By Michael J Melville
Immersing yourself in local culture is one of the best things about being on vacation wherever you go. Experiencing a life outside of your normal day to day activities is really the point of going on vacation isn’t it? After all, why would you go on vacation and eat at Applebee’s when there is a family owned joint with better food hidden around the corner from your condo or hotel? So what if it’s not shiny and in the trendier part of town.
Like many places in the sunshine state Sarasota Florida has its own hidden gems, quaint local spots and things to do off the beaten path which goes largely unnoticed by the casual visitor. If you can ignore for 5 minutes the “world famous beaches” like Siesta Beach, shopping and dining hotspots like St. Armand’s Circle, the Art Museum and the trendy more obvious places around the Sarasota/Bradenton area you will get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a “local yokel” and really enjoy yourself. It will give you a chance to see how the other half live when the tourist season dies down and the snowbirds are back north. A lot of great things are available year round in this corner of the sunshine state.
I like Florida and I like being in Florida but there is more to Florida than Disney World, Bush Gardens, Sea World and the other tourist traps and that’s what bothers me about some preconceived notions about what the sunshine state has to offer. It’s more than Disney’s ears, Miami, and beaches…ok maybe not beaches but sometimes the most obvious ones are not always the best ones. As one guy told me on one of my many trips there it is what he calls, “the real Florida.”
If you dig deep enough and not even that hard you will find some awesome things to do and places to go in and around Sarasota. Many you can find just by driving around, paying attention and taking a chance. Here are some of my favorites and they are a mix of food, entertainment, and outdoor activities.
While this may seem like an obvious choice it’s a vastly underused option by tourists who focus on the beach. kayaking or even paddle boarding gives you the opportunity to see parts of Sarasota that you never have or just from a different perspective. It also can give you and your kids (if you have kids) the chance to see some terrific wildlife up close while getting exercise. This was one of my favorite things I have done in Sarasota. Who doesn’t wanna see Manatees in the wild or maybe a chance dolphin encounter? With all the water ways and, of course, Sarasota Bay you have plenty of options. I found this list on Trip Advisor of some of the most preferred kayak rental and water sports companies.
Find 1920’s Sarasota on Burns Court
Sarasota has a pretty interesting history compared to a lot of American towns. Its eclectic too say the least. Awhile back I happened upon this little corner of old Sarasota when I got lost driving around downtown. It’s really only about one street but what a street it is. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places Burns Court is a collection of 1920’s styled built by Owen Burns who was the first president of Citizens bank and owner of 75% of the land in Sarasota. The small adobe buildings make for a nice backdrop on a walk and brings you back to another slower time in Sarasota’s history. It is a largely overlooked part of downtown’s history even by some of the locals.
South Lido Beach
If I am going to pick a beach, it’s going to be the quietest least congested beach I can find. On top of being just that South Lido Beach on the southern end of Lido Key is just a wonderfully relaxing beach. I lovingly refer to the nearby park which is just south of St. Armand’s Circle as raccoon park since it has many of the rascally animals roaming around (I’ve fed a few by hand). This beach and park have great areas for family BBQ and swimming. In the evening, it is also a great beach for finding crabs and even seeing some sting rays in the shallows. It’s just a nice walking beach and away from the mob and with decent parking. Also, if you are into Kayaking the South lido County Park has some really great mangrove tunnels you can traverse through by water. If you are into hiking and photography the park has some really nice hiking trails as well as ample room to walk along the shore. My mom would say the sand is bad but for me sand is sand and it beats a half an hour wait or more for a parking spot at Siesta Beach during the busy season.
I was told once there were no good pizza places in Sarasota. After several years of looking to prove that person wrong (lol), I have found what I think is the best one way up the coast on Anna Marie Island. As per usual while traveling I avoid as much as I can any chain restaurant. Awhile back I found Vinny & Cheryl’s Italian Kitchen and it is…mind blowing. They have literally the best pizza in the Sarasota/Bradenton area and it is worth the drive from my Florida fortress of solitude near Wilkinson and Cattleman Drive. This place sits near the north tip of Anna Marie Island on Pine Avenue and is really worth the 30 or so mile drive (for me.) It’s not just pizza, its subs, Italian baked goods etc etc. I wasn’t able to go back on my most recent trip but next time I will totally be there. One of my best days in Sarasota consisted of a quiet spot on a secluded beach, a note pad and a sausage and double cheese piece of ART WORK from this place. This is a local favorite!!!
Take your dog to a beach
Maybe it’s because I can’t see my dog anymore and I miss but sometimes I just like going and seeing dogs play together in the water. Despite a lot of dog owners in the Sarasota area the beaches are by and large off limits to Fido. It’s a tremendous flaw in the area since many people do bring their pooches on vacation with them and it’s no wonder Sarasota gets such bad reviews from pet owners. It recently was ranked one of the least pet-friendly vacation towns in the USA. However, on numerous occasions, I have seen people with their dogs on the more popular beaches at or after sunset when crowds have thinned or gone. If I was paying for a beach front condo you can be sure I would be walking my dog on the beach. I have frequently seen dogs and their owners happily walking down South Lido Beach in the daylight and maybe because that’s a lesser known/used beach I don’t know.
That being said if you are one for the rules when it comes to man’s best friend there ARE some dog-friendly parks and a few have beach access. Ken Thompson Park (a short walk from MOTE aquarium) and Bird Key Park are two decent choices. Desoto Memorial Park in Bradenton also has a dog-friendly beach. There also a few off-leash beaches so Fido has room to run. Here is a link to a great site with more info http://www.bringfido.com/attraction/city/sarasota_fl_us/ If you feel like making the short drive to Venice South Brohard Beach is totally open to dogs and is the only dog-friendly beach in the county.
I’ve been here a few times over the years. The first time my mom brought me there when I was on a visit I was like, “What the hell is this place?” If you can get past your possibly prudish connotations from looking at the outside, you will be blown away by the amazing food and the live bluegrass and blues music. Its seriously one of the best places I have ever eaten at in several states. Its tucked away on the eastern edge of Sarasota near Cattlemen and away from the frenzy that is the barrier keys where the tourists flock. This is a prime example of local awesomeness. The Cuban Grinder and BASA (Fish) Rueben are insane. Check it out I promise you will not be let down.
This place has become a staple stop during me and my families trips to Florida. My fiancé is a big fan of fresh produce and Detwiler’s has so much of it and prices way better than a regular grocery store. They pretty much have everything you could want from produce, Deli items, meat and they have some of the best seafood in the area at unbeatable prices. They are always running specials and deals and almost all of the produce is relatively local. From Amish food and Ice Cream cones to homemade peanut butter and organic all natural food, it’s a foodies dream in a small package. I go to the location on Palmer Blvd but they also have locations on N. Lockwood Ridge and down in Venice. This place is always busy and doesn’t come hungry.
During my last visit to Sarasota, I had the chance to visit the Swordfish grill which is in Cortez Florida just over the bridge from Bradenton. As we drove through the quiet, working-class neighborhood which hides the grill the smell of fish from the boats began permeating the air. Sitting in the open air, dockside seating it took me back to the small fishing villages in Oregon and down the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia where I have visited. The area around the grill is very much a working environment with fishing boats and the live docks only a stones throw away. Its nice knowing that something I ate may have come from one of those boats earlier in the day. On my post-visit research, I found that Cortez is home to the only remaining fishing village in Florida.
We went in the late afternoon, a slower time and it was really nice seeing locals come out and belly up to the bar on the deck and shoot the shit on the nice sunny day. The atmosphere felt real and I loved it, no stuffy people no fancy clothes and it didn’t feel like a trendy tourist trap either. The food was amazing and was about as fresh as you can get. The hardest part was choosing what to eat from the expansive menu. The choice of Clams on the menu was great and the specials seemingly change with each new boat delivery.
I’ve written about this shop before and every time I go to this little café on Anna Marie Island I find something else to love about it. I could sit here for hours and hours and be completely at peace with life. On our most recent visit, Stacey and I shared a table with a lovey couple from Surrey England and had a great conversation with them. I love how the locals fill the place up and all seemingly know each other. Anytime you walk into a coffee shop and the Barista knows you by name is a good thing. Their motto is “ The hub of the Island” and judging by the amount of locals that frequent the place it isn’t a lie. All the hot gossip happens here.
First Friday Gallery Walk
Sarasota is, at its heart, a very art centric town. From the sculptures all over the city that are up year round to the nice amount and variety of art galleries its proof, there is no shortage of artists and art appreciation in this sunny little town or the surrounding area. Some towns only act like art towns, they pay the arts lip service while using it as a tourism booster when the supports of the arts is only skin deep. Sarasota is not that kind of town they love their art and their artists.
They actually have a legit art colony in town!!!
On the 1st Friday of every month, Palm Avenue plays host to the nearly famous First Friday Gallery Walk. Starting at 6pm the art galleries and other local business on the street open their doors and host art and artists. You can get a look at a very nice swath of art, meet the artists and talk to other people who appreciate art as much as do even if you or they don’t’ completely understand some of the work. I’ve done this twice and it was a really fun time where I found myself wishing I had spendable money. More than anything it’s just a nice night out for couples and a much need night away from the kids for parents. It’s a very relaxing way to enjoy the beautiful downtown Sarasota in the evening and is a favorite among the locals.
If you are really into local art there are two more Friday art walks in other places in downtown Sarasota.