Just off the coast of Sarasota on the gulf coast of Florida (the west side) is a chain of barrier islands that, while they’re home to some of the best beaches in Florida, tend to fly a little under the radar. 20+ miles of white sand beaches stretch along (from north to south) Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, Longboat Key, Lido Key, and Siesta Key. While the beaches and water are comparable to the St Pete and Clearwater areas just to the north (Tampa), the vibe in this area is totally different. If you like a laid back beach vacation (think more small beachtown vibes and less high rises) without gobbs of people around, this is the place for you.
All of these islands and beach towns in the area are great, but I grew up spending summers on Longboat Key so I’m kind of partial.
To get to the Longboat Key, you can either fly into Sarasota (SRQ) or Tampa (TPA). While the Sarasota airport is closer, there aren’t as many flight options (and flights are usually a little more expensive). It’s a little over an hour drive from TPA to the Longboat/Bradenton area.
The beach is obviously the big draw, and Longboat is definitely the “sleepiest” island in this cluster, but there’s surprisingly quite a few things to do in the area.
Things to Do on Longboat Key
THE BEACH: It’s why you go to Florida, right? The sand in this area is a great combination of being soft and white but still with a good mixture of shells. I will say that the beach in front of the Zota Beach Resort (where I stayed most recently) had my least favorite sand in this whole area. It was quite a bit coarser and darker than in pretty much every other area in this stretch.
Overall, there’s a lot better public beach access on Anna Maria Island (just north) than on Longboat so if you’re not staying on the beach but you’re packing it in, Anna Maria Island is probably the better place to head for the day.
Shelling: I’m a casual sheller, but I still LOVE to look for shells. This is a great area for it and although I didn’t find any sand dollars on this trip, I have in the past. Sand dollars are definitely easier to find more towards the beginning of the year. Much like the beach, it seemed like the shelling was better when I stayed on the south end of Longboat Key, but it’s also pretty good at the far north end.
Sunset at Beercan Island: One of the best spots for shelling on Longboat, it’s also a great spot to watch the sunset. It’s not really an island, although it can seem like one at high tide. The best access is off N shore Road (the very last left turn as you’re driving north across the island). There’s not a ton of parking so you may have to be patient. There’s a pier right at the access point that’s great for watching sunset, but most people keep making their way north around to the end of the island.
There was some construction going on when I was there this time so we weren’t able to go all the way around the end of the island (where you can see across to Anna Maria Island and the bridge), but normally you can. The end of the island (by the bridge) is a popular spot for boats to hang out. Beercan Island is a big local hangout so while it feels pretty secluded, there’s always plenty of people around. There are a lot of trees in the area and a ton of staubs (where pieces of the roots stick up through the sand) so either wear water shoes or be careful where you walk.
Take a Boat Trip: The waters around this part of Florida are so beautiful that a boat trip is a must do. There are a lot of options from a quick sunset dolphin cruise, to a half day fishing excursion to a full day island exploring trip. My pick would be the Fun Run or Captain Casey’s Day Trip Special with Longboat Key Charters which includes a stop at Egmont Key, a couple of sandbars, snorkeling, and plenty of dolphin and manatee spotting.
St Armands Circle: St Armands Circle (on St Armands Key just south of Longboat Key) is the place to be in the evenings. This bustling area is packed with shops and restaurants. It gets pretty congested (it’s also the route from Longboat Key to Sarasota) so have plenty of patience going around the traffic circle and finding a place to park. There’s a newly opened parking garage, a parking lot, and a lot of metered spaces (free and paid although all are free on Saturdays and Sundays). Prices range from $0.50/hour to $1.50/hour and most can be paid via credit card or the ParkMobile app (make sure you know your licence plate number!).
Golf: There are a few golf courses on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island if you’re looking to spend some time on the links. The Longboat Key Golf Club is the premier place to golf in the area (one of the best in the country) and they have two courses (the Harbourside Course which has three different nines that you can combine and the Links of Longboat). There’s also the Key Royale Golf Club on Anna Maria Island. Besides these courses on the islands, there are LOADS of courses on the mainland at Bradenton and Sarasota.
Tennis: If you like to work on your tennis game on vacation, check out the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center, or consider staying at the Resort at the Longboat Key Club where they have a pretty extensive tennis program.
If you’re looking for more things to do nearby (but off island), check out these posts:
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