By staff December 1, 2005

In downtown Sarasota, sailboats dot sparkling waters just steps from bustling sidewalks lined by outdoor eateries, contemporary office buildings, hotels and residences, distinctive boutiques and galleries, movie theaters and performing arts spaces. Intimate parks and plazas delight with the surprise of a colorful fountain, an award-winning work of art or the promise of a quiet, shaded moment in a botanical paradise.

Downtown offers a vigorous urban environment with an exceptional mix of dynamic businesses, modern condominiums, historic buildings and attractive streetscapes. This is where thousands of people come to work, shop, visit government offices or simply stroll along the sidewalks, greeting friends and taking in Sarasota's rich and vibrant lifestyle.

Long known as a cultural hotspot, downtown boasts the Sarasota Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, Players Theatre, Florida West Coast Symphony and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The streets themselves become open-air arts spaces during such annual celebrations as Arts Day, the Sarasota Reading Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, Cine-World, and periodic arts and crafts festivals.

Palm Avenue stretches for several blocks and harbors art and antique galleries, jewelry and clothing boutiques and bustling restaurants. The popular Sarasota News & Books hosts author appearances and is a favorite hangout for coffee and book aficionados. The sidewalk tables outside of Epicure and Caragiulo's-two popular Palm Avenue trattoria-style restaurants-stay lively into the night. At Palm's southernmost end, Marie Selby Gardens is a botanical oasis housing more than 20,000 plants and some of the world's rarest orchids.

The major thoroughfare, Main Street, features a wealth of shops and restaurants, the Regal Hollywood 20 Cinemas and the steel-and-glass spectacle of the new Sarasota Herald-Tribune building. A stroll down Main uncovers independent bookstores (including Main Bookshop, encompassing four floors stocked to the ceilings with publishers' overstock and remainder books), a gourmet dog bakery, high-end jewelers, food markets and design and furniture galleries.

Just a block from Main, on First Street and Lemon Avenue, the thriving Whole Foods Market, a new downtown hotspot, commandeers a formidable chunk of downtown real estate. Lemon Avenue at Main is also home to the Farmers' Market, a Saturday morning tradition featuring fresh produce, food, flowers, plants and crafts. And no visit to Main Street is complete without a pit stop at The Gator Club, a venerable Sarasota watering hole.

Just a few blocks from the heart of Main, Sarasota's Rosemary District has blossomed into an artsy urban district that boasts an innovative blend of boutiques, galleries, photography studios, design companies, a charter school and even a high-end wine storage and tasting club, Vin Cella.

You can experience the best in foreign and independent film at Burns Court Cinemas, an intimate three-screen cinema in Burns Court, itself an enclave of historic buildings, Mediterranean-style cottages and condos, shops and restaurants.

Sarasota's Bayfront Park commands breathtaking views of the city, Sarasota Bay and the marina. Children splash in the fountain, picnics are spread on the lush lawns and couples promenade arm-in-arm along the shaded walking paths. Linger over a cold beer and grouper sandwich at the unfussy O'Leary's Deck & Grill or dine in more stately fashion upstairs at Marina Jack. Fishing, sightseeing and dinner cruises depart daily from the marina. And you can stroll across Gulfstream Boulevard to enjoy drinks, dancing and live music at The Ritz-Carlton's glitzy Cà d'Zan Bar.

For a close encounter of the artistic kind, visit Towles Court Artist Colony, a collective of more than 40 artists' studios nestled just two blocks south of Main Street. A colorful collection of bungalows and cottages set in the midst of tropical gardens and sculptural installations, the area features open studio tours and an art walk every third Friday of the month.


Although not formally a part of downtown Sarasota, Southside Village, off Osprey Avenue, is a natural extension. This vibrant neighborhood is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, an acclaimed blues club and hip clothing boutiques and salons. Morton's Gourmet Market serves as the area's centerpiece, offering gourmet foods and services including a deli, flower shop, bakery, first-class spirits shop and gourmet meals to go. The Morton's complex also houses Annabelle's, a luxury-home and gift boutique, and Write-On Sarasota, an upscale stationery shop.

Across the street are two of Sarasota's most popular gathering spots, Fred's and The Tasting Room. A sophisticated brasserie, Fred's is where Sarasotans meet to indulge in innovative bistro fare, people-watch while sipping exotic martinis, and enjoy languorous Sunday brunches. The Tasting Room offers oenophiles the opportunity to taste flights of wine and experience themed wine tastings.

Just down the block, Knick's Tavern is a casual neighborhood retreat with friendly service, an assortment of wines and beers and solid comfort cuisine. Sam Snead's Tavern, next door, features a golf-themed menu and outdoor tables overlooking Osprey Avenue.

A block away on Hillview, foodies can savor exceptional Indian and Mediterranean fare at Chutney's, Japanese and Thai delicacies at Pacific Rim and Latin/New World fusion cuisine at The Table. Dog lovers can bathe their best buddies with organic canine skincare products at Dogma Boutique & Spa.

No tour of Southside Village would be complete without a visit to the Five O'Clock Club, Sarasota's legendary blues club, showcasing live music seven nights a week. You can spend a few hours-or a few days-lost in the smoky haze listening to the raw and gritty sounds of Sarasota's most talented musicians. Tell 'em we sent ya.


Main Street: If you know you'll be downtown for a few hours and don't mind walking, the best place to park is inside the parking garage at Main Plaza. The fee is $3 for the day; if you're using Main Plaza facilities you can get your ticket validated for free. There's also public parking behind the garage. The municipal lot at Lemon Avenue and State Street is free after 5 p.m. A coin parking lot is located at the corner of First Street and Cocoanut Avenue-and is also free after 5 p.m. Other than that, diagonal street spaces are available all along Main Street.

Burns Court: Ample parking spaces are available up and down Pineapple Avenue, as well as along most of the side streets that intersect it.

Palm Avenue: If you're lucky enough to find a parking space along the few blocks of Palm Avenue-rejoice! They tend to fill up during lunch hours, and can also be filled on theater or opera nights. A public lot behind Sarasota News & Books at the corner of Main Street and Palm Avenue is usually available for free evening parking. And don't forget Gulfstream Avenue, just a block from the hubbub, where spaces line both sides of the street.

Hillview: Parking spaces line Osprey and Hillview avenues. There's also a parking lot behind Morton's Market for clients of that store and for Fred's and the Tasting Room across the street. Other than that, there's a large parking lot one block north behind Sam Snead's.

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