East of the beaches are science-, nature- and history-themed crowd-pleasing attractions that just happen to double as world-class educational experiences.
Mote Aquarium (paired with Mote Marine Laboratory) and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens both house teams of scientists conducting research and preservation efforts, which include such modest projects as ending red tide, protecting endangered species and saving the rainforests. For visitors, those efforts translate to stunning exhibits of tropical flora at the gardens and fauna at Mote.
For a look at the area's past, De Soto National Memorial, Historic Spanish Point, Gamble Plantation and the Circus Museum are among many attractions that tell some of the biggest stories in some of the coolest costumes from the past 500 years.
And the education doesn't stop there: You can learn about cars at the Classic Car Museum and the galaxy at the Bishop Planetarium, or get to know all kinds of local wildlife at the Pelican Man Bird Sanctuary and Oscar Scherer and Myakka River state parks. You may want to study each attraction's Web site before you go, just to make sure you don't miss anything.
De Soto National Memorial, 75th St. NW, Bradenton. 792-0458. Believed to be the site of explorer Hernando de Soto's landfall in Florida more than 450 years ago. During the winter and spring season, park employees in period dress perform demonstrations and give talks about that era of Florida's history. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Free admission. www.nps.gov/deso.
South Florida Museum/Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. 746-4131. Exhibits cover our local history from the Indians to de Soto to the Crackers who settled the region. Planetarium presents regular star and digitally animated music shows, and Snooty the lovable manatee greets guests to the aquarium. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m., except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the first Saturday in November. Admission: adults $9.50, seniors $7.50, children over 12 $6, children 5-12 $5. www.southfloridamuseum.org.
Gamble Plantation and Mansion, U.S. 301, Ellenton. 723-4536. Southwest Florida's oldest building, once part of a thriving sugar plantation, also served as a hideout for the Confederacy's secretary of the treasury when he was on the run from the Yankees. A slice of history and a glimpse of Florida plantation life. Open Thursday-Monday. Tours at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. and hourly from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission: adults $5, children 6-12 $3, children under 6 free. www.floridastateparks.org/gambleplantation/default.cfm
Historic Spanish Point, 500 Tamiami Trail, Osprey. 966-5214. A unique 30-acre environmental, historical and archaeological site that has been home at different times to prehistoric Indians, the pioneer Webb family and society matron Mrs. Potter Palmer. Period buildings and exhibits on view. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m., except for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. Admission: adults $7, children 6-12 $3, seniors $5 on Mondays. Discount Web coupon. www.historicspanishpoint.org.
Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. 483-5956. One of the area's favorite parks, full of Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoises, gopher frogs and indigo snakes. Consists of pine flatwoods and several lakes; you can hike the trails or take to the water in a kayak or canoe. Open daily dawn to dusk. Admission: $4 per carload to visit, $24.20 per night to camp. Free admission on Earth Day in April. www.floridastateparks.org/oscarscherer.
Cà d'Zan; Ringling Circus Museum, 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. 359-5700. Two of the biggest draws at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art complex are the Ringlings' 1920s mansion, Cà d'Zan, and the Circus Museum, which, as of January 2006, includes the new Tibbals Learning Center. The Circus Museum features costumes, posters and, at over 3,000 square feet, the largest circus miniature in the world. Open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. Admission: adults $15, seniors over 65 and U.S. military $13; and $5 for children ages 6-17, students with ID, and Florida teachers. Admission is free for museum members and children 5 and under accompanied by an adult; free to all on Mondays. www.ringling.org.
Crowley Museum and Nature Center, 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota, near Myakka City. 322-1000. Return to the days of early Sarasota pioneers in this reconstructed village, with its walking trails and unspoiled nature. Call ahead for an escorted tour. Open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. in May-December and Tuesday-Sunday in January-April. Admission: adults $5, children 5-12 $3, children under 5 free. www.crowleymuseumnaturectr.org.
G.WIZ, Blivas Science & Technology Center, 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. 906-1851. Hands-on science exhibits and activities aimed at kids, including electricity displays, mind-bending puzzles and a butterfly garden. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m. Admission: adults $7, children 2-18 $5, seniors $6. Group discounts available. www.gwiz.org.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. 366-5731. Orchids, epiphytes, bromeliads, banyans and many other green or blooming things live in this oasis along Sarasota's bayfront, where botanical research also goes on. A Museum of Botany and the Arts and the Selby home are also located here. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except Christmas. Admission: adults $12, children 6-11 $6. One week each year, usually in September, the gardens are free. www.selby.org.
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 388-2451. Sharks, sea turtles, manatees and other creatures of the deep. Also a rare giant squid. Group tours, gift shop available. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 365 days a year. Discount Web coupon. Admission: adults $12, children 4-12 $8, children under 4 free. www.mote.org.
Myakka River State Park, 14 miles east of Sarasota on S.R. 72. 361-6511. Wild Florida thrives on this 28,000-acre preserve, which is home to deer, alligators, osprey and even the elusive Florida bobcat. Tram rides, nature trails, airboat tours, canoeing and camping are available. For a wildlife tour, call 365-0100. Open dawn to dusk daily, 365 days a year. Admission: $5 per vehicle of 2-8 people. www.myakkariver.org.
Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary, 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 388-4444. Set on two waterfront acres, the sanctuary is home to more than 200 permanently disabled birds and also cares for injured animals. Boardwalk, gift shop and public viewing areas. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except Christmas and Thanksgiving. Admission: adults $6, children 4-17 $2. www.pelicanman.org.
Sarasota Classic Car Museum, 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 355-6228. More than 100 automobiles beginning with the horseless carriage, as well as an antique game arcade. Open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Discount Web coupon. Admission: adults $8.50, seniors 65 and up $7.65, children 13-17 $5.75, children 6-12 $4, children under 6 free. www.sarasotacarmuseum.org.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bayshore Road, Sarasota. 355-5305. Jungle Gardens offers 10 tropical acres filled with trees, flowers, pink flamingos and exotic birds. There are also bird and reptile shows each day, a playground, gift shop and snack bar. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except Christmas. Admission: adults $11, seniors $10, children 3-12 $7. Discount Web coupon. www.sarasotajunglegardens.com.
The Springs, 12200 San Servano, Venice. 426-1692. A possible answer for those in search of the Fountain of Youth. The mineral springs are 87 degrees year-round, and the spa, café and special events enhance the experience. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: adults $14, Florida students $9, AAA and seniors 65 and up $12, children under 12 $5. www.warmmineralsprings.com.