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A deer spotted at Paynes Prairie Preserve, near Gainesville.

Looking for day trip ideas from the Sarasota or Bradenton area? We’ve got you covered.

Sarasota and Bradenton are nicely situated to explore what the Sunshine State has to offer. Although both are coastal towns on the Southwest Gulf, they’re just close enough to the middle of the state to make Tampa about an hour away, Orlando two hours, West Palm Beach three hours, and Miami four hours. However, we share here some day trip ideas that go beyond those busier destinations. We also focus for the most part on outdoors destinations, although we do make mention of a few indoors sights. If you’re reading this article during the pandemic, follow any recommended safety precautions while indoors.

All right—let’s go explore.

1. Sebring and Lake Placid

Florida isn’t just about the coastlines. On the drive to Sebring, located smack dab in the middle of the Sunshine State, you’ll meander on backroads where you can spot wildlife like birds, deer, wild turkey, and farm animals like cows. Sebring itself is mostly a retiree enclave, but it’s also famous for the 12 Hours of Sebring annual race. We recommend Sebring as a slower-paced day trip escape. Make sure to include Highlands Hammock State Park in your visit and its canopy walkway for prime nature viewing (the trip to Sebring is worth a visit alone for Highlands Hammock). You can also make your way to the Sebring pier on Lake Jackson and visit Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works, which sells 300 different types of sodas.

A view of trees at Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring.

About 20 minutes south of Sebring is Lake Placid, a town with several nicknames, including The Caladium Capital of the World (96% of the world’s caladiums are grown there) and the Town of Murals. That’s because the town has more than 50 murals depicting Florida and Lake Placid history. It’s also home to a clown school. Both Sebring and Lake Placid offer a small town feel with quaint shops and eateries.

Distance: 1 ½ to 2 hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Avon Park, Palmdale (home to one of our fave spots, Gatorama)

Other articles we’ve written about Sebring or Lake Placid: U.S. 27 Road Trip: From Sebring to Miami, Visit Florida

Lake Placid: The Caladium Capital of the World, Visit Florida

Lake Istokpoga: Trophy Fish, Photos & Gators in Lake Placid, Visit Florida

Golf carts outside of The Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande.

2. Boca Grande

Boca Grande is not that far at all from Sarasota and Bradenton, but it tends to fly under the radar. However, if you’re an angler, you’ve likely heard of Boca Grande as it’s the Tarpon Capital of the World, attracting fishermen from around the globe for good catches. Otherwise, Boca Grande is an upscale but understated coastal area, famous for the historic Gasparilla Inn and its two lighthouses. It’s the sort of place where when you cross the Gasparilla Bridge to get there (and shell out $6), you’ll feel like you’re crossing into another laidback way of life.

Distance: 1 to 1 ½ hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Fort Myers, Punta Gorda

Our other articles about Boca Grande: 7 Things to Do in Boca Grande Florida, Florida Culture Blog

Four Lighthouses in Florida You Should Visit, Florida Culture Blog

Boardwalk at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

3. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and Micanopy

Located south of Gainesville, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park encompasses more than 21,000 acres with several different park entrances. Although Florida has lots of beautiful parks, the big draws at Paynes are the wild bison and wild horses. The bison live on the—take a guess?—prairie of the park. You won’t always spot them but if you do, you’ll feel like you’re out West. The wild horses wander in the park and while we didn’t see them during our visit, we did see, um, evidence that they had passed by pretty recently. Paynes Prairie also offers excellent views of birds (300 species), alligators, and deer. The park is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

An antiques shop in picturesque Micanopy.

Before or after your visit to Paynes Prairie, make the short drive to the charming small town of Micanopy (pronounced mi-ka-no-pee). It has real Southern charm with historic mansions, billowing trees with Spanish moss, and antique and arts shops. There are also a couple of eateries where you can sit outdoors and people watch or enjoy live music. Often called “the town that time forgot,” Hollywood filmmakers haven’t forgotten Micanopy. Footage from the town appears in films like “Doc Hollywood.” The late rocker and Gainesville native Tom Petty mentioned Micanopy in his song “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own.”

If you have time to stay overnight, the historic Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast is the place to stay.

Distance: 3 hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Gainesville, Ocala

The lighthouse at Egmont Key.

4. Egmont Key State Park and Shell Key Preserve

If you live in West Bradenton or Anna Maria and own a boat, your visit to Egmont Key State Park is only a short boat ride away. If you were a bird, you could fly there. If you have neither a boat nor wings, take in the view while crossing over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and hop on a ferry that will take you to Egmont Key or Shell Key Preserve.

Egmont Key is a state park that was charted by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and housed soldiers during the Civil War. Nowadays, Egmont has old military buildings, a lighthouse, gorgeous beaches, shells, and several trails. It’s also home to a large gopher tortoise population, so you may just see a tortoise or two or three crossing your path. We thoroughly enjoyed Egmont Key, but you do need to plan ahead, as there are no restrooms and no food for sale. Bring your snacks and drinks, and hit the restroom in advance from places like St. Pete’s Fort De Soto Park (assuming you took the Egmont Key Ferry from the park).

Beach life at Shell Key Preserve.

Similarly, Shell Key is a smaller destination that’s near Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park. The main goal at Shell Key is to find shells, and they definitely are in abundance. If you bring snorkel equipment, you may even find shells underwater that are 6 inches to a foot long, much larger than what you’ll find on a typical day wandering along other beaches. Shell Key also is a great destination to find sand dollars. Again, bring your food and drink. Plus, no restrooms.

There are a few ferry companies that will take you to Egmont Key or Shell Key, but the one that appears to be the largest is Hubbard’s Marina. Keep in mind the cost to take ferry as well as parking and toll costs if you’re starting at Fort De Soto Park.

Distance: A 45-minute to an hour drive to St. Pete’s Fort De Soto Park, then the ferry ride to either destination is about 20 minutes

Other nearby towns: St. Petersburg.

Our other articles about Egmont Key and Shell Key: What It’s Like to Visit Egmont Key in Florida, Florida Culture Blog

Here’s What It’s Like to Visit Fort De Soto Park and Shell Key Preserve in St. Pete, Florida Culture Blog

A cattle mural in Okeechobee reflects the town’s ag history.

5. Okeechobee

Talk about Cow Town. Okeechobee is THE place to go if you want to see cattle. It’s the type of town where Florida’s agricultural roots shine through. In fact, Okeechobee County is one of three of the largest cattle-producing counties in the state, according to the Florida Beef Council. Florida ranks 13 in the nation for its cattle production.

Okeechobee has a downtown area with a few small shops, colorful murals, and Flagler Park (which features military helicopter and tank as well as a colorful butterfly garden). Okeechobee also has a walkway along the massive Lake Okeechobee, where we spotted gators cruising along in the water. Of course, a lake means good fishing, and that’s another reason to visit Lake Okeechobee. About 10 to 20 minutes from downtown, we visited Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is a full-time home to more than 300 animals. They include panthers, cows, deer, kangaroo, and many others. The friendly staff also rehabilitate animals year-round so they can return to the wild.

Distance: 2½ hours from Bradenton and Sarasota

Other nearby towns: Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie

Our other articles about Okeechobee: Fun Things to Do in the Town of Okeechobee, Florida, Visit Florida (make sure to read about Lightsey’s Seafood Restaurant, which is worth a visit)

A “butterfly” spotted in downtown Okeechobee.
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