One of our favorite places to Day Trip from Tampa is Sarasota. It is only an hour away and offers many different activities and amazing restaurants. Three of my favorite Sarasota attractions are The Ringling, Marie Selby Gardens, and Siesta Key Beach. I would also never leave the city without stopping by Yoder’s Amish Restaurant for a piece of pie!
The Scenic Route
No matter where we are staying in the Tampa Bay area, we like to take the scenic route to Sarasota via the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge rising 430 over Tampa Bay. It is part of Interstate 275 (I-275) and U.S. Route 19 (US 19). If you time it right, and want to watch a cruise ship passing under it, you can stop at the remnants of the old bridge which is now the world’s longest fishing pier.
One place I particularly enjoy is The Ringling. For a single entrance price, you gain access to the entire 66-acre masterpiece on beautiful Sarasota Bay. Stroll the beautiful grounds and gardens as you make your way to Ca D’Zan or or “House of John”, the bayside mansion built by John Ringling. If the name sounds familiar, that is because John was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the famous Ringling circus. He had it built for his wife, Mable who wanted a home in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzi in Venice, Italy, with Sarasota Bay serving as her Grand Canal. Construction began in 1924 and was completed two years later at a then staggering cost of $1.5 million. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.
Also on the grounds are two very distinct museums. First, the Ringling Museum of Art, which showcases old masters and modern art. John built the 21-gallery museum modeled on the Florentine Uffizi Gallery to house his treasure trove of paintings and art objects, highlighted by his collection of Old Masters, including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens. Today, The Ringling, the State Art Museum of Florida, is home to one of the preeminent art and cultural collections in the United States.Established in 1948, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus was the first to document the rich history of this phenomenally popular entertainment. And because in 1927 John Ringling had made Sarasota the Winter Quarters of the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, many of the performers moved to the immediate area. As a result of their generosity, the Museum’s collection of wardrobes and circus memorabilia quickly grew. The most amazing part to me is the 3,800 square foot Howard Bros. Circus Model, a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus combined shows from 1919-1938. The model is the life’s work of Howard Tibbals and is crafted to an exact 3/4-inch-to-the-foot scale. It shows every aspect of the old circus from the trains everything was transported on to the big top show!
Marie Selby Gardens
Originally the home of William and Marie Selby, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens today is an urban, bayfront oasis showcasing a living collection of rare and beautiful tropical plants. The Gardens is also a respected world leader in the study and conservation of plants, particularly epiphytes–plants adapted to live in the tree canopy, including orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads and ferns. Today the property is double its original size and now contains nearly 15 acres housing 12 buildings (including 7 greenhouses) transected by a brick-laid avenue in a residential neighborhood on the shores of Sarasota Bay in downtown Sarasota.
Some of the highlights include:
- Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden – One of the only outdoor, elevated rainforest displays in the world, this feature is designed to give visitors a taste of what it must feel like to live in a tree canopy. Visitors learn about the intricate web of connections between plants and people. Through self-directed exploration and interactive play, multi-generations come together to champion the environment.
- Tropical Conservatory – With its lush rainforest atmosphere, this is the only greenhouse at Selby Gardens open to the public and the horticulture displays change frequently as different plants in the living collection come into bloom.
- Towering Bamboo Garden – Tropical and sub-tropical varieties are the largest member of the grass family that can grow as much as 40 inches a day during their seasonal growth periods.
- Banyan Groves – Planted by the Selbys nearly a century ago, these majestic trees continue to provide a shaded meeting place for conversation and relaxation.
- Mangrove Bay Walk – A wooden boardwalk makes it possible to explore and learn about the intricate root system of three mangrove species native to South Florida.
- Fern Garden – Prehistoric plants in this garden-off-the-beaten-path invite meditation and provide a silent space for solitude and contemplation.
- Koi Pond – Surrounded by an oak grove festooned with a variety of epiphytic plants, colorful (and hungry) Koi fish glide playfully around this Zen-like area of the Gardens.
Sarasota is also the gateway to miles of beaches with fine sand and shallow waters, such as Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach. My personal favorite is Siesta Key. The beach was rated as the #1 beach in the United States by Trip Advisor in 2016 and “Dr. Beach” in 2011. In 2004 the Travel Channel named it “The Best Sand Beach in America” because of its 99% pure quartz sand that stays cool under your feet. Every November, they host the Siesta Key Crystal Classic, an international sand sculpture competition. It is truly amazing what these artists can do with sand!!
Stay the Night
If you prefer to stay near Sarasota and spend several days taking it all in, I recommend Myakka River State Park, which is only 9 miles east of Sarasota. It has boat tours, kayaking/canoeing opportunities, hiking trails, and a canopy walkway. Completed in 2000, the canopy walkway is the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 100 feet through the hammock canopy. A tower soars 74 feet in the air to present a spectacular view of tree tops, wetlands and the prairie/hammock interface. You can look down on eagles, hawks, vultures and the tips of live oaks and palm trees. Safari tram tours of the park´s backcountry are offered from mid-December through May.
The park features three campgrounds with 90 campsites. Each site is equipped with 50 amp electrical service, water, a fire ring and picnic table. The sites in Palmetto Ridge also have sewer hook ups. A dump station is located near Old Prairie Campground. Laundry facilities are available to all campers in Old Prairie and Palmetto Ridge Campgrounds. All campsites are located within 40 yards of restroom facilities with hot showers. Sites in Old Prairie and Big Flats are dirt based. The sites in Palmetto Ridge are gravel-based, except for four ADA paved sites adjoining rest rooms. Old Prairie and Big Flats do not have vegetation buffers. The Big Flats Campground is located near the Upper Myakka Lake where tours are available on the world’s largest airboats. Myakka Outpost, a fishing deck and WiFi are also nearby. Old Prairie and Palmetto Ridge Campgrounds are located near the S.R. 72 park entrance, the Myakka River, the Campfire Circle, a small playground, and Myakka Friends Gallery & Gifts.
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