SARASOTA is a vibrant city south of Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast that has mastered to tastefully blend modern architecture with old-time charm. We have been visiting Sarasota for many (many!) years now and love returning year after year.
Because it’s the perfect destination for both romantic getaways AND family vacations. With kids or without, you’re bound to have fun here! Oh and by the way, Sarasota coastline is lined with pristine beaches that have received numerous awards…
I’ve put together a list of our 10 favorite local activities. And while the list isn’t written exclusively for families with kids, I’m sure families in particular will find it helpful in planning their stay!
Our top 10 favorite things to do in SARASOTA, FL
Try some of them or try them all! The best part is – many of them are free!
1. Without a doubt, head to SARASOTA BEACHES!
Sarasota proudly offers an abundance of sun, water, and sand. But don’t be fooled – not all beaches are the same here! Each one offers a slightly different personality, and which one becomes your favorite will depend entirely on your own preferences. Parking is free and generally available with the exception of Longboat Key.
Lido Key is adjacent to St. Armands Key and comprises of NORTH LIDO BEACH, LIDO BEACH, and SOUTH LIDO PARK.
Located on the north end of this barrier island, NORTH LIDO BEACH has limited parking and no lifeguards on duty. This beach will charm you with a quiet and secluded feel. The currents are rather swift here though, making it more of a lounging spot.
Going south on Lido Key, LIDO BEACH offers plenty of parking, restrooms, cabana rentals, playground, concession stand, and a gift shop.
If you drive all the way to the south tip of Lido Key, you’ll be arriving at the 100-acre SOUTH LIDO PARK and will be greeted with tall pine trees, playground, restrooms, picnic tables and grills, nature trails with scenic overlooks, and kayaking opportunities. A completely different experience. No lifeguards are on duty here, but so much to explore!
If you head north of St. Armands Key, you’ll reach Longboat Key. There is limited public access to the beaches here and very little parking. WHITNEY BEACH, for example, is located on the north end of Longboat Key, and a few parking spots are available. In general, look for blue signs indicating public access points (there are several along Gulf of Mexico Dr.). There are no restrooms or lifeguards here and the access might be limited, however, you’ll be spoiling yourself with miles and miles of pristine and likely uncrowded beach.
ANNA MARIA ISLAND
If you continue to drive north past Longboat Key, you’ll find yourself on Anna Maria Island – a quaint little barrier island that offers plenty of old-time Florida charm and a number of stunning beaches to choose from. Miles of picture-perfect sugar-white coastline and turquoise water surround the island, and you won’t find any soaring modern high rises, chain restaurants, or chain hotels here.
The island is made up of three towns: Anna Maria at the north tip, Holmes Beach in the center, and Bradenton Beach located further south. The good news is that there is an abundance of beach access points, the not so good news is the lack of parking at some of them. (Staying on the island will solve this issue or you can use a free trolley.)
ANNA MARIA BEACH extends around the northern tip of the island. While there are no facilities here, you’ll be greeted with tranquil unspoiled views. One particular spot worth visiting – BEAN POINT – is located at the very northern tip of the island. There is NO parking lot here or a sign indicating you’re at the right place except for the common “beach access” sign. Parking is scarce; look for limited spots on side streets. Bean Point won’t disappoint with its breathtaking views, expansive beach, and undisturbed sand dunes.
Heading south along Anna Maria Island, MANATEE BEACH is located in Holmes Beach. Amenities include plentiful parking, lifeguards, showers, volleyball courts, concession stand, and a playground. Of course with all that, the crowds will follow. This beach tends to get busy.
As you keep on going south and as the island gets narrower, in Bradenton Beach you’ll find CORTEZ BEACH which doesn’t have very many amenities or serenity-spoiling distractions. There are no lifeguards on duty here, no playground or beach chair rentals. If you’re trying to avoid noisy crowds like we tend to, this is a fantastic beach! Parking is limited alongside Gulf Dr. and absent in some areas.
Just a bit further south, Cortez Beach borders a pristine tranquil paradise of COQUINA BEACH, located on the southernmost end of the island. It offers plenty of parking, lifeguards on duty, picnic tables, volleyball courts, restrooms, and a playground. Too hot??? Simply cool off under tall Australian Pine trees that together with native grasses and sea oats add to the natural beauty of this beach. (FYI, there is a paved walking/bike path here that runs all the way back to Cortez Beach.) While you’re here, why not take a stroll through LEFFIS KEY that’s located right across Gulf Dr.? Its footpaths and boardwalks will take you on a short fun adventure through mangrove-lined lagoons. It’s a pleasant, mostly shaded walk, and kids will enjoy observing colonies of fiddler crabs and an abundance of marine life inhabiting the shallow lagoons.
Both ANNA MARIA ISLAND and LONGBOAT KEY offer a FREE TROLLEY SERVICE that travels daily up and down each island 6:00 AM – 10:30 PM about every 20 min.
Siesta Key is located south of Sarasota. It’s where you’ll find SIESTA BEACH which happens to hold numerous titles and awards for the whitest and finest sand in the world. The incredibly soft sand that contrasts with the crystal blue water is 99% pure quartz pulverized to a fine powder which always stays cool to the touch. Parking is plentiful here, and you’ll find many beach access points, restrooms, showers, lifeguards, and a concession stand. This beach gets pretty crowded.
If you don’t mind meeting Siesta’s rugged other half, head to the southern end of the key to TURTLE BEACH. It is rocky and full of shells and, if you’re lucky, you may find a shark tooth or two. Or more…
2. Make time for the WORLD’S SHARK TOOTH CAPITAL!
There are beaches in this area that reserve a special spot on this list. Head south of Sarasota to VENICE if you’re in the mood for a beach with a little “bite” to hunt for washed up shark teeth that come in all types and sizes, including huge prehistoric fossilized ones if you’re super lucky.
Try either VENICE BEACH which has more amenities and lifeguards on duty, or CASPERSEN BEACH which has no lifeguards and feels more private but where parking might be a challenge at times.
Apart from the dark fossilized teeth and the white, more recent ones, scuba divers might be interested in exploring the coral reef that’s located about a quarter mile off the shore.
WATCH SMALL CHILDREN CLOSELY. The water may not be as clear here, and the bottom is steeper and drops off quicker here.
Searching for shark teeth is best during low tide (especially after a storm) and for obvious reasons in the morning. You may be lucky and find some with no equipment at all, but I recommend coming armed with a bit of patience and a SAND SIFTER. We didn’t – and regretted it. Look at the tidal line where shark teeth mix in with seashells, scoop up some sand, dump and sift through. Alternatively, follow the waves hitting the beach – shark teeth are often sent back and forth in the tumbling action of the waves.
3. Visit MOTE MARINE Laboratory and Aquarium
The aquarium is conveniently located only a few minutes from downtown Sarasota on City Island. This is not just another aquarium though. Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent, not-for-profit marine research organization with a marine animal rescue and recovery team that also happens to be an aquarium open to public as well.
This is NOT a huge aquarium. But what it lacks in size it gains in animal care, research, and wildlife conservation and rehabilitation. There are two separate facilities here, so don’t leave without visiting both! The volunteers here are extremely knowledgeable, friendly, devoted, and helpful. You may learn things here without even trying!
If you want to help another good cause while you’re here, consider stopping by at Mote’s neighbor – SAVE OUR SEABIRDS. This organization rescues injured wild birds, and those that aren’t able to be released again are given a permanent home here.
4. Take a stroll around ST. ARMANDS CIRCLE
St. Armands Circle, located on St. Armands Key, is a local retail/dining hub formed around a circular park, dedicated to the memory of John Ringling (the most well-known of the seven Ringling brothers). It’s an interesting place to walk around with lots of unique shops, cafes, bars, galleries, ice cream shops, and some of the area’s best restaurants.
5. Witness the famous DRUM CIRCLE on Siesta Beach
This is a local non-commercial event that began spontaneously in 1996 and only grew in popularity since then. Every Sunday about 1 hour before sunset, locals and visitors of all ages gather and let their creative sides take over. There is drum playing, hip shaking, (belly) dancing and hula hooping galore here. Everyone is welcome and all are encouraged to participate and have a good time.
6. Watch wildlife at ROBINSON PRESERVE
If you enjoy quiet strolls and you or your kids are avid nature explorers, don’t forget to visit this nature preserve located in NW Bradenton! Robinson Preserve can be accessed either from its MAIN entrance on the east side, or from the SOUTH entrance at Manatee Av/107th Ct.
We started at the SOUTH entrance from which it was about 1 ½ miles to reach the loop. We then continued to head north and eastward around the loop which is about 4 miles long. FWIW, we enjoyed the sights of the west/north part of the LOOP much more than the east/south side which also offered very little shade.
There are miles of paved and crushed-shell trails here that wind throughout the park. There are bridges to cross, boardwalks that will take you through mangroves and over tidal creeks, and at the north end of the preserve you’ll be led to several access points to small beaches.
There is also a 53-foot-tall observation tower on the east side of the preserve which offers stunning views of the area surrounding the park.
You’ll encounter a variety of animals here. Our kids couldn’t resist chasing the armies of fiddler crabs along the trail. They were grossed out and fascinated by the snakes slithering up and down the palm trees and resting in the undergrowth. And, of course, they were thrilled to wade in the shallow calm waters of the beaches, searching for signs of life, collecting shells, and watching the curious small fish and water birds keep them company. So much to see here!
7. Got gators? MYAKKA RIVER State Park does!
Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s largest and most diverse natural areas and a place where you get to view alligators up close in their natural habitat. It’s quiet here, beautiful, and laid back.
There is a gift shop here and a snack bar as well. If you’re into that kind of thing, gator bites are on the menu as well… You can hop on a tram or take an airboat ride to hear about the history of the park and to learn about its vibrant ecosystem. Or you can rent a canoe or a kayak for a closer look. I’m so glad we did this. Before we had kids… Those massive gators nudging our canoe in the murky water of the river was somehow pure fun before I became a mom…
There are also a few trails here (mostly shaded). If you’re not afraid of heights, try the short and popular CANOPY WALK nature trail. Walk across a narrow canopy bridge suspended 25 feet above the ground, and climb above the treetops to a 74-foot-tall observation tower. Look down on the tips of trees and wetlands down below, watch the vultures soar and glide in the air, and notice how the tower sways in the wind. It’s OK. It’s supposed to.
8. Relax at QUICK POINT Nature Preserve
Park your car at the Overlook Park located at the SE tip of Longboat Key, and follow a wooden walkway underneath the New Pass Bridge. (No need to cross the road.)
Honestly, this place is a hidden gem. The out-and-back trail is fairly short (<1 mile), so you can stop by even if you don’t have too much time to spare! The path is mostly shaded and offers beautiful views from several viewing platforms. It winds through mangroves, passes by a man-made lagoon and a natural one as well, and leads to a number of small picture-perfect beaches along the way. Your kids will have a blast here!
Quick Point Nature Preserve is a great spot for bird watching. You’re also likely to spot dolphins gliding back and forth in the waters of Sarasota Bay, and kids will find plenty of opportunities for beachcombing and exploring the calm shallows waters.
9. How about a BOATING ADVENTURE?
There is something about being out on the water, listening to the soothing sounds of seagulls and waves lapping gently against the boat, smelling the fresh salty breeze, and watching dolphins frolic in the wake, right?
Whether you’re interested in a group cruise or want to have a boat all to yourself (with or without a captain), there are plenty of options in the area to consider if you’re not bringing your own vessel.
10. Experience the breathtaking Sarasota SUNSET!
Who doesn’t like to watch the sun slowly sink into the sea with the canvas of sky ablaze with color and reflected in the darkening waters beneath?