Although there is plenty to do as a family without leaving the Tampa Bay area – there is always something going on in our active, vibrant city, after all – sometimes it’s fun to venture out a bit. As our neighboring cities to the south, Bradenton and Sarasota have much to offer for families looking for new adventures or a change of scenery within a fairly short driving distance.
It goes without saying that Bradenton and Sarasota have some of the area’s and country’s most beautiful beaches: world-renowned Siesta Key, beautiful Anna Maria Island, and Lido Key, just to name a few. But when we’re not sticking our toes in that silky, white sand, here are some of my family’s favorite places to visit….
I feel like sometimes Bradenton doesn’t get as much acknowledgement as it should because it’s so close to well-known Sarasota. But Bradenton is a uniquely charming place on its own, and I love its laid-back vibe. The Riverwalk is my favorite spot in Bradenton – and it offers more than just a relaxing stroll. Overlooking the Manatee River, the Riverwalk contains a collection of public art, “outdoor living rooms,” a family fun zone (complete with a splashpad), beach volleyball, an ampitheater for live entertainment, a fishing pier, and one of the coolest features – in my opinion – a skate park! While I don’t skateboard myself, I think it’s pretty entertaining to watch the action and tricks performed by kids and adults alike.
Downtown Bradenton and The South Florida Museum, Aquarium, and Planetarium
The Riverwalk connects to Downtown Bradenton, which is a very relaxed downtown area that’s definitely worth a visit. It’s easy to to walk with the family and Old Main Street has great restaurants and local breweries. Downtown, there’s the Village of the Arts, “an eclectic live-work community made up of colorful historic cottages that house everything from award-winning restaurants to specialty shops, studios, healing arts, bakeries and Bradenton’s best art galleries” that my family still needs to check out (www.villageofthearts.com). And Downtown Bradenton is also home to The South Florida Museum. The South Florida Museum is a must-visit with kids. It has everything you could want for a fun and educational day trip – a museum featuring marine and mammal fossils, archaeological artifacts, and early Florida treasures, an aquarium with the famous Snooty the Manatee, and even a planetarium!
St Armands Circle
I won’t deny that St Armands is one of my favorite places to visit in Sarasota. It’s actually a large circle (hence the name) filled with elegant shops (some perhaps a bit too pricey for my wallet) and great restaurants – from fine dining to casual cafes. It’s impeccably clean and beautiful. My husband and I enjoy going early before the crowds (beware that parking can be crazy) and leisurely walking with our son in his stroller. Some of our favorite places to eat are the Tommy Bahama restaurant (a classic, always good), Surf Shack (amazing tacos!!), and The Columbia (a familiar name, right?). And a day at St Armand’s is never complete without grabbing an ice cream cone – Kilwins is our favorite (it’s the one place I can get really good coconut ice cream). And although you can make a day of St Armands without the beach, Lido Beach is literally just steps away!
The Ringling Bridge
I remember the first time I drove over this bridge when I moved to Florida. I was honestly in awe and exclaimed, “What a life to drive with these views everyday!” (I worked in Sarasota for about a year and drove over this bridge all the time.) I still feel this way each time I walk or drive over The Ringling Bridge, which overlooks an amazing view of the Sarasota Bay. It’s easy to take a stroller with you, too – you’ll often see families out walking. On a sunny day, it’s particularly breathtaking. The Ringling Bridge leads to St Armands, so you can make a day of exploring both.
The Ringling Museum
Beautiful and educational, visiting The Ringling is a full-day experience that is like no other museum experience. You can visit just one part or tour all – the Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, and the Ca’d’Zan, the 56-room mansion owned by John Ringling himself. If that isn’t enough, the beautiful gardens, ponds, and banyan trees on the property are sure to delight. I suggest visiting the museum website for information on tickets, planning your day, etc. https://ringling.org
Oh, and admission to the Museum of Art is FREE on Mondays!
Mote Marine Aquarium + The Old Salty Dog
A great day trip with kids! Mote Marine isn’t a huge aquarium, which for us makes it a less overwhelming and more enjoyable experience. It’s “just right” and a bonus is that parking has never been an issue when we’ve visited. The kids can see all their favorites – manatees, sea turtles, sharks, you name it! Also, if you don’t eat lunch at the aquarium, I definitely suggest checking out Sarasota’s famous Old Salty Dog restaurant right down the street! It has an incredible view, and where else can you eat a huge, deep fried hot dog? (There are also healthier options, for the record, but why not live a little?)
Myakka River State Park
The first time I went with my family to Myakka State Park, I felt like I was transplanted into truly untouched Florida nature. I LOVE Myakka. I feel at peace when I visit. You can stay and camp, or just make a fun day trip of it. There’s bicycling, canoeing/kayaking, a restaurant, boat tours, opportunities to view wildlife up close, and my personal favorite – hiking and walking nature trails! You MUST check out the Canopy Walk! There, you can view the Myakka river basin from a 76-foot observation platform. Completely awesome!
The Mall at UTC and University Parkway
If you’re in the mood for some new shopping, definitely check out all there is to offer on University Parkway. (There are also tons of restaurants down University if you’re in need of a bite to eat.) The new University Town Center Mall is beautiful with shopping to satisfy everyone.
Downtown Sarasota + Sarasota Farmers Market
I really love downtown Sarasota. I can’t quite explain why, but it’s one of my favorite downtown areas. It’s inviting, relaxed, and definitely doesn’t have that “hustle and bustle” feel that is typical of many downtown areas. The Sarasota Farmers Market, held downtown, is still my favorite local farmers market of all time (it’s open every Saturday from 7 am – 1 pm). It includes 70+ vendors and over 5,000 sqft. of produce and plants. I’ve purchased everything from homemade granola bars to paintings to food truck breakfasts while there. My family really enjoys going to the market and then eating lunch somewhere on Main Street. http://sarasotafarmersmarket.org/
Of course, this is not an all-inclusive list, but these are some of my favorite things to do and places to visit in Bradenton and Sarasota with my family. If you have any other suggestions, please comment and let us know!