Within a short span of time, it’s easy to reach some of Florida’s most historic and vibrant communities. In this ongoing series, we highlight some great destinations that will make you want to hit the road. As travelers embark on new adventures, we encourage taking appropriate health precautions.
Sarasota has long attracted visitors from near and far with its barrier islands, pristine beaches, diverse cultural offerings and world-class golf courses. But this stylish and luxurious destination, just a short drive away, has recently had an infusion of new energy and has been making headlines, ranking as “the number one place to live in Florida” and “the number three fastest-growing city in the United States,” according to U.S News & World Report, as well as being heralded as “leading the state in innovative public artworks” by PBS and NPR.
Much of what distinguishes Sarasota is what U.S. News describes as a “distinct vibe that’s different from Florida’s relative coastal cities, with its own vibrant arts scene, beachy atmosphere and burgeoning food culture.”
And while the seaside ambience and the great shopping at Siesta Key Village and St. Armands Circle are big draws for visitors, the downtown area is a destination unto itself with its wealth of distinctive accommodations, great dining options and engaging bars and rooftop lounges.
What downtown also offers is an abundance of galleries, boutiques and theaters, including the internationally renowned Sarasota Opera, housed in the historic art deco A.B. Edwards Theater. The opera house has been recognized as one of the finest venues for opera in America and also plays host to everything from symphony and classical ballet productions to film festivals, popular music concerts and comedy shows. The famed Florida Studio Theatre, with its fresh program of plays and lively cabaret series, is also a popular draw. McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre is a world-class showroom devoted to the art of stand-up comedy and hosts popular national headliners from up-and-coming talents to old favorites like Andrew Dice Clay.
Tanya Steel, the executive director of the nonprofit Careers Through the Culinary Arts Program, and author and James Beard Award-winning journalist who has worked with Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Epicurious and The New York Times, recently relocated to Sarasota for its combination of culture and beauty. Originally hailing from London and raised in a family of art, architecture and ballet lovers, Steel was looking for somewhere to live, after New York, that had great arts options and museums, and where she’d be able to see green every day and swim as much as possible.
“From The Ringling to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota offers some world-class art and nature that is unique and always satisfying,” Steel offers, adding that the food scene is lively and evolving from “blackened and fried everything” to a real appreciation of the great ingredients and her “preferred less-is-more food philosophy.”
Among her top picks are Kojo, which she describes as an inventive take on classic Japanese fare; Lila, where her favorite dish is the namesake Lila’s Big Salad, which she describes as “a bowlful of happiness”; and she also recommends the Med Bowl and Napulè for great authentic Italian, wood-fired, thin crust pizza and indulgent pasta dishes. She says you will be spoiled for choices when it comes to a great burger, from MADE to State Street Eating House + Cocktails to Indigenous Restaurant.
In fact, Indigenous, with its seasonally inspired seafood and American cuisine, set in a beautifully remodeled old Florida cracker cottage, tops Steel’s list of local eateries.
“The chef on Florida’s West Coast who I believe should be nationally prominent is Steve Phelps from Indigenous,” she offers. “He changes the menu often, uses only seasonal and sustainable ingredients, and focuses on simple sophistication.”
Other insiders praise the Old Florida charm of Owens Fish Camp. This rustic eatery is full of ambience and comfort foods, from delicious fish dishes, collard greens, black-eyed peas and succotash to decadent pecan pie. But you need to get there early and may wait up to two hours to get inside to dine. A limited menu is available in the backyard. Veronica Fish and Oyster, located in Southside Village, is the stylish sister restaurant to Owens Fish Camp. Named for the Elvis Costello song, Veronica, this fun and funky spot has a great atmosphere, décor reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set and gets high marks for their signature small plates, light bites, raw seafood, trendy salads and sexy cocktails.
You can also sample offerings from Sarasota’s Amish and Mennonite communities. Both Der Dutchman and Yoder’s restaurants are the epitome of casual, home-cooked dining and are perfect family-friendly restaurants with outstanding pies that have been recognized as some of the best in the country.
Whatever your taste, you’re sure to satisfy your cravings as Sarasota County is home to many award-winning chefs and 21 Zagat-rated restaurants (the highest concentration in Florida) from upscale farm-to-table bistros like Boca to sleek modern restaurants such as Element, which offers sophisticated steak and seafood dishes.
To Do’s for Sarasota
How do I get there?
Driving time to Sarasota is about two and a half hours straight through via I-75 South, but if you have the time to spare you might consider a short visit or stopping for a bite along the way in Wesley Chapel, St. Petersburg or Siesta Key.
How do I get around?
You can leisurely stroll from your downtown hotel to great shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, theaters, historic attractions, parks and an array of public art. The museums, beaches and keys are all a short drive from the city center.
Where do I stay?
The Art Ovation Hotel is a stylish sanctuary nestled in the heart of downtown and the perfect place to stay for your cultural getaway. As the name suggests, this Marriott hotel is an art-forward space with an on-site art gallery, rotating art installations, special performances and workshops. The rooms are chic and comfortable. There is an on-site restaurant and lobby bar, but the stylishly appointed Perspective Rooftop Pool Bar is the real standout, offering great views, good cocktails and a relaxing vibe. Guests have access to the fitness center, complimentary bikes or a complimentary shuttle that runs within three miles of the property (a great way to get to The Ringling and other museums). Visit artovationhotel.com
The Ritz-Carlton and the Westin also get high marks from travelers wanting to stay downtown.
What should I do while I’m there?
GET YOUR ART ON
Don’t let the name fool you. While there is indeed a Circus Museum that highlights the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for those who are so inclined, it’s not the “greatest show” on this 66-acre museum complex. Far beyond what one might imagine, The Ringling encompasses the State Art Museum of Florida, the historic Ca’ d’Zan Mansion (modeled on the Venetian palazzos of Venice, Italy), Bayfront Gardens, the Art Library, The Center for Asian Art, Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion (featuring 20th and 21st-century studio glass works of art by American and international artists) and the Historic Asolo Theater. The grounds and gardens are free to visit, and the Museum of Art offers free admission on Mondays, which does not include the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion or the circus museum. Admissions vary by venue on other days. Allow three to four hours to take it all in. Visit ringling.org
Sarasota Art Museum
Housed in the former Sarasota High School building, this innovative contemporary art museum and visual arts educational center offers an endless rotation of transformative, relevant and pioneering exhibitions and programs. The complex is comprised of exhibition gallery spaces, an auditorium, an outdoor sculpture garden, a bistro and extensive grounds for performance, happenings and installations. Visit sarasotaartmuseum.org
The Artist Colonies
If you want to explore even more art experiences, you can visit one or both of downtown’s artist colonies. Towles Court is a collection of artists’ studios and eclectic art spaces housed in historic Craftsman style bungalows and old Florida cottages while The Historic Downtown Village is a newly established “arts and eats” district in Gillespie Park. Both offer a variety of photography, painting and graphic design studios, art therapy venues, galleries and quaint gift shops. Go to towlescourt.com and fb.com/historicdowntownvillage
ON YOUR TOES
The Sarasota Ballet Company’s 2022–2023 season begins in October. The company will perform 15 works by some of the most celebrated and prestigious choreographers and composers of the ballet world, with six world premieres featured during the season, including the much-anticipated Spider’s Feast by Sir David Bintley and a new ballet by Jessica Lang. The season will conclude with a program dedicated to the father of American ballet, George Balanchine, paying tribute to the great choreographer in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of his passing. Visit sarasotaballet.org
Beyond all the great dining options, there is a treasure trove of culinary experiences. You can enjoy fresh produce from the downtown Farmers Market, which features more than 70 vendors and local musical artists, or sample gourmet goodies from specialty shops such as Morton’s Gourmet Market, Detwiler’s Farm Market or The Artisan Cheese Company, which Steel credits as “as good as you’d find in New York or London.”
Our favorite foodie insider also shared her favorite diversions with us and, of course, it led to more food intel!
“Sarasota’s many architectural tours are well worth it, as are the garden tours,” Steel asserts. “I love Spanish Point in Osprey, recently acquired by Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. I love walking there and then heading to Tikka, my favorite Indian restaurant in Florida. The crispy onion bhaji, saag paneer, shrimp korma, rosemary naan and samosa are everything you’ve always dreamed they could be. As is the chicken biryani, the saffron-onion scented basmati, loaded with chunks of chicken, topped with a naan and baked in a terrine. You’ll want to make this drive to northern Venice weekly.”
Sarasota Chalk Festival
SPIRITED from October 28th-31st, 610 Venice Ave. East, Venice
At this popular annual event in nearby Venice, spectators can observe the largest gathering of renowned pavement artists as they use the road as a canvas to develop oversized masterpieces in chalk. This event is presented in conjunction with the Pavement Musical Festival and features live music performances, food trucks, beer gardens, vendors and interactive art areas. Visit chalkfestival.org
Selby Gardens Lights in Bloom
December12th–23rd and December 26th–January 2nd, 6pm
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens presents the magical Lights in Bloom, a holiday light show with more than 2 million lights illuminating the gardens and walkways amidst radiant rainforest butterflies and dragonflies. Visit selby.org for more information. OS
To learn more, go to visitsarasota.com