Face it, when it comes to picking a vacation destination, Florida really should be considered as a bunch of different states. The Sunshine State offers a plethora of choices for fun in the sun with the whole family, from the Panhandle to the theme park mecca around Orlando, all the way to South Florida with the vibrant beaches of Miami and the laid-back vibe of the Keys. The vast Tampa/St. Petersburg metropolis complex is also a popular vacation destination, but it covers so much area that planning a visit can be exhausting when you think about the ground you’ll have to cover.
Instead, consider making Bradenton your home base for a family-friendly vacation. Just across the breathtaking Sunshine Skyway Bridge from St. Pete, Bradenton has a lot to offer, thanks to its proximity to the Manatee River, Tampa Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to its own charming downtown, Bradenton features a charming arts district, with shops situated inside beautifully restored colorful cottages from the 1920s and 1930s. Bradenton is also the gateway to Anna Maria Island, a very popular beach vacation destination accessible via two short bridges.
There’s so much to explore and do in and around the Bradenton Area that you might just fall in love with a brand new Florida destination. Here are some tips on how to spend a fun family vacation on Florida’s west coast.
Your first stop when planning any trip to the Bradenton Area is bradentongulfislands.com. The site is easy to navigate and offers all sorts of suggested itineraries, whether you’re looking for an active vacation or just want to get in some quality beach time on the soft sands of Anna Maria Island, known as AMI to frequent visitors. Lodging options range from quaint little inns to luxury resorts and private homes and condo rentals, so be sure to check around to find what fits best for your family.
The Bradenton Area is served by the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) with many direct flights. Of course, Tampa International Airport (TPA) offers hundreds of flight options per day and is only 40 miles north of the Bradenton Area. Every major car rental company serves TPA, so you’re only a short drive away from all the fun. Now, it’s time to get started with a little casual reconnaissance of the area.
Take a Walk
If you stay in the Bradenton Area proper, you’ll find it’s a breeze to get around in. The best way to get acquainted with the area is to take a stroll along the 1.5-mile Riverwalk, a path along the Manatee River that features many fun stops along the way. In addition to leisure activities like a beach volleyball court, skate park, fishing pier, and Tidal Discovery Zone, where kids can take a close-up look at the ecosystem along the river’s shore, there are some excellent opportunities for people-watching.
A large grassy lawn plays host to yoga and tai chi classes, as well as being a great place for a family picnic. If you’re lucky, you might stumble upon a concert in the 400-seat Mosaic Amphitheater, where you can catch frequent community programs, live music acts, and school performances. When you see the compass rose painted on the sidewalk surrounding a colorful tower, you’ll know you’ve reached Tower Plaza, another spot that hosts special events and festivals. Regatta Plaza is a popular locale for kite flying and drum circles, where groups of percussionists come together to share in a communal beat.
Lively public art is positioned all along the Riverwalk, including interactive sculptures, and the entire path is ADA-compliant so everyone can join in the fun. Kids won’t want to leave the Family Fun Zone and Splash Pad, where parents can watch from shaded benches while the kids frolic in the dancing fountains and on the jungle gym.
Hop on a Trolley
Anna Maria Island is long and skinny, and while any section of the island is easily walkable, the best way to get a sense of the whole destination is aboard the free Island Trolley, which runs loops of the island from early morning until around 10:30 p.m. With more than 30 stops around the island, you’ll never be far from a place to hop on or off, and they conveniently run every 20-30 minutes during the day.
The route starts and ends at Coquina Beach near the southern tip of AMI and runs almost all the way to the north end before making a right turn to the Anna Maria City Pier. The City Pier is a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike to stroll the boardwalk and catch a beautiful sunset. Hop off the trolley at the pier and take a short 10-minute walk up to another local landmark, the Rod and Reel Pier. Named after the anglers who wet a line in the bay, Rod and Reel Pier has a more historical vibe than the modern City Pier. A casual beach bar at the end of the pier offers great views of Tampa Bay, and the kids can watch fishermen reel in some big ones!
Walk back to where you got off the trolley to complete your loop of the island, this time running through the interior of AMI until the route converges again at the Manatee Avenue bridge across to Bradenton.
Take an Art Walk
In addition to the sculptures along the Riverwalk, the Bradenton Area also showcases a concentration of great art in the Village of the Arts, a collection of galleries, studios, and specialty shops about a mile from the Riverwalk. Organized by the Artists Guild of Manatee, the Village of the Arts showcases an eclectic mix of arts and crafts by real working local artists who often welcome visitors into their studios. Monthly art walks are a particularly great time to drop by, but it’s always a fine time and place to stroll the sidewalks and drop into stores for a little shopping or to pick up a treat from a bakery.
On Anna Maria Island, Pine Avenue is the place to go for a taste of culture, and conveniently, there’s a trolley stop at each end of the street. Known as “The Greenest Little Main Street in America,” Pine Avenue is lined with studios, galleries, boutiques, and fun little specialty shops that sell everything from gourmet foods to fishing equipment. It’s a fantastic place to shop for souvenirs from your Bradenton Area vacation.
Discover Some History
Although the city of Bradenton wasn’t incorporated until 1943, when the town of Manatee merged with Bradenton, the area boasts some real historical significance. There’s a reason the city likes to call itself “Real Authentic Florida.” Settlers populated present-day Manatee County in the middle of the 19th century, and the current residents revel in the small-town charm that the Bradenton Area has maintained even as the city and surrounding region grew.
Long before Europeans first came to the area, it was home to Native American peoples more than a millennium ago, and you can still visit the ancient Portavant Mound, a sacred burial mound of the Safety Harbor Culture. The preserved site is located within the Emerson Point Preserve on Snead Island.
The De Soto National Memorial marks the spot where Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto landed in 1539 with his army on their quest for gold. Today, it is a popular recreation area with ranger-led kayak tours, a nature trail that winds through the same paths where Hernando and his men first came ashore, and small, secluded beaches offering access to the Manatee River and Tampa Bay. As a bonus, De Soto National Memorial is dog-friendly, so you can bring your best buddy along on the trails to stretch all four legs. Dogs can even become “B.A.R.K. Rangers” once they and their owners complete a fun set of activities teaching proper trail etiquette.
Hit the Beach
Of course your family is going to want to get in some quality beach time during a trip to the Bradenton Area, and you’re in luck because Anna Maria Island has some top-notch beaches! Manatee Public Beach is just a quick, straight shot across the island from where the main bridge crosses from Bradenton. Facing west, it offers beautiful vistas at sunset, with rental beach chairs and umbrellas where you can lounge while the sun dips below the horizon. A cool retro lifeguard stand keeps sentry over the area, and other amenities include a restaurant, beach shop, volleyball courts, and a playground.
Coquina Beach on the south end of AMI features many of the same perks as Manatee Beach, with the addition of barbecue grills, picnic pavilions, and bicycle trails. The wide beaches are a fantastic spot for a long walk.
A little more isolated but still accessible to the public is Bean Point on the north end of the island. Because it’s slightly harder to get to, the crowds are smaller, but for those who make the trek, they are rewarded with some of the brightest white and softest sand you’ll find in the eastern half of the state. Facing north, Bean Point offers sweeping vistas of Tampa Bay and an unparalleled view of the famous Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Get on the Water
Anna Maria Island is fortunate to sit among several different bodies of water — Tampa Bay, the Gulf, and Sarasota Bay. Whether you’re looking for big water or small, it’s not hard to find a way to get out on the blue. Paradise Boat Tours is one of several outfits that offer trips on the surrounding waters, and as long as the weather is good, your chance of spotting dolphins is pretty much guaranteed. The aquatic mammals love to swim alongside the boats and show off, and experienced boat guides often know the animals by name. If you’re especially lucky, you might spy a manatee, the county’s namesake “sea cow” that makes its home in the warm waters around the island. Tours take off from Bridge Street, a fun little strip of road lined by restaurants, bars, and shops that is definitely worth arriving a little early for your excursion so you can check it out.
If you want to be your own engine on the water, numerous companies offer guided trips and rentals of paddleboards and kayaks. Some tours focus on the area’s ecology, while others just offer relaxing adventures in the unique mangrove lagoons like those around Neal Preserve, 120 acres of pristine habitats for many types of flora and fauna.
Explore the Great Outdoors
You don’t necessarily have to get wet to experience nature in the Bradenton Area. Robinson Preserve is in the northwest corner and encompasses almost 500 acres of diverse ecosystems, ranging from salt marshes to mangroves. A 40-foot tall observation tower offers views for miles, and paved walking and biking trails meander through the property. More intrepid hikers can check out five miles of coastal trails, and kayakers can paddle through tunnels cut through the mangrove forests. It really is a gem of natural space.
Birdwatchers flock to the Felts Audubon Preserve, 30 acres set aside as safe nesting and breeding space with more than 160 species of birds calling it home. Still relatively undeveloped, this area is accessible by paths that offer ample opportunities to see and photograph feathered friends.
If you want to learn about nature without, you know, being outdoors, take a trip to the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, which teaches about Florida ecology through a rotating series of exhibitions along with many permanent exhibits. Other highlights at the Bishop include an all-digital planetarium for sky shows teaching about astronomy for the whole family and the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat. Unfortunately, these huge, friendly mammals sometimes get a little too curious and can be struck by careless boaters. The Parker Habitat cares for these injured animals and has rehabilitated more than 36 manatees since opening in 1988.
Find Your Thrill
In amongst all that peace and quiet on your Bradenton Area vacation, you might want to make some time to get your heart rate a little more elevated. TreeUmph! Adventure Course is the punnily named aerial adventure park featuring ziplines through the forest canopy, swinging rope bridges, and tightropes. Professional guides ensure guests have fun safely, and there are also hiking trails if you want to keep your feet on terra firma while others get sky high.
If you think go-karts are just for kids, you haven’t experienced Andersen RacePark yet. These are serious Birel N35 racing karts, capable of hitting close to highway speed. The venue offers training sessions for new drivers, providing all the gear you need to take safe laps around the 13-turn track. For those who really want to get into racing as an extensive pastime or even as a profession, Andersen offers extended training schools, including private instruction.
Soccer teams from all over come to Bradenton’s Premier Sports Campus, a 140-acre facility with 23 regulation soccer fields that host tournaments at many levels of competition. Check their events calendar to see if there are public matches going on during your visit to be a spectator for some exciting action.
Eat All the Treats
As you’d expect, there is some great seafood in the Bradenton Area, at spots ranging from Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant in Cortez to fancier, but still casual, restaurants like Blue Marlin Seafood on AMI.
But seafood isn’t all that’s on the menu at some local favorites. Ginny’s and Jane E’s Cafe and Coastal Store is a must-stop destination on the north end of Anna Maria Island. The floors, walls, and even ceilings of the retail area are covered with a delightfully eclectic mish-mash of art, souvenirs, books, jewelry, clothing items, and other unexpected treasures. If you can tear your eyes away from the riot of colors, make your way to the back of the building, where you’ll find a delightful cafe that offers fresh-baked pastries, smoothies, and quiches along with cold beer and mimosas to get you in the shopping mood.
At The Donut Experiment on Pine Avenue in AMI, kids love getting the chance to customize their own vanilla cake donuts from a long list of toppings and drizzles. It’s art you can eat, but remember if you choose to mix Fruity Pebbles and sriracha, it’s on you to finish your creation. Otherwise, visitors can pick from a curated selection of some of their most popular flavor combinations to build a half-dozen or box of 12.
Check Out Some Museums
If it happens to rain or you need a few hours out of the sun, the Bradenton Area has some really cool museums where you can avoid the elements and learn something at the same time. In addition to the Bishop and Anna Maria Island History museums mentioned above, the Florida Railroad Museum is a great destination for train buffs or anyone who loves big machines. The museum is open year-round and offers special hour-and-a-half excursions on historic trains departing twice a day during the weekend. During the summer, they run some evening trips as well with both open-air and air-conditioned coaches.
Visit a Real Fishing Village
You should definitely carve out a little time to explore Cortez, a tiny working fishing village tucked between Bradenton and AMI. A reminder of what “Old Florida” was like before the population boomed, Cortez used to be a hotbed of commerce and the fishing trade. While commercial fishermen still work out of the town and their catches are processed at large facilities along the water, the town has maintained its identity and culture.
Cortez preserves much of that history at the Florida Maritime Museum, housed in the town’s authentic schoolhouse from 1912. In addition to exhibits of historic vessels and fishing equipment, the museum also engages with the public through special educational programs for kids and maintains a library of books and archival materials related to maritime subjects.
The museum campus sits on four acres, which also houses artifacts like a wooden cistern from the early days of the town and a replica of a Seminole hut. A boat shop from the early part of the 20th century has been relocated to the museum’s grounds to show what the shipbuilding process was like in the days of yore.
Whether you’re grabbing the freshest possible fish fresh off the boat at a little seafood shack or walking the small streets, you can’t help but fall for this charming little village. It’s just another of the surprises waiting for you and your family when you book a trip to the Bradenton Area!
This article is sponsored by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. All photography provided by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.