To know Sarasota is to love Sarasota!
This is the home of Siesta Key Rum, the Siesta Key beach, the massive Ringling Circus Museum, and so much more! Sarasota is a destination that most gay travellers to Florida are likely to overlook.
We'll be very honest, before coming to Sarasota we knew very little about it. However, it turned out to be the hidden gem of our trip, a place we would definitely love to return to. As well as being a cultural hotspot of Florida with so many things to do, Sarasota also has a small fun gay scene worth checking out, with annual events like the “Harvey Milk Festival” and “Sarasota Pride”.
Following our trip, we've put together this detailed travel guide to Sarasota featuring the best gay bars, events, things to do, gay friendly hotels to stay, and more.
Must do in Sarasota: Dolphin-spotting at Sunset!
The sunsets in Sarasota are incredible! Definitely ranks as some of the best we've seen in all our travels. One of the most unique and romantic ways to enjoy it is onboard a Sarasota dolphin sunset cruise. The Salty Dolphin boat takes you to Anna Maria Island at sunset travelling through the grass flats where you can see manatees grazing and dolphins playing.
Sarasota gay neighborhood
The Sarasota gay scene is very small with only a handful of gay hangouts spread around the city. As such, there is no official gay neighborhood in Sarasota.
The focal point of the city where you may want to consider basing yourself is by the pretty Bayfront Park. It's close to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens as well as a few queer-friendly bars like the Pangea Alchemy Lab and the Westin hotel rooftop bar.
Purple Rhino is the main gay bar of Sarasota, which is located around 10 minutes taxi ride south Bayfront Park. Even further south is the Oasis club, which is close to famous Siesta Key beach.
The other prominent LGBTQ landmark you'll want to note is North Lido, which is the gay beach of Sarasota. It's located around 3 miles (4.8km) west from Bayfront Park – around 10 minutes by taxi.
Gay friendly hotels in Sarasota
Whilst there are no exclusively male-only hotels in Sarasota like the gay resorts you'll find in Fort Lauderdale or Key West, there are however a handful of gay friendly places to stay. We've set out some of the best ones below, based on our first-hand experience or from recommendations from fellow gay travellers:
Zota Beach Resort
Why we love it
- Luxurious beachfront resort on Longboat Key
- Has its own private beach
- Outdoor heated pool with hot tub
- Viento Kitchen & Bar serves Caribbean and Mediterranean food
Zota is an exciting and luxurious resort with its own slice of private beach on the understated and laid back Longboat Key.
Zota is a native American word for “blue waters”, which is the key feature of the hotel. The interiors have a beach feel with plenty of modern art displayed, making it seem more like an art gallery than a hotel lobby.
The hotel is centred around the U-shaped courtyard pool area, which is overlooked by two six-storey buildings where the rooms are.
Surrounding the pool are firepits, long couches and cabanas for rent.
There are 187 rooms, each with a balcony with pool, sea or bay view – ie always a zota in sight! For a splurge, we recommend the rooms in the “South Tower” because they have much larger balconies.
For the gym gays (ourselves included!), Zota has an impressive 24-hour fitness centre, overlooking the pool. In terms of food options, the Cascades pool bar has an inviting cocktail list and also serve up small plates, sandwiches and healthy salads. The main restaurant of the hotel is the Viento Kitchen and Bar, which specialises in local seafood – we loved the piña colada bread and the blackened jumbo shrimp, absolutely delish!
What we loved most about Zota is the focus on marine conservation, especially during the sea turtle nesting season on Longboat Key beach between May and October. In terms of location, Zota is a 25-minute drive north from Bayfront Park. We strongly advise having your own car.
Turtle Beach Resort
Why we love it
- Waterfront resort on the quiet end of Siesta Key
- Stay in a spacious cottage with private courtyard and hot tub
- Communal heated outdoor pool
- Minutes walking distance from Turtle Beach
The Turtle Beach Resort is a waterfront resort on the quiet end of Siesta Key, just a few minutes walk to Turtle Beach. It's famous for being gay friendly, recommended to us by other gay travellers and from Purple Roods LGBTQ website.
In terms of location, Turtle Beach Resort is situated along Montego Bay, which is ideal if you want to be close to Siesta Key Beach – it's around 10 minutes drive south from the world-famous beach. It's also a similar distance to the Oasis club. For the Bayfront Park, it's around 20 minutes away.
Turtle Beach is perfect for a group of friends travelling together. You can rent out one of the 10 spacious cottages which are a mix of either studio, 1-bedroom or 2-bedroom. Each one has a full kitchen, dining area and private outdoor space complete with large hot tub. No two cottages are alike. They each range in style, from Victorian to Caribbean and French countryside. The Turtle Beach Inn next door is the best choice for LGBTQ travellers because it's the hotel's adults-only section.
The Turtle Beach Resort has an outdoor heated waterfront pool, which is a cool place to hang out during the day. If you get lucky, you can even spot a few dolphins. Guests have free use of the resort's bikes, canoes, kayaks, paddleboats and fishing poles. Pro tip: Publix delivers groceries for you (via the app).
Hyatt Place Sarasota/Lakewood Ranch
Why we love it
- Best medium budget gay friendly hotel in Sarasota
- 24-hour fitness centre
- Large outdoor pool with bar and lounge
- Free perks: buffet breakfast and self parking
We love the Hyatt Brand. It's famous for being a strong ally to the LGBTQ community and even has its own unique Hyatt HyPride initiative, which we love!
In Sarasota, there are in fact 3 Hyatt hotels – The Hyatt Place Sarasota/Bradenton Airport, which is right by the airport, the upmarket Hyatt Regency Sarasota and the Hyatt Place Sarasota / Lakewood Ranch.
We like the Lakewood Ranch because it's a decent medium budget option yet still has amenities that every good gay boy needs, like 24-hour gym, large outdoor pool with cocktail bar, and, it's pup-friendly! We also liked that they had the latest newspapers available in reception to read.
There are 122 rooms spread over 5 floors. The rooms are a decent size with all the amenities you'd expect from a modern hotel. It's not as luxurious as Zota Beach Resort, but for the price you pay, it's a steal! Beds are king-sized and super comfy. The staff are famous for being super welcoming towards LGBTQ travellers and gay couples, though we'd expect nothing less from the excellent Hyatt brand!
The Lakewood Ranch is set in a 5 story building conveniently located by the Interstate 75, near the University Parkway exit. Nearby it has a Publix, several shopping malls and even a Whole Foods. In terms of drinking and dining options, the Lakewood Ranch has a restaurant, coffee shop and a bar/lounge. The only downside is that it's a good 15 minute drive to Bayfront Park, and longer to get to the beach or gay bars like Oasis or Purple Rhino.
Gay bars in Sarasota
The gay scene of Sarasota is so small that even gay locals we met advised us to instead head to nearby St. Pete to party. This is no surprise given that St. Pete is 5 times larger than Sarasota. Despite this, Sarasota still has a handful of places worth checking out for a fun gay night out, which we set out below.
For details of the latest gay parties taking place in Sarasota, check out the excellent SarasotaOut. It is updated daily and also includes the latest news about anything gay-related happening in Sarasota.
Purple Rhino is Sarasota's oldest gay bar. It has a local dive-bar feel, where everyone knows everyone. From the moment we entered, people immediately welcomed us and made us feel right at home. Purple Rhino also hosts some hilarious drag shows. We came here on a Saturday evening and saw a couple of shows, which you can see in our video.
On Sunday evenings, look out for their gay drag “Bingo Bash” event. Purple Rhino is located at 2920 Beneva Road. It is open every evening until 10pm (midnight on weekends).
Oasis is famous for its very handsome dancers who gyrate across the bar, clad in very tight underwear! It's open from around 4pm every day as a pub/bar, but from midnight onwards, it transforms into a dancing venue playing the best cheesy pop anthems – right up our alley! On Friday evenings, Oasis has a drag show hosted by Sarasota's resident drag queen, Miss Beneva Fruitville. Be warned – she is as FIERCE as much as she is stunning!
Oasis is located at 6531 Gateway Avenue. It is open every evening until around 2am.
Miss Beneva Fruitville is not only a star at Oasis, but she also has her very own iconic Drag Queen Bingo show over at the McCurdy's Comedy Theatre once a month – going strong since 2010. Trust me when I say, you have not lived until Miss Beneva Fruitville has heckled at you after you've cried out “BINGO!”. Miss Fruitville also performs a hilarious show after the Bingo has finished, often joining by some of her stunning friends!
Check out the Events section of her Fb page for details of the next one.
The Pangea Alchemy Lab is an intimate and very hip gay friendly speakeasy lounge in downtown Sarasota. It's famous for its craft cocktails and award-winning team of (very handsome!) mixologist bartenders who create delicious seasonal drinks. Pangea is the perfect setting for a date night, also a great place to get a bite to eat. We rate their cajun fries, the unique duck spring rolls and their grilled cheese – “for your inner spoilt brat”(!) – their words not ours!
Pangea is located at 1564 Main Street. It is open every evening until 2am.
On the first Thursday of every month look out for the “G2H2 Gay Guy Happy Hour” event for gay professionals across Sarasota. They meet at swanky lounges and eclectic restaurants around the city. You can sign up by clicking here to be notified about the next event. It's also the perfect event to connect with all the local LGBTQ friendly businesses. Each event has a small entry fee and includes appetizers and competitions.
Find out more on the G2H2 website.
The Westin is a romantic gay friendly rooftop bar located on the 19th floor of the Westin Hotel. It's a great spot to come for some really impressive panoramic views of the city skyline and of Sarasota Bay. Every single one of our local friends rated this as the #1 rooftop bar in Sarasota, particularly at sunset of course! In terms of drinks, they have an ever-changing list of craft cocktails. You can also get food here such as burgers, wings, fish tacos and lamb meatballs.
The Roof Bar is located at 100 Marina View Drive and is open every day for lunch and evening drinks.
Gay beaches in Sarasota
Sarasota is not shy of beaches at all! It has many miles of white sandy beaches, including the most famous of all: Siesta Key and an official gay beach over at North Lido. Here's our summary of them:
Siesta Key Beach
Siesta Key Beach is arguably the reason why most people know Sarasota. As well as being the title of an infamous(!) MTV reality show, it was ranked as the #1 beach in the US by Dr Beach. One of the reasons is because the sand is powdery white, like icing sugar. The sand is comprised of 99% pure Quartz, so it's always silky in texture. We loved Siesta Key Beach because as a gay couple, we didn't feel out of place here at all. We found it to be chilled and extremely relaxed. Locals didn't seem to bat an eyelid at all seeing two guys larking about in the water.
North Lido Beach
North Lido is Sarasota's official gay beach, also rated as one of the best gay beaches in Florida! Unlike Siesta Key beach, North Lido is more popular with LGBTQ locals. It is more secluded and private, lined with sand dunes and a large forest. The gay area is at the northern end. To reach it, turn right (heading north) from the lifeguard station and continue walking for around 1/4 mile to the dunes nearest Longboat Key and New Pass. Take note: despite North Lido Beach being so secluded, it is no longer a nude beach, so you risk getting a penalty if you're caught undressed. Anti-nudity laws are strictly enforced!
Whichever beach you go to in Sarasota, we guarantee that you will have a phenomenal sunset every evening.
Gay events in Sarasota
Despite its size, there are a number of gay events in Sarasota happening throughout the year including several Pride festivals, a film festival and an exhibition celebrating diversity:
Embracing Our Differences exhibit (Jan-March)
This is an international outdoor juried exhibition in Bayfront Park, which uses art to celebrate diversity. The exhibit consists of 45 billboard-sized works of art, each accompanied by an inspirational quote. Awards are given for “Best-in-Show Adult”, “Best-in-Show Student” and “People's Choice” categories, with the latter chosen by visitors of the exhibit. The exhibition has been taking place in Sarasota each year, since 2004, between January and March.
Manatee Pride (March)
Manatee is a neighbouring county north of Sarasota, which includes Bradenton. Since 2014, the Manatee Pride has been held across the Bradenton Riverwalk Pavilion every March. It's a family-friendly event with lots of entertainment and vendors. Even the local businesses get involved. For example, the Manatee County's craft brewer, “Darwin Brewing Co”, created a “Manatee Pride” beer in honour of Manatee Pride.
Harvey Milk Festival (May)
This week-long arts festival in Sarasota honours gay activist and politician Harvey Milk who was one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office in California in the 1970s. The annual celebration includes live music, films, speakers and performance art. It started in 2009 and takes place every May in downtown Sarasota. See more in the video below.
Fabulous Independent Film Festival (September)
The FIFF began in 2010 and has been growing each year. It's run by the same team behind the Harvey Milk Festival and takes place in several venues in Sarasota, primarily at the Burns Court Cinema. It takes place towards the end of September and features the latest LGBTQ films as well as the winner from the Youth Scholarship programme.
Sarasota PrideFest (Oct)
This recent addition to the Sarasota gay scene has become a massive success. Every October since 2014, Sarasota's official pride event takes place over a week with different activities and parties like LGBTQ bowling and the “naughty night” drag show at Oasis. The festival culminates on the final Saturday of the week with a large party at the JD Hamel Park.
Where to eat in Sarasota
Sarasota has many excellent restaurants spread around town. We've set out below a handful of some of our favourites that we tried and loved.
Euphemia Haye is another reason to head out to Longboat Key. Ask any local and they will rate it as one of the best restaurants in Sarasota. It's set in a wooden cottage, which is hidden amongst tropical greenery with palm trees studded in twinkly lights. In short, very romantic! The downstairs area is reserved for fine dining guests who can select one of the chef's specials. The Haye Loft section upstairs is more relaxed, which is where the famous “Dessert Bar” can be found. This was our favourite bit – an entire section of freshly baked cakes to make your mouth water!
Harry's is another local favourite, also on Longboat Key. It's been around since 1979 and is open all day for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Harry Christensen is the award-winning head Chef who's also been a fine dining staple in Sarasota for over 40 years – so you know you're in good hands here! Specials include local fresh food like crab salad, as well as German pancakes, Key Lime Pie and banana bread. They even have more elaborate dishes like Escargot and lobster risotto.
Dry Dock was our favourite restaurant in Sarasota for fresh fish. It's also unique for its location right by the riverfront on Sarasota Bay. It's won numerous Open Table Diner's Choice Awards including “100 Best Most Scenic Restaurant in America” and “100 Best Al Fresco Restaurant in America”. Culinary appetizer highlights from Dry Dock include Grouper Bites, Crispy Calamari and their oysters. For mains, we recommend trying their fresh fish, especially the Florida Grouper – delish!
Kilwins is THE best place in all of Sarasota for desserts and ice cream! The toasted coconut ice cream was my favourite and Seby loved the peanut butter. The only downside is that Kilwins is famous in the area, so there's always a queue that goes outside around the block. However, that gives you an idea of just how good it is, and it's a pretty quick moving queue, definitely worth the wait!
Top things to do in Sarasota
Siesta Key Beach is probably the #1 reason why most folk know about Sarasota thanks to that infamous MTV reality show! But this beach is a top highlight of the city for good reason, as is the Ringling Museum – once the site of the largest circus in the world. We summarise these below along with a few of our other favourite highlights of Sarasota to inspire your gay vacation:
Siesta Key is a very pretty beach and we understand why so many people rate it as one of the best in the US. We felt very comfortable here as a gay couple which was why we loved it. The sunset is also stunning. We recommend coming here just for this, or a more unique way to experience it is via an Electric Bike Siesta Key Sunset Tour. Another tip, head here on a Sunday at sunset and look out for the drum circle that takes place between lifeguard stands 3 and 4.
The Ringling was the most fascinating museum in Sarasota. It's a massive complex with a museum devoted to this once famous circus. At its peak, the circus was huge! They would travel around the country by train, setting up a ‘mini-city' to house staff and performers before moving on to the next city. There is an impressive miniature replica of the entire circus in the museum. We recommend taking a Circus History Tour led by a historian who tells you everything about the circus in detail. Top tip from us: every Monday, entrance to the Ringling complex is free!
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
One of the best place for flower background Instagram shots here! The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens used to be the former home of Marie and William Selby, owners of the Selby Oil company. After they died, the house was transformed into this beautiful flower museum. Highlights include the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden – an elevated rainforest display, the Towering Bamboo Garden and the Mangrove Bay. Tip from us: it gets super busy here especially on weekends, so try to come on a weekday and book your Marie Selby Botanical Gardens entry ticket online to skip the queues.
Dolphin Sunset Tour
The sunsets of Sarasota are spellbindingly gorgeous! Whether you watch them from Siesta Key Beach or from the Bayfront Park, we guarantee you'll be blown away as much as we were. One of the most unique ways we experienced the sunset in Sarasota was on board a dolphin sunset cruise. We took a boat that went into the Gulf of Mexico and spotted dolphins playing, with the backdrop of the sunset. We also got lucky and also spotted a few manatees grazing. Highly recommended!
If you like some activity and adventure on your holiday, we recommend trying a kayaking tour in mangrove tunnels. This is a guided eco-tour done by kayak, which if you're a couple, really tests your relationship as you try to paddle in synch…the number of arguments we had over this…! If you get lucky you can even spot a few dolphins and manatees. For us, the highlight was kayaking through the unique scenery of the mangrove tunnels.
Plan your trip to Sarasota
We've put together some handy hints and tips to help you plan your own trip to Sarasota. Read on to find out everything the gay traveller should know before they go.
Getting around: Very bluntly, you need a car here. Distances are large and although Sarasota does have public buses, they are not that frequent.
Travel insurance: Do not leave home without it! Whether it's a cancelled flight, stolen bag or unexpected medical expense, having adequate travel insurance will ensure you're covered. We recommend World Nomads. We've been using them for years and cannot recommend them highly enough. Their coverage is very comprehensive and making a claim online is very user friendly.
Safety and Security: No matter where you are in the world, you can encounter danger when travelling. We recommend the CloseCircle “virtual bodyguard”, which is a 24/7 online team that can offer you support wherever you are. Their service covers everything from practical travel advice to evacuation in the case of extreme emergencies. Read more about why we love CloseCircle in our article how travellers can stay safe.
Accommodation: We use Booking.com as a starting point to plan our trip as they have the best offers. They also offer free cancellation for most listings, which is handy for when you want a degree of flexibility with your travel planning.
Sightseeing and adventure: For more inspiration on things to do in Sarasota, check out the tours on GetYourGuide. They always inspire new ideas and the booking process is super easy.
When to visit: Sarasota is a destination you can visit throughout the year. It's always warm and tropical! Whilst June to November is the hurricane season, we came in late October and it was absolutely fine.
Gay map of Sarasota
Here's our gay map of Sarasota showing you where to find all the gay bars, clubs, hotels and sightseeing highlights we've mentioned in this post. Use it to plan your own amazing gay vacation to Sarasota!
For more inspiration:
- Check out our Fort Lauderdale gay travel guide
- As well as our ultimate guide to the gay bars and clubs in Fort Lauderdale guide
- We have a gay travel guide to Tampa as well
- Along with these romantic things to do in Tampa for couples
- Make sure you give our Key West gay guide a read
- Check out the Key West best gay resorts here
- And check out our Florida Keys gay guide too
- These are our picks for the best rides at Universal Orlando in Florida
- Make sure you follow these gay Instagrammers for more travel inspo
- As well as our favourite gay travel apps