An Outdoor Weekend in Sarasota, Florida

We thoroughly enjoyed a weekend in Sarasota, with many outdoor attractions, including the waterfront and ocean, and outdoor dining. It’s a wonderful destination on the Gulf Coast of Florida with plenty to do.

If you’re looking for what to do in Sarasota over a 3-day weekend, we’ve got you covered.

Schedule of Things to Do over a Weekend in Sarasota Florida

Here’s a general outline of what to do during an outdoor weekend in Sarasota:

Friday

  • Afternoon: Arrive around 2:00pm to walk St. Armands Circle and Lido Beach.
  • Late afternoon: Check into the Aloft hotel, downtown, at 4:00pm.
  • Evening: Walk to dinner in downtown Sarasota (and took advantage of a weekday happy hour!)

Saturday

  • Morning: Grab coffee downtown and head to Sarasota Bay to enjoy a morning walk along the water.
  • Afternoon: Pick up a takeout lunch downtown (we suggest Kürtős chimney cakes and bread sandwiches, to go) and head to The Ringling.
  • Afternoon into early evening: Spend time at The Ringling.
  • Evening: Go back to the hotel to refresh, then walk to dinner in downtown Sarasota.

Sunday

  • Morning: Enjoy brunch in downtown Sarasota. Walk to Marie Selby Gardens. Check out of the hotel.
  • Afternoon: Go to Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium of Sarasota.

Walk St. Armands Circle and Go to Lido Beach

We parked our car on St. Armands Circle, paid the parking meter for 2 hours and got a Starbucks to take on the go. (There’s one just off the circle.) We walked towards (and on) the beach with our coffees, enjoying the Florida coast and sunshine.

It was a beautiful day and we practically had the beach to ourselves on a winter-season weekday. We welcomed the sweet birds neatly lined up enjoying the ebb and flow of the water from the Gulf of Mexico on Lido Beach.

(Did you know “lido” is derived from the Italian word meaning shore or bank?)

The walk form the circle to the beach is really easy and lovely. There’s a few statues you may pass on the way that decorate the landscape and very nice lush shrubs and trees in the area too. Lots of good photo opportunities!

Our Hotel in the Perfect Downtown Sarasota Location: Aloft Sarasota

We were glad we booked the Aloft Sarasota. Its location downtown meant we were able to park our car and walk to various places we wanted to visit. Which was great because we were there for two nights and three days.

They were being great about COVID-19 safety too. They plexiglass at the checkin desk and hand sanitizer in several spots throughout public places. There were also signs around the hotel enforcing mask-wearing. We book our Marriott hotel stays with our Marriott Bonvoy credit card rewards, which allows us to stay for free. (Yes, for FREE using points! That credit card is absolutely one of our favorite things in life.)

It was a little cold to swim in January, when we visited so we didn’t bring swimsuits. But the Aloft Sarasota also has a rooftop pool and hot tub – two nice perks hotel guests can enjoy.

Visit Sarasota Bay

We supported Breaking Wave, a local coffee shop, one morning of our stay. Like we did at Lido Beach and St. Armands Circle, we ordered our coffees to go and headed to the water to enjoy a walk along the bay. Florida weather is too nice to stay inside!

Both the coffee shop and Sarasota Bay were within a 5-minute walk from the Aloft hotel. We lucked out with fantastic weather; the warm coffee took the very slight winter chill from the air as we enjoyed the pedestrian pathways and park on the waterfront. (And if it were summer we’d simply get iced drinks instead of hot.)

Enjoy the Shops and Restaurants on the Streets of Downtown Sarasota

Staying downtown meant we were able to walk to restaurants and shops on any number of nearby streets during our weekend in Sarasota. We loved walking Pineapple Avenue and Main Street, and also Palm Avenue.

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On Friday we enjoyed walking to a nearby happy hour at El Marvin Cocina Mexicana restaraunt. Their nachos and drinks were awesome and their ambiance was perfection. They have outdoor seating as well as indoor seating where the whole front wall of the restaurant opens, welcoming fresh air in. And they have live music some nights too!

Get Lunch to Go at Kürtős Chimney Cakes

One of the things we did was get sandwiches to-go for an outdoor picnic lunch at The Ringling. I stopped at Kürtős, chimney cakes and breads, owned by Aniko Goulash. She moved to the United States to pursue a career in hospitality, fell in love with Sarasota, and stayed.

In a year where Dan and I weren’t able to travel much because of COVID, I was immediately drawn to her shop and story. This is because her chimney cakes and bread brought me back to Europe. She makes them in all sorts of flavors and styles, both savory and sweet.

I got an Everything flavored chimney bread with cream cheese inside, as well as a sandwich from their menu on a cheese chimney bread. They were the perfect things to take to our activity for the rest of the day, which was enjoying The Ringling on Saturday afternoon.

Spend the Afternoon at The Ringling During your Weekend in Sarasota

We brought our lunch from Kürtős to The Ringling. If you don’t have time to pick up a “picnic” lunch beforehand they have an onsite cafe. But we were happy to see picnic tables outside for guests to enjoy and our little lunch hit the spot before going into The Ringling’s exhibits. And it was important to us to be outside and enjoy the gardens even longer! So sitting outside to eat our sandwiches, which also supported another local business, was ideal.

There is SO MUCH to enjoy at The Ringling; you should dedicate a few hours to being there during your weekend in Sarasota.

It took us between three to four hours to tour the following:

  • Circus Museum, including the Circus Model on the ground level, second level area with circus history and building next door
  • Part of the Museum of Art
  • The grounds surrounding the Ca’ d’Zan mansion

All the while, we walked through beautiful gardens on the property as we moved from one space to another. There was much more to see that we could have stayed for, including many more art exhibits. But we started with the exhibits that most spoke to us and left when we still had energy for the rest of the evening. We wanted to enjoy downtown for dinner one more night during our 3-day weekend in Sarasota.

Circus Museum and Circus Model

After lunch we moved onto the Circus Museum and Model for an understanding of the history of the circus, worldwide. We were also anxious to see the scale model of the circus we had heard about before even arriving to Sarasota.

The Greatest Show on Earth Mural

As soon as we passed under the outdoor “To the Big Show Main Entrance” tent, we entered a hallway with a gorgeous mural by William Woodward. It takes up a huge portion of the wall it’s on. Its title is befitting: “The Greatest Show on Earth,” was painted with oil on canvas in 1990, though it depicts the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus from the 1970s and 80s. It towers above its pedestrian views at 22 feet by 42 feet.

Model of When the Circus Comes to Town

From there we headed to the scale model on the ground level of the building. We stood in AWE of the 44,000 piece “Howard Bros. Circus,” created by Howard Tibbals. It covers 3,800 square feet of space. It’s THAT big!

The model and all its pieces were created over many years by Tibbals, who immediately loved the circus from when he saw his first one that came to town in 1939. He was 3 years old.

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We spent at least 45 minutes in this space, alone. There were so many incredible details to drool over that I couldn’t stop staring. It was clear hours of work was was put into each piece from the expressions on the people’s faces, to incredible lighting that periodically changed to night time over the course of many minutes, to so many moving parts under the “Big Tent.” A favorite of mine was the ropes that spun to enliven the movements of the aerialists.

There are several plaques around the model sharing information about what it was like when the circus came to town. Here’s one of the pieces of information we learned as we moved around the model (which is behind glass to ensure its preservation):

“The circus traveled with over 1,300 workers and performers, 800 animals and all the equipment needed to put on a performance. In a season, the show could travel up to 15,000 miles and perform in 150 towns and cities across America. Fewer than 20 of these dates were for more than a single day.” 

Even the military went to see how the operation worked to learn from its buttoned up processes and logistics!

Some communities doubled in size when the circus arrived, drawing crowds from neighboring towns. And in some instances, schools and factories would even close for the day to allow the students and workers to enjoy the circus.

A History of the Circus

We headed upstairs to the second floor of the same building to learn about the history of the circus, which put so much in context for us. The circus may have been described as being as American as apple pie, however it actually has deep roots overseas.

For instance, the word “circus” comes from the Latin word meaning ring or a circle, which comes from the Greek word kirko, meaning the same. During ancient Greek times, arenas and coliseums – and the “circus” ring – were where the masses gathered for entertainment to watch jugglers and acrobats. The 16th century brought Italian Harlequins, who were comedy performers dressed in multicolor patchwork costumes. It was called, “Commedia dell’arte.” They were hugely popular by the 18th century, and their influence is still seen in mimes and clowns.

We learned all this from The Ringling museum’s extensive historic timeline, which I pretty much read every word of! I’m a huge fan of themed entertainment, whether at Walt Disney World, Universal, Busch Gardens or elsewhere. And this falls right in line with that fascination.

The timeline also explains how Ringling and Barnum and Bailey merged, and ultimately what happened to the circus in more recent times. It also goes into the history of why The Ringling was established in Sarasota, Florida, in the early 20th century.

Red and blue walls inside The Ringling museum, a great destination during a weekend in Sarasota, Florida.

Circus Memorabilia and Artifacts

We went to the neighboring building to explore more Circus Museum memorabilia on a larger scale after learning about the history of the circus. This included the restored “Wisconsin” train car and some vintage circus cars. They also had some circus artifacts here, including a unicycle, shoes used in the circus, and newspaper articles.

The Wisconsin is the train John and Mable Ringling used to travel around the country in search of circus acts that would keep their audiences coming back for more.

Exterior of a vintage train car at the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida.
The inside of a vintage train car at the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida.

Museum of Art

The art museum at The Ringling was established by John Ringling in 1925. He hired architect John H. Philips to design a building to house his growing art collection; what he created was the stunning pink, U-shaped building that stands today. We particularly loved its interior courtyard and sculpture garden. We felt like we were in Italy, or Paris! The building is divided into 21 galleries and we saw two or three of them during our hour or so walking around.

Ca’ d’Zan Mansion at The Ringling

Though we could have spent more hours at The Ringling, we made our last stop of the day the grandiose Ca’ d’Zan home. This waterfront mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay.

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It requires a separate ticket to go inside and we opted not to because we wanted to leave it for our next visit. Besides, you can walk around the exterior and enjoy the grounds and views with the general admission ticket to The Ringling. We sat on a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the view and breeze coming in towards the land from the water.

We enjoyed more of the Bayfront Gardens at The Ringling as we headed for the exit, including some impressive Banyan Trees.

Enjoy the Outdoor Flowers, Plants and Views at Marie Selby Gardens

Our weekend in Sarasota was made even lovelier with the inclusion of a visit to Marie Selby Gardens on Sunday morning. We walked there from the downtown Sarasota Aloft hotel, where we were staying; it was a half-mile walk just a few blocks away and took about 10 to 15 minutes. You can either walk down S. Palm Avenue or take a slightly longer route on a pedestrian walkway along Bayfront Drive on the water.

There’s a few buildings on the 15-acre Selby Gardens property. This includes the main admission area and garden shop – but otherwise it’s mostly an outdoor property to explore.

You can spend hours here, especially on a nice day. We absolutely loved the property, with a view of Sarasota Bay from inside the gardens, its Tropical Conservatory, mangrove walkway and even its Banyan Grove and Kids Corner. (We snuck into the Kids Corner because luckily, it was empty when we visited and its treehouses were so much fun!)

Outdoor weekend in Sarasota, Florida

Visit the Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium of Sarasota

If you’re the kind of person who learns through viewing and seeing things – animals included – then the Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium of Sarasota would be a great stop during a weekend in Sarasota. And it’s half outdoors too.

We admit there were a lot of kids there and as an adult couple it sometimes got to us. However, that can be expected of any aquarium. So we went with the flow.

The aquarium was started in 1955 by Dr. Eugenie Clark. Its researched was largely based on sharks and, to this day, Mote is the home of the Center of Shark Research. (There are over 1,000 species of elasmobranchs to research, which are sharks and their relatives, skates and rays.)

We know people have mixed feelings about putting animals in enclosed habitats. Yet aquariums do important research that help the world’s oceans and waterways. And that means the animals who live freely – not just ones inside tanks – benefit from the research.

For example, Mote scientists are working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help research disease resistant corals. This is in an effort to help restore coral reefs and propagate corals for future ocean restoration projects.

They also help research the Red Tide phenomena in Gulf Coast Florida. Red tides lead to marine deaths, including deaths of fish and mammals, and can cause respiratory issues in humans. It’s important places like Mote Aquarium exist to help aid in education and research about Red Tides.

They also offer wonderful programming and classes, including adults-only educational learning experiences.

There are two buildings that guests who visit the aquarium can visit. One has mostly tanks with things like fish, octopus and amphibians. The other has sharks, sea otters, crocodiles and manatees.

Please note: We thank Sarasota for generously hosting some of our experiences. We also may make a small commission from affiliate links in this post but all opinions are ours and we bring you genuine content with real facts, photos, thoughts and recommendations. Always.

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