12 unique things to do in Sarasota

by Paul Joseph  |  Published December 17, 2018

The southwest Gulf coast of Florida all the way down to Miami at the state’s southeastern tip is an area teeming with vibrant coastal cities that draw vast swathes of tourists seeking both natural and cultural delights. Among them, the city of Sarasota stands out as one of the most enchanting, thanks to its mix of distinguished arts institutes and miles of beautiful beaches with fine sand and shallow waters.

A boat sitting in the Bayfront Park Marina in downtown Sarasota, southwest Florida (Photo: Gregory Urbano via Flickr)

Whatever you reason for choosing to visit Sarasota, there’ll be something to keep you entertained. To help inspire you ahead of your trip, we’ve picked out 12 of the most unique things you can do here, ranging from the raw and energetic to the intellectually nourishing. We hope you enjoy our carefully-made selection.

Navigate the famous Mangrove Tunnels

For a truly original activity, trekking through these stunning mangrove tunnels in South Lido Beach Nature Park, located a quick drive from central Sarasota, will be hard to beat. Intrepid types can choose from kayaks or paddleboards as your mode of transport for this magical adventure that will take you into the heart of a unique ecosystem. Once in the tunnels, it’s an awe-inspiring sight, where fish and fiddler crabs swim inches away from you in waters so clear you can see the grass resting on the waterbed below.

LOCATION 2150 Benjamin Franklin Drive

Paddleboarders traverse the waters of the Lido Key Mangrove Tunnels (Photo: SURFit via Flickr)

See a 27-foot squid corpse at an aquarium

Housed within the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is a colossal 27-foot long corpse of a giant squid that grabs the attention of everyone who sees it. Known as Molly the Mollusk, the vast cephalopod was inadvertently caught off the coast of New Zealand in 1999 and was soon donated to the Sarasota facility for permanent display, where it quickly became one of its centrepiece attractions among visitors.

LOCATION Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway HOURS Mon-Sun 10am-5pm

Delve into Sarasota’s culinary heritage on a food tour

It’s been said that to truly get to know a place you must eat its food. Well, in Sarasota there’s plenty to get know – and plenty to eat too. Key Culinary Tours are a company that hosts a diverse range of food tours that invite visitors to sample some of the culinary delights that the area has to offer. Expect to be well fed and well educated in equal measure with your experienced guides regaling you with anecdotes relating to Sarasota’s rich heritage and food tastings. During a tour you may get to visit everything from independent neighborhood shops to gourmet restaurants.

Guests toast the occasion during a Sarasota food tour (Photo: Key Culinary Tours)

Watch an armada of boats at the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights

Founded more than thirty years ago, this annual boat parade has grown to become one of the holiday season’s most eagerly awaited events. Thousands of spectators descend on the shores of Sarasota Bay to witness an array of spectacularly decorated and lighted boats cruising across the waters. Expect festive music and you might even spot Santa’s elves dancing aboard some of the boats. There’s also an awards ceremony, with prizes handed out to the boats with the most impressive decorations. The most popular viewing areas are Marina Jack Restaurant, Bay front Park and City Island.

Sarasota Holiday Boat Parade of Lights

A brightly decorated boat seen during the Sarasota Holiday Boat Parade of Lights (Photo: Sarasota Holiday Boat Parade of Lights)

Enjoy free-form theatre at the Sarasota Improv Festival

With the city’s superb weather and beautiful beaches, it takes a lot to drag Sarasota visitors indoors, but the city’s annual Improv Festival is as good a reason as any. Held over a weekend in July at the venerable Florida Studio Theatre, the festival brings together some of America’s most talented exponents in the art of improvised theatre. Performances during the event range in styles, with everything from long and short form, hip hop musical, genre-based, and more on display.

LOCATION Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 North Palm Avenue DATES 5-6 July 2019

Sarasota Improv Festival

A performer in full flow during the Sarasota Improv Festival (Photo: Sarasota Improv Festival)

Indulge in some retail therapy at The Women’s Exchange

One of the most unique shopping destinations in Sarasota is this large non-profit consignment store offering a diverse assortment of affordably priced furniture, along with women’s clothing, jewellery, crystal, china, silver, art, linens, oriental rugs and more. Founded in 1962 with the aim of supporting the local arts community, its success has led to several million dollars in grants and scholarships down the years, and it continues to play a crucial role in the Sarasota area, as well as providing visitors with a quirky retail experience.

LOCATION 539 South Orange Avenue HOURS Mon-Fri 9am-4pm Sat 10am-4pm Closed Sun

Goods on display at The Women’s Exchange in Sarasota (Photo: The Women’s Exchage)

Attend an artistic extravaganza at the Festival of the Arts

Sarasota’s creative impulses are allowed to flow each year as more than five city blocks are given over to a popular arts festival. Taking place on Main Street at Orange Avenue and running east to Links Avenue, the two-day festival features more than 250 gifted artists from Florida and far beyond. There’s life-size sculptures, incredible paintings, one-of-a-kind jewels, photography, ceramics and plenty more to bedazzle visitors, while many artists are also on hand to discuss their inspirations and working methods during the event.

LOCATION Main Street DATES 9-10 February 2019

A visitor admiring artwork at the Downtown Sarasota Festival of the Arts (Photo: Downtown Sarasota Festival of the Arts)

Step back into the past on a Historic Trolley Tour

One of the most unique ways to explore Sarasota is by joining a Historic Trolley Tour. Hosted by the Historical Society of Sarasota County, guests will board a traditional tram (known in the US as a ‘trolley’) before embarking on a fascinating tour of downtown Sarasota. For two full hours you’ll traverse the streets as local historian Sue Blue narrates your journey and points out historical facts and landmarks, ensuring you depart with a new-found knowledge and appreciation of the city.

DATES Selected dates from October-April

Historical Trolley Tour

Passengers pose for a photo during a trolley tour (Photo: Historical Society of Sarasota County)

Come and admire a replica military installation

Nestled behind the Municipal Auditorium along Van Wezel Way on Sarasota Bay sits a replica military installation known as Fort Juan Ortiz. Originally constructed as a tourist attraction in the late 1940s, the imitation of a lone gunner’s station began life as part of an arms museum, but since the museum itself was closed, the landmark has eked out a lonely existence, with the occasional visitor for company as it serves its role as the only reminder of the fort’s bygone days.

LOCATION 801 North Tamiami Trail

Marvel at a medieval art exhibit at the Ringling Museum of Art

The Middle Ages was in many ways a dark and gruesome period in our history, but few would also deny that it also gave rise to some truly stunning art. Happily, many of the artistic endeavors from the age have been preserved and at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota visitors can enjoy a fabulous collection of some 80+ pieces created between the years of 1100 and 1500. The works in the collection include paintings, sculptures, jewellery, chalices, tapestries, and stained glass sourced from across the globe, with some borrowed from notable museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre.

LOCATION 5401 Bay Shore Road HOURS Fri-Weds 10am-5pm Thus 10am-8pm

Ringling Museum

Medieval treasures at the the Ringling Museum (Photo: Ringling Museum of Art)

Explore a unique neighbourhood community

What makes the Sarasota neighbourhood of Pinecraft unique is not its physical appearance so much as its people. Among the regular visitors is a large Amish and Mennonite community who have vacationed here since the mid-1920s, offering a chance to relax and unwind from the rigors of daily Amish life. One interesting development has been the easing off of Amish rules around clothing, with the idyllic beaches persuading many that more revealing attire should be tolerated. Non-Amish visitors are welcome to explore the neighbourhood – but are advised to do so with cultural and religious sensitivity.

Check out beautiful cars of yesteryear at a Classic Car Museum

Lovers of beautiful automobiles from bygone eras are in for a treat in Sarasota, which is home to its own Classic Car Museum. Here, visitors will find around 100 rare and vintage cars of every type, some of which were once under the ownership of distinguished figures from the worlds of sport, culture and entertainment. Among the famous car brands represented here are Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Cadillac and Ferrari. There’s also a gift shop where you can pick up rare collectibles, unique memorabilia and hard-to-find automotive books.

LOCATION 5500 North Tamiami Trail DATES Mon-Sun 9am-6pm

Sarasota Classic Car Museum

A car on display at the Sarasota Classic Car Museum (Photo: DeusXFlorida via Flickr)