03/29/2015 04:22 EDT | Updated 05/29/2015 05:59 EDT

5 Things to Do in Sarasota

As a winter-spring getaway, Sarasota County is a classic. And on this artsy stretch of Florida's West Coast, it's not all about the beach. You can be as busy as you want with a whole different playlist of things to do. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

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Because it's not all about that beach ...

As a winter-spring getaway, Sarasota County is a classic. It's known for its beautiful Gulf of Mexico beaches -- Siesta Key, with its long crescent of fine white quartz sand, has been named #1 in North America -- along the string of barrier islands that dot the county's coastline.

And on this artsy stretch of Florida's West Coast, it's not all about the beach. You can be as busy as you want with a whole different playlist of things to do. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Circus Sarasota

The Fabulous Wallendas - Photo: Lin Stranberg

Sarasota is the circus capital of the world, so it would be crazy to miss out on some big top magic. The non-profit Circus Arts Conservatory stages Circus Sarasota, a European style one-ring show with global acts and local superstars the Fabulous Wallendas; Cirque des Voix, with a live orchestra and huge vocal chorale, and Sailor Circus, with young performers in the "greatest little show on earth."

2. Spend a day in old Florida

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Well, not really, but Myakka River State Park will help you imagine the pre-Disney Florida experience. Myakka lives up to its title as one of Florida's Wild and Scenic Rivers, with almost 60 square miles tailor-made for kayaking, fishing, canoeing, camping, hiking and cycling. There are airboats and alligators and exotic birds, oh my. Take an airboat ride for some birding and gator-spotting around the lake.

And if you're a savvy planner, you may be lucky enough to snag a reservation for a 2016 stay in one of the palm log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s (they're now undergoing major renovations).

Photo: Lin Stranberg

3. Get fresh -- eat fish

Old Florida-style waterside fish joints are getting scarce, but there are still a few spots in Sarasota County where you can sit on patio sets near the water and order up what could be the best fresh snapper and grouper in the state. Blackened, grilled, broiled or fried, who cares? It's all good. Try the Casey Key Fish House for Chef Willie's fabulous fish at really reasonable prices, and the Dry Dock Waterfront Grill on Longboat Key for their great grouper sandwich.

If you want a more elegant take on the fish house experience, head straight to Jack Dusty at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, where you can sit out in style. Gaze out at the marina, get pampered by the amazing service, and bliss out on a perfect grouper sandwich by Chef Caleb Taylor.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

4. Reboot your body, soothe your soul

Do a little Googling and plug into your choice of yoga (ground or aerial), Pilates, barre, crossfit, and gyms galore. For a total body blast, reserve a Megaformer/Lagree Fitness workout at Mantra SRQ, then slink off to the L. Spa for a soul-soothing treatment or two. (It's your body we're talking about here, so don't save it up for a rainy day.)

5. All things Ringling

When John and Mabel Ringling wintered here in the early days of the 20th century, they brought more than the circus. Today, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, the Asolo Theatres and the Ringling College of Art and Design form a kind of cultural must-see zone on the funky North Tamiami trail.

The museum's permanent collection shows off Ringling's trove of works by Velasquez, Rubens and Hals and, in the formal gardens, a Neapolitan bronze of Michaelangelo's David. But the real eye-opener is Joseph's Coat, a magnificent and mysterious James Turrell Skyspace (bring a blanket and lie on the floor for an hour-long sunset viewing). The circus museum has ogle-worthy costumes, wagons, and the Ringlings' own railway car as well as the biggest miniature circus in the world. The whole visual picnic is laid out on over 50 acres of rose gardens and banyan trees right on Sarasota Bay.

Joseph's Coat, Courtesy of the Ringling Museum - Photo: Giovanni Lunardi

The Asolo Theatres

The Historic Asolo Theatre is a little jewelbox just inside the museum entrance. Built in Italy for the Queen of Cyprus in 1798, it was imported to the U.S. as Florida State University's theatre in 1949 and reopened to the public almost a decade ago. This season's heavyweight is the five-part contemporary "New Stages" series, including Julian Barnes's brilliant one-man tribute to Harold Pinter, directed by John Malkovitch.

A stone's throw away is the impressive Asolo Repertory Theatre, part of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts and known for its excellence. Best bet: any of the productions in the "American Character Project," a look at the many facets of American culture. Next season: the regional premiere of Living on Love, which opens on Broadway in April 2015.

The Ringling College of Art and Design

Photo: Lin Stranberg

The Ringling College of Art and Design, with visionary president Larry R. Thompson, is a leader in computer animation and game design (31 alumni worked on Oscar-winning movies this year). Its galleries always put on some of the most interesting exhibits around. And it's all set to open a new Sarasota Museum of Art early next year.

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