Sarasota: Florida’s Perfect Road Trip Destination

Is Sarasota the ideal road trip destination for families visiting Florida? I think so. While cities like Miami and Orlando are fun, Sarasota punches well above its weight when it comes to culture, food, and family entertainment. With a population under 60,000, it’s less crowded than bigger cities.

It’s also conveniently close to Tampa Bay so you can easily extend your family road trip. This guide covers everything to see, do, and eat.

Circus Capital of the World

In the 1920s, John Ringling moved the winter headquarters of his famous circus to Sarasota, changing the city forever. Today, you can tour his Venetian palace, Ca’ d’Zan, the Circus Museum that covers American circus history through props, posters, and more, and the Ringlings’ vast collection of art, but to really celebrate the circus, you have to experience it — and that means seeing a show.

Veranica Tchalabaeva with her talented poodles in "A Brave New Wonderland" - photo by Harry Sayer

Veranica Tchalabaeva with her talented poodles in “A Brave New Wonderland” – photo by Harry Sayer

Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities. The country’s longest-running youth circus program, Sailor Circus Academy, teaches kids 8-18 the secrets of the art, which they use to wow audiences. Their recent “Candyland” show reimagined the board game with spinning cupcakes, swinging lollipops, and a host of dazzling feats, culminating in the flying trapeze. These are kid-friendly shows, but there’s nothing pint-sized about the talent. Acts are jaw-droppingly impressive, and it’s fun to let your kids be inspired seeing what their peers can do.

The Circus Arts Conservatory, which runs the academy and does circus-related outreach in the community, also puts on a number of professional shows. A few highlights from this season:

  • Circus Sarasota, featuring top artists from around the world
  • Cirque des Voix®: Circus of the Voices, a collaboration with Key Chorale for live singing and orchestra
  • WONDERBALL, an electronic dance music concert upgraded with acrobatics and more
  • Circus Arts Gala, combining fine dining and circus arts

Their current show, “A Brave New Wonderland,” might be the most thrilling yet. It headlines Nik Wallenda, a Sarasota native and 13-time Guinness World Record holder who was the first person to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. He performs with a troupe that includes his wife, Erendira, also a world record-holder, and Blake, a seventh-generation Wallenda, treating fans to a finale that will have you gobsmacked with awe and possibly (as in my case) clutching the person next to you.

Nik and Erendira Wallenda on the high wire in a “A Brave New Wonderland” - photo by Harry Sayer

Nik and Erendira Wallenda on the high wire in a “A Brave New Wonderland” – photo by Harry Sayer

But the whole show, from clowning and contortion to talented pups and aerial silks, is pure circus spectacle under the Big Top. Check their calendar to see what’s on when you’ll be in town. This is a must while in the Circus Capital of the World.

Where To Play: Wild Games and Wildlife

Up for a round of Bazooka Ball? It’s one of the thrills at Livingston’s Amusements, a 50,000-square-foot play space where the bumper cars spin under disco lights and the go-karts race on a Naskart Track. Bazooka Ball, a virtual paintball field with glowing foam balls, is reopening, thanks to new high-tech sanitation equipment. The arcade is also one of the best we’ve encountered on our family road trips, and the prize case is fancy, so you’ll want to hit those big scores.

Livingston’s Amusements has a huge selection of arcade games for all ages.

When it comes to wildlife, check out Sarasota Jungle Gardens, famous for its flamingos you can hand-feed (pictured above), and Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, home to lions, tigers, ligers, bears, and more. Both offer petting zoos so your little ones can get close to the animals. At Sarasota Jungle Gardens, we enjoyed the educational shows while at Big Cat Habitat, the covered walkway beside the tiger habitats was our favorite.

Look for wildlife in the wild, too. The mangrove tunnels of Lido Key are a great place to start. Kayaking SRQ will tell you all about the creatures who live here. They’ll also show you how to kayak, but you’re in just a few feet of water so it’s safe for beginners. Renting a tandem kayak is a good way for kids to participate. Even toddlers can ride along. And you’ll see Florida wildlife in action, whether it’s spotting dolphins or watching cormorants dive for fish.

Kayaking the mangrove tunnels of Lido Key

Where To Take Teens: Axes and E-Bikes

On a road trip with teens who don’t think you’re cool anymore? We can fix that. Take a ride on a bike that goes up to 20 mph, and then go throw some axes.

Electric bikes are lots of fun. You can ride them like a regular bike, but the motor gives you serious speed. Try the bikes at Pedego Sarasota. Pedego bikes are considered top-of-the-line, but you can indulge affordably by renting one for a couple hours.

The shop is near the paved, 12-mile Legacy Trail that goes all the way to Venice, and thanks to the motor and long-lasting battery, this is easily doable. Riding these bikes is a rush, and I highly recommend it. You have to be at least 16 to rent a bike, but child trailers and seats are available.

The age threshold for axe-throwing is a bit younger. Those 13 and up can hurl a hatchet indoors at Axe & Bull. Never tried it? It’s surprising how quickly kids catch on. If axe-throwing doesn’t come naturally to you, the resident expert (or ax-pert, as they say) will guide you through the technique. Even I hit a few bull’s-eyes. This is even more fun in groups, especially if you don’t mind a little family competition.

This is how good you’ll get if you listen to the Axe and Bull ax-pert.

Where To Eat in Sarasota

Best Breakfast: Sun Garden Cafe

Start your day in the best possible way. Close to the powder-fine sands of Siesta Key (voted best beach in the country), Sun Garden Cafe serves an incredible breakfast, available past noon if you sleep in.

The Myakka benedict st Sun Garden Cafe was a crowd-pleaser while the while the turkey sausage with dried figs and basil pesto on a multigrain bagel will delight grownups looking for something healthy and tasty.

The menu is split between fit-friendly options and I’m-on-vacation splurges. Take the top of the menu as an example: the beach smoothie (fruit and low-fat yogurt) is right above the sticky bun (“with a heap of vanilla icing”).

A week later, we are still talking about the Myakka benedict, a gussied-up biscuits and gravy, but the Liège waffle, which comes in an appetizer-size serving if you want just one, was equally memorable — and get this: real maple syrup come with.

Best Lunch: Columbia Restaurant

There’s a reason Columbia Restaurant has been in business for well over a century. Located at the shopping mecca of St. Armands Circle, Sarasota’s Columbia has breathtaking art and decor, but don’t let that fool you — it’s family-friendly. Pick up a kids’ menu, featuring Don Quixote and Columbus coloring, and go on a culinary journey together. The menu has a kid-sized Cuban sandwich, but if your kids are a little more adventurous, you might try the tapas.

Columbia Restaurant has beautiful Spanish decor as well as delicious food.

We opted for the El Combo de Cuba, which featured roast pork, yuca, boliche (beef with gravy), beans, rice, and more. I can’t recommend it enough. We loved the empanada, a family recipe, the chorizo-stuffed boliche, the decadent plantains — everything. There’s plenty of seafood on the menu, too, from paella to crab enchilada. The lunch platters, served with hot Cuban bread, are generous and affordable.

Best Pick-Me-Up: OfKors Bakery

For an afternoon pick-me-up, this European cafe is perfect. You can order Italian coffee, while the kids get freshly squeezed juice or a smoothie. They focus on healthy options and use organic ingredients.

You can pick a design to go on your coffee at OfKors Bakery and choose from an extensive lineup of sweet and savory freshly made treats to go with it.

Get something sweet to go with your drink — baklava, eclairs, cannoli, or their refreshing chia pudding — or a light sandwich (vegan offerings available).  We want to go back to try the crepes!

Best Dinner and Dessert: Yoder’s Restaurant

Simply put, it doesn’t get any better than Yoder’s. At the heart of Sarasota’s Amish community, Yoder’s serves homemade comfort food that draws diners from across the country. Specials like goulash and rivel (a Pennsylvania Dutch soup) mix with menu staples: fried chicken, meatloaf, chili. Try the turkey and stuffing with gravy — it tastes like Thanksgiving.

The perfect burger at Yoder’s Restaurant is only better with a slice of Amish pie for dessert.

Most entrees come with two sides, but you can also order the small version of any plate and get one side. If you’re a lighter eater, this is the way to go. Why? Pie. You have to save room. Made from scratch each morning, their baked pies have a flaky crust and dizzying variety of fillings: blueberry crunch, Dutch apple, shoofly (molasses), and peach, for starters. Then there’s the cream pies. I can vouch for the pillowy-light strawberry cream, but the chocolate peanut butter is their best-seller.

There’s more to do at Yoder’s Amish Village, but more on this below.

Where To Stay on Your Sarasota Road Trip

With days spent kayaking, swimming, and biking, relaxing at your hotel each night is nice. The city’s newest hotel is The Sarasota Modern. Highlights include a complimentary welcome drink and a resort deck boasting three pools.

The Sarasota Modern resort deck features three pools and games like ping pong corn hole and jenga.

We loved the modern touches: lots of outlets near the bed, a rain showerhead, fast Wi-Fi. The loft rooms are great for families, and if you’re road tripping with another family and need more space, you can rent a suite for up to nine.

The Sarasota Modern is in the Rosemary District on the north end of downtown, so there’s lots within walking distance. They also offer complimentary bikes, beach chairs, and beach umbrellas — a huge plus.

Culture for All Ages

One thing to love about a road trip to Sarasota is that the attractions engage kids and grownups. For example, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has an interactive rainforest garden where kids can climb and explore. And the Ringling celebrates all things circus in a way anyone can enjoy — even the art museum has a children’s activity guide.

The Ringling has exhibits for all ages plus a free playground on the grounds.

And as you’d expect on Florida’s Cultural Coast, there’s plenty of live entertainment. Even beyond the circus, there’s music, theater, and dance. Check out Sarasota Contemporary Dance for creative and high-energy shows that will show your kids the art form stretching the bounds far beyond ballet.

More To Do in Sarasota

Believe it or not, there’s more. Here are some other places to check out if you have the time:

  • Discover Sarasota Tours, trolley rides (themed for the circus, ghosts, and more) with helpful tips from your guide on what to do in Sarasota
  • Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, where you can meet manatees, sea turtles, stingrays, and more
  • Pinecraft, Sarasota’s Amish community, including the rest of Yoder’s Amish Village, featuring a gift shop and market near the restaurant
  • Sarasota Children’s Garden, a whimsical outdoor play space with interactive art and adorable photo ops
About the Author:
Cheryl Rodewig is storyteller, marketer, and award-winning feature writer specializing in travel. Her Venn diagram includes minimalism, waterfalls, French, and the em dash. Find her at or on Twitter at @cherylrodewig.