The heart of this waterfront town is the Sarasota Bayfront (Sunset Dr. and John Ringling Blvd.), where boats come in and out of the marina and views of the downtown skyline are balanced by the calming waters of Sarasota Bay. There’s not all that much to do at Bayfront Park other than take in the beautiful view or watch the kids splashing around in the playground fountains, but a leisurely stroll or just a moment of peace on one of the Bayfront benches can be a great way to acclimate yourself to Sarasota ’s laid-back atmosphere.
A mile or so north of the Bayfront area is G-Wiz (1001 Blvd. of the Arts, 941/906-1851, www.gwiz.org , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun., $9 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children, children 2 and under free), a kid-friendly interactive science museum. Scientific concepts are more explicitly demonstrated than they are in other such museums; thus kids will be engaged with exhibits like the Bernoulli Blower, an “oscylinder scope,” and others that utilize magnets, lasers, and simple machines. There’s an animal habitat area too with snakes, turtles, and hissing cockroaches.
At the southern end of downtown are the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (811 S. Palm Ave., 941/366-5731, www.selby.org , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $17 adults, $6 children, children 5 and under free). This beautiful 13-acre estate garden houses 20,000 plants—including over 6,000 orchids—in its eight greenhouses, as well as scores of tropical plants lining the garden pathways. You’ll have no trouble finding the banyan trees, but only once you’re close to them can you truly understand how massive these twisted giants are; your kids, however, will take to them like monkeys, which is perfectly acceptable. The first floor of the former Selby mansion is now a small museum with art exhibits.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens (3701 Bay Shore Rd., 941/355-1112, www.sarasotajunglegardens.com , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $14 adults, $13 seniors, $10 children, children under 2 free) is a truly old-school Florida  attraction. Founded in 1936, the 10-acre facility has managed to retain much of its charm, and people continue to arrive daily to explore the botanical gardens—which are allowed to grow in a relatively wild state—and check out the parrots, snakes, flamingos, and somewhat incongruously, prairie dogs. No one will ever mistake the Jungle Gardens for a top-shelf zoo, and those looking for a serene and curated botanical experience should head for the Marie Selby; the family-friendly atmosphere, however, is welcoming and a great way to pass a half-day or so.