The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art requires face masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing isn't possible, and is operating at reduced capacity due to the pandemic. Visitors are encouraged to buy tickets online in advance. Be sure to check the museum's website for updates and Florida's Department of Health for the state's latest COVID-19 guidelines before visiting. Also note current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for travelers.
You could spend a few days exploring this cool city’s art offerings, not to mention the area’s spectacular white-sand beaches. But there’s one museum in Sarasota that should be at the top of your must-see list: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, an expansive 66-acre complex fronting Sarasota Bay, offers a unique mix of European masterpieces, tropical gardens and the flashy world of the American circus.
The complex includes a Circus Museum, the Ringlings’ extravagant winter residence and an arboretum, but your first stop should be the palatial, pink Renaissance-style art museum. It dates to 1930, when circus baron John Ringling commissioned its construction and opened it with just one gallery, with additional ones added over the years. Today, 21 galleries house a dizzying range of masterworks, including a European collection featuring Italian and Flemish Baroque paintings by the likes of Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, the Italian Renaissance master from Venice. Its Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Center for Asian Art include treasures such as a 10th century Buddha sculpture, an 8th century amphora, and fine ceramics from all periods of Chinese history.
The Venetian-Gothic Ca’ d'Zan, the Ringlings’ 36,000-square-foot residence built in 1926, offers commanding views over Sarasota Bay and flashes back to the decadence of the Roaring Twenties. The palazzos lining the canals of Venice inspired the pink-hued estate, restored in 2002 to the tune of $15 million. Opulent furnishings fill several rooms you can tour, including the lavish living room, where a crystal chandelier the Ringlings bought from New York's original Waldorf-Astoria hotel holds court with all its sparkle.
Outside you'll find Bayfront Gardens, the property's gorgeous arboretum that's home to thousands of endemic trees and plants. Not to be missed: Mable's rose garden, which typically blooms in full splendor during the month of April. More than 1,000 bushes span 400 rose varieties, interspersed with statues along winding paved pathways. Wander through this world of nature's bounty at your own pace or take one of the 90-minute guided tours offered Saturday-Monday.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 5401 Bay Shore Road
Getting there: From St. Petersburg, it's about a one-hour drive south on Interstate 275 to Sarasota. The city is about two hours southeast from Orlando. If you're starting your trip in Sarasota, you can fly into either the Sarasota-Bradenton or Tampa international airport and rent a car. (Tampa's airport is about 65 miles north of the museum via I-275/I-75, but may be more likely to have a direct flight, depending on your home city.) The museum has two free surface parking lots near the entry gates. Golf carts shuttle visitors from the lots to the entrance.
Visit: Daily (closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Admission: General admission — $25 ($23 for adults 65+) — gives you access to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum and Bayfront Gardens. For an additional $10, add on a tour of the Ca’ d'Zan's first floor. Just strolling the grounds and gardens, $5. On Mondays, the Bayfront Gardens and Museum of Art are free.
Best time to visit: Weekdays (except Monday) to avoid crowds
Best season to visit: December, when twinkling white holiday lights add sparkle to the Ringling's grounds and summer's heat has given way to cooler (but pleasant) temperatures
Accessibility: Lots have accessible parking. Accessible trams with ramps for wheelchairs transport the mobility challenged all around the vast property, which is crossed with sidewalks and pathways connecting all of the facilities. Wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served) for those who find the grounds too spread out for navigating solely on foot.
For something very different, head for the Circus Museum. Its two galleries are packed with artifacts — the showstopper a 44,000-piece replica of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, complete with tiny models of animals, circus tents, showmen and trapeze artists. Also check out the completely renovated 1896 Wisconsin railway car that John Ringling traveled the country in during his circus days. “The interior is all inlaid wood and gilded materials,” says Steven High, the museum's executive director. “You get a sense of what it was like to live in that time.”
Other Local Highlights
The Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College (1001 South Tamiami Trail). At this kunsthalle-style museum with no permanent collection, contemporary art takes center stage with temporary exhibitions of artwork from post-World War II to current times. Through May 2, “Architecture for Nature” showcases photographs of a dozen projects by architect Carl Abbott, who has mastered a design perspective that puts mankind in harmony with the environment. The Ringling College of Art and Design (no affiliation with the Ringling Museum) opened this new museum in late 2019 in the city's old Sarasota High School and two adjacent buildings.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (1534 Mound St.). This 15-acre oasis downtown fronts Sarasota Bay with native orchids and bromeliads, plus butterfly and rainforest garden. It often presents temporary art exhibitions, too, including "Roy Lichtenstein: Monet’s Garden Goes Pop!" — a pop-art take on Monet's impressionist paintings, through June 27.
Siesta Key Beach. If you need time out from museums, escape to this nearby haven, consistently voted one of the country's most beautiful beaches.
Where to Stay
Beachside: The 60 condo-style accommodations at Sand Cay Beach Resort on Longboat Key, 12 miles northwest of downtown Sarasota, come with full kitchens. A resident egret, George, may greet you. Also on Longboat Key, go more upscale at the Zota Beach Resort, a 187-room property with a sprawling infinity pool.
Downtown: The contemporary artwork at the 162-room Art Ovation Hotel gives this luxury property extra appeal, as does its open-air rooftop pool bar and restaurant with bay views.
For more affordable lodging downtown, opt for the 139-room Aloft Sarasota.
Where to Dine
Casual: Follow in-the-know locals to Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar, 4 miles south of downtown, and slurp oysters on its waterfront deck.
Splurge: In Longboat Key, take your pick from indoor or outdoor seating at the Chart House, overlooking Sarasota Bay. Besides steaks, the restaurant usually features Wild Caught King Crab as well as Florida fish, such as grouper and mahi.