LAKEWOOD RANCH — If you’ve headed down south to Manatee and Sarasota counties, you may have hit the popular spots: gorgeous Anna Maria Island beaches, quaint and quirky Bradenton or the hopping downtown Sarasota area. But east of Interstate 75, there is a burgeoning suburban area also worth exploring.
Lakewood Ranch, a large community that spans both Manatee and Sarasota counties, is in major growth mode. New neighborhoods and shopping centers are under construction, with more planned for 2024. Like many Florida enclaves, it has a reputation as a retiree haven. And with several 55-and-up neighborhoods, that is true. But there’s more to see and do here. Lakewood Ranch is about a 20-minute drive from both downtown Bradenton and downtown Sarasota.
Here are five of our favorite things to do in the area.
Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street is the most established spot on this list, and retains a small-town charm that makes for a fun afternoon. One of our favorite spots is Lakewood Ranch Cinemas, a tiny movie theater that shows all the major releases. It’s operated by a nonprofit called the Sarasota Film Society, which also owns Burns Court Cinema. Tickets are $10 any time of day, and while they are strict about bringing in outside food, the concession stand has all the classics plus beer and wine. There are several shops and restaurants along the main thoroughfare, including plenty of solid happy hour spots like McGrath’s Irish Ale House, where the drinks are cheap and the bar food bites hit the spot. Stay for an entree like Shepherds Pie or their wide selection or Irish whiskey, or make your way to another spot like the popular Main Street Trattoria for Italian or The Grove for upscale American fare. There’s also miniature golf and frequent live entertainment and events. 8100 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., Bradenton.
One of the area’s newest developments, Waterside Place has slowly rolled out new businesses the past couple of years and continues to add more. It’s a community built around a large lake, with apartments anchoring a shopping complex that includes several restaurants, a brewery, salons, boutiques and lots of recreational space. Start the day at O&A Coffee Supply, the second location for this Sarasota-based coffee shop. You’ll find brunch at Forked, and everything from lunch to beer to dinner at Good Liquid Brewing Co. Newcomer Osteria 500 serves up Italian fare and a cute mobile bar cart. Still to open is Italian market Eatalia, a Mexican restaurant and an oyster house. There is always something going on here, with weekly events like outdoor yoga, a Sunday farmers market, live music in the plaza and the Ranch Nite block party on Wednesdays. For the more active visitor, check out the volleyball courts, a lovely walking path around the lake and, opening very soon, a playground for the little ones. 7500 Island Cove Terrace, Sarasota.
University Town Center
It might sound weird to recommend visiting a mall, but this isn’t any mall. Technically just outside of Lakewood Ranch since it’s west of Interstate 75, this sprawling shopping center caters to both tourists that come here for the nearby beaches and locals who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. You’ll find every shop imaginable here, whether in the proper mall with department stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s and Saks Fifth Avenue or in the surrounding outdoor shopping centers. It’s the most robust shopping plaza in Manatee or Sarasota counties, and maybe even all of Tampa Bay, boasting an REI, a Shake Shack, the Tiger Woods-backed golf complex PopStroke, a Whole Foods and more. Beyond the shopping, there’s a slew of restaurants and drinkeries, including locally owned spots and chains alike. Behind the mall, there’s Nathan Benderson Park, a family- and dog-friendly oasis with a bike path, a tree-lined walking path, bridges, a large playground and frequent rowing competitions. Currently under construction is the $130 million Mote Science Education Aquarium, an offshoot of the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium farther south in Sarasota. It’s expected to open in 2024. The town center hosts monthly (free) activities like outdoor exercise classes, live music and kids’ events, plus holiday events on its central lawn. And if you’ve never seen it lit up for Christmas, it’s worth a trip after the sun sets. 257 N Cattlemen Road, Sarasota.
There are a lot of chain restaurants and fast-casual spots in this part of the Manatee-Sarasota area. A lot of the more interesting, locally owned places are in the cities of Sarasota or Bradenton. But the crown jewel of this area’s dining scene is definitely Atria Cafe, a coffee shop and cafe that began as a sourdough bread pickup spot during the pandemic. The sourdough spirit has carried through, with a case of next-level handcrafted pastries (get the sourdough chocolate chip cookie!) and bread loaves awaiting each day.
There are also espresso drinks, teas and homemade sodas, and a full lunch menu that is quite good. On most nights of the week, Atria offers sourdough pizzas for pickup or dine-in, and a selection of wine bottles to pair with your pie if you desire. 4120 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., Lakewood Ranch.
Lakewood Ranch is home to some great parks and outdoor spaces. The community’s Parks and Rec program manages 12 parks and a 150-mile network of trails, sidewalks and bike lanes, in addition to state and county parks nearby. You don’t need to be a resident to use the parks, some of which offer exercise programs and events that are also open to the public. Check out the two playgrounds, nature trail and Frisbee golf course at Bob Gardner Park, a large park with lots of walking paths that’s nestled among a couple of neighborhoods. At Greenbrook Adventure Park, there are more playgrounds, a dog park for large and small dogs, and an inline skate park/hockey space. If you head to the back, near the dog park, you’ll find a bridge that leads to a walking trail that winds around a large lake and through the woods. Across the street, Summerfield Park contains several awesome playgrounds, including one specifically for toddlers. Bonus: They’re all mostly shaded, either with a canopy or tree covering.