Did you go to the circus as a child? If so, you probably remember the bright lights, the seemingly impossible stunts, the dazzling colors and wardrobes, and not to sit in the front row. You might have felt awe and amazement at some of the things the performers did or gripped your seat with nervousness at the more dangerous but thrilling acts. The show is long over now, but you can visit the Ringling, one of the best-hidden gems in Florida, where you can explore all things that have to do with the circus.
Located in Sarasota, Florida, the Ringling offers insight into the circus’s birth, the individuals who inspired it all, and the performers who made it an unforgettable show. Even if the circus is not your thing, you can visit the numerous works of art that the Ringlings collected over their lifetime.
From the Ringling’s beautiful Venetian Gothic architecture, expansive European and Japanese art collection, interactive circus activities, and the most impressive circus model display I’ve ever seen, the Ringling is the perfect day trip if you want to take a break from the beach or need a rainy day activity that will be fun for all.
Admission and Parking at the Ringling
- You can visit free on Mondays for the Museum of Art and the Bayfront Gardens! Hours to the Ringling and additional admission information can be found on the Ringling’s website at https://www.ringling.org/hours-and-admission.
- Visiting inside the Ca’ d’Zan is an additional $10 on top of the regular $25 adult admission fee ($35 total to include the Ca’ d’Zan) but well worth the extra cost. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, you can only visit the first floor of the Ca’ d’Zan at the moment, but they show images of what the upper floors look like.
- Parking at the Ringling is free. We parked at the Florida State University Performing Arts Lot, but there is also additional parking near the bay.
Other Tips for Visiting This Hidden Gem
- Plan at least half of the day or a full day to visit the Ringling as there is much to see and do. We spent the full day and still didn’t see everything.
- Don’t forget your headphones for the free audio tours! There will be a QR code you can scan with your phone at the entrance to the Ca’ d’Zan and the Art Museum that will give you access to the audio tours.
- Certain galleries are currently closed in the Art Museum as restorations and renovations are currently ongoing; however, there is still plenty of amazing artwork and objects to see!
- If you come hungry, the Ringling has eateries on-site, including The Ringling Grillroom, Mable’s Coffee and Tea (limited menu from Starbucks included), and the Wandering Chef Food Truck.
- Don’t forget to explore the Bayfront Gardens, including The Secret Garden, where John and Mable Ringling are buried, and Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden.
A Look Inside the Ringling
When you see the Ringling, you will understand why it is one of the best-hidden gems in Florida. The grounds of the Ringling are enormous and comprise the Circus Museum, the Museum of Art, the Bayfront Gardens, the Education Center, the Asolo Theater, and the Ca’ d’Zan, home to John and Mable Ringling.
A map can be found on Ringling’s website at https://www.ringling.org/guides-maps.
Below are the different areas you can see during your visit to the Ringling:
When you think of Florida, you might not necessarily think of something as unique as the Ca’ d’Zan. In fact, if you look at the pictures at first glance, you might think it’s from someplace in Venice, Italy. The Venetian Gothic-inspired architecture stands out on Sarasota Bay and reminds me of the opening scene of the 1920s houses in Long Island, New York, in the 2013 movie, The Great Gatsby.
Completed in 1926, the Ca’ d’Zan was home to John Ringling and his wife, Mable. John Ringling and his four brothers operated the Ringling Bros. Circus, later combined with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Ca’ d’Zan literally means the “House of John” in Venetian dialect and is named after, well, you guessed it, John Ringling.
The house is enormous, 36,000 square feet with multiple stories and a basement. Unfortunately, we only got to tour the first floor due to the ongoing pandemic, but the artwork and architecture inside are exquisite. The interior of the Ca d’Zan reminds me of Biltmore House in North Carolina, but on a much smaller scale with heavy Italian-inspired decor.
Some of the rooms you will see on the first floor include the foyer, ballroom, dining room, the court, kitchen, and pantry. We did not see the other floors that include the Ringlings’ bedrooms, guest bedrooms, servants’ living areas, baths, a game room, and a tower where you can see the surrounding Sarasota area. Perhaps we can view those next time!
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
The Ringling’s Museum of Art is the State Art Museum of Florida and stands out with its pink walls, palatial courtyard, and Renaissance-inspired architecture and decor. My favorite subject to photograph is architecture, and this museum brought me great joy with its symmetry, leading lines, and the way the light hit the courtyard at different times of the day.
As an advocator for education, John Ringling established this beautiful art museum as a gift to his beloved Mable and Florida’s general public to enjoy and learn for decades to come. They spent many years abroad and, over time, purchased a fair amount of art, eventually leading to the establishment of the museum to house their ever-growing collections.
Opening to the public for the first time in 1930, the Museum of Art is now maintained by Florida State University. It includes an impressive art collection including Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures, medieval and classical objects, and even lavish, furnished rooms from the wealthy Astor family.
One of the recent additions to the Museum of Art is the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Center for Asian Art. It consists of John and Mable’s Asian art collection and other artwork and objects, including art and prints from China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and others.
We did not see all the galleries during our visit as the Museum of Art is currently undergoing renovations. The final goal is to have 21 galleries for the public to view, establishing John Ringling’s original vision for the museum.
Want to know more about a day under the big top? There is not one but multiple buildings dedicated fully to circus history with all the circus memorabilia. Kids will especially enjoy this museum with its interactive exhibits and fun circus artifacts. Do you think you can walk the wire and shoot a human cannonball? It is harder than it looks!
Perhaps the most impressive exhibit in the Circus Museum is the Howard Bros. Circus model that depicts the entire day of the circus from sunup to sundown. The model has 44,000 pieces, and each piece is meticulously designed and strategically placed within the model.
Apart from the details of each piece, the Howard Bros. Circus Model shows the enormous amount of work involved in putting on a circus show, and it is amazing they did this all in one day!
It might not seem like a big deal now, but having the circus come to your town back in the early to mid-1900s was a huge ordeal. People from all over the area would come for a day at the circus, and the excitement of it would be talked about for weeks.
When you are done viewing the marvels of the Howard Bros. Circus Model, head on over next door to see the Wisconsin, John Ringling’s personal railroad car, where you can peer inside the railroad car to see what it would be like to live on this train while the Ringlings traveled across the United States for pleasure and business.
While you walk to each museum, don’t forget to enjoy the lovely gardens and the unique trees at the Ringling. The gardens themselves are hidden gems in Florida.
Perhaps the unique feature of the gardens is the Banyan trees, located right in front of the Ca’ d’Zan. They seem to be from some other world or a fairytale book, growing and slowly taking over the surrounding area.
Don’t miss the Secret Garden. It is a quaint, little garden adorned with statues and beautiful flowers, tucked away in a corner near the Ca’ d’Zan. It is the final resting place of Mable, John, and his sister, Ida, and you can visit their gravesites.
Not far from the Secret Garden is Mable’s Rose Garden. The roses were not really in bloom when we visited, but I can just envision the differential rose varietals and their sweet fragrance drifting through the sultry Florida air. Can you imagine having this garden in your front yard? I would spend my entire day here.
A Note on My Film and Digital Images
I am kicking myself a little for not taking more film images at the Ringling. These might be poor excuses, but it is partly because I couldn’t use a tripod in the museums for low light situations, and also, well, it was so dang hot.
I have a certain temperature threshold before I get too hot, and if I reach it, I don’t want to do much of anything, let alone carry around heavy camera equipment. But, as I said, these are poor excuses.
If I had a high-speed film with me (I only had one roll of Lomo 800), I might have pulled off more images in the low-light areas of the museums without using a tripod. I need to learn to trust that I can capture these images and not default to digital, which is so easy to do, as you might know.
Regardless of my images being film or digital, I enjoyed visiting one of the best-hidden gems in Florida, and I am happy to capture my memories of my time there.