist” which I recommend as well. You won’t find a full food menu here but they do offer select appetizers.
Day 2: Exploring Siesta Key and Lido Key
Breakfast at Toasted Mango Cafe
We started the morning off right with breakfast at the Toasted Mango Cafe in Siesta Key. They conveniently have two locations, one in Siesta Key and one in the downtown. The best part about this place is they serve breakfast all day! Food Network named Toasted Mango Cafe the best place to get waffles in Florida. I ordered their toasted mango waffle and it did not disappoint. The restaurant is open 7 days a week from 7:30 am – 2:30 pm Sunday through Saturday.
Siesta Key Village
After breakfast, we made our way to Siesta Key Village, a lively beach town outside of Sarasota Beach. The village is lined with hundreds of different restaurants, bars and shops. The weather forecast called for rain so this was a perfect opportunity to explore this little village. We stopped into Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar for a delicious boozy slushy drink followed by The Hub Baja Grill for lunch. There was live music on the outside deck which drew us in. The village is a great place to buy souvenirs to bring home from Sarasota. It was an afternoon well spent!
CMX Cinebistro in Sieta Key
Our next stop on this rainy day was CMX CineBistro in Siesta Key for an awesome dine-in movie theatre experience. This was my first time experiencing such luxury. We sat in our comfy reclining leather seats and a waiter came around to take our food and beverage order. I felt absolutely spoiled at this place. I ordered cheeseburger sliders, popcorn chicken and truffle fries along with a Moscow mule. I have to say the food was amazing. I was really surprised at how delicious my entire meal was because I didn’t come in with high expectations. In conclusion, it was a great experience overall and I definitely recommend it especially if it rains during your stay in Sarasota.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
The Mote Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota is an independent, nonprofit, marine research organization based in Sarasota, Florida filled with manatees, sharks, and sea turtles. I was amazed to learn that Mote researchers have over 13,000 colonies of coral growing in their underwater coral nursery, which is the equivalent to six miles of living coral. The scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory have discovered a way to grow threatened Staghorn coral four times faster than in the wild which is huge news!
Climate change has been impacting coral reefs and this made me happy to learn that scientists here have worked hard to figure out a way to grow coral reef at a fast rate. If you didn’t already know, coral reefs provide shelter and food to over 25% of all marine species. Coral reefs play an essential role in supporting healthy oceans. Some people fear that as soon as thirty years from now we could lose what’s left of coral reefs in our oceans. The scientists at the Mote Laboratory & Aquarium have a very important job.
St. Armand's Circle Shops and Bars
Next stop was St. Armand’s Circle, a sophisticated outdoor shopping center home to over 140 upscale boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, and more. It’s a very unique shopping experience in an open-air, European inspired setting. Every shop wraps around to form a circle, hence the name “St. Armands Circle.” Our first stop was Le Macaron for some yummy macarons followed by the Tea Exchange to purchase some unique teas and spices. There were plenty of wonderful restaurants to choose from around the circle as well and we did so after shopping.
Dinner at Blu Kouzina
Next we headed to Blu Kouzina in St. Armands Circle for an authentic Greek meal. The restaurants owner is from Greece so I already knew this would be the best place to try Greek food for the first time. Their menu incorporates ingredients grown locally therefore everything was fresh and of high quality. I ordered their 14 oz French Cut Pork Chop with roast potatoes and grilled vegetables and I can say is WOW. The food here was amazing. They also have a huge selection of great wines from all over the world. The service was fantastic and I will definitely be coming back next time I’m in Sarasota.
Day 3: Marie Selby Gardens and Art Center Sarasota
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Downtown
On our final day in Sarasota, we decided to explore the beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Selby Gardens has a 15-acre Downtown Sarasota campus in addition to a 30-acre Historic Spanish Point campus in the Osprey area of Sarasota County, Florida. Tickets must be purchased separately for both campuses and they are approximately ten miles apart from each other. We chose to explore the downtown campus because it was closest to our hotel. The gardens are open daily from 10 am -5 pm. You can purchase tickets online or on-site at the entrance to the garden.
Selby Gardens was founded in 1973 when a Sarasota resident by the name of Marie Selby donated her home and property “for the enjoyment of the general public.” She was a passionate gardener and this was a great gift for Sarasota. This is the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display of orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns, and other tropical plants. It was so much fun walking through a greenhouse filled with these beautiful orchids and plants. There was a beautiful mansion we explored on the property but it was never owned by Marie Selby. This mansion was the retirement home of Christy Payne, the former director and treasurer of Standard Oil of New Jersey. After he passed away in 1962, the William and Marie Selby Foundation purchased his property as an addition to the beautiful gardens.
The Selby House is the original home of Marie Selby. It has been restored and converted into a lovely cafe on the property. Inside you’ll find an assortment of sandwiches, salads, wraps, soups, and pastries. They also have coffee, teas, and a variety of beer and wine. Right outside of the cafe you’ll find gorgeous Banyan trees, a rope bridge, and a treehouse! These exotic banyan trees have roots that grow downward. I’ve never seen anything like it. Around the corner from the treehouse you’ll also find a 12 foot waterfall and forest pool.
Art Center Sarasota
Our last stop of the day was the Art Center Sarasota. Inside we discovered four galleries displaying local, regional, and international artists. The main gallery is a large open atrium dedicated to showcasing the works of talented artists from Sarasota and surrounding areas. We were given pen and paper upon entering to select our favorite work of art on display and we left our selection with a woman working inside of the gallery. It was really fun walking around examining all of the beautiful art and choosing which one we wanted to see win a competition that was going on. The art center is open Monday through Saturday between 10am and 5pm. Admission to the museum is free. I suggest checking their website to see if there are any exciting exhibits on display the weekend you are visiting Sarasota.
What will you do with your 3 days in Sarasota? Let me know below and feel free to leave a comment with any questions you may have about a weekend in Sarasota!
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