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In Sarasota, arts and culture rival the beaches

In Sarasota, arts and culture rival the beaches

Sarasota’s beaches are regularly ranked among the country’s best beaches. | Dennis Lennox

When you think of Florida you think of warm weather, beaches and probably retirees.

Sarasota certainly fits that description, but this fast-growing city along Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast offers more than just sun and sand. In fact, visitors can spend a weekend here without experiencing the sugary white sand of Lido Beach and Siesta Key. The two beaches are regularly ranked among the country’s best beaches.

From all things art and culture to a vibrant foodie scene, Sarasota surprises at every turn. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise given the large number of well-to-do "snowbirds," as retirees who winter in Florida are called.

The city’s gem is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which takes its name from one of the founders of the famous Ringling Brothers Circus. I spent a day here and didn’t see anywhere close to everything. This is easily a destination in its own right.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. | Dennis Lennox

Operated by Florida State University, the museum’s main building, which resembles a baroque palace, features over 20 galleries.

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By far the most spectacular work in its collection is the “Triumph of the Eucharist” by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish master of the 17th-century and promoter of church of Rome’s Counter-Reformation.

Commissioned in 1625 by the daughter of Philip II, the Habsburg king of Spain, the five oil paintings were acquired by Ringling in 1926 from Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd duke of Westminster. Used to produce decorative tapestries, the paintings depict the central sacrament of Christianity through the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — that is to say, the bread and wine of communion becoming the actual body and blood of Christ. This doctrine has been highly fought over and to this day is rejected by most Protestants.

“The Defenders of the Eucharist” by Flemish master Sir Peter Paul Rubens in the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. | The Ringling

Quite fittingly, the Ringling includes a separate Historic Circus Museum, which transports visitors to a time when children — young and old — were captivated by traveling circuses with their creative acts, exotic animals and endless curiosity. Also on the museum campus is Ca’ d’Zan, as the Ringling family’s former 36,000-square-foot winter residence is called. The Venetian-inspired design is either extravagant or eccentric, depending on your perspective. Either way, the architecture of this early 1920s building is a world removed from Sarasota’s adaption of the modernist style that took hold locally in the postwar years.

Sadly, my visit came just after the Sarasota MOD Weekend, an annual festival celebrating mid-century architecture. However, regular tours of Sarasota’s vernacular modernist style are offered by the Center for Architecture Sarasota.

Visitors will find downtown with its countless storefronts, boutiques and even food and beverage options with café-style sidewalk seating to be highly walkable and immaculately clean, at least outside of a prominent park full of vagabonds. Many of the streets have the kind of tropical kitsch names you might expect. Think Cocoanut, Orange, Palm and Pineapple.

If you go

I stayed two nights at The Ritz-Carlton. Half-resort and half-upscale city hotel, it overlooks the harbor and is within walking distance of downtown. It also features a private beach club, albeit one shared with adjoining timeshare residences. Consider upgrading to club lounge access, which is worth the extra cost.

The boutique hotel Art Ovation, part of Autograph Collection, a competing Marriott brand, is another option. The hotel is abuzz with activity, including curated art in the lobby, an actual artist-in-residence and a good restaurant partly overshadowed by the spectacular rooftop bar, notwithstanding its light food menu.

For lunch or dinner I wholeheartedly recommend Captain Brian’s Seafood Market & Restaurant, an unpretentious, family-style joint in a strip mall next to Mama G’s Coffee and fast-food chain Subway. Don’t let its outdated interior with vinyl tablecloths fool you. The fresh seafood is incredible. Best of all, the prices are ridiculously affordable.

Another option is the fine dining Miguel’s Restaurant with its French-inspired menu and good wine list. Reservations are a must. The location in Siesta Key, about 25 minutes from downtown, could be an issue as the wait for an Uber ride is considerable at times.

Sarasota’s airport has several seasonal nonstop flights to and from Delta hubs. Low-cost carriers Frontier and Allegiant also have frequent service. You may also want to check airfares for Tampa, which has even more options.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

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Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.


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