SARASOTA — Looking for a staycation this summer? There are good times to be had south of Tampa Bay. Specifically, downtown Sarasota. The charming city is an ideal spot for a short escape, just far enough from the rest of the Tampa Bay area and packed with restaurants, shopping and beautiful beaches.
Staying right downtown is your best bet, as it’s very contained and walkable. We’re focusing mainly on the area west of U.S. 301, from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center as the northernmost marker down to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
The main thoroughfare downtown is, well, Main Street, where you’ll find lots of places to eat, drink and shop. There’s a farmers market every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a gorgeous waterfront just a couple of blocks away.
Just north of Main Street is the Rosemary District, an up-and-coming area that’s like the hip younger sister to downtown’s more established core. This is a fun place to spend a couple of hours, popping in for coffee at Project Coffee, an all-vegan cafe that just opened its second location (1419 Fifth St., Sarasota), or strolling past the many cute boutiques that line the roads. Shop for a wide variety of cheeses (or grab a yummy snack) at the Artisan Cheese Company (550 Central Ave., Sarasota), or stop by the family- and dog-friendly Mandeville Beer Garden.
Here are more suggestions for where to eat, what to do and where to stay.
Where to eat and drink
O&A Coffee Supply: One of Sarasota’s best coffee shops, this location is conveniently located right on Main Street, close to Sarasota’s Waterfront Park. There are some nibbles here, including a breakfast sandwich and burrito, and pastries like muffins and coffee cake. But the main draw is the espresso drinks, from flat whites to Americanos to espresso sodas. 1316 Main St., Sarasota. 941-552-8659.
Rise and Nye’s: This coffee and ice cream shop just south of Main Street is run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, part of their mission to offer an inclusive workplace for people who are often unemployed. The menu is full of yummy treats, from a wide variety of coffees to ice cream flights, ice cream sandwiches and milkshakes. They have breakfast and lunch fare, too. 1534 State St., Sarasota. 941-217-6449.
C’est la Vie: This cafe off Main Street is an authentic French spot, with a huge bakery case right up front and a large menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner fare. Sharing a couple of items is the way to go, and make sure one of those items is the caprese prosciutto sandwich served on a delicious baguette with tomato, mozzarella, basil and prosciutto. Also opt for the Quiche Lorraine, this one a very classic version of the iconic French egg dish. To end the meal, try one of their almond or chocolate croissants, paired with a yummy cappuccino topped with a dusting of cinnamon. Stop by the case on your way out and take some confections for the road. 1553 Main St., Sarasota. 941-906-9575.
Bavaro's Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria: Slightly off the beaten path but still walkable from the downtown center is this charming Italian restaurant that also has locations in St. Petersburg and Tampa. The Sarasota location boasts an intimate indoor dining room with a bar and a lively covered patio out front. There’s a happy hour on the weekdays and live music regularly. Go for one of the wood-fired pizzas, or a pasta dish like the signature Penne alla Vodka. 27 Fletcher Ave., Sarasota.
Marina Jack: Located on the second floor of an actual marina along Sarasota’s waterfront, this restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. You’ll find everything from Sherry Crab Bisque to Cedar Plank Salmon to Chicken Cacciatore on the menu, but the vibe is the real draw, with music nearly every day of the week and top-notch waterfront views. (Come here while the sun is setting!) 2 Marina Plaza, Sarasota. 941-365-4232.
Meliora: This spot isn’t walkable from the downtown area, but it’s close, and well worth a visit. It’s not too casual, but not too fancy, with a lively bar and a creative menu that changes often. Our food critic Helen Freund even deemed it the best new restaurant of 2022. 1920 Hillview St., Sarasota. 941-444-7692.
Bar Hana: If you’re looking for something open late, try Bar Hana, a tropical-themed bar that also serves food. The cocktail list boasts drinks like the Frisky Flamingo (with vanilla vodka and passion fruit) and La Diabla (with tequila, mezcal, ginger and lime). 1289 N Palm Ave., Sarasota. 941-536-9717.
Where to explore
The beach: Downtown Sarasota is mere minutes away from several gulf beaches, but none are closer than Lido Beach, which is just a short drive down John Ringling Boulevard and over the causeway. You’ll pass through St. Armands Circle on your way, a blend of kitschy shops and ritzy stores that’s fun in a touristy way. Turn left once you get past St. Armands Circle and look for Lido Beach Pavilion, where there is a large, free parking lot very close to the sand. There are bathrooms and showers there, too. Don’t feel like driving? If you’ve got time to spare and not a lot of beach gear, consider taking the Sarasota Bay Runner Trolley, which makes several stops right downtown and then travels to St. Armands Circle, Lido Beach and Longboat Key.
Selby Gardens: This vibrant botanical garden is nestled right in downtown Sarasota. There is plenty to do and see, from revolving outdoor exhibits that showcase plant life to koi ponds to an awesome kids play area that features musical instruments, animal statues and a tree house for older kids. Grab lunch at the cafe by the large banyan tree when everyone starts to get tired. One note: Parking is currently valet-only, unless you park down the street and walk. 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. 941-366-5731.
Mote Marine Aquarium: Veer off to the right at St. Armands Circle instead of going straight toward Lido Beach and you’ll run into this aquarium, which features two buildings full of aquatic animals. It’s a neat way to spend a couple of hours, and an ideal spot for little kids, who can view sharks, giant turtles and otters from behind large glass walls. 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 941-388-4441.
Waterfront Park: You can’t beat a sunset at this park, which is an easy walk from most places downtown. Come during the day for a walk or bike ride along the long waterfront path and head out at dusk to watch as the sun sets behind boats and the downtown skyline. 1101 10th St., Sarasota. 941-263-6386.
Where to stay
An affordable option right in the thick of it is the Aloft Sarasota (1401 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota). An ideal spot if you don’t plan on spending a ton of time in the room, it’s just blocks from Main Street and the waterfront.
If you’re able to splurge, you can’t do better than Sarasota’s Ritz-Carlton (1111 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Sarasota), a gorgeous five-star hotel with stunning views of the water and tons of amenities. Tip: Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can dine at one of their restaurants, or grab a drink at the lovely Jack Dusty bar.
Directly north of the Ritz-Carlton is the Hyatt Regency Sarasota (1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota), a much more affordable stay that boasts similar waterfront views. It’s also right next to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, if you have time for a show while you’re in town.