Manatee County is home to a number of distinct museums, offering patrons an entertaining educational experience.
The area’s railroad history can be discovered at the Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum. The museum also houses displays of antique autos and historical memorabilia. Car enthusiasts revel in the 60,000-square-foot Sarasota Classic Car Museum, highlighting a collection of more than 100 automobiles representing over 100 manufacturing years.
The South Florida Museum, the state’s largest museum of its type, interprets the history of the region through dioramas, exhibits, fossils and a wealth of artifacts that date from the Pleistocene era to today. The museum is home to the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium and the area’s manatee mascot, Snooty, the oldest living manatee to be born and raised in a protected environment. Marine life can also be accessed through the Mote Marine Laboratory, which features a 135,000-gallon shark tank and a number of exhibits including one that provides for a hands-on aquatic experience.
Children and families delight in the interactive fun and education available at G.WIZ-The Hands-On Science Museum. The modern 33,000-square-foot museum, located in downtown Sarasota, is packed with a multitude of permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as an assortment of great programming for children through adults.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is the legacy of circus entrepreneur and art collector John Ringling and his wife, Mable. The 66-acre estate on Sarasota bay includes the Museum of Art; the Venetian-Gothic Ca’ d’Zan mansion, winter-residence of John and Mable; historic grounds and gardens; the eighteenth-century Historic Asolo Theater; and the Circus Museums, featuring the Wisconsin railroad car and the world’s largest miniature circus at the Tibbals Learning Center.
John Ringling left his art collection and estate to the State of Florida. In 2000, the State transferred stewardship to Florida State University, establishing the Ringling Estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the country. Today, the Museum of Art displays European, American and Asian works. The Old Master paintings, among the rarest in the U.S., are the most important of the museum's holdings. It also features an extensive modern and contemporary collection.Other museums not to be missed include the Family Heritage House Museum, which accounts for the history and cultural achievements of African Americans; the Crosley Museum, part of Powel Crosley’s estate listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, which offers a glimpse into the robust agricultural industry of the county, past and present.
The people of Manatee County take pride in maintaining the area’s deep heritage and have established a multitude of preserved historical sites allowing patrons the chance to step back in time. The Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site is an ancient Native American site that boasts of successful excavations revealing at least three periods of related culture dating back 2,000 years.
Travel along Hernando DeSoto’s original expedition route at the DeSoto National Memorial. Make sure to stop at the Visitor Center to view the 21-minute film on the DeSoto story, as well as numerous artifacts from that specific era.
Local history buffs can learn more about Bradenton’s heritage at the Cortez Historic Fishing Village and the Palmetto Historical Park, while Manatee Village Historical Park is the ideal place to visit to gain knowledge on the county’s past. Such structures as a “Cracker Gothic”-style home, a single-room schoolhouse, a barn and smokehouse and a church dating back to 1889 bring to life the history of Manatee County.
The Gamble Plantation stands as the county’s oldest building, dating back to 1844 when Major Robert Gamble constructed the home on this 16-acre park. The plantation was once one of the country’s most lucrative sugarcane plantations and is now the only remaining plantation of its kind in the state.
Ten acres of natural beauty lie within northwest Bradenton at the Palma Sola Botanical Park. Tranquil gardens featuring a collection of rare palms, fruits and flowering trees are complemented by three lakes here. Nearby Sarasota is home to the 9.5-acre lakefront property, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which is filled with more than 20,000 plants and is best known for its large collection of 6,000 orchids.
Another great way to spend the day outdoors is at nearby Sarasota Jungle Gardens, a family-friendly attraction spotlighting 10 acres of tropical vegetation and trails as well as educational programming. In addition, the gardens are a sanctuary for a variety of animals including reptiles, birds, mammals and the popular flamingos.
Jump in the car and hop onto the Gulf Coast Heritage Trail, an auto tour route linking the region’s 117 environmental, cultural and historical sites. Facilities such as museums, visitor centers and cultural centers offer an array of educational and recreational activities along the trail, while other locations provide for outdoor fun such as scenic walking trails, areas designated for wildlife viewing, bicycling, kayaking, canoeing and much more.
Robinson Preserve stands out as one more pristine gem in Manatee County. After decades as farmland, the 487 acres have been restored to a coastal wetland stretching along Tampa Bay and Perico Bayou at the northwestern corner of Bradenton. Robinson’s includes 2.5 miles of kayaking and canoeing waterways and 12 acres of open water; 100 species of birds and 75 species of fish, mollusks and invertebrates; 56 acres of marshland and 10 acres of uplands; and 10 miles of trails. The pathways through mangrove forests, the six bridges, the boardwalk and the 53-foot observation tower give preserve patrons those views that become cherished images of nature.
Manatee County and its surrounding region are teeming with opportunities for the sports enthusiast. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL) play from August through December, with the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL) offering a regular season lasting from October through April. The area is also a baseball haven. The Tampa Bay Rays (MLB) are located a short distance away in St. Petersburg. The Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB) call Bradenton home in the spring and play ball at Bradenton’s McKechnie Field. Minor Leaguers utilize Pirate City fields for year-round training, which showcases talent from around the world and some of Major League’s future all-stars. The Bradenton Marauders, a High-A Baseball Club recently acquired by the Pirates, calls Bradenton home for Florida State League play. The area also offers opportunities to view and participate in such sports as golf, tennis, polo, cricket and archery.