Sarasota has often been called the cultural capital of Florida, and it's certainly a well-earned nickname.
While residents of much bigger cities may scoff at the notion, there's a refined pedigree in this small city of about 52,000 that just can't be denied. Once the winter home of circus magnate and famed art collector John Ringling, Sarasota's cultural heart now centers around his Venetian Gothic mansion and the on-site fine art museum, which houses his extensive collection of classic European paintings. But beyond these walls, the city is a thriving arts town, with a slate of cultural institutions both high (its own opera, a resident ballet company, theater groups, a working artists' colony, a renowned art school) and low (streets filled with murals, a burlesque troupe, even a circus).
Just across the bay from downtown lies a string of appropriately sophisticated barrier islands: Longboat Key, with its award-winning tennis resort, golf course, and yacht club; St. Armands Key, with its boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and streets lined with classic Italian marble statues; and Siesta Key, where the sand is as refined as the culture back on the mainland. In fact, Siesta Beach's powdery white sand, made up of 99 percent quartz crystal, is among the purest in the world.
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From the end of February through March, Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium plays host to the Baltimore Orioles during spring training, when they compete against the 14 other teams of the Florida Grapefruit League. Between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the stadium underwent a massive $31.2 million renovation, which included the installation of 7,100 seats salvaged from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Paddle around the tidal flats, beaches, lagoons, and mangrove islands of the Jim Neville Marine Preserve on the Siesta Key Tour by Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures. Dolphins frequent these parts year-round, but you'll want to stop by in the warmer months to catch a glimpse of manatees. During the winter, they often leave these open waters to flock to the warmer waters of springs and rivers.
When Sarasota locals brag about having the best beaches, they're not exaggerating! In 2011, sand-and-surf expert Dr. Stephen Leatherman ("Dr. Beach") named Siesta Beach on Siesta Key the number one beach in America, based on a 50-point criteria. What really sets this place apart is the sand: Unlike the gritty, mixed-mineral sand you might find on other beaches — and even on other parts of this tiny island — the powdery white sand on Siesta Beach is made up of 99 percent quartz crystal, allowing it to remain cool even in the blazing sun. This reputation means you'll often encounter crowds, so it's best to hit Siesta Beach during the fall off-season, when temperatures are still quite beach-friendly.
Siesta Beach gets all the press for its fine, powdery sand. Scruffier Turtle Beach on the southern end of Siesta Key won't win any beauty contests, but its coarser sand, smaller crowds, and steeper drop-off make it the perfect spot for beachcombing. Head to the shore after a storm, at low tide, or especially during the winter for your best shot at finding shells and petrified shark teeth.