Sarasota shines bright as a top vacay destination for Chicago families

Along Florida’s glistening gulf coast, about two and a half hours southwest of Orlando, are the sandy shores of Sarasota.

The once-sleepy city has long been a popular destination for snowbirds, but a recent influx of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, combined with its rich history, has put it on the radar of Chicagoland families looking for a sunny escape.

For beach bums

Close your eyes and picture this: colorful lifeguard stands dotting stretches of white quartz sand — cool to the touch, powder-fine and the perfect material for killer sandcastles; the sun reflecting off turquoise Gulf Coast waters as far as the eye can see, with gentle waves breaking at the shore line; your family, bathing suit-clad and smiling ear-to-ear.  

As dream-like as that seems, it’s reality at Siesta Beach, Sarasota County’s most famous beach. Plan to spend an entire day (at least) soaking up the Vitamin D there. There’s ample free parking, a new playground and picnic area, and an on-site elevated concession stand for when tummies start growling.

When you’re ready to flip your beach day switch from “relax” to “adventure,” hit up Venice Beach, the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World.” Buried in the sand are actual shark’s teeth — prehistoric megalodon, to be exact! Rent a sand shovel sifter or bring your own. The jury is still out on whether the teeth are planted there or not, but once you hear that first excited squeal of “I found one!” it won’t even matter.

If you’re still hunting when lunchtime rolls around, Sharkey’s on the Pier is right on the beach and a great place to grab some grub. Seafood is (obviously) their specialty. Try the Baja tacos with blackened swordfish and mango salsa!

For shopaholics

When you’re looking to scratch your shopping itch, St. Armands Circle is the answer. The picturesque shopping district — sometimes referred to as the Rodeo Drive of Sarasota — is lined with palm trees and just a few short blocks from Lido Beach. More than 130 retailers and eateries occupy the storefronts. Get outfitted in Lilly Pulitzer, Chico’s and Tommy Bahama or dine alfresco at Cha Cha Coconuts or Shore.

Many of the stores and boutiques feature high-end designers, so depending on your budget, window shopping may be more your speed, but definitely don’t leave without a scoop of Kilwin’s handmade ice cream or a box of French-inspired treats from Le Macaron. When you’re on vacation, sweet treats are always worth the splurge (and calories).

For conservationists

Animal lovers will find Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to be a great escape from the heat of the day.

Get up close and personal with wildlife local to Florida’s Gulf Coast: gators, sharks, otters, manatees and more — including curious and adorable giant sea turtles! — and learn about the many ways the museum is furthering conservation efforts. You can even view the real working laboratories of the museum’s scientists.

Some must-see exhibits include the ‘Exploration Gallery,’ home to Molly, a 27-foot long preserved giant squid; the ‘Oh Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas’ exhibit; and the eye-opening ‘Sea Debris: Awareness through Art,’ which reveals the amount of waste dumped into our oceans every year and the impact it has on our coast’s ecosystems.

Good to know before you go: Shedd Aquarium members can receive free general admission to Mote, thanks to the museum reciprocal program.

For tourists

The must-see tourist spot in Sarasota is, by far, The Ringling Circus Museum. John Ringling, the “King of the Circus,” called Sarasota home and the museum is a shrine to more than 100 years of colorful circus history.

Test your balance on a tightrope, take a closer look at the ornate costumes worn by performers and squeeze into an impossibly tiny clown car.

Fans of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry? The 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus Model is another similar sight to behold, featuring tiny performers, animals and patrons in scenes of circus life in the 1920’s.

Ringling’s expansive waterfront mansion, Ca’ d’Zan, is also open for tours.

For planners

When planning any trip, finding the perfect place to stay is so important. VisitSarasota.com is a excellent starting point in researching hotels, resorts, vacation rentals and more. Because once all the logistics are squared away, the fun can finally begin.

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