The west coast of Florida is home to some of the top-rated beaches in the United States. So if you are looking for a holiday destination with powdery-soft white sand, verdant palm trees, and plenty of sunshine, then the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State could be just what the doctor ordered. But there are still choices to be made; should you plan a trip to Sarasota or Bradenton? Which has the best beaches, the best hotels, and the best nightlife?
The truth is that there are only twenty kilometers between these two locations, but they still have their differences, and you may prefer one over the other for your vacation. Both locations have a downtown and a beach area. Downtown Sarasota is a little closer to the beaches than downtown Bradenton, but not by a huge distance.
Sarasota is a little quieter than Bradenton and perhaps a little bit more exclusive. Their populations are similar in size, but Sarasota has almost twice as much land area. From Sarasota, you have easy access to the award-winning beaches of Siesta Key and some of the beaches farther south, such as Venice Beach.
Bradenton is also well-placed for beach access, especially if you stay in the Bradenton Beach area. From downtown Bradenton, you have easy access to the excellent beaches of Clearwater and St. Petersburg too—just a short drive over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans Tampa Bay.
We’re going to do a deep dive into many more aspects of these two fantastic locations to help you choose which will be best suited to your vacation plans. So join us as we finally help you choose!
- Which Is Easier To Get To
- Which Has The Best Hotels
- Which Has The Best Vibe
- Which Is Better For Beaches
- Which Is Best For Water Sport Activities
- Which Is Best For A Family Trip
- Which Is Cheaper
- What Time Of Year Is Best
- Our Final Thoughts…
Which Is Easier To Get To?
When planning a vacation, the first thing to address is how easy and how expensive it is to reach your intended destination. And the good news is that there is an airport located between Sarasota and Bradenton.
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) serves both destinations well, as the name suggests. There are plenty of direct flights linking the area to the eastern states of the US, but from farther afield within the US, you may need two flights to reach this airport.
The Sarasota-Bradenton airport, however, doesn’t make the list of the busiest ten airports in Florida, so if you are struggling to find flights to match your dates, you could also check flights into nearby Tampa International Airport (TPA) too.
Tampa Airport is much bigger and receives more flights than Sarasota-Bradenton, including direct flights from the US’s western states, so it may prove more convenient. The drive from Tampa Airport to Sarasota would then take around one hour, depending on traffic. Bradenton is slightly closer to Tampa International Airport, and the transfer should take a little less time to reach.
If you are based in Europe, there are direct flights between some of the major European cities and Tampa International Airport. London, Frankfurt, and Zurich are all linked to Tampa via direct flights. If you are not based in these cities, then a short-haul flight to one of them first, followed by a direct flight to Tampa, is one option. The other option is to fly via New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, and then get a connecting flight down to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport from there.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
Once we have our flights sorted, our next task is to find some accommodation. And there’s plenty of choice in these two locations. Whether you are looking for luxury or more budget-friendly accommodation options, you will have choices to make. So, let’s have a look at each location and the best accommodation options available for different budgets…
If you are looking for a luxury hotel option for Sarasota, look no further than the Ritz-Carlton (photo below). It’s located on the waterfront in downtown Sarasota and has easy access to both Longboat Key and Lido Key via the John Ringling Causeway. The hotel has suites with stunning sea views and some excellent dining options, a spa, and a beach club.
For more budget-friendly options, the Embassy Suites by Hilton, located close to the Ritz-Carlton, is a fine choice. Another excellent choice that will be kind to your wallet is the Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway. Despite the name, this hotel is not on Siesta Key, but it’s still only a couple of kilometers from Crescent Beach, which is on Siesta Key.
For a luxurious option in Bradenton, check out Pelican Post at Anna Maria Island Inn. Located in the Bradenton Beach area of Anna Maria Island, this fine property is a mere 150 meters from Cortez Beach, and facilities include an outdoor swimming pool and free private parking for guests. The Cortez Bridge also makes it very easy if you want to venture to the downtown area too.
In a similar location but a bit more budget-friendly, the Queens Gate Resort is another good option to check out. Offering an outdoor pool and a private beach area, this family-friendly resort is only a ten-minute walk from the beach.
The downtown hotels in Bradenton can offer the best value for money, and an excellent choice here is the Bay Breeze Inn. Its convenient location is close to Desoto Square Mall and only ten kilometers from the airport, and the beaches are only fifteen minutes away.
Best Of Both Worlds
If you are still struggling to decide between booking accommodation in Sarasota or in Bradenton, you could always book a hotel in between the two locations. With only twenty kilometers separating the two cities, it’s pretty easy to move between the two.
Zota Beach Resort is located in the middle of Longboat Key. A short drive to the north will bring you to Bradenton Beach, and Siesta Key and Sarasota are a short distance to the south.
Which Has The Best Vibe?
Bradenton is a welcoming city with lots of attractions, things to do, and plenty of opportunity to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle. The city boasts a rich Old Florida heritage, stunning architecture, lush parks, and access to stunning beaches.
Sarasota is home to fascinating museums, beautiful gardens, excellent restaurants, and a diverse choice of things to do.
With a larger area than Bradenton, Sarasota can feel a little more relaxing and peaceful, and the slightly higher prices give it a somewhat more exclusive vibe than its neighbor. With excellent access to the idyllic beaches on Siesta Key, Sarasota is a beach-lovers’ paradise.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
If you are looking for excellent beaches, you are looking at the right area of the world. The beaches on Florida’s Gulf Coast are consistently voted amongst the top beaches in the US.
Sarasota has excellent access to the beaches of Siesta Key, Lido Key, and Longboat Key. Whilst from Bradenton, you will have convenient access to the beaches of Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, as well as the beaches of Clearwater and St. Petersburg to the north.
But which beaches should you head to and why might they suit you more than others?
For visitors to Sarasota, the best beaches will be the ones on nearby Siesta Key. The three beaches on this island are all stunning: Siesta Beach, Crescent Beach, and Turtle Beach. Siesta Beach is often cited as one of the best beaches on the planet. The soft, white sand and clear, blue waters make it ideal for sun worship.
Recommended: A Guide To Siesta Key Nightlife
Crescent Beach is a long, gentle arc of powdery sand. It’s another gem of a beach, and at its southern end you can find Point of Rocks, a rocky area that is great for snorkeling.
Turtle Beach is a little smaller and quieter, but a little sportier. It’s a great place to come if you want to spend some time chilling in the soft sand and some time paddling a kayak or stand-up paddleboard in the calm waters.
Lido Key is another beach easily reached from Sarasota. This beach is reasonably tranquil with excellent amenities nearby, including a public swimming pool and bars and restaurants.
The Bradenton Beach area is home to the seven-mile-long Coquina Beach. It’s a relaxed beach, with fine sand and clear waters. There’s plenty of shallow water, which is perfect if you are vacationing with children in tow. This beach can get a little busier at the weekends, so if you are driving to the beach, it’s best to head down early before the parking is full.
The other beach to check out in the Bradenton Beach area is Cortez Beach. The squeaky-soft sand feels delightful between the toes, and it’s another excellent swimming beach. However, it may not be ideal for families as there are no lifeguards on duty and there are fewer facilities compared to Coquina Beach.
Manatee Public Beach on Anna Maria Island is another beach option in Bradenton. This beach has full facilities and is easy to get to. There’s deep and shallow water to enjoy, and it’s also a great place for a stand-up paddleboard session. This beach can also get a little crowded on weekends.
Recommended: Your Guide To Snorkeling At Anna Maria Island
If you are mobile, you can also travel north from Bradenton to check out the excellent beaches in the Clearwater area. To reach the northern shores of Tampa Bay, you can drive across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Clearwater Beach is excellent for families, with Pier 60, an aquarium, and a plenitude of bars and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the one-hour drive.
Which Is Best For Water Sport Activities?
If you plan to spend a decent amount of time in and around the ocean on your vacation, then both Sarasota and Bradenton can offer you fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, and a few other water sports.
Let’s have a quick look at the best water sport opportunities in each location…
One popular activity here is kayaking. There are plenty of places renting kayaks on the beaches, but perhaps the best kayaking experience close to Sarasota is the South Lido Mangrove Tunnels.
This labyrinth of narrow tunnels passes through a large mangrove forest teeming with sea birds, fish, crabs, and other marine life. Plan to spend at least an hour here, and maybe go during the week, when it will be a little quieter.
In a similar vein, you can also hire stand-up paddleboards (SUP) from many locations in Sarasota. Turtle Beach is an excellent spot for some SUP action. The beach access to the water is easy, and the waves are small and gentle.
Keep your eyes out for turtles coming to the surface for a breath, and when the water is at its clearest, you may be able to see some colorful reef fish cruising below you.
For snorkeling in Sarasota, head to the southern end of Crescent Beach, where you can find an area called Point of Rocks. The rocks provide shelter for the reef fish, and you will see more fish here than in the sandier areas of the beach. And if you are super lucky, you may even see dolphins playing in the surf.
If you enjoy time on the ocean and have a head for heights, why not give parasailing from Bradenton Beach a try? The conditions are perfect most of the time, but if the weather does pick up, you can parasail in the bay area, where it will still be calm.
If you fancy spending some time bobbing around on a kayak, head to Coquina Beach at the southern end of Anna Maria Island. From here, you can also tuck into the bay area if the waves pick up, and there’s a mangrove area to explore on the inside of the key.
For the best snorkeling in Bradenton, head out on a half-day cruise to Egmont Key. This tiny key sits in the mouth of Tampa Bay, and the water is clear, calm, and shallow—perfect for children to join too. The island features a lighthouse to explore, and if you keep your fingers crossed, you may be able to spot dolphins.
Which Is Best For Families?
If you’re heading to the Sunshine State with the kids, then you shouldn’t have too much hassle finding activities to keep the children entertained in either location. Both Bradenton and Sarasota have plenty of fun and educational activities for your little ones…
One excellent place to go with the kids in Sarasota is the Ringling Museum. This is Florida’s official state museum of art. It’s dedicated to the memory of John Ringling and his wife.
The Ringlings were entrepreneurs who shot to fame for their circus. The museum features many works of art, but it also has playspaces for the children. The kids will definitely enjoy the Circus Museum section of this family-friendly attraction.
If the weather turns bad, the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is a great place to take the kids.There are a wide variety of cool creatures for the kids to learn about, including sea otters, turtles, and manatees. There is also a large tank with a few different species of sharks cruising about. A trip to Mote is both fun and educational.
But, if the weather is fine and you want to explore the great outdoors, head to Urfer Family Park. There are hiking and biking trails, play areas, and plenty of space to run around for the kids. It’s an excellent choice if you want to get close to nature.
A trip south to Oscar Scherer State Park is another fantastic option for active families. Covering almost 6 square kilometers, there are plenty of outdoor activities to tire the kids out here. The lakes and rivers provide plenty of opportunity for fishing, canoeing, and swimming, plus the lake’s beach is perfect for a picnic. If you’d rather stay a bit drier, there’s also hiking and biking.
If you have any budding naturalists in your family, a trip to the Sarasota Jungle Gardens will keep them enthralled for the day. These excellent botanical gardens give you the opportunity to pose with a parrot or even hand-feed flamingoes. The brave can also get up close and personal with alligators!
Fear not! Bradenton also has plenty of family-friendly activities. One sure-fire winner with the kids is a day out at TreeUmph! Adventure Course. This adventure park is suitable for everyone over the age of five and features rope swings, ziplining, and plenty of wobbly rope bridges to traverse. A fun day out, for sure!
Robinson Nature Preserve is very easy to get to if you are staying in Bradenton. It’s a stunning natural park and is great for hiking, biking, and picnics. Walk the elevated boardwalks through the mangroves and keep your eyes open for osprey and other species amongst the impressive local birdlife.
If you are unlucky with the weather, a trip to the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature will both entertain and educate the children. The museum features some excellent exhibits, with the planetarium and the manatee rehabilitation center being the most popular. They also run special educational programs for children to join.
In downtown Bradenton, you can also plan a great day out with the family at the Riverwalk. There’s plenty of activities to join in with here, including the splash pad, a family zone, and a fishing pier. If you’re feeling active, you can join in with a game of beach volleyball or hit the skate park.
A family shopping trip to the Red Barn Flea Market is another great way to while away a few hours. It’s a great shopping experience, with all kinds on sale. It includes two food courts, a farmer’s market, and both flea market and garage sale booths peddling their wares.
Which Is Cheaper?
With only a small distance separating the two locations, there’s not a huge difference in expense.
Sarasota is, however, a little more exclusive, and certain things will be more expensive there. When taking a vacation, it’s the flights and accommodation that eat up the largest portion of our budgets, and the hotel prices are slightly higher in Sarasota.
In terms of general cost of living, Bradenton comes in just below the national average for the US, while Sarasota is just above the national average. But there’s not a huge difference, and with plenty of choices for restaurants, bars, and activities, you could plan a holiday in either location with a very similar budget.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
Florida is known as the Sunshine State, and you can expect a good amount of year-round sun thanks to its subtropical climate. But there are times of the year when it’s better to visit than other times. The fact that Bradenton and Sarasota are so close together means they share the same climate and weather patterns.
The winter months are a popular time to visit Florida, especially for people who come from cooler areas. The population of Florida swells at this time of the year, as many US citizens from the northern states head here to escape their winters. This influx of people can drive hotel and flight prices up, due to the increase in demand. Whilst the weather is fine at this time of year, it may not be the most peaceful or the cheapest time to plan a trip.
It’s generally accepted that the best time for a vacation to this area is during the spring months. At this time of the year, the sun is shining and there’s not too much rainfall. The weather is warm, dry, and comfortable.
As the summer arrives, the temperature can soar, and there’s more rain. The high temperatures and rainfall can make it a little sticky as this will also drive up the humidity. That being said, the summer months can bring cheaper flight and hotel prices too.
Bradenton vs Sarasota: Our Final Thoughts
The west coast of Florida, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, is a fantastic place for a vacation. The climate is perfect, there are a myriad of activities to enjoy, and the pristine beaches are amongst the best in the world.
When it comes to choosing between Bradenton and Sarasota, there is not a huge difference. Sarasota is a little more refined and exclusive, with slightly higher prices. Whereas Bradenton is a little cheaper but still has access to stunning beaches, outdoor parks, and great shopping.
And remember, if you are genuinely struggling to decide between these two locations, a hotel on Longboat Key, in between the two, will give you the best of both worlds. Whichever you choose, you will be enjoying some truly world-class beaches!