Not everyone admits it, not everybody calls it by its rightful name, but everybody shops. Whether you're on vacation investigating new territory or at home in your own familiar mall, the promise of new treasures and discoveries exerts a pull like a sociological magnet. So much of modern society's recreation is centered around places to purchase that to be out there in the world is to shop. Or at least browse. Whatever. It's time to go shopping. Here's our helpful guide to local shops and stores.
St. Armands Circle
The streets on elegant St. Armands are named for U.S. presidents because circus impresario and local VIP John Ringling envisioned St. Armands as a winter retreat for President Warren G. Harding, and he aimed to make it welcoming. But when Harding died and the American economy collapsed in 1929, Ringling's grand scheme stalled and St. Armands became Sleeping Beauty. Ringling left the property to the City of Sarasota after he died, and over the years it evolved into an upscale beach resort shopping and dining destination. And so the Circle remains today.
A stroll around the charmed circle is a glimpse into other cultures, because you'll hear many different languages and read menus with intriguing international flair. The specialty shops are focused. One offers more refrigerator magnets than you'll ever see anywhere else. Others display rare and costly jewels, modern paintings, occasional furniture, and unusual gifts ranging from tiny seashells to huge bronze sculptures of manatees and whales. Jacobson's at one end and The Met at the other anchor the Circle with fine clothing and accessories.
You'll want to reserve a full day to explore all the shops and culinary opportunities. And do return for a nighttime browse. Under the stars with the store lights silhouetting the palm trees, St. Armands takes on a different kind of glamour. You can even climb aboard for a horse and buggy ride around the Circle or take off your shoes, walk to the beach and wiggle your toes in the Gulf of Mexico.
Like many established ever-evolving downtown cores, Sarasota's is a colorful amalgamation of the practical and the recreational. There are florists, drugstores, banks, a pawnshop and a spacious, fairly new library, the architecture of which is a continuing subject of controversy. There are places to buy postcards or the latest best-seller and lots of sidewalk cafes where you can write or read. Downtown has become so popular that now people want to live there, and architects have obliged with expensive high-rise condominiums and townhouses. To amuse these folk, as well as seasonal visitors, downtown also boasts many quality art galleries and antique shops (most of them concentrated on pretty Palm Avenue), fine restaurants, the Sarasota Opera and several venues for live theater. The Golden Apple is a dinner theater, so you can dine and debate character motivation at the same time. A 20-plex movie theater on upper Main called the Hollywood 20 has all the latest flicks. If you follow Main Street to the end, you can walk across U.S. 41 and end up on the bayfront. Streets surrounding Main have charming fruit names-Lemon, Pineapple, Orange, Coconut, etc.-and house specialty boutiques galore along with fine restaurants. One of those streets (it runs parallel to Main) is Fruitville Road, and it's the mecca for junk, secondhand, thrift, consignment and genuine antique shops. Also downtown is Towles Court, a genuine artists' colony. Artists own homes in the area and have their studios and sales galleries there, too. The clustered houses are brightly painted and cleverly ornamented, and the atmosphere is friendly and energizing.
This area refers to shopping destinations "south of Main Street" and includes the neighborhood of Burns Court, which is dominated by the town's art cinema house, painted bright raspberry. Surrounding the cinema are restaurants, antique shops, kicky-luxury clothiers such as Willow 506 and Kate, art galleries, and little storefronts full of elegant junque as well as exquisite home decor objects, such as the mirror collection at August The Third or the amazing designer eyeglasses at IOptics. Herald Square, in the same vicinity, is home to the legendary Woman's Exchange, a grand, well-organized consignment store. Herald Square also boasts several quality antique shops (Jack Vinales is one that deals in mid-century modern) and a great little eatery called Citrus.
South of Downtown
Sarasota Quay, Midtown Plaza, Southgate Plaza, Sarasota Pavilion, Sarasota Square Mall-You can hit all five in succession starting from downtown Sarasota because all are located on the Tamiami Trail (also called U.S. 41). The Quay is an elevated Mediterranean-style mall with beautiful views of Sarasota Bay, and most of the dining spots take advantage of the vistas. There's a nice mix of specialty shops and culinary enticements including DaRuMa, which specializes in authentic Japanese cuisine. Midtown Plaza is home to Michael's On East, a justly renowned gourmet restaurant that also has a chic bar. At Davidson's Drugs you'll find sunglasses, shell souvenirs, cosmetics, even a post office. This small mall is a mix of specialty shops and eateries and is anchored by a large supermarket. Also, this is one of the few malls in America where you can make an appointment to have your tarot cards read! The place to go is Elysian Fields, which also stocks a comforting assortment of New Age healing stones, books, jewelry, aromatherapy products, and gifts.
Southgate Plaza is a chi-chi enclosed linear mall with a Saks Fifth Avenue and Burdines at one end and a Dillard's at the other. In between are jewelry shops, bookstores and restaurants as well as candy and ice-cream shops. Look for specialty clothiers such as Banana Republic, Talbot's and Ann Taylor. Add to your collection of Lladro or Swarovski crystal at Ashley Avery and visit Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma to embellish your vacation retreat.
Sarasota Pavilion is youth-oriented and also appeals to the discount divas with Old Navy as well as Steinmart, Ross and Marshall's. Big bargain bookstore, shoe warehouse, major craft emporium, and a huge bath and bedding palace. The Pavilion is not an enclosed mall; you walk outside under connecting arcades.
Sarasota Square Mall, enclosed and spacious, is the family all-purpose plaza with a generous food court and familiar stores such as Sears, Penney's, Burdines and Dillard's. Additionally, there are plenty of specialty shops for all ages. Find clothes to round out your vacation wardrobe and discover inexpensive souvenirs, too. Because this mall has two movie venues (one inside and one on the east end of the property), Sarasota Square is the ideal vacation-rainy-day destination.
This shopping area, chiefly centered on Osprey Avenue, is a preferred residential neighborhood that shelters many beautiful little streets of older Sarasota bungalows. There's a lovely sense of community about Southside Village and it's reflected in the stores, which are small and friendly. Bambinos is a remarkable (and decidedly upscale) baby store. Queen's Wreath Jewels is the place for glamour gems in unusual settings, while Ribbon's has a diverse collection of gift and home decor items. Fred's is a boisterous bistro with a wine bar that makes it a favorite date-night destination. And Morton's Market is a gourmet emporium that excels in takeout meals, delicious bakery goods, and hard-to-find culinary ingredients.
Siesta Key Village
It's a sand-in-your-shoes kind of place with many of the shops devoted to beachwear, sun gear from umbrellas to flower-festooned flip-flops, and snack foods or frozen tropical coolers. Shops are casually clustered on boardwalks, upper decks or right on the sand. Every so often there will be an opportunity to stop for a sandwich or a full, satisfying meal. Of course, some of the most dazzling bathing suits are sold on Siesta Key, and some of the best bodies in Sarasota are wearing them at the big public beach just outside the Village.
Southbay Fashion Center
On the road to Venice from Sarasota you'll come to Southbay Fashion Center, an elegant mall in the town of Osprey (like the bird) that features a big beautiful Jacobson's and the display rooms of the spacious Ethan Allen furniture gallery-a great place to plot redecorating strategies. A few other little shops for browsers, too.
If you keep driving south from Sarasota on Tamiami Trail, you'll eventually come to the Isle of Venice, a beguiling Old Florida mélange of shops, restaurants and residential neighborhoods on the water's edge. Historic Venice has a laid-back charm that visitors find irresistible. After 30 minutes on the island, you'll fall into the pace, feel the relaxed rhythm and start smiling.
Fishermen's Village at Punta Gorda
Welcome to a picturesque waterfront complex of 33 specialty shops, a half dozen reliable restaurants and a marina with room for nearly 100 boats. And there are about 50 luxury villas in the Village in case you love shopping here so much that you decide to buy a place and move to Punta Gorda permanently. Fishermen's Village stands on the site of the old King Street Pier, once home to the fish packing plants so necessary to the industry of the area. Today the charming shops and the recreational activities reflect the unique history of this old Florida fishing community.
Avenue of the Flowers and Centre Shops: Both venues are located on gracious Gulf of Mexico Drive, the long, narrow main road lined with attractive tropical landscaping. Longboat Key is a well-manicured island and both of these bustling little shopping areas reinforce the beauty and refinement of the area. A big Publix market with an excellent bakery and deli is a hallmark of Avenue of the Flowers, and it's surrounded by a chic mix of clothing and specialty shops geared to amuse the tourist and meet the everyday needs of locals. Behind the mall is The Plaza Restaurant, a distinguished and lovely place to enjoy an elegant dinner. Farther on down Gulf of Mexico Drive heading toward the quaint village shopping of Anna Maria Island and Holmes Beach is the Centre Shops, a medley of art galleries, eateries and small select boutiques. Maureen's (which features an impressive martini bar) is a restaurant to frequent for gourmet meals.
Prime Outlets, Ellenton
Arrangedunderasheltering Mediterranean arcade are about 135 specialty shops sporting designer labels you know and love. Now, buy them at a bargain. You'll need a full day to effectively browse and slap the racks in places such as Saks Off 5th, Ann Taylor, DKNY, Escada, Liz Claiborne and more. The mall is not limited to clothing, so expect to find kitchen shops, electronics stores, jewelry and cosmetics boutiques, toy and book stores, and home decor galleries. Many tourists bring their holiday shopping lists and accomplish their missions in Ellenton while having a great time and saving money. There's a food court when you need to take a lunch or dinner break, and also a big parking lot. Are you driving a car with a big enough trunk?