Like most places on Florida’s west coast, Sarasota has grown and changed dramatically. Luckily for shoppers and diners, St. Armands Circle has retained its charm and sense of history.
Follow the John Ringling Causeway over beautiful Sarasota Bay and you’ll come to this island of sidewalk cafes, one-of-a-kind shops and a beloved fashion emporium whose customers have included Cher and Jennifer Aniston. Just an hour south of Tampa Bay, St. Armands is a perfect change of scenery while you do your holiday shopping.
Ringling, the circus magnate who made Sarasota his home, bought the island in 1917 and planned a luxurious development of homes and shops laid out in a circle. Then he built the causeway and in 1926 became the first person to drive across it. Thousands have followed since, drawn by the tropical setting and retail bounty.
The Circle, as the main shopping area is commonly known, lost more than 20 stores during the worst of the pandemic but almost every space is now filled with restaurants, salons, galleries, jewelers and shops selling everything from Turkish delight to pet toys to garden decor. The area is popular year-round, though it can get so busy during the winter that it’s a good idea to have lunch early or late and shop while everyone else is dining.
All of the restaurants have indoor seating, but on a sunny day grab a table outside and enjoy the people watching — dog walkers, well-heeled retirees, 20-somethings who look straight out of the reality show “Siesta Key.” Two favorite spots are Crab & Fin, which has excellent seafood, and Columbia (yes, part of the Tampa chain), where you can fuel up for shopping with a glass of sangria, a Cuban sandwich and a 1905 Salad. More than 15 other restaurants and cafes offer a range of cuisines, including Italian, Greek and Caribbean, while several ice cream, candy and pastry shops are handy for that afternoon pick-me-up.
The Circle’s physical setting gives it a comforting sense of permanence in a fast-changing world and so does the presence of longtime establishments. Cafe L’Europe, a fine-dining restaurant, has been around since 1973, and Foxy Lady, a high-end boutique, has been in its own elegant building since the 1980s. (The first Foxy Lady opened on Siesta Key 50 years ago.) The store carries a full line by Canadian designer Joseph Ribkoff, and in a city with an active social season, Foxy Lady is the place to go for dazzling evening wear.
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A bit of trivia: When actor George Clooney married lawyer Amal Alamuddin in 2014, the bride’s sister bought her dress for the reception at Foxy Lady’s St. Armands store, the Siesta Sand newspaper reported.
For casual clothing well suited to Florida’s hot, steamy climate, try the Cotton Club, Shore and Sahara, among others. The Circle also has chain stores including Chico’s, Tommy Bahama, Lily Pulitzer and Soma.
If you tire of shopping and eating, check out the Circus Ring of Fame in the pretty little park in the roundabout. More than 150 bronze plaques encircle the park with the names and bios of performers and others connected to the circus world. Among them: Cecil B. DeMille, who directed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and the Therons, described as a “high energy” French bicycle troupe. Also set among the palms are statues from Ringling’s personal collection.
One of Florida’s most appealing cities, Sarasota is well worth a visit for more than a shopping excursion. Within 15 minutes of St. Armands are the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, The Ringling Circus Museum, the Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Other attractions nearby include the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and the Sarasota Jungle Gardens.
And you can certainly stay in style — just a short drive away are a Ritz-Carlton, a Westin and a Hyatt Regency.
St. Armands Circle, 300 Madison Drive, Sarasota. starmandscircleassoc.com.