Get a Taste of Old Florida at This Charming Gulf Coast Beach Town

Eat seafood at one of the oldest fishing villages on the East Coast and explore other fun things to do in Anna Maria Island.

Anna Maria Island
Anna Maria Island | Photo courtesy of Bradenton Area Visitors Bureau

Located just 45 minutes away from St. Petersburg, Anna Maria Island is a time-warp. The barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico has strict regulations that govern its development. So, unlike nearby coastal towns that are now covered with high-rise condos, the seven-mile strip of white-sand beach here is lined by natural dunes and low-rise, retro-feeling motels and homes. It’s this old-school vibe that has been making it an increasingly popular getaway for vacationers who want to feel like they’ve actually escaped modern life.

But just because it hasn’t been built up like the rest of the state, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fun things to do on Anna Maria Island. From cruising the waterways and fishing to riding horses and eating local seafood right on the beach, here are seven reasons to make the trip out to this old Florida paradise.

Photo courtesy of Sandbar Seafood & Spirits

Eat with your feet in the actual sand

Florida is home to tens of thousands of beachside restaurants. At most of them, diners have to settle for just looking at the shore—not on this beach. Some of the best Anna Maria Island restaurants actually boast tables right in the sand. Both Sandbar Seafood & Spirits and Beach House Restaurant serve local seafood, like grouper and mahi, and produce grown on owner Ed Chiles’ nearby organic Gamble Creek Farm. Beach Bistro offers four-course French-inspired prix-fixe menus with dishes like Lobstercargot (Maine lobster prepared escargot style with herbs and garlicky butter) and duck breast with cognac-pepper demi glace. Or, if you’d prefer a more private experience, Sandy Toes Luxury Beach Picnics offers fully customizable sunset picnics.

Cortez Village | Photo courtesy of Visit Bradenton Gulf Islands

Hang out at one of the oldest continually operating fishing villages in Florida

Coastal Carolinians displaced after a hurricane set up a new community at Cortez Village, a National Register of Historic Places community, back in the 19th century. The area still boasts a working commercial fishery to this day, as well as a handful of old fish houses that serve just-caught seafood from the Gulf. You can’t go wrong at any of those places, but the most popular Cortez Village restaurants have got to be Cortez Kitchen, Swordfish Grill, and Star Fish Company, all of which allow boaters to pull right up to the dock. Just around the corner, Tide Tables boasts a similar vibe with similarly great seafood including fish tacos and a fried grouper sandwich that have made it a go-to for locals. If you want to learn more about the historic village, head over to Florida Maritime Museum, set inside the original 1912 schoolhouse.

Paint with a (fake) fish

While you’re in Cortez, consider booking a “Painting with a Fish” session with a local artist at the Florida Maritime Museum. It's a modern (cleaner, and potentially less bacteria-laden) spin on Gyotaku, an ancient Japanese method of printing fish by directly painting and pressing it onto fabric. If you just so happen to have your own freshly caught fish to print, that can probably be arranged as well.

Pink & Navy Boutique

Hit local shops and stroll around Pine Avenue

Pine Avenue is Anna Maria Island’s main strip of restaurants and shops. Lined by pastel-colored structures, it earned the moniker “The Greenest Little Main Street in America” for its LEED-certified buildings, crushed seashell sidewalks, and edible community garden. While those eco-friendly aspects are nice, the real draw is the commerce. Fuel up on coffee at North Shore Cafe and donuts at The Donut Experiment, before hitting up Pink & Navy for beachy clothing (and make sure to check out the pre-loved rack for deals), Island Charms for unique jewelry, and cooperative vendor space Pineapple Marketplace for locally made goods.

Photo by Matt Marriott, courtesy of Bradenton Area Visitors Bureau

Float down the waterways on a kayak or paddle board

The emerald green and blue waters that surround the island are definitely one of the top attractions. Unless you know how to drive a boat, the best way to explore them (while burning off those fried grouper sandwiches you should be eating) is atop a kayak or paddle board. Pick up a rental from AMI Paddleboard Adventures, Beach Bums, or another local outfitter. If you get lucky, you might come across some curious dolphins who want to come and check you out.

Photo courtesy of Florida Beach Horses

Ride a horse through the water or across a beach

Not into paddling? Ride a horse through the water. There are a couple different companies that offer beach horseback riding in Anna Maria Island. Both C Ponies and Florida Beach Horses regularly schedule waterfront rides where you can actually ride out bareback into Palma Sola Bay. Never ridden a horse? No problem, these beginner-friendly excursions are open to all levels of riders.

Fish, spot dolphins, and or watch the sunset on a boat tour

Whether you want to spot marine mammals, hook some fish of your own, or just drink beer while watching the sunset from the boat, options abound for Anna Maria Island boat cruises. Check out Shore Thing Tiki Cruises if you’re looking for a party vibe, Anna Maria Island Dolphin Tours for some flipper action, and, if a private fishing charter is more your vibe, reach out to Jarrod McKenzie Fishing for inshore and nearshore trips guided by an actual pro.

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Sara Ventiera is a former editor at Thrillist.
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