No trip to Sarasota is complete without visiting the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. This spectacular 66-acre complex overlooks Sarasota Bay and is actually comprised of the State Art Museum of Florida, the Circus Museum, the Ca’ d’Zan, and Bayfront Gardens. It has been called one of Florida’s hidden gems for good reason. The entire family can spend a day marveling at the treasures inside.
Address: 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34243
The Ringling is easily accessible by car or bus. Parking is free. It is open daily, from 10 am to 5 pm. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
The Ringling was established in 1927 as the legacy of John and Mabel Ringling. John, the best known of the seven Ringling brothers, was an avid art collector. Five of the Ringling brothers merged the Barnum & Bailey Circus with their own Ringling Bros World’s Greatest Shows to create a virtual monopoly of traveling circuses. In 1919, the circus made the decision to move the winter quarters to Sarasota. In 1926, John became the last surviving brother, the same year that his 30-room mansion, the Ca’ d’Zan, was completed. John Ringling, one of the wealthiest men in America during the 1920s, willed his property and art collection to the State of Florida upon his death in 1936.
Since then, more than 150,000 square feet have been added to the campus, which also includes the historic Aslo Theater. Here are the top tips for enjoying this incredible Sarasota landmark.
The art museum, looking like a pink palace, is what many come to see with 31 galleries and a U-shaped courtyard that allows visitors to walk out and breathe in some fresh saltwater between exhibits. There are all types of priceless art on display, from paintings, sculptures, and photographs, many that John and Mabel collected from their travels. Other pieces are loaned from other collections and change periodically. There are more than 10,000 objects from ancient through contemporary periods. Maps are available in case you choose a self-guided tour. Tours are also available and included with regular admission.
If you have children, allow them to have fun out in the courtyard, which is full of statues and fountains (the perfect place for a game of hide and seek). When you get hungry, there is an outdoor Banyan Café that offers light fare-like sandwiches. There is also a contemporary restaurant, Muse at the Ringling, that serves American cuisine. There’s even a museum coffee shop. Of course, you can always bring your own lunch and eat it in the picnic area.
Just a short walk away from the Art Museum is the Ca’ d’Zan. This was the 36,000 square-foot Venetian-Gothic residence of John and Mable Ringling in the roaring 20s and the five-story building offers stunning views of Sarasota Bay. You will need a separate admission to tour this house, but it is well worth it. There are several private and self-guided tours available. Highlights include the lavish furnishings and artwork, the 82-foot high tower, and a crystal chandelier from the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It is fascinating to breathe in the opulence and beauty of a bygone era.
If you want to learn more about the Ca’ d’Zan, bring earphones or earbuds. There is an app you can download and listen to as you walk through the building.
The Ringling Museum wouldn’t be the same without a tribute to the circus, and the Circus Museum includes historic wagons, lavish costumes, props, and exhibits from the Greatest Show on Earth. There is even a 12,000-square-foot second floor that contains archives of rare circus handbills, posters, art prints, business records, and photos.
At one point, the Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus traveled with 800 animals and 1300 staff members, plus tents, wagons, and sideshows. The Ringlings had their own upscale railcar, which has been restored and is now on display.
This playground is great for kids and features slides, a three-story playhouse, climbing ladders, basket swings, and even a water area. The playground is located near the Banyan Café and the Circus Museum.
Be sure to check out https://www.ringling.org/ for updates and ticket prices. Because of COVID, the museum is subject to closures and changes in its hours.