Siesta Key

With a popular beachfront that boasts award-winning sand and stellar sunsets, the island is an ideal place for a more laid-back visit to the Sarasota area.

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Siesta Key is a well-known destination, but manages to maintain a low-key feel. [Lara Cerri | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • Beautiful sand and sunsets.
  • Quiet and quaint atmosphere.
  • Eclectic dining options.
Cons
  • Traffic congestion is bad, especially in high season.
  • There are few hotels on the island.

With sugary white, fine sand and crystal clear warm water, it’s no wonder Siesta Key is a regular contender for being the No. 1 beach in Florida and beyond.

The barrier island off the coast of Sarasota, between the Gulf of Mexico and Roberts Bay, has the long list of accolades to prove it, too. For example: Siesta Key Beach is one of only a handful of beaches from around the world to be named the No. 1 Beach in the world, not once but twice, by Dr. Beach himself, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a coastal ecologist at Florida International University.

Sarasota is a popular destination for snowbirds, the seasonal residents from Canada and northern states who flock to Southwest Florida in the winter months to avoid the cold weather. But the once sleepy seaside city has grown to attract international tourists year-’round.

Sarasota’s bay was once called “Zarazote” by native populations before the region was renamed “Sarasota Key” by European cartographers in the early 1500s. Major development reached the island in 1907, when “Siesta on the Gulf” was dredged and platted. The island was only accessible by ferry until 1917, when a bridge connected it to the mainland. The name “Siesta Key” popped up in the 1920s, and became the island’s official name in 1952.

Siesta Key is different than other popular beach destinations in Florida in that there aren’t many hotels that dot the shoreline. Instead, visitors often stay in mom- and pop-owned condominium units or vacation rental houses. Those rentals fill up fast, especially in the cooler months.

A small portion of the island is part of the Sarasota city limits, but the rest is Sarasota County. The key has a strong collection of locally-owned restaurants, bars and shops that flank the north and south ends of the island, and offer amenities like mangrove kayaking and boat rentals, paddleboarding and other water activities.

Every Sunday, hundreds of locals and visitors gather on the beach for the weekly drum circle at sunset for dancing, or just to enjoy the scenery. Another interesting note: There’s a strong Amish and Mennonite contingent around Siesta Key and Sarasota, which is a popular destination for the societies to go on spring break or work in the community of Pinecraft.

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GETTING THERE

The weekly drum circle at Siesta Key Beach is a family friendly gathering. [Lara Cerri | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Siesta Key is served by two airports. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) is close to town but offers a limited number of flights. SRQ does offer service to major hubs like Charlotte, Washington, Chicago and New York on carriers like Allegiant, United and JetBlue. Tampa International Airport (TPA), about an hour away in Hillsborough County, is much larger and has more flights. There are many ground transportation options at both airports.

The best way to get around Siesta Key and Sarasota is to rent a car, especially if you plan to fly in to the Tampa airport. The main north-south route is Interstate 75, although U.S. Highway 41 (the Tamiami Trail is an option if you like stop lights).

Either way, Siesta Key has two bridges, with routes that connect more or less directly with the interstate. On the north end of the key, closer to downtown Sarasota, is State Road 758, which is Bee Ridge Road through Sarasota but changes to Siesta Drive when SR 758 does a little jig through downtown. On the south end, S.R. 72 changes from Clark Road to Stickney Point Road onto the island. There are no tolls to take the bridges over to the key, but keep in mind that traffic bottles up when the drawbridges are raised to accommodate large boats going through the channels.

The Sarasota County bus service, SCAT, offers regular routes to and from Siesta Key. There is a line called the Siesta Key Breeze Trolley that runs all the way from Siesta Village to Turtle Beach.

Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are popular. There are a few “free ride” buggies that bring people to and from the public beach access to restaurants, hotels and businesses on both sides of the bridges.

Avoid the parking congestion by bringing or renting bikes. The key isn’t that big — it’s easily bikeable from end to end.

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PARKING

There are 13 beach access points across Siesta Key, some of them with parking and some of them without. There’s a list of parking and access points at the county’s website.

The very first one is at North Shell Road off Higel Avenue, for Shell Beach, and only has a couple of spots. You also could try to park in the lots in Siesta Key Village business district along or near Ocean Boulevard and walk to the north end of Siesta Key Beach.

The main lot of Siesta Key Beach is along Beach Road at Beach Way Drive. The free lot is spacious and recently renovated with new nearby pavilions, but it does fill up fast.

South of the lot, the main drag turns into Midnight Pass Road, where there are more access points. It’s worth noting that the public access for Crescent Beach, access point No. 12 at Stickney Point Road, only has a few spaces.

Turtle Beach, at the far southern end of the island on Midnight Pass Road, has a parking lot at Turtle Beach Road. There is also free street parking parallel to the beach (and a boat ramp) for a stretch of Blind Pass Road, until you reach a condo complex.

Residents in the adjacent neighborhoods don’t always care for tourists parking on their streets, but many people do it without issue and walk to the beach. If you’re staying on the key or nearby, Uber and Lyft are cheap and quick, too.

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BEACH SCENE

The waves off the Gulf of Mexico often make for ideal boogieboarding conditions for smaller swimmers. [Jim Hockett | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Siesta Key’s beachfront is broken up into three large sections: Siesta Key Beach, Crescent Beach and Turtle Beach. There also is tiny Shell Beach at the northern end of the key, which is so small the access point only has a couple parking spaces but a great view of Lido Key.

The beaches all offer a diverse crowd, usually with local families and small children, some teenagers and students around Spring Break, plenty of seniors and sometimes international tourists.

Siesta Key Beach

The main beach on the island, sometimes called just Siesta Beach, is wide, and requires a good deal of walking from the parking lot off Beach Road to the actual surf. Be prepared to haul coolers and chairs a good distance. Because the beach is so wide, visitors have plenty of room to stretch out. There’s ample room for volleyball nets or other games back off the shoreline. There’s also a playground, pavilion and restrooms.

There’s no need to worry about rocky conditions on bare feet on Siesta Key. The sand is fine and soft. It’s a great beach to look for unique shells and shark teeth. The water tends to be warm and shallow and there are rarely strong currents. The gulf comes with some risk factors, like stingrays (you’ll want to learn the “stingray shuffle”) and red tide, a toxic algae that kills fish and can be irritating to humans. Advisories are often posted when red tide washes in.

Smoking is permitted on the beach, and alcohol is fair game (just no glass).

Crescent Beach

Crescent Beach is basically the southern end of Siesta Key Beach, but is much quieter and laid back, almost like a private beach. It’s still open to the public, just with much less access.

You can get onto this beach, which is not nearly as wide, at either Stickney Point at the north end or Point of Rocks at the southern end. If you’re not staying at the condos or resorts along Crescent Beach, you’ll be stuck trying to find one of the few roadside parking spots along the beach access points.

The beach’s big claim to fame is being rated “the World's Finest, Whitest Sand” at the 1987 Great International Sand Challenge. The legend goes that Crescent Beach beat more than 30 other competitors to win the honor.

Turtle Beach

Turtle Beach is a stretch of beach on the south end of Siesta Key near Casey Key. It’s mostly home to private residences, but there is a public beach access not far from a local campground. There’s also a marina at this end of the key and a few restaurants, shops and businesses.

Turtle Beach tends to be a little more “natural” than Siesta Key Beach, in that the water is choppier, the waves are bigger, and the sand is more coarse and less manicured. The beach area is smaller too. In some places at high tide, the water laps at the edge of sea walls of private homes.

A lot of local kayak and stand up paddleboard enthusiasts hang out here on this quieter stretch of beach. You can paddleboard or kayak through the intercoastal area between Sarasota and Siesta Key through mangroves clusters, then come out at the other end on Turtle Beach.

This end of the island is the home of the controversial “Midnight Pass” closure, in which local officials closed off the inlet in between Siesta and Casey keys in the 1980s, forever altering the wildlife and natural water flow in that area. The neighboring Casey Key to the south is home to a few celebrities, including author Stephen King, fashion designer Michael Kors and, in the past, actress Rosie O'Donnell.

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WHERE TO STAY

Most of the accommodation offerings on Siesta Key are small condominiums and private vacation rentals. There’s only one true traditional hotel on the whole key.

Siesta Key Resort and Suites

A motel-like hotel at the tail end of the Siesta Key Village business district. Room rates vary depending on the season, but the resort offers basic hotel accommodations.

Tropical Breeze Resort

A good example of the cottage-like offerings on the key. Room types vary on the property, but most offer some limited or full kitchen amenities. This is a quaint and quiet way to enjoy Siesta without the hustle and bustle of a big hotel chain.

Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway

While this hotel isn’t technically on the key, it’s very close. The hotel is located just off Stickney Point Road, the main road to the beach on the mainland side, on U.S. 41. Its south bridge access offers a wider array of restaurant and nightlife options in south Sarasota, too.

Aloft Sarasota

This is a new hotel located in downtown Sarasota, which is a 15-20 minute drive to the beach, depending on traffic. It has a more urban feel and is walking distance to restaurants and shops in the downtown district. There are more traditional hotel offerings in the urban core of Sarasota, including a Westin, Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton property.

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The weekly farmer's market is an ideal place to find fresh produce for your rental's kitchenette. [Lara Cerri | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Siesta Key Drum Circle

Every Sunday at sunset, join hundreds of others for the drum circle for hula hooping, dancing and watching the sun set.

Siesta Key Farmers Market

Home to 25-30 vendors, this is a great place to look for local produce or homemade beachy gifts to take home. It takes place every Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Siesta Key Village district.

Siesta Key Crystal Classic

The annual sand sculpting festival in November draws artists from all over to create beautiful works of art from towering mounds of sand. Visitors can come early and watch as the artists work, or enjoy the weekend while they’re on display. If you’re still there at the end of the festival, you can even help knock them down.

Sarasota Film Festival

This well-known film festival, which takes over the city every April for about two weeks, has drawn celebrity actors to the region for decades. The films are screened at the movie theater in downtown Sarasota.

THINGS TO DO

The Beach Club

Made famous by the MTV reality show Siesta Key, this is a rowdy nightclub for any (legal) age group. There’s plenty of dancing, a variety of drink options, and rotating DJs.

Siesta Market

This small island grocery store has been a staple part of the Siesta Key Village for decades. It offers a wide variety of food and drink options, plus anything you may have forgotten to pack, but it’s known for its gourmet food options.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Mote is a marine science research laboratory with an aquarium that’s open to the public. From manatees to sea turtles to tropical fish and sharks, it’s a great place to spend a rare rainy day or just enjoy the water without baking in the sun at the beach. The aquarium is located on the neighboring Lido Key, about a 20-minute drive from Siesta Key.

Baltimore Orioles Spring Training

Ed Smith Stadium is the spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles. Located just outside of downtown Sarasota, it’s a fun way to enjoy the spring weather and some time outdoors.

WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS

Turtle Beach is a popular launch point for exploring the mangroves by kayak. [Lara Cerri | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Kokomo Charters

Take a private boat charter to see the key and the open water for yourself, or book an offshore fishing trip.

Liquid Blue Outfitters

This shop will get you set up with kayaks and paddle boards. Rent them on your own or sign up for a guided tour. Either way, they’ll point you in the right direction on the best spots to explore.

Oscar Scherer State Park

This park south of Sarasota is a great spot for a day trip in natural Florida. Here you’ll find hiking trails or you can rent a canoe to explore the freshwater waterways of Florida. The state park is located south of Siesta Key but it’s a short, 15-minute drive off the island. The park offers camping, too.

Bicycling

There are marked bike lanes on Midnight Pass Road, which cyclists and runners use in the mornings for beach views during their morning fitness routines. Traffic is generally forgiving of bicyclists, but be sure to follow the rules of the road.

Boat ramps

There are several boat ramps and paddlecraft launches on the key. Turtle Beach has a popular ramp bayside, as does the Siesta Key Marina off Stickney Point Road. Sarasota Key helpfully offers a list of each on its website.

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

Siesta Key Oyster Bar

Located in the heart of the Siesta Key Village business district, this is a no frills, casual restaurant. Don’t let the divey atmosphere fool you, the food is good. Get the oysters. Sign your name on a dollar bill and staple it to the wall.

Ophelia’s On the Bay

A longtime, elegant fine dining option on Siesta Key. It offers beautiful views of the water and excellent, chef-inspired cuisine. It’s great for a romantic date night. No dress code though, so feel free to wear shorts.

The Cottage

Another well known restaurant for its seafood. This is a smaller space, but it offers a quaint and eclectic atmosphere. If the weather is nice, opt to sit outside on the front porch and people watch, or sit out back in the garden to enjoy live music. Get the ahi tuna — you won’t regret it.

Daiquiri Deck

This landmark originated on Lido Key, but a new double-decker location recently opened at the south end of Siesta Key, near the intercoastal waterway at the south bridge. Known for fried seafood and American fair, but it also has an impressive list of frozen adult beverages.

Sun Garden Cafe and Toasted Mango Cafe

Looking for brunch? There are two top-tier brunch spots on Siesta Key. The first is Sun Garden Cafe, which prides itself on its organic, fresh breakfast offerings. But don’t be fooled, there are some hardy, savory meals too. Then there’s the Toasted Mango Cafe, which recently opened on the south end of Siesta Key. If you’re a waffle or pancakes person, don’t pass it up.

Yoder's Restaurant & Amish Village

Since we mentioned the Amish earlier, no visit to the Sarasota area would be complete without some apple pie at this Amish-run restaurant. There's also a deli and a gift shop.

SHOPPING

Siesta Key Beach (foreground) and Crescent Beach make for a great oceanfront experience. Most of the shopping is on the mainland. [Scott Iskowitz | Florida Beach Insider photo]

There’s a handful of boutiques, gift shops and other offerings on Siesta Key, but most of the shopping in the region is in Sarasota.

Mall at University Town Center

Sarasota is the last place in the United States to open a brand-new enclosed mall (in 2014). This mall, located near Interstate 75 as you drive into Sarasota, has many high-end brand offerings, including a Saks Fith Avenue department store.

Sarasota is home to two other enclosed malls, the Westfield Siesta Key, which isn’t actually located on Siesta Key, and Westfield Sarasota Square. Westfield Siesta Key is near the north bridge on the mainland. It was recently redeveloped and has a number of high-end stores, restaurants and a new Cinebistro movie theater.

Foxy Lady Siesta Key

A longstanding fashion boutique for women. It’s not cheap, but it offers one-of-a-kind dresses, tops, bathing suits and accessories.

Lotus Boutique

Not unlike Foxy Lady, this boutique offers designer clothing, shoes and accessories.

WHAT'S BREWING

JDub’s Brewing Company

One of Sarasota’s first and perhaps most well-known brewery, this is a must-stop for craft beer lovers visiting Siesta Key. The brewery’s taproom and outside beer garden is a 1990s-centric spot to enjoy some Florida beer.

Big Top Brewing Company

This brewery is somewhat hidden out by the interstate, with a circus theme (as a nod to how Ringling Bros. made Sarasota its winter camp) and a penchant for adding oddball flavors to their beers. How odd? They made one with Old Bay seasoning that grows on you after awhile.

Sarasota Brewing Company

A brewpub that makes its own beer. This may be the best place for a guaranteed bite, since they have their own menu, including Chicago deep dish pizza.

Calusa Brewing

A growing operation that makes beers with aquatic-themed names. This may be the best variety for grabbing a bite, thanks to the rotating food trucks.

Brew Life Brewing

A microbrewery not far from Siesta Key that offers several brews. They also have started offering their core selections in cans.

Justine Griffin is a native Floridian with a lifelong love of horses. When she's not writing about health topics for the Tampa Bay Times, you'll find her exploring Florida's state parks aboard her Thoroughbred, Mikey.

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