Just a two hour drive up the Gulf Coast from Naples, a visit to Sarasota makes an ideal day trip or long weekend for families with school-aged children who are ready to satisfy their cultural curiosity. From the impressive art displays at the Ringling Museum to the elegant shopping district at St. Armand’s Circle, Sarasota lives up to its reputation as one of the cultural gems of the Florida Suncoast, with a variety of historic sites and modern boutiques that appeal to visitors of all ages.
In many ways, the story of Sarasota is the story of the famed circus owner John Ringling. “A lot of our cultural amenities are attributed to John Ringling,” said Erin Duggan, Public Relations Director for the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. “He was just a great visionary. He purchased a lot of (art) from the auctions up in New York City.”
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is really four destinations in one: the Ringling Museum of Art, Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, Historic Asolo Theater, and Circus Museum. The Ringling Museum of Art was established in 1927 on a 66 acre estate that overlooks Sarasota Bay, and is a legacy of John Ringling and his wife Mable. The Ringlings’ fascination with the art of the Italian Renaissance is reflected in the art museum’s collection as well as the architecture of the waterfront mansion.
“The bread and butter of the museum is the art collection,” said Duggan. “They are getting exhibits from some of the biggest museums in the world.”
The Museum of Art itself has an impressive 21 galleries filled with European and American paintings, a collection of Cypriot, Greek and Roman antiquities, and Asian ceramics and sculptures. Completed in 1926, the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion transports visitors back to the Roaring 20’s, when the Ringlings and other wealthy families hosted parties in their own lavishly decorated ballrooms. The Asolo Theater is a performing arts venue for theater, music, dance, film, and lectures, with restored paneling from the original theater built in Asolo, Italy in 1798.
The Ringling Museum of the American Circus tells the story of the Ringling family as well as the history of traveling circuses in the United States. The Howard Bros. Circus model is a replica of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919 – 1938. Complete with eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 circus performers and workers, more than 800 animals and a 59-car train, the model is built in _-inch-to-the-foot scale replica and occupies 3,800 square feet. There is so much detail involved that visitors might end up spending most of their time examining this amazing miniature work.
In September, the Ringling Museum and other Sarasota cultural attractions will be featuring special “buy one, get one free” offers on admission to Florida residents for Sarasota’s “30 Days of Discovery” month.
St. Armand’s Circle and Lido Key
Ringling’s influence extends beyond Sarasota and into St. Armands Key. Ringling purchased this island in 1917 and had a causeway constructed to connect it to the mainland, and although the island no longer belongs to the Ringling family, the modern causeway bears his name. Ringling also brought Italian Renaissance inspired statues to St. Armands Circle, a popular shopping district with upscale boutiques and lively restaurants with a Floridian flair, such the Tampa-based Columbia Restaurant and Key West inspired Hemingway’s.
At the end of the day, if the kids are a bit tired after a day at the museums and art gallery shopping, treat them to a gorgeous Gulf Coast sunset at Lido Beach on Lido Key, which is a short walk from St. Armand’s Circle, and has free parking.
For information about travel in the Sarasota area, visit www.sarasotafl.org.
To learn more about the attractions mentioned in this article, visit the following Web sites:
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art:
St. Armands Circle:
Other sites of interest in Sarasota that are also part of “30 Days of Discovery”:
G. Wiz, The Hands-On Science Museum
Sarasota Jungle Gardens