Circus impresario John Ringling is credited with bringing European art and architecture to Sarasota, a former backwater village 60 miles south of Tampa. In the Roaring Twenties, Ringling, a native of Wisconsin, snapped up real estate in this part of Florida and encouraged his friends to follow suit. His winter residence, Cà d'Zan, was modeled on the ornate Doges' Palace in Venice. The museum he built to house his collection of European art—including works by Rubens, Velázquez, and Hals—enticed patrons of the arts to funnel into Sarasota. After Ringling's death in 1936, it became the first official museum of Florida, thanks to his generous will, and Sarasota's position as the cultural heart of America's southernmost state was solidified.
This year, with the $150 million restoration of Cà d'Zan completed, Sarasota is in the midst of another renaissance. New buildings are changing the skyline. Young professionals, not just retirees, now frequent the eclectic boutiques and cafés that have sprung up along Main Street and Pineapple Avenue. And Ringling's passion for the arts lives on: this town of 52,000 has a symphony orchestra, an opera, a ballet company, 10 theater troupes, a film festival, and more than 40 art galleries.
If hitting the downtown arts scene isn't your idea of a dream weekend, there's always the beach. White-sand strands on the nearby barrier islands include Lido Key, the closest to downtown; Siesta Key, the most popular; and Longboat Key, with its more private 10-mile stretch.
WHERE TO STAY
Downtown hotels are close to theaters, shops, and galleries, while those on the string of barrier islands just across Sarasota Bay—Siesta, Lido, and Longboat keys—are fringed by Gulf beaches.
Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota This 266-room downtown hotel has it all: attentive service, spacious rooms with balconies and marble baths, and an oversized pool. The wood-paneled Cà d'Zan Bar & Cigar Lounge is always crowded—the chocolate martini is the house special—and the Boutique Chocolat is stocked with truffles, mousse, and mocha-cream cake for late-night treats. 1111 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Sarasota; 800/241-3333 or 941/309-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $225.
Colony Beach & Tennis Resort George W. Bush, Tom Brokaw, and Dustin Hoffman have been recent guests at Sarasota's oldest beach resort. They come for the relaxed atmosphere and massive suites, as well as for the resort's two popular restaurants. Guests have access to a private beach, 21 tennis courts (with 10 pros on staff), and a luxury spa; each room has a whirlpool tub and a balcony. 1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 800/426-5669 or 941/383-6464; www.colonybeachresort.com; suites from $275.
Wicker Inn Bypass Longboat's lineup of high-rises by staying in one of 11 breezy bungalows set amid purple hibiscus and oleander. Many of the Key West—style cottages are located around the rectangular pool; all are steps away from a private beach and a 16-acre public park. 5581 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 800/881-2244 or 941/383-5562; www.wickerinn.com; cottages from $889 per week.
Turtle Beach Resort Each of the 10 clapboard cottages has its own porch and hot tub, and some face the bay. No two are alike; they range in style from Victorian to Southwestern, Caribbean to French country. Guests have free use of the resort's bikes, canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, and fishing poles—and Turtle Beach, which is just a three-minute stroll away. 9049 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key; 941/349-4554; www.turtlebeachresort.com; doubles from $190.
Half Moon Beach Club The two-story Art Deco hotel is built around a circular swimming pool; Lido Beach lies just beyond. The 84 rooms, all with patios or balconies, are decked out in flowery Key West style; those facing the beach guarantee prime sunset views. Rooms equipped with a kitchenette start at $155. 2050 Benjamin Franklin Dr., Sarasota; 800/358-3245 or 941/388-3694; www.halfmoon-lidokey.com; doubles from $125.