10 Reasons to Drive to Sarasota, Florida

Sandy beaches, gorgeous green spaces, and all the rum you can handle.

Downtown Sarasota, Florida
Downtown Sarasota, Florida | Suncoast Aerials/Shutterstock
Downtown Sarasota, Florida | Suncoast Aerials/Shutterstock

Florida is scorching hot right now, and we’re not just talking temperature. All throughout the peninsula, commerce and real estate have been booming in spite of the pandemic—and the beachy town of Sarasota is growing like a weed.

This gulfside escape doesn’t even crack Florida’s top fifty when it comes to population size, but it’s easy to see how Sarasota has become such a contemporary gem. An abundance of world-class museums and cultural institutions, close proximity to some of the nation’s most popular shorelines, and a sophisticated fine dining scene are just a few of the qualities that have vaulted Sarasota to stardom over the past few years. As the chilly winter weather sets in across the US, a trip to this iconic city might be just what your Instagram feed needs. Here’s 10 standout reasons to drive to Sarasota.

Selby Gardens - Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Selby Gardens - Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

For any budding botanists out there (pun fully intended), Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens offer the perfect jumping-off point into plant life. The journey begins with a trip to the 15-acre downtown campus, a verdant oasis that’s mastered the delicate art of orchid-keeping with thousands of blossoms on display across the property. After buzzing with their beauty, head outside for a leisurely stroll along the Mangrove Walkway, a coastal path that showcases one of the state’s most fascinating ecosystems.

Haven’t quite had your outdoorsy fill? No worries—the Historic Spanish Point campus offers double the acreage with some added historic flair to boot. This sprawling preserve invites guests to discover a wealth of antique artifacts ranging from the Guptill House—an old-school manor built in 1901—to the Archaic Midden, an ancient archeological site that was inhabited by the indigenous Calusa people of southwestern Florida more than 3000 years ago.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Manatees are renowned for their easygoing nature and adorable faces, but few are known for their contributions to academia—except, of course, for Hugh and Buffett. Born at the Miami Seaquarium in the 1980s, these affable sea cows are the only two manatees on earth that have been specially trained to take part in research projects, ranging from hearing tests to body temperature analysis. As manatee populations across Florida continue to plummet, Hugh and Buffett offer some much-needed hope for the future of this majestic aquatic mammal.

In addition to this beloved dynamic duo, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is also equipped with a wide array of other fascinating—though admittedly less cuddly—creatures. In the Shark Zone, guests can get up close and personal with the infamous toothy predators of the sea, while the nearby Sea Turtles: Ancient Survivors exhibit provides insight into Mote Marine Lab’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, a program that’s treated over 600 different turtles since 1995.

Michael's On East
Michael's On East

Though Miami tends to dominate the conversation when it comes to Floridian foodie destinations, Sarasota is equipped with some truly spectacular venues for a posh and tasty night on the town. Case in point: Michael’s on East, an opulent haunt that’s been serving upscale New American cuisine since 1984. With succulent dishes like Munich Pork Shank and Porcini-Rubbed Colorado Rack of Lamb, it’s no wonder this venue has earned the esteemed AAA Four-Diamond Award for 32 years in a row.

Sage SRQ
Sage SRQ

Following the trend, newcomers to Sarasota can also spend a luxurious night at Sage, a polished downtown eatery that operates out of the city’s iconic 1920s-era Sarasota Times Building. While the venue itself may be historic, the dining program is anything but old fashioned, with a wealth of modern cocktails and global dishes gracing the menu. If you’re in the mood for a more seafood-specific experience, don’t miss out on Selva Grill, Sarasota’s treasure trove for flawlessly-crafted Ceviche alongside a wealth of other Peruvian specialties.

Siesta Key Beach
Siesta Key Beach | Suncoast Aerials/Shutterstock

From the western edge of the Redneck Riviera to the ever-partying South Beach, Florida is a veritable treasure trove of coastal getaways—but few can compare to world-famous Siesta Key. Located 15 minutes south of downtown, this coastal getaway draws visitors from across the globe thanks to one quality in particular: its powdery, blindingly white quartz-crystal sand. While this lengthy strip of shoreline is exceedingly gorgeous, be sure to pack a pair of sunglasses, lest you fall victim to the seering glare coming off the highly reflective grains.

Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection
Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection

Sarasota’s recent urban development has ushered in a new wave of high-class hotels, offering weekenders an opportunity to live their best Real Housewives of Sarasota life. For those who appreciate the finer things, the Art Ovation Hotel highlights the city’s deep connection to the fine arts, with art and wine tours plus weekly Meet the Artist events in the hotel’s decked-out lobby.

Hotel Indigo Sarasota (Sarasota)
Hotel Indigo Sarasota (Sarasota)

Just north of downtown in the Rosemary District, the Hotel Indigo Sarasota provides ample opportunities to explore one of the city’s most stylish neighborhoods. Grab a rental bike and head west to Waterfront Park to check out the natural beauty of Florida’s Gulf Coast, or cycle south to Bayfront Park, a lively coastal space that’s perfect for pelican-watching. And after a long day exploring the city, reward yourself with a plunge into the hotel’s two outdoor hot and cold wading pools for maximum relaxation.

St Armands Circle
St Armands Circle | Suncoast Aerials/Shutterstock

Once you’ve had your fill of downtown Sarasota, venture out across the twinkling John Ringling Causeway. Just over the bridge, pint-sized St. Armands Key packs a powerful punch in spite of its small stature, brimming with all sorts of dining and shopping opportunities. Step up your Vacation Dad game at Tommy Bahama, then head into the stunningly-beautiful Blu Kouzina for a night of succulent Lamb Kebabs and Octopus paired with a bottle of Greek wine.

Longboat Key
Longboat Key | bonandbon/Shutterstock

St. Armands certainly has its charms, but those in search of a more spacious hangout spot should turn their gaze north, where the sprawling barrier island of Longboat Key awaits. Start off with a leisurely 15 minute drive from the southern terminus all the way to the very tip, where stunning Beer Can Island rests, strewn with soft sand and masses of tangled driftwood. And while there’s a wealth of dinner options here, nothing quite compares to Euphemia Haye Restaurant, a revered fine dining venue that’s been gracing the coast since 1980.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art | Mia2you/Shutterstock

What’s the most iconic circus on earth? The top spot most definitely goes to Britney Spears’ sixth album, but the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a pretty close contender. Though this once-mighty empire officially shut down in 2017 after almost 150 years of operation, its legacy lives on today at the Ringling Circus Museum. While costumes, props, and marketing material can be found in abundance throughout the museum, the most impressive display is hands-down the Howard Bros. Circus Model, an incredibly intricate scale replica of the Ringling traveling circus spanning more than 44,000 individual pieces.

Perched outside the Circus Museum, one of Florida’s most coveted venues for art enthusiasts exists in the form of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Established in 1927, the cherished institution serves as the official state art museum of Florida, with over 10,000 different paintings, sculptures, and works of art all housed within its walls. And a couple of steps to the west, visitors can take a guided tour of the Ca' d'Zan, an opulent Mediterranean Revival-style palace that once served as the winter home for John and Mable Ringling.

Yoder's Restaurant & Amish Village
Yoder's Restaurant & Amish Village

Eat your weight in pie in Amish Country

Free from the temptations of trashy reality TV and social media doomscrolling, America’s Amish communities have plenty of time to focus on more pressing matters—namely, baking. For a deep dive into the realm of Amish cuisine, the eastern Sarasota neighborhood of Pinecraft is an absolute must-visit, with local favorite Yoder’s serving up some of the best pie around.

Kick your visit off with a savory dish—the Meatloaf, Pot Roast Melt, and Country Fried Steak are all worthy options—before plunging headfirst into the sugary depths. Whether you spring for the candy-laden Chocolate Peanut Butter, keep things simple with Cherry, or embrace your inner Floridian with a slice of Key Lime, Yoder’s has your sweet tooth well covered.

Bahi Hut
Bahi Hut

Sample some of the Sunshine State’s finest rum

Nothing pairs quite so well with the Florida heat than rum, and fortunately, there’s plenty of options for tipping back a sugarcane-based elixir across Sarasota. Drum Circle Distilling has truly mastered the craft, with six different varieties of rum up for grabs. The spirits here range from beer barrel-aged to silver, but for best results, grab a bottle of Drum Circle’s flagship product—the ultra-flavorful Siesta Key Spiced Rum.

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

For those who prefer their rum in cocktail form, the oldest tiki bar in the Sunshine State sits about 10 minutes west of Drum Circle Distilling. Founded in 1954, Bahi Hut Tiki Cocktail Lounge serves up Blue Hawaiians, Beachcomber Mai Tais, and a host of other boozy concoctions in a colorful setting that feels frozen in time. And if you’re in the mood for a more modern take, head to The Ritz-Carlton Sarasota and post up at Jack Dusty, a charming seafood-heavy restaurant that whips up a game-changing smoked Painkiller.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Jared Ranahan is a contributor for Thrillist.