Downtown Sarasota contains a small, walkable shopping and dining district a few blocks from the Sarasota Bayfront, east of Tamiami Trail. While Sarasota is a city, the sidewalks are not busy like most cities, unless there’s a farmers market or arts festival downtown. So it feels more like a small town during the day. At night, however, downtown Sarasota comes alive with people out and about, enjoying the many live music venues and restaurants.
Here are highlights of the various districts that make up downtown Sarasota.
The Sarasota Opera House, Selby Library, and Whole Foods Market Centre create a cultural and shopping spine along First Street. The Opera House, in soft tones of peach and cream, was extensively renovated last year. It sets a classical European tone and is very popular during Season. Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, First Street Chop House, Bijou Cafe, and Florida Studio Theater (on Palm Ave at First Street) are all situated in old buildings with character, forming a cozy downtown theatre district.
Diagonally across from the Sarasota Opera House is Selby Public Library, designed by Hoyt Architects. It floats like a big white circus tent supported by elephant-leg columns. At least that’s how it looks to this observer. Inside is a very modern, airy, natural-light-filled library with lots of Internet-capable computers, free wi-fi for using your own laptop, a spacious children’s section entered via an exotic-fishtank archway, and large collections of books, CDs, DVDs, periodicals, fiction and non-fiction books.
Whole Foods Market Centre incorporates upscale ground floor retail shops, upper-floor condominium apartments, a parking garage, and a Whole Foods Market with lots of outdoor seating. This is one of the best places in downtown Sarasota to enjoy a bite while you watch the passing scene. There’s a takeout food bar and an indoor cafe, too. Whole Foods Cafe and the Main Street corridor all offer free wi-fi in downtown Sarasota.
Stretching from Rte 301 on the east, to the Sarasota Bayfront on the west, Main Street is the spine of downtown Sarasota. The section between Rte 301 and Osprey Avenue is busiest during weekday business hours, as most of its business comes from office workers related to banking, law firms, and the courts, which are all concentrated in that part of downtown. On the corner of Main Street and Rte 301 is the Hollywood 20 Movie Theater complex. There’s a branch of the Sarasota YMCA in the same building.
From Orange Avenue west to Gulfstream Avenue, you’ll find an eclectic selection of international cuisine, from Greek to Spanish, Vietnamese to Thai, Chinese, Italian, American, French, Pan-Asian, and Fusion. There’s a health food store with supplements and a branch Post Office, art galleries, an Apple store with a cafe, bakeries, and clothing stores from women’s fashions to Brooks Brothers.
During Season, Main Street hosts many arts and crafts festivals, a biker rally, and celebrations of major holidays with rides and food vendors.
In the evening, you can bar-hop around Main Street, checking out the live music at numerous venues such as Mattison’s City Grille, Sarasota Vineyard, Pastry Arts, The Box Social, and The Gator Club.
Every Saturday, from 7AM to 1PM, year-round, Lemon Avenue from First Street to State Street is the epicenter of the Downtown Sarasota Farmers Market, where approximately 50 vendors offer oodles of fresh produce, including lots of organics; flowers and plants; arts and crafts; prepared foods to take home or take out; baked goods; gluten free foods; meats; and cheeses. It’s one of the best people-watching and dog-parading events in town.
The main downtown bus depot for SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) is located on the corner of Lemon Avenue and First Street.
It’s easy to miss State Street, quietly perched one block south of Main Street. State of the Arts Gallery shows work by artists who are all local and self-supporting with their art. Much of the work shown there is large-scale, museum quality. On S. State Street, one block west, European Focus is a colorful shop with lots of intriguing gifts made by artisans in Europe. From “bouncies” — dolls that bounce up and down on springs — to French linens, to Bavarian “smokers”, to ceramics and tours of Europe, this is a unique Sarasota store. Next door to European Focus is Sarasota Candle, a local manufacturer that also has a booth at the Downtown Sarasota Farmers Market.
This is downtown Sarasota’s “Gallery Row”, with everything from handblown glass to elaborate jewelry to paintings, sculpture, and hats. There’s a First Friday Artwalk that takes place along Palm Avenue from 6-9PM, when the galleries stay open late and offer refreshments and live music. Caragiulo’s Restaurant is on Palm Avenue, with indoor and outdoor dining. At the corner of Main Street and Palm Avenue, Epicure is a favorite spot to sit outside and relax with friends over lunch or dinner.
Burns Square, at the south end of Pineapple Avenue, is part of downtown Sarasota, but it’s separated by a two- block walk alongside non-descript office buildings, so it feels like a separate district. It shares the First Friday Art Walk with downtown. Here the buildings are low and charming with bright stucco colors and a changing array of intriguing shops. Awesome Orchids, Parkland Art Gallery, Malika’s Imports, L-Boutique, Jack Vinales 20th Century Classics, and Citrus Cafe are all worth a look. Behind Pineapple Avenue, Burns Court reveals Sarasota’s art film house, Burns Court Cinema, and Owen’s Fish Camp restaurant. On Saturdays, there’s a small, independent, outdoor artists’ market on Pineapple Avenue in Burns Square.
At the far east end of Main Street, Marina Jack restaurant and marina ties downtown Sarasota to Sarasota Bay. The restaurant is surrounded by the scenic Bayfront Park, which includes a walking path, children’s playground, O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Restaurant, lots of free parking, yacht basin and small beach for launching rowboats. You can sit on a swinging bench and watch the tide go in and out, look across at the stunning John Ringling Bridge, or take in the glorious Gulf sunset.