This December, I’m celebrating a special anniversary. No, not the romantic kind with chocolate and roses from a hunky lifeguard, but rather the anniversary of my three-year-long love/hate relationship with Florida.
In 2019, I moved to Sarasota from Atlanta intending to stay a few months, soak up some rays, see the sights and move somewhere more exciting and—in my mind—less hot. Little did I know that I would stay for three years, cursing the sweltering summers and envying friends who live in cities with a younger crowd and interesting events that don't take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A million fish tacos and about a billion mosquito bites later, I’ve finally begun to crack the code to this weird and wonderful state. For all my fellow new transplants, here’s everything I wish I’d known before moving to Florida.
Florida Is an Outdoor Zoo
Ever seen those “House Hunters International” shows where people move to faraway tropical countries and share their kitchen space with lizards? Floridians don’t have to travel to Bali to make new critter friends; they’re already here and eager to meet us. Or eat us. Hopefully the former. But beyond toothy alligators, there's a more charming variety of wildlife—graceful sandhill cranes, adorable manatees and even goofy Florida softshell turtles. While some animals seem intimidating at first glance, millions of us coexist with them. We're animals too, after all.
Pro Tips for Living in the Wild Kingdom
Don’t feed the alligators, even if they’re right near your waterfront restaurant table. Feeding alligators encourages them to seek out humans, which is dangerous for both parties and can result in wildlife authorities killing the animals because they now pose a risk to humans.
Do name the alligators (the more creative the name the better) and observe them from a distance. For newcomers learning to live with their fear of gators, embark on a wildlife tour at the Myakka River State Park and learn to admire these ancient, remarkable creatures.
Lock the lids on your trash cans to keep cunning raccoons out. I’ve seen raccoons lift up trashcan lids in search of a tasty snack and learned they love McDonald's french fries. A better place to see raccoons is Emerson Point Preserve in Palmetto. A not-so-great place to see raccoons? Rummaging trash by the moonlight.
The Lanai Isn’t Just an Outdoor Space—It’s a Lifestyle
Life on the lanai is sacred and Floridians go all out to make them the most relaxing places on the planet. Whether you’ve got a pool with a waterfall, a jungle of potted plants or a comfy chaise, the lanai is a home's pride and joy.
Pro Tips for Making the Lanai a Sanctuary
Add a water feature. Even if you don’t have a pool, the gentle sound of a mini-water fountain is soothing.
Decorate the space. Install a tiki bar, hang colorful lanterns or adopt a plastic pink flamingo. Adding a splash of color and fun will make your outdoor space your new happy place. Ingrid Fetell Lee has famously discussed the scientific benefits of color.
- Invest in a hammock or other comfortable outdoor seating. Indoors naps pale in comparison to naps on a lanai sofa surrounded by serenading birds.
Channel your inner botanist. Go to a local nursery and pick out some plants to add a bit of green to your lanai. Orchids are a great choice, as well as herbs and aloes.
Make friends with the lizards of the lanai because no matter how hard you try to keep them out, they will find a way in. Also, they don't bite and they eat mosquitos. If you get frustrated with them, remember that, like us, they, too, want to sunbathe in peace.
Get Ready to Become a Seafood Convert
I once saw a movie about a girl who lived in a small fishing village and ate seafood for every meal. In her shoes, I thought, I would die of starvation. As a child who would barely touch shrimp unless it was battered and fried to resemble a chicken nugget, a fish-based diet was my nightmare. I tried to steer clear of seafood after moving to Florida, but I could only eat so many chicken tenders and salads. My first venture with fresh-caught fish occurred when I tried a fish taco from The Seafood Shack in Cortez. As it turned out, putting fish into a tortilla shell was a gateway drug, and I went on a quest to find the best fish tacos in the state. I’ve since enjoyed grouper sandwiches, grilled shrimp and crab cakes. If you’re not into seafood, visit these local spots and let the chef change your mind.
Surf and Turf Lovers Alike Can’t Go Wrong at These Spots
The Starfish Company Market & Restaurant in Cortez. Their heavenly fish tacos sell out fast, so be sure to arrive early and bring cash as the restaurant doesn’t take cards. If you miss out on the tacos, fear not. The grouper sandwiches and shrimp and grits are to-die-for. Pro tip: seating is all outdoors and dockside, so come prepared with bug spray and SPF, and be ready to share space with the pelicans that hang around for a treat.
Mariscos Azteca Mexican Seafood Restaurant. Seafood is the star ingredient at Mariscos Azteca, where each dish transports diners across the Gulf to the sunny beaches of Mexico. The extensive menu features fresh ceviche, steaming bowls of seafood soup and plump shrimp served alongside fluffy rice. The nautical decor further enhances the warm and inviting atmosphere of this hidden gem.
Any Book Can Be a Beach Read
The beach is the perfect place to immerse yourself in a good book, so don’t shy away from sitting by the waves with your favorite read. The sandy shore welcomes all readers, from thriller devotees to lovers of romance novels or even a classic tome. (A friend spotted one person sitting Gulf-side with a copy of Moby Dick!) Legendary author Stephen King even owns a house on Casey Key. As you stroll by the sea, strike up a conversation with fellow book enthusiasts, and you might discover your next great read.
Pro Tips for Exploring Sarasota’s Bookstores
Visit Bookstore1Sarasota for new releases, book talks and more literary fun. The knowledgeable staff has a knack for recommending excellent books to readers with varying tastes.
Pop into one of the city’s beloved used bookstores, like Shelf Indulgence Used Book Cafe or the downtown labyrinth of books at A. Parker’s Books and Book Bazaar on Main Street. Bonus points if you leave your finished book in a local little free library for others to enjoy.
- Get a library card from your local library. Sarasota and Manatee libraries offer trending books and a variety of community events for readers to mingle.
An Instant Vacation Is at Your Fingertips
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me that I live in paradise, I’d be rich enough to build a waterfront mansion on Casey Key. But they're right. When I’m frustrated with the heat of summer or winter snowbird traffic, I remember the simple joy of an ice cream cone while watching tourists "ooh" and "ahh" over the places I can see any day of the week.
Pro Tips for Taking Advantage of Instant Nearby Getaways
The shops and restaurants at St. Armands Circle are so delightful that even a crab visiting from nearby Lido Beach could find something to enjoy. You’ll find a spa, an arcade bar and a variety of international cuisines in this upscale, outdoor mall by the beach. The perfect place for people-watching, St. Armands attracts tourists from all over the world. Next time you visit, count how many different languages you hear being spoken by visitors and locals alike.
Wander through the vast galleries of art and circus memorabilia at the Ringling Museum. In the 1920s, John and Mabel Ringling (of circus fame) built their stunning Venetian home, Ca’ d’Zan, in Sarasota and moved the Ringling's winter circus headquarters to the area. The art-loving Ringlings collected masterpieces from all corners of the globe, which are on display in the Museum of Art. To explore the circus’s captivating history, visit the Circus Museum, then wander the peaceful Bayfront gardens including Mabel's roses and ancient banyan trees.
- Take a day trip to other beloved Sarasota institutions, like Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, Sarasota Art Museum or the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Keep track of your adventures with our Ultimate Sarasota Bucket List and share with your friends.
You Can Belong in Florida, Even When You Feel Like You Don’t
Moving here, I swore that I wouldn’t let anything beachy infiltrate my living space. But today, my bedroom has a mermaid painting, postcards boasting giant sandcastles and even a Christmas starfish wearing a Santa hat. While my long-term plan isn’t to live out the rest of my youth in a top-rated "great place to retire" destination, I’ve developed a fondness for my new home. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit amazing places, meet fascinating people and get to know one of the nation’s most iconic states. Like barefoot tourists walking down the beach, Florida will forever leave footprints on my heart, just like the tacky beach signs said it would.