BAYFRONT PARK AND MARINA
Updated: May 4
Public Park in Downtown Sarasota Along the Bay
This public park is located in the Gulf coast city of Sarasota at the edge of downtown along Sarasota Bay. The park is owned and operated by the City of Sarasota Parks & Recreation District. The park includes waterfront greenspace, a walking trail, playground, public art, picnic tables, benches, restaurants, and a marina with boat docking and rentals.
This park is an ideal place to watch the sunset over Sarasota Bay. The Bayfront Park offers stunning views of downtown and the bay and a large abundance of activities.
ISLAND PARK FITNESS WALK
The walking loop trail is a paved sidewalk around Island Park, the peninsular part of the park, and it is a half mile (0.5 mile/0.8 km) in length. As you enter the park, you will see a cream/tan colored tiled 4 foot high marker labeled “Start! Island Park Fitness Walk”. You can travel the loop in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion…whichever tickles your fancy. On the top of the marker, there is a bronze plaque stating that the Olympic Torch was carried through the City of Sarasota on July 4, 1996.
This walk is beautiful any time of the day. However, in the morning, you will be more likely to see dolphins and manatees and in the evening near sunset you will most likely observe birds feeding in the sparkling bay. The sunsets are spectacular and you may wish to suspend your walk and grab a bench or sit in the grass to watch the sun kiss the horizon good night. I love searching the bay waters from manatees and dolphins and I really enjoy watching the sailboats that are moored in the bay bob in the gentle waves. When walking by the boats docked in the marina, I find it fun to read the names of the boat. I often think about what I would name a boat if I had one. What would you name a boat? There are a plethora of birds to watch. See the section below titled Bird Watching for more details.
This paved trail is used by walkers, runners, bikers, rollerbladers, skate boarders, dog walkers, baby strollers, and those in wheelchairs. On the weekends and around sunset, the loop is heavily trafficked.
When I want a longer walk, I have 2 options: walk around the loop multiple time or leave Island Park and walk along the Marina Jack Trail. By turning right when exiting the park, one walks toward Selby Botanical Gardens along the bayfront. The distance from the entrance of the park at Ringling Boulevard to the corner of Mound Street and Palm Avenue (Selby Gardens) is 0.4 miles one way. So a round trip is 0.8 miles (less than 1 mile total). One can also walk the John Ringling Bridge or to Hart's Landing by turning left as you exit the park. If you’re interested in Walking the Bridge or to Hart's Landing, read the details here.
There are 4 sculptures on Island Park and you can view them from the Fitness Walk. There are 2 other sculptures including the famous Unconditional Surrender just outside of the little Island Park. For a Self-Guided Tour of the Sculptures of Bayfront Park, click here.
On Island Park and near the peninsula, there are 6 works of art. The art is free and open to the public. The sculptures include the bronze sculpture by Glenna Goodacre of 5 boys cartwheeling, a splash pad (currently closed due to Covid), Steve Dickey’s bronze sculpture of dolphins, and the 25-foot tall sculpture of a sailor kissing a nurse titled Unconditional Surrender. For more details on the sculptures in the park, see my Self-Guided Tour filled with directions, artists, and details on each artwork by clicking here.
HOST OF “EMBRACING OUR DIFFERENCES” EXHIBIT EACH SPRING
Every year from January to April, Sarasota Bayfront Park hosts the Embracing Our Differences exhibit showcasing 50 selected quotes and billboard sized artworks to promote diversity. This art show is free and open to the public. This year’s (2021) exhibit is January 20 to April 1. “The 2021 Exhibit had an impressive response to the call for artwork and inspirational quotes with 15,912 entries pouring in from 128 countries and 48 states.” The quality of the art and quotes are spectacular. I’m always impressed with the depth of feeling and understanding that young artists and writers have about the workings of our world. In addition to the traditional field trip to the Bayfront Park to view the exhibit in person, teachers and parents can take Virtual Field Trips with their students. Also Online Lessons are available to homeschool, classroom, and eLearners. I’ve been to the park several times when there were buses of school children touring the diversity art show.
The majority of the Bayfront Park is a large peninsula almost completely surrounded by water; consequently, the Island Park is a great place to watch wading birds, common birds, and birds of prey. I often see great blue heron, snowy egret, green heron, white ibis, great egret, and yellow crowned night heron. The small green heron and the snowy egret (ones with yellow ‘socks’) fish for food in the marina by balancing on an anchor line waiting for a little fishy to swim by. It’s kind of comical to watch them after they jab for a fish and miss which causes the line to swing madly. One of my two favorite birds is the yellow crowned night heron. I love the colors and the little yellow ‘crown’ on top of their head. They’re very interesting to watch particularly when they are eating. Their favorite meal is crab and they will shake a crab by the arm until the arm is torn off. Before the yellow crowned night heron swallows it whole, the bird removes the other arm and claw. My other favorite bird is the roseate spoonbill which I have only seen a handful of times and each time it is around sunset when the spoonbill is searching for dinner in the shallow waters of the bay near the trail leading to Selby Gardens. The spoonbill slowly moves it’s spoon-shaped bill under water side to side in search of small fish and aquatic invertebrates. On three occasions I have seen a flock of green parrots most likely monk parrots. The parrots land high in the trees and require a telephoto lens or binoculars to see them clearly.
Update: April 2023: The playground and the splash park are closed due to a remodeling project.
The large playground is located on the small hilltop of Island Park and it is close to the restrooms and adjacent to the splash park, the Steigerwaldt/Jockey Children’s Fountain. The splash park is unfortunately closed at this time. The playground is mostly shaded by large canopy trees and there are also several awnings covering key areas of the playground. The surface of the whole playground is covered with a rubberized mat. At the entrance of the playground, there is an area with many picnic tables which are great for having a meal or eating cake at a birthday party at the playground.
The Living Seawall is an artificial reef and the goal is to establish a “Wildlife Oasis”…a home to sea creatures and fish. The Living Seawall was designed and installed by the local company, Reef Ball Foundation, in October 2018. This project was financed by the money the city received from the Deep Horizon oil spill claim. The Seawall is 250 feet long running the length of Oleary’s Tiki Bar & Grill bayside property in the Bayfront Park. In addition to providing a home to sea life, the Living Seawall will help to prevent erosion. Stop by the wall and look over the side to view the creatures living in the seawall.
A bio-Swale was installed in the park near the restrooms, Oleary’s, and the playground to help prevent erosion and improve water quality by concentrating stormwater runoff. A shallow basin was lined with rocks and native plants to remove debris and pollution. In addition to improving the water quality, the plants provide food and a habitat for locale wildlife. Stop by this collection of rocks and plants and look for insects, butterflies, and birds.
Activities I have seen people use the lawn for:
Game of chess
Napping in a hammock
Dog obedient lessons
Watching fireworks (July 4th and NYE, when there isn't a pandemic)
The canoe and kayak launch is located near the southern part of the parking lot, near Ringling Blvd entrance. There’s a little bit of a ledge about 2-3 feet to navigate to the water and there are no steps or convenient ramp. If you walk closer to Oleary’s, there is a more gradual incline to the water and easier to navigate. Unfortunately, there isn’t a rinse station for paddling equipment. I’ve only used this launch site once during covid shutdown. My husband and I paddled around the bay and went around Selby Gardens and the explored several inlets. We saw lots of birds and we were on the lookout for manatees and dolphins but we weren’t that lucky that day but it was a gorgeous sunny day with smooth as glass water so it was pretty great.
DOLPHIN AND SUNSET CRUISES BY LEBARGE
LeBarge Tropical Cruises offer dolphin and sunset cruises. I have had the pleasure of taking the sunset cruise last year and it was so much fun. The cruise left the dock before sunset and we slowly motored to Big Sarasota Pass to watch the sun kiss the horizon good night. Live entertainment, tropical drinks, and snacks accompanied the beautiful sunset. The festivities continued with a slow cruise by the John Ringling Bridge and it’s colorful light show followed by viewing the lovely homes on Bird Key and Lido Key as well as stargazing before returning back to the dock. I recommend sitting on the top deck which requires getting in line early by about 30 – 60 minutes (depending on the season).
If you’re into casual, inviting ambiance of laid-back with toes in the sand kind of place with yummy food and tiki drinks, check out Oleary’s Tiki Bar. At Oleary’s you can eat a cheeseburger in paradise and sip a tropical concoction (that helps you hang on). In addition to a meal of beef, Oleary’s also offers fish dishes and gator bites which I’ve been told are the best in town. Most often, there’s a guy strumming a six string and singing Jimmy Buffett songs and other songs people know by heart.
BOAT RENTAL AND BOAT CLUBS
2 Marina Plaza
2 Marina Plaza (A-Dock) Slip 19
Lots of Shade
Dolphin and Manatee Watching
Pet Friendly (dogs must be leashed and picked up after)
Water Splash Fountain (currently closed due to COVID)
Free Public Parking (for 3 hours and no back in parking)
Deep Sea Fishing Charters
Boat Sharing Clubs
Hours: 7:00 am to 11:00 pm daily
*There is another waterfront park called Bayfront Park located on Longboat Key at 4052 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key, FL 34228.
*There is a park called The Bay Sarasota located around the iconic purple Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall at 655 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236.