Nestled away in Southwest Florida is the beautiful Anna Maria Island, located in Manatee County and just a few minutes from Bradenton. In Anna Maria, you’re also just a short distance (traffic notwithstanding) from Sarasota and the tiny, authentic fishing village of Cortez. So, what can you do for free on Anna Maria Island?
The barrier island of Anna Maria reflects “Old Florida,” a time before high rises took over the skyscapes of many Florida coastal cities. (Fun fact: One of the original Anna Maria pioneers, Charles Roser, was an inventor of the Fig Newton cookie.)
To this day, Anna Maria remains a family-friendly and snowbird-friendly destination that maintains a small-town feel. As Anna Maria receives more accolades from national media—include Southern Living —it’s attracted more tourists, and the traffic to get there during its busiest times can be brutal. Still, with the Gulf quite literally in your backyard (there are seven miles of beaches) on one side and Tampa Bay on the other side, the island maintains its tranquil charm.
Anna Maria Island is home to three towns: Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, and Bradenton Beach. There’s plenty to do on Anna Maria Island, but like any vacation destination, some of it requires a hit on your wallet. Let’s look at some of the free things you can do on Anna Maria Island during your next visit.
1. Hang out on the beaches. This is the low-hanging fruit among the free things you can do on Anna Maria Island but probably the most popular as well. The beaches are gorgeous. Whether you take an early morning walk, sun yourself like a lizard midday (Use sunscreen, please! Skin cancer treatment is practically a hobby in Florida), or peacefully enjoy a sunset, you can’t go wrong. Even during storms, the beaches are photogenic. There are several public beaches with large parking lots, restrooms, changing areas, and lifeguard stations, including Coquina Beach and Manatee Beach.
For a more dramatic look, there’s Bean Point right at the northern tip of Anna Maria Island. If you fly over Anna Maria, you can’t miss it, jutting out dramatically among the gulf’s turquoise waters. The cool thing about Bean Point is you see where the gulf and the bay meet.
For even less crowded areas, check out any of the public beach access areas on Anna Maria Island that may have a limited number of parking spaces or be pedestrian access only.
Tip: Anna Maria has limited parking spots near Bean Point, and parking also is limited around the smaller public beach access areas. Follow any parking restriction signs and if you’re not staying on the island itself, arrive early to obtain a spot without schlepping all your beach stuff forever from your car.
2. Spend some time on the piers. There are two iconic piers on Anna Maria Island—the Rod & Reel Pier and Anna Maria City Pier. Rod & Reel Pier doubles as a restaurant and now has a small resort area adjacent to the pier. Anna Maria City Pier, which has been around since 1911, was damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and reopened in June 2020. Both piers serve as good fishing spots and provide tranquil views of the gulf, nearby Egmont Key (look for the white lighthouse), and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge going into St. Petersburg. Along the Anna Maria City Pier, we recently watched tens of thousands of tiny, brown fish swim together in shallow water and occasionally jump out of the water when a larger-sized snapper or snook swam below them. Tip: You can watch the sunrise from the piers; the sunset views are on the beach side of the Anna Maria Island.
3. Window shop. Don’t have any money to spend? Don’t worry. Window shopping is fun on Anna Maria Island. First, there’s Pine Avenue, which has an array of eateries and shops and is flanked by the beach on one end and Anna Maria City Pier on the other end. When you’re ready to spend a little cash on food, you have a few choices. Two of our faves are The Donut Experiment and Poppo’s Taqueria, both popular destinations that have now expanded in the Bradenton area (Poppo’s) or around Florida (The Donut Experiment). Read our previous Pine Avenue articles here and here. There are also some cool shops on other parts of the island. Our top picks: The Original Sand Dollar Gift Shop, which sells affordable coastal décor and jewelry; and Rader’s Reef, an old-fashioned seashell and antique shop where you just might have the privilege of meeting the owners’ basset hound.
4. Bring a picnic to Bayfront Park. A short distance between the two piers is Bayfront Park, which has a smallish beach area as well as some stately Australian pine trees and a couple of picnic tables and grills. The town of Anna Maria sometimes holds events at Bayfront Park, and it’s a reasonable alternative if you’re having trouble finding a spot on the beach or if you want somewhere you can set up a picnic.
5. Walk or bike around the town of Anna Maria. Whether you just want to get some exercise or your goal is to marvel at the ever-expanding homes on the island, there’s always an interesting view during a walk around the town of Anna Maria. Don’t miss the luxury, multimillion-dollar homes on North Shore Drive and nearby streets. There’s even a home near Bayfront Park that has a see-through pool that’s partially visible from North Bay Boulevard.
6. Take Fido to Scentral Park. Or, take the kids to the playground, or take your teens to the skate park. You’ll find these attractions, along with a baseball field, off of Flotilla Drive. The aptly named Scentral Park is a newer dog park that has wide-open grassy areas along with some shady cover. There are separate areas for large and small dogs. Dogs aren’t allowed on Anna Maria Island’s beaches, so the dog park may be just what you need to get Fido some exercise.
7. Check out the outdoors markets. Down at Coquina Beach, there’s the Beach Market at Coquina Beach, where you’ll find a lively mix of prepared food, produce, and arts vendors nine months out of the year, on Sundays and Wednesdays. The market is held under the shade of the Australian pines. From October till May on Tuesdays, the town of Anna Maria also has a newer farmers market held at City Pier Park featuring local growers and other items.
8. Go to jail. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200….jail time is indeed what you’ll get at the Anna Maria Jail, an outdoors, square-shaped, enclosed area that was used from 1927 to 1940 to hold the town’s rabblerousers. Those who stayed had to endure the heat and the mosquitoes. Nowadays, you can swing by just long enough to get a few pictures. If you’ve got a little extra time, the Anna Maria Historical Society is right next door and worth a visit.
9. Take the trolley. The free Anna Maria Trolley allows someone else to do the driving for you so you can sit back and take in the view. The trolley, operated by MCAT, starts as early as 6 a.m. and goes from the City Pier in Anna Maria to the southern tip of Bradenton Beach. Here’s a link to the trolley schedule and a trolley map (click on the area that says “Trolley: Anna Maria Island.”)