The Ringling, Sarasota: Where Art Meets the Circus
Right on the bay in Sarasota, Florida, the Ringling is one of the truly don’t miss spots in the area. Originally established as the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, the complex now includes a world renowned art museum, an interactive circus museum, and Ca’ d’Zan (the 1920s Venetian style mansion of John and Mabel Ringling).
The museums are incredible and the grounds are so lovely that it’s easy to spend a whole day here.
Why You Should Visit the Ringling
If you love art, or at least appreciate the grander things in life.
If you want to learn more about the history of the circus.
If you want to tour a historic 1920s style home.
If you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day.
If you need a break from the beach.
What I Thought
This is a don’t miss spot in the Sarasota area. In fact, I would say it’s even worth a 1.5-2 hour drive as a day trip. What started as the Ringling family home and winter home for their circus has grown into some serious world class museums. And it’s just about as picturesque as you can get.
While the Atlantic coast of Florida is packed with historic, gilded age estates and museums, there’s definitely less on the gulf coast
Also, I know people having “feelings” about circuses (and animals have all but been removed from modern day circuses), but even if you feel so strongly that you’re uninterested in learning about the history of them, it’s definitely still worth visiting for the art museum and Ca’ d’Zan.
Highlights of the Ringling
There is a LOT to see at the Ringling. Here’s the rundown of what you don’t want to miss:
Circus Museum (Tibbals Learning Center): There are two circus museums on the grounds (right next to each other), but the Tibbals Learning Center (the main museum) was my favorite. There are plenty of historic items on display, but they’ve really arranged everything in an interactive way (walk a tightrope, squeeze into a clown car, etc.) and it’s where you’ll do all the “learning” (reading, watching videos, etc.) about the Ringling Circus. I especially loved the Howard’s Circus model. It’s an extremely intricate and detailed model based on the Ringling Brothers circus in the 20s and 30s. It’s so complex and large that it took probably 30-40 minutes to walk through and look at the entire model.
Circus Museum (Historic Galleries): The Historic Galleries felt a bit like a sideshow. Haha. It’s a few rooms with cases of historic objects with tiny plaques to read that weren’t terribly exciting, but you’ll definitely want to walk through because in the back room (more like a warehouse) they have several original wagons and also one of the train cars.
Ca’ d’Zan: Built during the roaring twenties in the Venetian style, this home of John and Mabel Ringling is really something to see.
The Museum of Art: Opened in 1930 by John Ringling as a gift to the people of Florida, the State Art Museum of Florida features 21 galleries built in the Italian Renaissance style around a stunning courtyard. The art itself is impressive, but many of the galleries were built with the original panels from the Astor’s NYC gilded age mansion.
Tips for Visiting the Ringling
The Ringling is open daily from 10AM-5PM.
Admission for the Museum of Art, Circus Museums, and Bayfront Gardens (the grounds) costs $25/adult, $23/senior (65+), $5/child (6-17), 5 and under are free. It’s an extra $10/person for entry to Ca’ d’Zan where you can walk through the first floor of the home. There’s an online audio tour you can download as well.
There’s a handful of other admission options including $5 grounds admission, $15/adult and $5/child admission to the art museum on Thursdays after 5, and free admission to the grounds and art museum on Mondays.
Obscure tip of the day: don’t sleep on the dolphins! We happened to see several dolphins right along the seawall just south of Ca’ d’Zan. Now obviously, you can’t count on always seeing dolphins, but the dolphins were feeding on some sheepshead fish (which feed on barnacles on the wall) so there’s a pretty good chance to see them in the area. I’ve never seen dolphins so close up and active before!
My biggest tip for touring the Ringling is to pace yourself and have a good idea of what you want to see and how long you want to spend before you arrive. The art museum is absolutely enormous but we spent a lot of time in the circus museum at the beginning and then out watching the dolphins so we were running out of steam by the time we made it to the museum and ended up kind of strolling through.
Find more info about visiting the Ringling here.
Would I Go Back?
Yes, absolutely. The Circus Museum and Ca’ d’Zan are top notch, but kind of one and done for me. However, the art museum is definitely something I’d like to go back to see. And of course, since it has temporary exhibitions there’s always something new to see.
Other Things to Do in the Area (& Where to Eat Nearby)
Jungle Gardens: This small scale zoo is a fun diversion if you have kids (we used to come here when I was younger). It’s heavy on birds and reptiles, but it’s a nice way to spend a few hours, especially if you’re needing a break from the beach. Find more information here.
Beaches on Longboat Key & Anna Maria Island: Read about my favorite things to do on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island.
Where to Eat Nearby: Have breakfast or brunch at First Watch in downtown Sarasota. Head to St Armands Circle across the bridge and try Shore (American, seafood) or Columbia Restaurant (Cuban food). Read my full list of Sarasota area restaurant recommendations here.
Other Places Like This
Florida is full of Gilded Age mansions and art museums. A “don’t miss” spot for me is Vizcaya in Miami and the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach is high on my list of places to visit. Closer to Sarasota, you’ll find the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.
RELATED: Where to Stay on Longboat Key
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Vizcaya Museum & Gardens: Miami’s European Getaway
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