My sister moved to Bradenton 15 years ago and after many visits, and a new home on the horizon, I can’t wait to share some of my travel highlights from this area. So much to see and experience in Florida, but within one hour from Bradenton, between Tampa and Sarasota, here is just a sampling of some of my favorite things to do.

1. Dine outside

Because you can. So many dining establishments are located outdoors on the water. Pelicans soar as dolphins pop up between jet skiers and fishing boats as if cued for posing.  Fish is fresh and tasty so indulging in fish tacos, grouper sandwiches and conch fritters are some of my favorites.  Drinking a margarita with fresh squeezed lime juice is also highly recommended.

Some outdoor dining restaurants we love are:

Woodys River Roo in Ellenton, dining outside on the Manatee river with live music and sandy outdoor dining with thatched roof coverings. Very tropical and tasty Old Florida Style food.

PIER 22 Restaurant in downtown Bradenton on the Manatee river.  Upscale delicious food yet still casual dining indoor and outside.

Daquiri Deck on Anna Maria Island – although they have 5 locations nearby. Casual dining, frozen drinks, happy hour specials and beautiful views from the top floor on busy Bridge Street.

Whiskey Joe’s on the Manatee River

2. Rent a bicycle on Anna Maria Island

Bike rentals are $12/day and well worth it for a fun time exploring the streets of Anna Maria. Sidewalks are plentiful as are bike lanes. People rent small cars (they look like bumper cars), golf carts and bikes. We even had fun taking Harry, the spoiled pup, in a back pack for ride around town.

Biking with dog back pack – Harry loved it!

3. Wash Elephants at the Myakka Elephant Ranch

Encounter 3 elephants up close and personal. My sister and I spent a few hours washing 2 elephants followed by a photo shoot. We were encouraged to interact by talking to and petting these beauties. After visiting with us, the elephants head out to their grassy fenced in field to dig and toss dirt onto their freshly scrubbed backs. Recently open to the public by reservation only, definitely a great experience if you love elephants like I do.

4. Big Cat Sanctuary

Located just off Interstate 75 the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary is a large animal rescue of exotic animals. Lions, and Tigers and Bears and ligers and tigons are only some of the beautiful creatures you will see. Some animals are retired circus animals, others rescued from people’s homes. Encounters are available with animals as well as a petting zoo on site. No posing with baby tigers as this is not Joe Exotic from Tiger King!

5. Myakka River State Park

One hour boat and tram tours take visitors into the park and among animals in the wild. Tropical birds, alligators and turtles are visible along the river. Hiking trails and a canopy walkway make this park a unique adventure for all.

6. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

A fabulous aquarium and research center with a variety of animals to interest everyone. I love watching the otters play, the kids are in awe of the sharks and and who doesn’t love to see a gentle manatee? The aquarium and marine mammal center have both indoor and outdoor exhibits including touch pools.

7. St. Petersburg Pier – Dali Museum

Dali Museum

The recently renovated cement pier welcomes visitors into the Tampa Bay. A 3 story building at the end has an outdoor bar and restaurant with amazing views though not dog friendly. Walking or biking on the pier with dogs is allowed. Just past the pier is the beautiful Dali museum with his works throughout his lifetime. Listening on your phone to the descriptions of art is encouraged. Until April 11, 2021 feel like you are walking into a painting with the Van Gogh Alive exhibit that displays photos and video along with music.

8. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

The museum is John Ringling’s home and his extraordinary art collection. His house was called Ca’ d’Zan, Venetian dialect for “House of John”. Mable, his wife, wanted a home in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzi in Venice, Italy, with Sarasota Bay serving as her Grand Canal. Construction began in 1924. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. Art, the beautiful house and a circus museum are part of this memorable experience.

9. Rent a Boat

Many options for renting boats are available for the day or half day. Chartering a fishing or pleasure boat for the day is popular in this area. We rented a 24 foot motor boat and captained it ourselves for half the day. Required to stay in a designated area, it is fun to cruise around next to dolphins and then pull up on “beer can island beach” for a fun walk about or a swim. Renting a kayak through the mangroves is on my bucket list and maybe someday I’ll even rent a jet ski!

Jet Ski Rentals | Boat Rentals | Tours | H2O Watersportz

Kayaking Sarasota tours and kayak rentals. mangrove tunnels Lido Key. (ikayaksarasota.com)

10. Visit model homes

Florida real estate is booming again. Everywhere you look, especially inland developments like Lakewood Ranch, construction is underway.  New communities are building full amenity resort style living with pools, golf, pickleball courts, gyms, exercise classes, clubs and dining areas. Model homes are easy to find with bright flags in new neighborhoods. It’s fun to check out all the flashy lights fixtures, massive bathrooms and huge closets.

WARNING: You may actually fall in love with the idea of living here and before you know it, find yourself signing the closing papers. You have been warned.

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11. Golf

Public courses such as Timber Creek Public Golf Course are open all year. This nine hole par 3 course is located in the midst of a condominium complex. We brought our own clubs down and used a coupon “2 can play for $30”. In addition for $14 we were able to rent a golf cart to zoom around in. These rates are perfect for someone like me, a beginner. If you did not bring clubs, the pro shop will rent them out for reasonable rates.

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12. Sarasota Jungle Garden

I love finding a new place to visit that has something to do with animals or nature.  We visited the Sarasota Jungle Garden.  Here you can feed flamingos and pose with parrots. Zookeepers care for injured hawks and turtles. Some adorable lemurs and prairie dogs were living happily in this tropical paradise.  I noticed several shows offered each day, educational programs for school children, a large gift shop and a help wanted sign.  I could have a future here…

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14. Lipizzan stallions in training

Just east of Sarasota in Mayakka you can watch the Lipizzan Stallions train for their summer tour.  Rehearsals are open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays at 3:00, and Saturdays at 10am for a $5 donation.  These animals are beautiful and graceful and fun to watch.  Growing up I used to see them at Madison Square Garden in NYC so this was an unexpected thrill. Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzaner Stallions of Austria continues to breed this rare line of aristocratic horses and has a few rescue horses on site as well.

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14. Watch the sunset at the beach

Anna Maria island is a perfect place to sit on the white soft sandy beach and gaze west as the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico. Spectacular displays of light and awe are often accompanied by dolphins playing in the waves, pelicans and osprey diving for fish, sandpipers chasing the surf and visitors applauding the setting sun.

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15. Robinson Preserve – Bradenton

This 487 acre waterfront preserve has biking and hiking trails as well as kayaking along the river.  The Osprey Loop is a 3 mile loop that is either on a packed sand trail or a boardwalk.  The trail goes along Tampa Bay where the Skyway bridge is visible.  Birding enthusiasts will easily view Ibis, Great Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Pelicans, Bald Eagles, Egrets, and Osprey. It is free to park here and no cost to enjoy this fabulous preserve. BONUS – leashed dogs are allowed on the trails!

Robinson Nature Preserve Bradenton FL

16. Palma Sol Botanical Park – Bradenton

This little known hideout is all about the fabulousness of Florida flora. Stroll through the 10-acre gardens, featuring lush tropical plants, rare fruit trees, 3 tranquil lakes, a wealth of butterflies, screened pavilion and two gazebos. After checking out all the plants, if you want a longer walk, head over to the nearby Hernando de Soto Memorial for a walk on the trail along the Tampa Bay.

Bradenton Botanical Garden

17. St. Armands Circle- Sarasota

Upscale shops and plenty of souvenirs are available in the small stores around this pretty spot. If you are looking for art, jewelry or warm weather fashions this is the place to go. A Wyland art gallery, Tommy Bahama, Lilly Pulitzer and a variety of small shops line the circle and nearby streets. Make a day of it with lunch at one of the outdoor restaurants followed by a treat at one of the ice cream or fudge shops.

Photo credit: Tripadvisor – aerial view of St. Armand’s Circle

18. Siesta Key Beach- Sarasota

Voted the #1 Beach in the USA. The extremely soft, fine sand feels like a mix of sugar and flour.  It sticks to your skin, but comes right off in the clear, salty gulf water.  Walk from the beach into Siesta Key village for an oyster Po’ Boy at The Old Salty Dog. Check out my post for more information about my day at Siesta Key. https://runawaywidow.com/2017/02/22/a-day-at-siesta-key-beach/

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Don’t underestimate the fun of visiting family or catching up with friends who have moved to the land of the sunshine state. Rent your car and bring some sandwiches from the local Wawa. If you are lucky you can sit by their community pool for the afternoon and score a photo with your recently pedicured toes to post on social media. This is sure to get likes of pure envy from places where piles of ice and snow have been staying around just a little too long during those long winter months!

Have you been to the Tampa – Sarasota area? Any other suggestions I can add to my bucket list? Life is sure full of adventures!

Heritage Harbor Bradenton Florida
Toes by the pool