The beaches—35 miles of powdered-sugar sand—are some of the best in the world, but they're not the only reason to visit 'Florida's cultural coast'

Wendy Ball & Dara Albanese

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.

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;; 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;; 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;; 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;; 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;; doubles from $125.

Lido Key Rent a cabana at the snack bar by the main entrance. North Lido is less developed and less crowded; South Lido Park is surrounded by water on all sides—the Gulf, the bay, Big Pass, and Bushy Bayou.
Siesta Key For privacy, skip Siesta's busy Crescent Beach and hunt for shells on the south end of the key at Turtle Beach. Even more secluded is dune-backed Palmer Point Beach, which extends from the southern tip of Siesta to the very remote Casey Key.
Longboat Key The powdery beach stretches for 10 miles, but access is limited unless you're staying at one of the resorts or condos along its expanse.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Orchids—6,000 of them—are the big draw, but some 20,000 other varieties of tropical plants are on display at this 81/2-acre bayfront reserve. A hibiscus garden features enormous blossoms in colors ranging from the palest yellows and pinks to rare browns and blacks. On December 6 and 7, visitors can wander through the gardens by candlelight. Admission $10 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 941/366-5731
Myakka River State Park A seven-mile scenic drive, 38 miles of hiking trails, and boat excursions let you observe shorebirds, hawks, eagles, and lots of alligators up close. The new canopy walkway and tower put you up in the treetops in this 29,000-acre park of swampy wetlands, grass prairies, pine forests, and lakes. $4 per car State Rd. 72, 17 miles east of U.S. 41 941/361-6511
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium On a 101/2-acre stretch of Sarasota Bay, the lab and aquarium houses a 135,000-gallon shark tank, two touch pools for interacting with the marine life, and manatee, turtle, and mollusk exhibits. $12 per person 1600 Ken Thompson pkwy., Sarasota941/388-4441;

Michael's on East A pianist tickles the ivories every night at what has been Sarasota's most popular dining institution for more than a decade. The inventive contemporary American menu is always excellent: grilled breast of duck with shiitake fondue and fig-and-pecan risotto; Zinfandel-braised short ribs with porcini mushrooms and white-truffle-oil mashed potatoes. 1212 East Ave. S., Sarasota; 941/366-0007; dinner for two $100.
Colony Dining Room Many of Sarasota's best chefs were trained at this beachfront restaurant where waves crash just outside the windows. Grilled rack of Colorado lamb is one of chef Roger Hopkins's trademarks, along with "red snapper Colony," prepared with wild-mushroom risotto, lump crabmeat, and sun-dried tomatoes and served in a French basil beurre blanc. The Colony's Monkey Room, with palm trees and a deck out back, is a more casual and less costly option. 1620 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-5558; dinner for two $90.
Maison Blanche When José and Victoria Martínez transplanted their restaurant here from Paris earlier this year, French cuisine in Sarasota reached a new high. In the orchid-filled 50-seat dining room, everything is made from scratch, including the bread and the ice cream. The $60 tasting menu is worth the splurge. 2605 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-8088; dinner for two $120.
Vernona Named for the 1920's hotel that once stood on the property, the Vernona has old-world class without the haughtiness. Chef Frederic Morineau creates Mediterranean dishes with local ingredients. Try his grilled ahi tuna steak with Key lime butter and Parmesan polenta. The Sunday brunch—with a sushi bar and caviar station—merits the $50-a-person tab. Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; 941/309-2000; dinner for two $100.
Summerhouse In a former life, the tropical-themed restaurant was a nursery, and greenery still surrounds much of the patio. The macadamia-nut shrimp appetizer and char-grilled meat and fish are served in the main room. The Treetop Lounge offers snacks and weekend brunch, as well as live music nightly. 6101 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key; 941/349-1100; dinner for two $80.
Silver Cricket The sleek and sophisticated space has garnered an equally trendy clientele. The real reason they keep coming back, though, is the French-Asian fusion dishes, like the ginger-lime chicken skewers, rock shrimp with lobster-lemongrass broth, and sweet scallops in jasmine-infused coconut milk. For a digestif, hit the bar, which hums right up until the 2 a.m. closing. 1923 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; 941/955-9179; dinner for two $90.
Ophelia's on the Bay On a balmy night, when the moon is high over the water, Ophelia's waterfront terrace is the most romantic place in town. Chef Mitch Rosenbaum infuses fruit flavors into many of his dishes, such as the roast duckling with dark rum, pineapple, and banana compote, or the coconut-and-cashew-crusted grouper with papaya jam. Don't leave without tasting the macadamia nut torte. 9105 Midnight Pass Rd., Siesta Key; 941/349-2212; dinner for two $85.
Pattigeorge's Chef Tommy Klauber spices up his menu with the unexpected: shrimp-and-lemongrass-chicken pizza; upside-down mango-polenta cake. If all you want is a snack, order a small plate of tangy-sweet ribs or a sizzling bowl of stir-fried chicken and settle into a seat overlooking the bay. 4120 Gulf of Mexico Dr., Longboat Key; 941/383-5111; dinner for two $60.
Fred's On Friday and Saturday nights, Sarasota's hipsters head for Fred's, where the bar is always standing-room-only and the dining room gets as loud as a rock concert. The menu lists comfort-food classics such as chicken pot pie and thick slices of meat loaf. Late-night tapas, pizzas, and salads are available at the bar. 1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota; 941/364-5811; dinner for two $60.
Citrus Café Shoppers on Pineapple Avenue and theatergoers from the Film Society across the street grab lunch on the café's sunny patio. House specialties are grilled balsamic chicken on focaccia bread with a goat-cheese spread, and poached salmon salad. 543 S. Pineapple Ave.; 941/957-0432; lunch for two $20.

John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tours of Cà d'Zan start at 9:45 a.m., with John Ringling's great room as the ultimate spectacle: giant carved walnut doors lead to a 40-by-40-foot chamber lit by chandeliers from the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Mable Ringling's rose garden, begun in 1913, also makes an impression. Beside it is the Ringling Circus Museum, created after Ringling's death in 1936, and filled with parade wagons, props, costumes, and vintage posters. Don't miss the art museum, with its 600-plus paintings, classical antiquities, and European decorative arts. Through January 5, "Rodin: A Magnificent Obsession" is on display. 5401 Bay Shore Rd.; 941/359-5700;; admission $15.
Towles Court Artist Colony Forty Sarasota artists work and show their paintings, ceramics, and painted furniture in this funky cluster of bungalows first built in the 1920's. A gallery walk and open house held on the third Friday evening of every month allows visitors to meet the artists. 1938 Adams Lane; 941/955-4546;

Dozens of galleries line Palm Avenue and Main Street. On one short block of South Palm Avenue alone there are six galleries (including Galleria Silecchia, 888/366-7414; the Hodgell Gallery, 941/366-1146; and Chasen Galleries, 800/524-2736). At the Sarasota Art & Antique Center (640 S. Washington Blvd.; 941/957-1110;, the main showroom of the Crissy Galleries is filled with furniture culled from local estates.

Asolo Theatre Festival The Mertz Theatre, a 1903 Scottish opera house that was brought to Sarasota in the 1990's, is home to Sarasota's oldest professional repertory troupe. This month, the Mertz stages Inherit the Wind, You Never Can Tell, and Brighton Beach Memoirs. FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail; 800/361-8388;
Sarasota Film Festival From January 24 through February 2, the festival will celebrate its fifth season by presenting nearly 200 films and shorts at the 20-screen Regal Cinemas Hollywood on Main Street. Seminars and panel discussions are open to the public. Past guests have included Rod Steiger, Alan Alda, Ismail Merchant, and Sydney Pollack. 941/364-9514;
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall More than 120 performances are held here each year; November and December bring the Capitol Steps comedy group, the Georgian State Dance Company, and the Broadway revue Fosse. 777 N. Tamiami Trail; 800/826-9303;