Explore a Hidden Gem in Florida: The Ringling in Sarasota

As a child, did you ever go to the circus? If you did, you probably remember the bright lights, the seemingly impossible stunts, the dazzling colors and costumes, and the warning not to sit in the front row. You may have felt a sense of awe and amazement at some of the things the performers did or gripped your seat with nervousness during the more dangerous but thrilling acts. 

Although the show is long over, you can still experience the magic of the circus by visiting the Ringling, one of Florida’s best-hidden gems in Sarasota. There, you can explore everything related to the circus, including the inspiration behind it, as well as the performers who made it so memorable. However, even if the circus isn’t your thing, you can still enjoy the numerous works of art the Ringlings collected throughout their lifetime. 

The Ringling has beautiful Venetian Gothic architecture, an expansive collection of European and Japanese art, interactive circus activities, and the most impressive circus model display I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect day trip to take a break from the beach or a fun rainy-day activity.

This article highlights what to expect on a day trip to the Ringling and includes visiting tips to experience the magic firsthand. And if you’re in the area and want to stop at one of America’s best beaches, don’t forget to check out my Siesta Beach article here

The Renaissance-inspired courtyard at the Museum of Art at the Ringling. Trees and statues are in the courtyard. A cast of the status of David is in the far center background.
The courtyard at the Ringling’s Museum of Art. In the center is a cast of Michelangelo’s David. Image shot on Portra 400.

The Location and Estate Map

The Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, is not too far from other popular destinations, including St. Petersburg, Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, Siesta Beach, and Venice. The physical address to The Ringling’s entrance is:

5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34243

The Ringling is a vast estate with five different venues and grounds that visitors can explore. Find an estate map of the Ringling here

A Look Inside the Ringling

When you visit the Ringling, you will soon realize why it is considered one of the best-hidden gems in Florida. The Ringling spreads across enormous grounds with different venues: Circus Museum, Museum of Art, Bayfront Gardens, Education Center, Asolo Theater, and the Ca’ d’Zan, once home to John and Mable Ringling. Read more about each below:

A modern building with reoccurring shapes at the Museum of Art at the Ringilng.
Center for Asian Art at the Ringling. Image shot on Portra 400.

Ca’ d’Zan

When you think of Florida, you might picture palm trees, beaches, and, of course, Disneyworld. But there’s something unique and slightly unexpected in Florida – the Ca’ d’Zan. At first glance, the Ca’ d’Zan mansion might seem like it’s from Venice, Italy, with its intricate Venetian Gothic-inspired architecture. It stands out on Sarasota Bay and reminds me of the opening scene of the Long Island mansions 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, which was 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 Venetian Gothic-inspired Ca' d'Zan mansion. Steps are in the foreground leading up to the mansion.
The Ca’ d’Zan Mansion is the former home of John and Mable Ringling. Image shot on Lomo 800.
The pathway leading up to the Ca' d'Zan. Palm trees are in the foreground. There is a sun-like design on the pathway.
The lovely pathway is lined with palm trees leading up to the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion. Image shot on Lomo 800.

The massive house covers an area of 36,000 square feet, with multiple levels and a basement. Unfortunately, we could only tour the first floor when we visited due to the ongoing pandemic. However, the artwork and architecture are exquisite. The interior of the Ca d’Zan reminds me of Biltmore House in North Carolina but on a much smaller scale with Italian decor.

Walking into the building, you will find yourself on the first floor. This floor is home to several rooms, including a foyer, a ballroom, a dining room, a kitchen, a pantry, and a court. The other floors include the bedrooms, guest bedrooms, living areas for the servants, bathrooms, a game room, and a tower that offers a beautiful view of the surrounding Sarasota area.

Inside the main room of the Ca' d'Zan mansion. There is furniture, art, and an organ that sits to the right side of the room.
Inside the Court at the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion. You can sometimes hear the music across the bay when they play the organ. Image shot on Lomo 800.
Decorative ceiling in an interior room of the Ca' d'Zan.
You can see stunning art everywhere you turn inside the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion. Image shot on Portra 400.

My favorite room was the Dining Room with its rich colors, gold accents, and faux “wood” ceiling (it’s actually painted plaster!). I can only imagine the various conversations held amongst guests at the long dining room table. The room is spacious enough to accommodate a large gathering yet somehow feels cozy and inviting with its lavish decor and warm lighting. 

Another spot that is great for photography is the outdoor terrace. Don’t forget to walk around the Ca’ d’Zan for fantastic views of the architecture and Sarasota Bay.

Check out the Ringling’s guide to the first floor of the Ca’ d’Zan here

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

As the official State Art Museum of Florida, the Ringling’s Museum of Art stands out with its pink walls, palatial courtyard, and Renaissance-inspired architecture and decor. Architecture is my favorite subject to photograph, 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. Plus, it’s pretty in pink!

John Ringling, a passionate supporter of education, established this art museum as a commemorative gesture to his late wife, Mable, and the people of Florida, with the aim of fostering education and a deeper appreciation for art that would endure for generations. The museum holds the Ringling’s artwork and collections from their extensive travels abroad over time.

And the museum is almost 100 years old! It opened to the public in 1930, and Florida State University now maintains it. The museum includes an impressive art collection that includes Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures, medieval and classical objects, as well as lavish, furnished rooms from the wealthy Astor family.

A pathway with reoccurring arches at the Renaissance inspired courtyard of the Museum of Art at the Ringling.
The Courtyard at the Museum of Art. Image shot on Portra 400.
The outside entrance to the Museum of Art at the Ringling in Sarasota. A statue stands in front of the museum.
The Museum of Art at the Ringling. Image shot on Portra 400.

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 Indian sculptures, East Asian ceramics, and prints from China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and others.

We saw some of the galleries during our visit to the Museum of Art since they were renovating. But there are 21 permanent galleries with a special exhibition wing. You’ll want to plan at least 1 to 2 hours here. 

See their Museum of Art Guide here

Interior room of one of the galleries in the Museum of Art. It has a high ceiling with oil on canvas paintings on the walls.
Inside the Museum of Art at the Ringling (digital photo).
The interior hallway of the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Center for Asian Art. Statues and glass display cases line the hallways.
Inside the Center for Asian Art at the Ringling (digital photo).

Circus Museum

Want to know more about a day under the big top? There are two buildings solely dedicated to preserving the history of the circus, with countless pieces of circus memorabilia. Children will love this museum, as it features interactive exhibits and a wide variety of fun circus artifacts to explore. Do you think you have what it takes to walk the tightrope or shoot a human cannonball? It’s more challenging than it looks. I fell off numerous times when trying to walk the wire!

Interactive wire is shown where you can see if you can walk the wire when you visit the Circus Museum.
Can you walk the wire? Try it at the Ringling! (digital photo)

One of the most impressive exhibits at the Circus Museum is the Howard Bros. Circus model, which illustrates the entire day of the circus from sunrise to sunset. The model has 44,000 pieces, each meticulously crafted and strategically placed in the model. And wow! I’ve never seen a model this big!

In addition to the intricate details of each piece, the Howard Bros. Circus Model demonstrates the immense amount of work required to bring and set up a circus in a town. Remarkably, they could accomplish all of this in a single day!

While it might not seem like a big deal now, having the circus come to your town 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 and buzz would linger a few weeks later.

A view of the Howard Bros. Model Circus. The model figures are walking around the circus grounds interacting with one another. The big top tents are in the background.
The Howard Bros. Circus Model (digital photo).

After you finish exploring the incredible Howard Bros. Circus Model, head next door to visit the Wisconsin, which was John Ringling’s private railroad car. You can peek inside the railcar to get a feel for what it was like to live on the train while the Ringlings traveled across the United States for business and pleasure. Since I don’t like flying, this is my kind of transportation!

Inside one of the Circus Museum buildings. On the right is the Wisconsin Rail Car and on the left are more carts from the Circus.
You can view the Wisconsin Railroad Car (digital photo).

Bayfront Gardens and Historic Asolo Theater 

While visiting each museum, don’t forget to see the lovely gardens, striking sculptures, and the diverse flora and fauna that stretch over 66 acres. 

One of the most distinctive features of the gardens is the Banyan trees near the Ca’ d’Zan. They give the impression of being from another world or a fairytale book, slowly taking over the surrounding area as they grow. Although banyan trees are unique, I find them a little spooky. I wouldn’t want to be in a forest of them, especially at night! 

Also, don’t miss the Secret Garden. It is a quaint little garden adorned with statues and colorful flowers, tucked away in a corner near the Ca’ d’Zan. It is the final resting place of Mable, John, and his sister, Ida. 

Not far from the Secret Garden is Mable’s Rose Garden. When we visited, the roses were not in bloom, but I could picture the different rose varieties with 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 reading a book.

The roses usually start to bloom in April, with numerous blooms occurring until December. 

The Ringling also has a theater initially constructed in 1798 in Asolo, Italy. One hundred thirty-three years later, a cinema would take its place, leading to a dismantled theater that eventually made its way to the United States. The panels, paintings, proscenium, and stage boxes were reassembled at the Ringling, and the first performance took place in 1952.

While we didn’t get a chance to visit the Asolo Theater while we were there, you can see a film production or enjoy a theatrical, musical, puppetry, or dance performance after viewing the museums. Check out more information about the historic Asolo Theater here

Banyan trees growing at the gardens at the Ringling.
Banyan Trees near the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion. Image shot on Portra 400.
Three gravesites where John Ringling, Mable Ringling, and John's sister, Ida, are buried. There is a statue of a woman behind the gravesites.
The gravesites of John Ringling, his sister, Ida, and his wife, Mable Ringling (digital photo).

Admission, Parking, and Hours of Operation

When is the Ringling Open?

The Ringling is open most days of the year from 10am to 5pm except on Thursdays when the Museum of Art and Bayfront Gardens are open until 8pm. They are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Where Do You Park?

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. If you plan to use public transit, check out the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) route schedules here

An exterior view of the Circus Museum entrance at the Ringling. A palm tree is in the foreground sitting next to the lake. The Circus Museum is in the background. Flag poles with flags line the pathway to the museum.
Outside the Circus Museum. Image shot on Portra 400.

How Much Does It Cost to Visit?

Admissions costs vary depending on what you want to see and do. For example, an adult ticket ranges from $35 to $60. Museum admission for people ages 65 and above is $23. 

Except for the Ca’ d’Zan Experience tour, all tickets include entry to the Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, and the Bayfront Gardens. The cost differs depending on how much you want to explore the Ca’ d’Zan mansion:

  • To take a self-guided tour of the first floor of the Ca’ d’Zan, it is $35 per adult, $15 for ages 6-17, and $10 for children 6 and under. 
  • For a guided tour of the first and second floors of the Ca’ d’Zan, it is $50 per adult, $30 for ages 6-17, and $25 for children 6 and under. 

Although it is more expensive at $60 per person, the Ca’ d’Zan Experience tour gives you a guided tour of all floors in the mansion. And if the weather is great, you might even get to go up into the Belvedere Tower for panoramic views of Sarasota Bay! This tour does not, however, provide museum admission. 

Find more information about discounts, tickets, and admission here

The Ringling also offers membership, which provides free admission for one year to the Museum of Art, Circus Museum, and the Bayfront Gardens. Additional membership benefits include free self-guided visits to the Ca’ d’Zan first floor. For more information about memberships, visit their website here

Additional Visiting Tips to Save Money

  • You can visit the Museum of Art, Bayfront Gardens, and the Glass Pavilion for free on Mondays! 
  • Enjoy a discounted admission rate every Thursday after 5pm at the Museum of Art and Bayfront Gardens. 
  • Be sure to sign up for their newsletter on their website to receive notifications of special exhibits, events, and discounts.
  • The Ringling is a Blue Star Museum, meaning active military personnel and their immediate family can receive free admission during Armed Forces Day through Labor Day. You must present a current military card ID at Admissions to receive free admission.
A row of palm trees that sit along Sarasota Bay.
Palm trees near Sarasota Bay and the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion. Image shot on Lomo 800.

More Tips to Make the Most of Your Visit

  • Plan for a full day or a half day to explore the Ringling, as there is much to see and do! We spent a whole day and still didn’t cover everything.
  • Although the museums are not too far from each other, you’ll want to wear comfortable walking shoes. Don’t forget your umbrella in case it rains.
  • Remember to bring your headphones for the free audio tours. At the Ca’ d’Zan and Art Museum entrance, you will find a QR code to scan and access the audio tours.
  • Temporary closures at specific exhibits may limit how much you can see due to ongoing restorations in the museums. 
  • If you come hungry, the Ringling has on-site eateries, including the Ringling Grillroom, Mable’s Coffee and Tea (with a limited Starbucks menu), and the Ringling Concessions. Alternatively, you can save money by bringing your own picnic to have at their designated picnic areas. 
  • Don’t forget to explore the Bayfront Gardens, including the Secret Garden, where John and Mable Ringling are buried. Also, a short distance away is Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden.
A girl in a dress and a hat stands in the courtyard of the Museum of Art at the Ringling.
Image shot on Portra 400.

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A Note on My Film and Digital Images

I am kicking myself a little for not taking more film images at the Ringling. I know it sounds like I’m just making excuses, but the thing is, I couldn’t use a tripod in the museums. And it was just so dang hot! I have a limit to how much heat and humidity I can handle, and if I cross that threshold, I just don’t feel like doing much of anything. And I mean anything.

If I had a high-speed film with me (I only had one roll of Lomography 800 for the entire trip), I might have pulled off more images in the low-light areas of the museums without using a tripod. I know I need to trust my ability to capture these images instead of defaulting to digital. Easier said than done!

Regardless of whether my images were film or digital, I still enjoyed visiting the Ringling, and I am happy to capture my memories of my time there!

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