Sometimes you give up big-city pleasures to enjoy life by the sea. But here on a gracefully curving bay south of Tampa, there's been no such sacrifice. The remarkable reality—and surprise—of Sarasota is the pairing of a thriving arts and culture scene with world-class beaches: a combination that's made all the sweeter by the local, laid-back Gulf vibe.
Settled as a fishing village during the 1700s, this city (population 53,000) now sparkles with high-rise condos and midcentury-modern homes, a lively harbor, a hot restaurant scene, and a brand new architecture festival—Sarasota MOD. It also boasts resident opera, ballet, and theater companies and its own symphony orchestra.
A traditional favorite of tarpon fishermen and retirees, Sarasota has lately drawn a younger crowd to its palm tree–lined neighborhoods. "People are following their parents here," says Amy Nichols, who co-owns a local coffee bar and pastry company. The result of that influx: a vibrancy that's made the city more cosmopolitan and just plain fun. Shopping districts such as St. Armands Circle hum with everything from artisan chocolates to black-tie boutiques. Downtown, the broad sidewalks of Main Street fill with rattan sofas for alfresco nightlife that is both relaxed and civilized.
"Sarasota is a hidden gem that's now on the map," says financial advisor Michael Matash. With an average home price of around $400,000, it's also still affordable. "And," he adds, "we have the best beaches in the world."
A bona fide food town, Sarasota has a stellar roster of restaurants. At the top: chef-owner Stephen Phelps's understated culinary bravura at Indigenous. The wild-mushroom bisque with truffled rye croutons is a year-round standout, along with Gulf shrimp mains (pictured left) and house-made ice creams. At hip Selva on hopping Main Street in the heart of downtown, Peruvian cuisine goes upscale with 10 different showstopping ceviches and updated Pisco cocktails. Owen's Fish Camp brings Old Florida classics such as fried oysters and cornmeal-crusted catfish, not to mention a fish camp cottage with porches and twinkly lights, to downtown. In St. Armands Circle, Shore Diner has a blue-crab cake with house slaw and Old Bay mayo that's just right with the gin-and-St. Germain house cocktail. Finally, the carefully crafted coffees at Perq Coffee Bar draw a creative crowd from artists to architects to Sarasota's low-key, cool Southside Village neighborhood.
In addition to a bounty of performing arts, a school of art and design, and breath-taking botanical gardens, Sarasota is also home to the artistic legacy of one of its most colorful residents: circus impresario John Ringling. His former estate just north of downtown contains two world-class museums—the Ringling Museum of Art and the Ringling Circus Museum, with its 44,000-piece miniature circus model and other colorful ephemera. Also on the estate: 66 acres of garden shaded by banyan trees and dotted with classical statues, and Ca' d'Zan (pictured here), Ringling's Venetian-Gothic mansion that's open for tours and opulence-inspired gasping.
It's a quick and scenic drive (and a popular running and walking route) across the Ringling Bridge to Lido Key, part of the city and home to three beautiful public beaches. Lido Beach (pictured here), a 3,000-foot strand of powdery white sand, has lifeguards and such conveniences as concessions, restrooms, and a pool. Undeveloped North Lido Beach, with its quiet, bleached sands and grassy dunes, is home to local and migrating shorebirds. South Lido Beach is part of a 100-acre property that touches four bodies of water: Sarasota Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Big Pass, and Brushy Bayou. Just 15 minutes from downtown lies Siesta Key, with its shallow waters and epic expanse of bone-white, 99-percent-quartz sand, which stays cool even on the hottest sunny day.
The perfect stay in the midst of Sarasota's bustling downtown is at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, where it's an easy stroll to the yacht-filled harbor as well as dozens of great restaurants. The Jack Dusty Bar is a destination unto itself, with its team of great bartenders, artisan cocktails (pictured here), and stunning setting that opens out to an inner harbor. (941) 309-2000 or Ritz Carlton.
For a Gulf Coast getaway still in town, scoot across the bridge to Longboat Key and check into The Resort at Longboat Key Club. The freshly updated spa offers customized aromatherapy massages that will do as much for your point of view as those Gulf vistas from your room (pictured here). (855) 314-2619 or longboatkeyclub.com.