Florida’s hottest ticket - why you should visit Sarasota

Anthea Gerrie discovers why Sarasota’s circus history and cultured present make for the perfect Sunshine State escape



It’s Florida but not as we think we know it. Fewer palms, fewer pina coladas and barely any bling to speak of but bags of charm and culture. No wonder Sarasota has attracted enough Jews to fill 15 synagogues, as well as helping found or support its professional ballet, symphony orchestra, opera house, art museums and string of theatres.

“When I was researching my history of the community I was amazed at what Jewish arrivals did to make their new home a culture hub,” says Kimberley Sheintal, president of Sarasota’s Jewish Genealogical Society and author of a book about the area’s Jews.

Perhaps uniquely, this town on Florida’s west coast caters equally for culture vultures and beach bums; bridges connect the city centre to the lovely islands surrounding Sarasota, where it’s easy to get sand between your toes on wild, white powder beaches.

And with Sarasota’s airport currently expanding, direct flights from both London and Manchester are expected before too long, so now is the time to visit Florida’s best-kept secret.

Set aside at least a week to do it all justice. Quite apart from Sarasota’s big attractions and cultural scene, you’ll want to save time to relax at the waterfront bars and restaurants, browse the vintage shopping scene and explore the lively weekend farmer’s market, which has attracted locals, their dogs and street musicians for the past 43 years.

Even if you booked tickets for every matinee and evening show available, it would be impossible to see all the live performances taking place.

In one month alone, the list of 100 things to see included touring productions of two Broadway musicals, a local interpretation of The Lehman Trilogy and concerts by Paul Anka, Rick Springfield and the Righteous Brothers, supplemented by more niche events such as the annual Jewish film festival, a cantors’ benefit concert for Israel and a new play at the Sarasota Jewish Theatre.

Start by getting your bearings on the 90-minute trolley ride organised by Discover Sarasota Tours, telling the history of the city, which was settled by emigrant Scots in the 1880s and later endowed with its current riches by two of the Ringling brothers of circus fame.

Still known as the circus capital of the world, the Ringling is Sarasota’s key attraction, and it takes at least half a day to explore the different sites inside.

At the Circus Museum, you’ll see vintage circus memorabilia alongside a fantastically detailed model of the Ringling circus, from the train that brought the performers to town to a miniature version of the Big Top itself, plus everything from refreshment kiosks to the animals’ accommodation.

But the Ringling is also home to Ca’ d’Zan, the exquisite Italianate mansion belonging to John Ringling and his wife Mable, for a taste of life in the Roaring Twenties, as well as housing the Museum of Art, which they dictated must be free for all to visit one day a week.

This world-class collection is still well worth the price of admission on other days; join a guided tour to ensure you don’t miss best paintings, which includes a set of huge Rubens canvasses bought a century ago from the Duke of Westminster.

As the trolley tour and the Ringling alone can fill an entire day, follow it up by another one lazing on the sands of town beaches Lido Key or Siesta Key (regularly voted one of the best in the US), swanky Longboat Key or laid-back, further-flung Anna Maria Island.

At the latter I had the finest fish feast of my trip at the Waterfront restaurant. It’s always packed, so the trick is to arrive at around 3.30pm when the lunch crowd is thinning out and early diners have not yet formed a queue. Walk off lunch by crossing to the charming old jetty and strolling to the end of the pier.

Longboat Key has its own somewhat smarter — and pricier — places to eat, including Shore, Mar Vista and Euphemia Haye restaurant, plus an Aladdin’s cave of a thrift store packed with vintage finds.

The Lord’s Warehouse is named for its location in the grounds of a church, and it’s well worth going early to this engaging emporium, which sells homewares as well as clothes and jewellery but closes at noon sharp.

Vintage and designer shopping also abound in Sarasota’s delightfully compact downtown district, whose principal streets are named after fruit — Lemon and Orange are two of the main arteries, but you’ll also find Pineapple and Coconut as well as tiny Kumquat Court.

Even if you’re not looking for retail therapy, the art deco Main Street is worth a stroll with the Sarasota Opera House just steps away.

Built by Jewish architect Roy A Benjamin, it has hosted performances by Elvis and the Ziegfeld Follies before becoming a pinnacle of high culture — a  recent highlight was a fine production of Carmen.

The nation’s big touring acts play the huge purple Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, while downtown Sarasota is also home to several small theatres. Meanwhile, Sarasota’s ballet and its highest-rated repertory theatre, the Asolo, both have permanent homes within the Ringling, to the north of downtown.

Between downtown and the Ringling, don’t miss the Marietta Museum of Art and Whimsy, a fabulous free attraction designed to bring joy to the world. The galleries and garden are funded entirely with donations, and open only a few days per week.

For yet more culture, head further south on the Tamiami Trail — the main route linking Tampa, an hour to the north, and Miami, almost four hours to the east — to the Sarasota Art Museum, filled with thought-provoking temporary exhibits, such as Judith Pfaff’s installations inspired by local post-hurricane debris and beach finds.

Even the nearby Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has its own art gallery, as well as fine tropical plants, including a conservatory packed with magnificent orchids. The display currently features works by Georgia O’Keeffe, who inspired Japanese avant-garde art star Yayoi Kusama, whose own works are featured throughout the gardens.

Make the Rosemary arts district your base to explore; this area just north of downtown is also home to hotels for every budget, from a swanky Ritz-Carlton and a Westin with a rooftop bar to the stylish but minimal Voco, where I stayed. It’s a short stroll from there to Sarasota’s newest restaurant, Wolfie’s Deli.

Recreating the recipes of the original Wolfie’s — the toast of Miami Beach back in its 20th-century heyday and beloved of sun-seeking Jews — this revival will please those aching for chilled borscht and bagel and lox breakfasts.

Sarasota’s food scene is as varied as its culture though. On Main Street’s restaurant row, find authentic Peruvian fare at Selva, while on the lively dining and shopping area of St Armand’s Key, Crab & Fin offers excellent fish.

Even better, there’s no need to drive here; Voco’s hotel guest shuttle supplements the city’s own free downtown trolley service — although if you do have your own wheels, South Sarasota restaurant Sardinia channels the rustic dining rooms of rural Italy.

Chef Dino Carta, who has cooked at Harry’s Bar, is the real thing, and the Sardinian specialities of ravioli stuffed with pecorino and orange zest, and wild mushrooms served in lacy Parmesan baskets, just as memorable.

The airport itself is only ten minutes from the heart of the action, with current connections to the UK via New York, Charlotte and Houston and those new direct flights on the horizon, making Sarasota practically perfect in every way, to quote Mary Poppins.

So go now, before word gets out that this cultured corner of Florida is easier than ever to reach.

​Getting There

A seven-night holiday to Sarasota with America As You Like It costs from £1,395 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, fully inclusive car hire and room-only accommodation at the Voco Sarasota. It also offers dedicated opera and ballet packages.

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