Last updated on November 14, 2022 by Wandering our World
If you’re planning a vacation in the Sunshine State but haven’t quite yet decided which city you wish to explore, then both Sarasota and Clearwater deserve your attention.
These two cities sit on Florida’s west coast, looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, and are separated by Tampa Bay and a mere fifty miles. A little less rowdy than their larger Atlantic coast siblings, both Sarasota and Clearwater still have plenty to offer, with stunning beaches, excellent bars and restaurants, and plenty of activities to keep you busy.
At first glance, these two destinations appear very similar, but there are a few subtle differences – as we will delve into in more detail here. But in a nutshell, whereas they both have access to excellent beaches, good shopping, and an array of bars and restaurants, Clearwater is a little busier and more crowded.
Sarasota can feel a little bit more tranquil and relaxing, especially at weekends or during holiday periods. As the smaller and quieter of the two locations, Sarasota can be the better option for families, whilst the college crowd and the activity seekers may prefer Clearwater overall.
So which one is best for you? Read on as we conduct a deep dive into these two delightful destinations in Florida to help you choose the right one for you!
- Which Is Easier To Get To
- Which Has The Best Hotels
- Which Has The Best Vibe
- Which Is Better For Beaches
- Which Has The Most Impressive Natural Beauty
- Which Is Best For Scuba Diving & Snorkeling
- Which Has The Best Nightlife
- Which Is Best For Families
- Which Is More Expensive
- What Time Of Year Is Best
- Our Final Thoughts
Which Is Easier To Get To?
Depending on your point of origin, both Sarasota and Clearwater are pretty simple to get to, especially if you are already in the US.
Sarasota is served by Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ), just a few miles outside the city. The airport is well connected with direct flights from most major cities in the eastern states and a few of the larger cities in middle America. But if you are looking to fly from the US’ west coast into Sarasota-Bradenton, you may need two flights.
Clearwater is also served by a local airport, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE). The airport is situated between Clearwater and its neighboring city of St. Petersburg and is also well served by direct flights from the major cities in the eastern states.
If you are located a bit farther afield, fear not. Both Sarasota and Clearwater are also easily reached from Tampa International Airport (TPA). The airport at Tampa is much larger and handles many more direct flights than its smaller neighbors.
Direct flights arrive at Tampa International Airport from some of the major cities on the US’s western seaboard too, and from a few major European cities. London, Frankfurt, and Zurich can all offer you direct passage to Tampa International Airport.
From Tampa airport, the drive into Clearwater would take around thirty minutes, depending on the time of the day. And to reach Sarasota, the drive would be closer to one hour.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
Once you have your flight booked, the next step is to check out the accommodation options in both locations. Both cities boast an array of accommodation options to choose from. And if you are looking for high-end accommodation, some of the hotel world’s big players have properties in these locations, including Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Sheraton.
For high-end hotels in Sarasota, check out the Hyatt Residence Club Sarasota. Situated on the beach, with gourmet restaurants, a fitness center, and stunning ocean views, the Hyatt Residence Club is a popular choice.
If you are searching for luxury options in Clearwater, the excellent location of the Opal Sands Resort & Spa – see photo below – should not be overlooked. The rooms all afford a Gulf view, and the hotel’s amenities are second-to-none. Opal Sands is also dog-friendly, so if your pooch also needs a break and loves a evening stroll along the beach, look no further.
If you prefer to allocate a smaller slice of your budget to accommodation, both cities have plenty of choice for mid-range and budget hotels. Clearwater is the larger of the two locations and will have a few more options for you to sift through than Sarasota. And with both cities being on the coast, you won’t be too far from the beaches and nightlife.
Which Has The Best Vibe?
Despite being only fifty miles apart, the atmosphere in each of these Florida destinations is distinct.
As the larger city of the two, Clearwater (see photo below) has a more bustling vibe than its quieter neighbor. There’s a bit more going on here, especially during the weekends.
Clearwater does attract the college crowd too, so weekends and holidays can get a little crowded at the beach. But, rest assured, Clearwater does not get the same level of college partying as Miami Beach or Cancun.
Being the larger city, Clearwater can also boast a higher density of bars, restaurants, and shopping centers close to the main beach areas. With the big city just behind the beach, Clearwater can give you better options for finding something to do if the weather prevents you from enjoying the beach.
Sarasota offers a more chilled vibe than its slightly noisier neighbor. The vibe here is a little more artsy and relaxed, with things more spread out and the beach areas less built-up.
There are still plenty of bars and restaurants in Sarasota, but they are less densely packed and the city has a more open feel. The skyline at the beach is also less dominated by high-rise resorts, with more residential areas close to the ocean.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
If access to excellent beaches is a top priority when selecting your vacation destination, neither Clearwater nor Sarasota will let you down. Both have easy access to a myriad of superb beaches, and with both being on Florida’s west coast, both can give you a spectacular beach sunset to enjoy with a gin and tonic.
Clearwater: The Beaches
Clearwater’s two most accessible beaches are Sand Key Beach and Clearwater Beach.
Clearwater Beach has consistently been voted as one of the United States’ best beaches. Situated just a short drive over the causeway from the center of the city, this popular beach has inviting waters and soft white sand.
The proximity to the city ensures excellent amenities too, including plenty of bars and restaurants. Clearwater Beach is also home to Pier 60, one of the best fishing piers in Florida. Pier 60 offers access to fishing activities, fine dining, shopping, and entertainment in addition to access to the white-sand beaches. At Pier 60, there is a nightly celebration of the sunset, with street performers and dining options available.
Sand Key Beach is just a stone’s throw away from Clearwater Beach, on the next key down. A less-than-ten-minute drive over the causeway linking the two keys means you can enjoy the morning on one beach and then switch to the other for some afternoon sunbathing.
Sand Key is a little quieter and less crowded than Clearwater Beach, especially at the weekend. This beach is perfect for families too; there is a seasonal playground, and the beach is manned by lifeguards.
If you are looking for a more romantic and relaxing beach, head north to Honeymoon Island. Located on the next key up from Clearwater Beach, Honeymoon Island Beach is easy to reach. From central Clearwater, the drive is around twenty minutes. This beach is more tranquil and secluded than the more central Clearwater Beach and Sand Key Beach.
Sarasota: The Beaches
Sarasota also boasts its fair share of superb beaches.
Lido Beach is the most convenient to the city center of Sarasota. A short drive over the causeway will have you swapping the shops for sand in under ten minutes. This beach is also family-friendly and has delightful powdery-soft sand. The calm waters and on-duty lifeguards make it a perfect place for children to enjoy the Gulf waters.
A short trip south of Sarasota’s city center will bring you to Siesta Key North Bridge and over the water to Siesta Key itself. And this is where you can find the award-winning Siesta Beach, which is also often well-placed in polls of the US’ best beach. With powdery-soft sand and free parking, this beach can get a little busier from late morning onward at the weekend.
For a more rugged beach, a thirty-minute drive south from Sarasota will bring you to Caspersen Beach. This beach is excellent for rummaging around in the sand looking for shells and, if you’re lucky, a prehistoric shark’s tooth. If you fancy doing some beachcombing with the kids, head here at low tide.
There are nearby walking trails, and this beach is also a great spot for some sea kayaking. Keep your eyes peeled for turtles popping to the surface for a quick breath.
Which Has The Most Impressive Natural Beauty?
Let’s see what these two destinations can offer those seeking to enjoy nature next. There are plenty of hiking trails, parks, and nature preserves in the area, and both Clearwater and Sarasota can give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature.
If you fancy stretching your legs and enjoying the ocean breeze from Clearwater, the trails at Honeymoon Island State Park are worth checking out. In addition to hiking, swimming, fishing, shelling, and cycling are all popular activities at Honeymoon Island State Park.
There’s animals to spot too, so keep checking the skies above for large birds of prey, and scan the ground for tortoises and armadillos. If you have the kids in tow, the Rotary Centennial Nature Center provides excellent education for visitors about the park’s history and natural resources.
From Sarasota, Myakka River State Park is a short distance to the south-west. This 37,000-acre park has plenty of trails for walkers and hikers, and with a river and two lakes, there’s plenty of opportunity for boating, freshwater fishing, and kayaking too.
If the legs need a rest, you have plenty of opportunity to get close to nature and exercise your upper body in both locations too. Sea-kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), and windsurfing are also popular and easy to find in Clearwater and Sarasota.
Which Is Best For Scuba Diving & Snorkeling?
With their subtropical location and warm, clear water, both Sarasota and Clearwater are good locations for ocean lovers. There are plenty of snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities in both locations.
Snorkelers can enjoy a cruise to Shell Key from Sarasota. This excellent trip can provide the opportunity to see dolphins and turtles. Another option for snorkeling from Sarasota is the wreck of a 90-foot freighter called Regina, located about 100 yards off Bradenton Beach.
Honeymoon Island, north of Clearwater, is a great option for snorkelers too. The snorkeling here is perfect for families as you can find cool fish straight from the beach! If you want to travel a little farther, head to Caladesi Island State Park. You can catch a ferry across to this quiet island, and you may get lucky with a dolphin sighting here too.
If you prefer watching the marine life from below the waves, there are scuba diving opportunities in both locations too. Both areas have wrecks to explore: from Sarasota you can dive the aforementioned freighter, and in Clearwater you can dive the wreck of The Sheridan, which many divers consider to be West Central Florida’s best wreck dive.
If you fancy a day out, you can make the drive north to Crystal River—one of the best places in the world to find the bizarre manatee. It will take around two hours to drive there from Sarasota, and around ninety minutes from Clearwater.
Which Has The Best Restaurants?
When it comes to dining out, one advantage Sarasota holds over Clearwater is that it’s easier to choose your restaurant as there are fewer choices!
Fewer choices doesn’t necessarily mean less quality, though. As cities on the coast, both can offer excellent choices for sea food lovers, in particular.
For lunch, you can easily find restaurants close to the beaches with ocean views and al-fresco seating in both locations. There are plenty of choices in and around Clearwater Beach especially, but you won’t go hungry in Sarasota either.
If you want a fine-dining experience for your evening meal, again, there are choices. Cafe Gabbiano in Siesta Key Village is highly rated for those staying in Sarasota.
For Clearwater visitors, one of the most recommended restaurants is Caretta on the Gulf, located inside the Sandpearl Resort, a stone’s throw from Pier 60.
Which Has The Best Nightlife?
The quick and simple answer would be that Clearwater has the better nightlife. But that would be doing a slight disservice to Sarasota. While Clearwater is larger and busier, Sarasota does not go to sleep as soon as the sun has set.
The college crowd that swells Clearwater’s population at the weekends and holiday times means it’s easier to find a party. Begin your Clearwater party evening by going to the beach for sunset. You can join the nightly celebrations at Pier 60, or head to nearby Jimmy’s Crows’ Nest rooftop bar. This excellent bar offers 270-degree views of the sun dropping into the Gulf of Mexico.
After a couple of drinks, you can head north to the Shipwreck bar for a few more. Still want another drink? Then head to WAVE nightclub at Shephard’s Resort to party into the wee small hours.
Read more about Clearwater’s party scene here – A Local’s Guide To Clearwater Nightlife: Best Bars, Beach Bars, Clubs, Happy Hours, Entertainment & More!
You can have a great night out in Sarasota too: swanky sunset cocktails, bar-hopping, and hitting a night club till the early hours are all possibilities. With its artsier vibe, Sarasota is also great for live music and the performing arts.
Start your evening at Clasico Café and Bar with a craft cocktail or a Peroni, and then head on to The Gator Club where they boast of having Sarasota’s largest spirit collection. With over 500 bottles to choose from, this place is not for the indecisive!
Which Is Best For Families?
If you are vacationing with your children, it’s important to have activities to keep them engaged and free from boredom. Aside from the beach activities already mentioned, these two Florida destinations both have a few tricks up their sleeves for keeping the kids entertained.
In Sarasota, you can plan a family day out at the Ringling Museum of Art. John Ringling and his brothers were entrepeneurs of the circus industry, running “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Ringling became very rich and took his circus to Europe, where he started collecting objets d’art. The collection now exceeds 10,000 items, and the museum now runs educational family programs.
Another excellent day out in Sarasota is a visit to the Sarasota Jungle Gardens. This excellent attraction will educate about the local flora and fauna, with opportunities to get up close and personal with snakes, flamingos, and alligators!
For an educational and fun day out in Clearwater, head to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. They offer educational talks on such wonderful creatures as turtles, otters, and dolphins, in addition to running educational courses for any budding marine biologists out there.
If you get unlucky with the weather, you can take the family to Westfield Countryside Mall. This large mall has plenty of shops, restaurants, and an excellent movie theater. And if you can find a movie long enough for the kids to watch, and they’re old enough to watch it without you, there’s a winery less than ten minutes away! Check out Aspirations Winery, voted Florida’s best.
Which Is More Expensive?
As with anything in life, we should also pay attention to the financial side of things.
There is not a huge difference in budget required for these two locations. They are both decent-sized cities in the state of Florida.
With Clearwater being the larger of the two, it has more choices for accommodation. This competition between the accommodation providers helps keep the prices a little lower.
Sarasota is a little more up-market and exclusive. As such, the average hotel price is slightly higher here than in Clearwater.
When factoring in accommodation costs with other day-to-day living costs, the average daily spend in Sarasota is a little under $300. Whereas in Clearwater, the average daily spend is a little lower, closer to $250 per day.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
These two neighboring cities experience the same weather patterns as each other. So the best times to visit these locations are generally considered to be between March and May, and also between September and December. But be aware that Florida’s hurricane season may encroach on your vacations later in the year.
If you plan to visit from Christmas through February, you may find prices are a little higher and the population has risen. This is due to many visitors escaping the northern states’ winter in favor of the comfortable subtropical temperatures in Florida at this time of the year. Traffic can become an issue during these months too.
The summer months (June through August) can be plagued with heavy rains and high humidity. But at this time of year, you will be able to find cheaper flights and hotel rates.
Sarasota vs Clearwater: Our Final Thoughts
Only you can truly decide which of these two Florida destinations is best suited to your vacation plans. Both have plenty of excellent beaches and an array of activities to keep everybody entertained.
But if you are looking for something a little quieter and slightly more low-key, then maybe Sarasota will be the better choice.
However if, like us, you are struggling to pick a winner, why not visit both? These two cities are close enough apart that you could easily split your time between the two.
When it’s time to switch to the other location, you can have breakfast, get packed up and checked out, and be settled into your accommodation at the second destination all before lunch!