1. Where to Stay
Duck between the nondescript bayfront high-rises and into the 1939 tin-roofed Cypress Bed & Breakfast (from $259), an Old Florida–style inn surrounded by oak, palm, and mango trees. The décor reflects a scrapbooklike approach, with influences both classic (a Victorian writing desk, a decorative brass bed) and decidedly local (wicker beds, grass cloth wallpaper) on display. In the morning, enjoy mango-pecan muffins made with fruit harvested from the trees in the garden.
Find inner peace at Hotel Indigo (from $264), where calming haikus appear on everything from room keys to lobby walls to salt shakers. The feeling of Zen extends to the décor in its 95 rooms, where nautical stripes and lime duvets mingle with white Adirondack chairs and wall-size photo murals of irises, blueberries, and indigo seashells. When you’re ready for some evening entertainment, it’s a quick five-minute walk to the waterfront Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
See the new face of the 266-room Ritz-Carlton Sarasota (from $369), unveiled this January after a $3.4 million redesign that replaced the stuffy Vernona restaurant with a modern take on a seafood shack, complete with driftwood floors and an abstract ceiling sculpture that evokes ship mast nets. With cupolas and a tile roof, the façade harkens back to the Mediterranean Revival architectural style made popular in Florida in the twenties; the European elegance carries through to the guestrooms, which are appointed in vaguely Tuscan hues of sage and terra cotta.
2. Where to Eat
Get a decadent start to your day ($9.50) at Station 400 in the burgeoning Rosemary Arts District. The toy train chugging along over the bar hints at this building’s former life as a railroad depot, but the dishes here are more inspired than anything you’d find in a train station, thanks to CIA-trained executive chef Eric Bein’s experience in the kitchens of Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, and Eric Ripert. Order the apple-stuffed, almond-coated croissant French toast served with hard cider syrup, cranberry butter, and seared foie gras ($13).
Sample the ceviches ($15) and tiraditos (South American sashimi, $13) at experimental Peruvian brewpub Darwin’s on 4th, housed in the exposed-brick interior of the former Florida Citrus Exchange. Stop by during the first week of each month for First Friday Firkin, when brewmaster Jared Barnes taps a new cask of his Andes-inspired brews, like Chicha (made with purple corn), Quinoa Cerveza, and Charapa (infused with cacao nibs, aji charapita peppers, and annatto seeds). Beers are just $3 each until the cask runs out.
Settle into wicker chairs on the deck at Indigenous for a primer in seasonal Florida cuisine. Since opening in September 2011, the restaurant has featured Nopal cactus, pink peppercorns, and Surinam cherries that chef Steve Phelps foraged on the keys lining Sarasota Bay, as well as produce from locals’ home gardens. The artfully composed dishes also include grass-fed beef from Tampa and lesser-known Gulf and Atlantic market catches (market price; generally $25–$28) like mangrove snapper, cobia, wahoo, and even sturgeon farmed at the nearby Mote Aquaculture Research Park.
3. What to Do
Rub elbows with local tastemakers at the Selby Gallery (free, closed Saturdays and Sundays) at the Ringling College of Art and Design, which was opened in 1931 by circus magnate (and art collector) John Ringling. The 3,000 square feet of dim interiors may be a welcome respite from the Florida sun, and the quality of the contemporary work on display is a refreshing change from the beach-themed kitsch found in most Gulf Coast galleries. Shows change roughly every month, with spring dedicated to juried student works. Currently on display (through April 3) is an exploration of the contemporary resurgence of abstract art among American painters and mixed-media artists.
Step inside Patrick Dougherty’s monumental “Out in Front”—a large-scale sculpture woven from twigs, trees, and vines—on the lawn of the former Sarasota High School. The historic building is the future home of the Sarasota Museum of Art, the city’s first contemporary and modern art museum, which is expected to open later this year. For now, though, take advantage of free docent tours of the sculpture on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.
Scope out the art world’s rising stars at Madeby Gallery, a shop featuring works by students and alumni of the Ringling College of Art and Design. Located in the Rosemary Arts District, the school-run shop offers a rotating slate of limited edition designs, such as David Hammel’s skull stoneware mugs ($6.95) or surfer-themed letterpress cards by Byvik Ink ($4.95).
Stroll through moss-draped oaks in the Towles Court Artist Colony (typical visiting hours are noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday), a collection of wooden bungalows in pastel hues that was converted to an arts community in 1995. The art here generally mirrors the environment outside—tropical and sunny—but there are some oddball contemporary gems worth a closer look, such as Meg Pierce’s mixed-media collages, which incorporate found objects like sequins, bottle caps, film, and navigational charts.
4. Insider’s Tip
Follow local design junkies to the Sarasota Architectural Salvage (closed Sundays), a 10,000-square-foot warehouse stacked with one-of-a-kind remnants rescued from demolished or endangered historic buildings. Here, you’ll find raw cypress beams from the 1926 John Ringling Hotel, enormous crystal chandeliers from a Delaware theater, vintage copper fire extinguishers, stained glass windows from old churches, an armored car, and even a human-size hamster wheel.
5. Oddball Day
Spend a day retracing Sarasota’s storied circus history, which dates back to the 1927 arrival of John and Mable Ringling, who spent winters in this then-sleepy beach town. Grab a quick brunch at Bob’s Train (closed Saturdays), a veritable archive of circus memorabilia housed in four Pullman railcars that are currently being restored by the owner in a former lumberyard. Once you’re fueled up, drive south on US 301 and look for the red-and-white big top of Circus Sarasota. There’s no set schedule here, so check the monthly calendar for events; two-hour flying trapeze lessons have been offered most Sundays at noon ($35) in recent months. Afterward, pick up an Italian hero ($7.25) from The Main Bar Sandwich Shop, opened in 1958 by retiring performers Charlie Borza, a trampoline artist, and his wife Thea, a bareback horse rider. Make sure to look above the booths for black-and-white photos from the couple’s circus days. If you have kids, order your sandwiches to go and walk five minutes south to the Payne Park Circus Playground, which opened last summer with attractions including climbable tigers and an interactive clown car. Then drive ten minutes north to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art ($25), on the grounds of their Venetian Gothic-style Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, to spend your afternoon exploring the Circus Museum. In addition to a renowned collection of van Dycks, Titians, El Grecos, and Rubens, the museum houses a trove of circus memorabilia, including vintage posters, the Ringlings’ private 1905 rail car, and the Howard Bros. Model Circus, a small-scale replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, circa 1919 to 1938. The grounds also include the Asolo Theater, built in 1798 and transfered here from its home in the Italian province of Treviso, which gives its name to the Treviso Restaurant, where you can share small plates of Parmesan truffle fries ($7) and seared tuna with caponata ($14). After dinner, end the night on a racier note with Sarasota’s own Black Diamond Burlesque (check website for venues and performance times), whom you might call the contemporary inheritors to the sideshow legacy.
Sarasota Opera’s blog offers thoughtful interviews with local performers and opera experts.
The annual Sarasota Film Festival (held in April) features a lineup of more than 100 independent films.
Ticket Sarasota is up-to-the-minute guide to area nightlife, dining, and culture.
Find Gulf Coast recipes and food-related features in the online version of quarterly Edible Sarasota.