If ever there were a perfect beach vacation destination for families, Sarasota would be it. This Florida Gulf Coast city is home to some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. There’s nothing like the fine white sand contrasting against the crystal blue waters, the Gulf of Mexico sunsets and the almost year-round sunshine. But Sarasota offers so much more than just beaches for families on holiday.
There are many parks to choose from, gardens to wander through and places where you can interact with wild animals. No matter what interests your family or what ages your kids are, everyone will find something to love.
Parents with young kids should head straight to Bayfront Park for stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico and the Sarasota skyline. The playground is nestled in the shade and has equipment for children of every age, including a toddler-friendly area.
Once the kids work up a sweat they can cool off at the Children’s Fountain splash pad. There’s nothing more ideal than splashing around on a hot Florida day. Just be aware that the splash pad is located at the bottom of large cement steps, so keep a close eye on your toddler!
Now imagine sipping a tropical drink overlooking the Gulf of Mexico while your children play contentedly in sugary soft sand. Is this paradise? Actually, it’s a nightly occurrence at O’Leary’s Tiki Bar on the Sarasota Bayfront. With outdoor seating complete with picnic tables in the sand, parents will appreciate the casual vibe and the free entertainment sand provides. Pro tip: bring some cheap buckets and shovels so you can enjoy your drink while the kids play!
Finish your time at Bayfront Park with a nice leisurely walk along the shaded paths. There are plenty of benches where you can stop, sit and admire the scenery. Kids will also be interested in the boats and yachts docked in the Marina as well as the lovely dolphin fountain which frames the Sarasota skyline.
The Mote Aquarium is a must-visit spot in Sarasota no matter what age your kids are. Some highlights include the manatees, the otters performing their tricks for the kids and, of course, the Shark Zone. Something unique about the Mote Aquarium is that it’s a fully functioning research center dedicated to conservation and education.
As you make your way through the aquarium, you’ll notice marine scientists floating around, ready and willing to answer questions, share fun facts or show you the correct way to touch a stingray. While my two-year-old wasn’t quite brave enough to put his hand in the touch tanks, older kids will love the interactive aspect of touching a starfish, a stingray or a crab.
Mote is wonderful for kids of all ages. My baby was fascinated by the bright colors and my 2-year-old just wanted to see sharks and watch the otters do tricks. Older kids can learn so much about the ocean and will enjoy the daily exhibit presentations. The only downside is that there is a bit of a walk between the two buildings, so you might consider a stroller for little legs.
Families will find plenty to do at the Ringling Museum. See the former home of John Ringling and his wife, Mabel, overlooking the Sarasota Bay. Though the circus was founded in Wisconsin, John and Mabel spent winters in Sarasota where they built a lavish mansion and kept their extensive art collection.
The Ringling Museum includes a tour of the mansion, an interactive circus experience, an art gallery, a circus museum, and a beautiful rose garden. While the art may not be as appealing to the kids as it is to the adults, there are still family-friendly activities all around the grounds.
Start with the interactive portion of the museum where kids can walk the tightrope or learn how to do makeup like a clown. Head to the circus museum for a look at the giant circus mural and the private train car the John and Mabel Ringling used to travel back and forth from Wisconsin to Florida. Finally, kids will enjoy stretching their legs in the gardens and playing on the beautifully shaded playground.
Walk the John Ringling Causeway
If you want a chance to enjoy the beauty of Sarasota while also getting exercise, head to the John Ringling Causeway. This massive bridge spans from Downtown Sarasota to St. Armand’s Key and Lido Key.
Start at the larger-than-life Unconditional Surrender statue (you know, the one of the soldier kissing the woman in Times Square) at the Sarasota Bayfront and walk to Lido Key. From there, you can cross under the bridge and head back to Downtown Sarasota.
The walk is three miles in total, so definitely bring a stroller if you have little kids. If you’re visiting in summer, get an early start or make it a sunset walk. The views of the city will be unforgettable, it’s great exercise and best of all, it’s free!
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
There is nothing like a little bit of nature to calm your crazy children. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is at once stunning and peaceful, saturating your senses with the various flora and fauna. The gardens were designed with families in mind, offering the Children’s Rainforest Garden where kids can discover and play.
The Rainforest Garden houses a hundred-year-old banyan tree, waterfalls, a canopy walk, a rope bridge, and even a research station. Relax in the hammocks or simply walk along the paths admiring the plants and flowers.
In addition to the Rainforest Garden, kids can find activities at the Kid’s Corner located in the Selby house, where you can also grab lunch at the Selby House Cafe. From there it’s just a short walk to the Butterfly Garden. Maybe you can even trick your kids into standing still for a few minutes to see if a butterfly will land on their finger.
Big Cat Habitat
If your kids love animals then you need to add Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary to your itinerary. You’ll find lions, bears, birds, primates, tortoises, and yes, even a liger, an animal born to a tiger mother with a lion father. The purpose of the habitat is to rescue and provide a permanent home to exotic animals, and possibly even train them if they respond well to positive reinforcement.
Make sure to come for the animal demonstrations offered most days at 1 and 2 p.m. Remember that the Big Cat Habitat is only open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. so plan accordingly!
St. Armands Circle
Just a few minutes away from the beach on Lido Key is St. Armands Circle, an outdoor area filled with upscale shops and al fresco dining. For families who love shopping and good food, an evening stroll on St. Armand’s Circle would be the perfect end to a day on Lido Key.
Try Cha Cha Coconuts for dinner, a more casual and kid-friendly establishment with plenty of patio space. After dinner, grab a gelato at Settimis Gelato and watch the sunset while enjoying your treat, or pose for pictures in front of all the Greek statues along the circle.
Sarasota Children’s Garden
Let little imaginations run wild at this whimsical place just for kids. There is a dress-up house, a pirate ship, fairy gardens, a maze, a tree fort and more for kids to discover. This is a perfect spot to let little ones come after a lot of formal sightseeing to let them unwind and just be kids!
Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the natural surroundings while your kids play and climb. Be aware that the Children’s Garden is less of a structured park and more of a magical place to encourage imaginative play.
Lido Mangrove Tunnels Kayak Tour
For families that love to explore the great outdoors, the Lido Mangrove Tunnels Kayak Tour is an excellent option. Children of all ages and skill levels are welcome on the tour. If you have younger kids with you, there are tandem kayaks, along with lighter life vests and paddles so they can participate safely.
On the tour, you can expect to see manatees, dolphins, tropical birds and various sea life in the clear Gulf of Mexico water. Wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting wet, sun protection and a waterproof camera if you have one!
Set aside an entire day to visit Siesta Key for maximum beach time and exploring. Siesta Key boasts one of the best beaches in the country with its soft white sand that’s not too hot for little feet and gentle waves. There is ample free parking for public beach access, and spots to grill or have a picnic lunch.
When you’ve had your fill of the beach, head into town and rent bicycles, grab a coffee or treat the kids to some ice cream. There are plenty of restaurants and shops on Siesta Key to keep you busy for hours.
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