Sitting in The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Beach Club Grill, you get a real taste of Sarasota, an underrated town where everyone seems to have a backstory. As you dine on succulent scallops and bacon risotto, with the stunning pool and the Gulf of Mexico’s lapping waves in the background, server Irmy checks on you. The friendly elder German woman will share that she’s a grill veteran, but if you probe a bit, she will reveal that she landed in town many years ago because she had a unicycle-acrobatic act with her husband, which was risqué at the time.
The encounter demonstrates the many facets of the southwestern Florida city — the fresh Gulf Coast cuisine, the inviting beaches (Sarasota County boasts almost 40 miles of shoreline) and its history as the Circus Capital of the World. Find out why our Forbes Travel Guide editors think Sarasota should be your next travel destination.
Where to stay
The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota debuted with a fresh new look in December 2015, making it the hot place to stay in town. Taking inspiration from the Gulf, the rooms have a modern beachy vibe that avoids cliché and veers chic. Soft blues and purples come from Sarasota sunsets, sea green from the water outside and gray textured walls lend a contemporary touch. Bathrooms blend white marble and gray walls.
The seashore accents are subtle: The carpet bears a nautilus shell pattern, the bedside lamps have a golden shell base, and local artists and Ringling School of the Arts students create the framed pieces (our room had an image of a canoe on a washed-out beach).
Upgrade to a room on the eighth-floor Club Level to receive two daily garment pressings and access to the Club Lounge, which offers food and drinks throughout the day. Sip a sparkling rosé, nibble on a mini crab roll and admire the great views of Sarasota Bay.
Where to play
One of the best amenities at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel is its private Beach Club on Lido Key three miles away (the complimentary shuttle will bring you back and forth). While popular Siesta Key impresses with its flour-like sand, the beach here is more quiet and exclusive.
If the clear ocean doesn’t call to you, try the heated pool overlooking the Gulf. Or snap up a cabana to gaze at the waves from a hammock. Just make sure you have a potent mai tai from the onsite Lido Key Tiki Bar in hand when you’re watching the sun set and a drummer welcomes the evening in a daily ritual.
For active pursuits, borrow free equipment back at the hotel to do kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Or remain at the beach and make use of the gratis snorkels, masks and fins.
Duffers should head about 16 miles from the luxury hotel to the 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed Golf Club. Spread across 315 acres, the scenic course is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary with more than 100 plant species, 12 lakes (check out the lily pond at hole No. 17) and a setting for bald eagles, snakes, alligators, boar, bobcats and even a panther. It has one of the best driving ranges in the area, so don’t be surprised if you spy a pro practicing there. And if you have your own PGA dreams, enlist the help of genial instructor Randy Kok.
What to see
Beyond the beach, Sarasota’s biggest attraction is the sprawling Ringling campus. The city’s big top legacy started in 1927, when circus mogul John Ringling relocated Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s winter headquarters there from Connecticut.
Learn more at the Ringling Circus Museum, where you can see everything from aerialist Dolly Jacobs’ glittering dress with rhinestones, sequins and feathers; to vintage circus posters; to ornate circus wagons.
Marvel at a meticulous 44,000-piece miniature replica of the Ringling circus as it would have looked during the 1920s and 1930s and what it took to bring the show to each town (the 26,000-yard big top alone took four hours to raise). In 1926, a typical Ringling show would spotlight more than 800 performers in 22 displays.
Elsewhere on the campus, you’ll find the waterfront home of John and Mable Ringling. The 56-room 1925 mansion called Cà d’Zan showcases a distinctive Venetian Gothic design. Step inside to see rooms like the Court — an atrium space with a checkerboard floor, velvet sofas and a crystal chandelier from the former Waldorf Astoria — where the Ringlings entertained guests.
Ringling is also home to an art museum with 21 galleries’ worth of work from old masters and contemporary artists. It just opened a new Center for Asian Art in May 2016. The 25,000-square-foot addition sticks out from the perfectly pink surrounding buildings with its mosaic of more than 2,700 green-glazed terra cotta tiles that were designed to look like jade. Inside, discover works like the Phoenix Door Panels (Ramma) from Japan’s Edo period. The Ringlings purchased the pair of carved wood painted panels for their home.
You could spend days covering the 66-acre Ringling campus, but take time to walk the grounds. In particular, swing by Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden, the oldest continuously operating rose garden in the state, and the Museum of Art courtyard, with replicas of ancient Greek, Roman and Baroque statues on a pristinely manicured lawn and lining the top of the buildings.
Explore more of Sarasota’s natural beauty at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. It’s the only botanical garden in the world focused on epiphytes, non-parasitic plants that grow on other plants like orchids and bromeliads. Traverse the nearly 15-acre grounds and you’ll encounter a banyan grove, a Children’s Rainforest Garden with a waterfall and swinging bridges, rare putrid-smelling corpse plants and a koi pond.
Don’t miss a trip between February and July 2017, when “Marc Chagall, Flowers, and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams” will take over Selby. Chagall’s famous flowery paintings, archival nature photos from his estate and other objects from his life will be woven into the garden setting for a unique first-time curation.
The prized piece of the exhibit will be The Lovers, a 1937 oil painting on loan from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Quotes from Chagall, like “Great art picks up where nature ends,” will be highlighted in the garden as well. The exhibit marks Selby’s move to become a living museum; it plans to feature a new artist every February.
Where to shop
Shoppers will want to stroll the coconut-palm-lined sidewalks of St. Armands Circle, a quick shuttle ride from the hotel. Peruse more than 130 upscale shops (McCarver & Moser fine jewelry), restaurants (open-air Shore Diner) and gourmet specialty stores (Big Olaf Creamery’s handmade Amish ice cream). In the center of the shopping quadrants you’ll find Circle Park with Italian statues from John Ringling’s personal collection.
Another nice walking area is Burns Court Historic District. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the area south of downtown Sarasota is made up of 15 stucco bungalows in vibrant hues like cornflower blue and fuchsia. They house everything from art galleries to residences.
Pop into the Pepto-Bismol-pink Burns Court Cinema building to catch an independent movie before heading to the next-door Owen’s Fish Camp for seafood. Keep an eye out for art, from painted bikes (a pink two-wheeler with a plastic flamingo perched on the handlebars and a sky-blue bike with a matching fish on top) to wall murals (Anat Ronen’s work shows hands grasping a Leica camera, Pixel Pancho’s skull-faced Mickey Mouse rides a mechanical flamingo).
Where to eat
In this beach town where the dress code is resort casual, dining options are just as easy. Downtown, go to Nancy’s Bar-B-Q for a hearty Southern meal. Pitmaster Nancy Krohngold, whom you will recognize with her trademark pearls, tortoise shell glasses and thick hoop earrings, turns out tender 12-hour brisket and popular pulled pork dishes. Pile on the unusual barbecue sides — a light sesame slaw adds crunch and edamame elevates the sweet succotash.
The aforementioned Beach Club Grill is a solid lunch or dinner option — don’t miss the creamy citrus-burrata salad with Thai basil, Marcona almonds and a vanilla vinaigrette. It gets a kick of sweetness from honey that’s made on the hotel golf course.
The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Jack Dusty restaurant is a pioneer in the Ritz-Carlton chain. It bucks the more formal fine-dining model of the hotel dining experience for one that is casual and upbeat. While the white tablecloths may be gone, the food remains focused and well executed.
Start with mussels doused in a sage-pesto broth and the compressed tomato and watermelon salad with basil, chili flakes, fennel pollen and Meyer lemon oil. For seafood, order the whole fried local snapper or the grilled lobster with drawn butter. And if you prefer meat, try the short rib BLT with cheddar grits, fried green tomato caponata and wilted lettuce.
Save room for dessert; it would be a shame to forgo executive pastry chef Lyndsy McDonald’s decadent sweets. The most comforting — and Instagram worthy — is the coffee milkshake served in a mason jar with big doughnuts threaded through the red striped straw.