Bradenton encourages you to “Love it Like a Local” with its laid-back vibe, pristine white sandy beaches, ideal weather year round, and a nice dose of art, history, and outdoor activities. You’ll enjoy sailing, windsurfing, jet skiing, fishing, and picnicking, and you might see a manatee or dolphin or two; I did!
Bradenton, separated from the outer barrier Gulf Islands by the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, is located on the Florida mainland on the south bank of the Manatee River. It’s in Manatee County, between Tampa and Sarasota.
Here are 15 of my favorite experiences in the Unique Bradenton Area, which includes Bradenton, Anna Maria Island, and Longboat Key.
Note: Bradenton Area CVB hosted me; however, all opinions are my own.
1. Village Of The Arts
Art galleries, studios, and quaint shops near downtown Bradenton occupy more than 275 colorfully restored 1920s and ’30s cottages and bungalows, making up the Village of the Arts. The eclectic artist neighborhood of businesses and residents share a vision where artists live and work together. Join the popular art walks the first Friday night and Saturday afternoon of each month and enjoy live music, delectable food, and unique art.
Pro Tip: Shop for original art at Alfredo Garcia’s gallery/studio in the village. I love his festival poster designs, such as for the annual Bradenton Blues Festival and the Dias de Los Muertos celebration.
2. De Soto National Memorial
In May 1539, Conquistador Hernando de Soto and his soldiers landed near Tampa Bay looking for gold and dealt with fierce resistance from the Native Americans defending their homelands. Today, De Soto National Memorial makes up 26 acres of Manatee County at the mouth of the Manatee River near Tampa Bay. It has more than 3,000 feet of shoreline. Eighty percent of the park is mangrove swamps, and the rest is pine and hardwood flatlands. I connected with lots of people walking their dogs on the trails.
Kids’ summer camps here offer ranger-led kayak tours, Junior Ranger camps, fishing clinics, and living history at Camp Uzita.
3. Robinson Nature Preserve
Robinson Nature Preserve offers 600+ acres of coastal mangrove swamps, mud flats, beaches, and a 3-mile hiking nature trail that is dog friendly, so bring your leashed pup. Enjoy fun kayaking, canoeing, fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, strolling the boardwalk, bird watching, and group camping.
I saw a bald eagle from the observation tower. This four-story wooden structure is a great place for viewing unique wildlife, roseate spoonbills, and the occasional manatee.
Kids can have fun at the NEST/Canopy Zone, where they can climb and crawl among the trees.
4. Manatee Village Historical Park
Designated as a national historic site, Manatee Village Historical Park is an open-air museum established in 1976 to preserve and share the heritage of Manatee County’s founding period, 1840 to 1918. Explore a collection of historical and replica buildings, including a courthouse, church, general store, one-room schoolhouse, and settler’s house. I especially enjoyed the 1913 steam engine called “Old Cabbage.” Plus, you’ll see a boat works collection, barn, smokehouse, turpentine still, and a working blacksmith shop.
5. The Bishop Museum Of Science And Nature
The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, the largest natural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast, boasts cultural history and nature exhibits and features the Bishop Planetarium and Parker Manatee Aquarium. The planetarium highlights astronomy programs with one of the world’s most advanced all-digital projection systems.
The newly renovated Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat houses rescued manatees and allows above and underwater viewing. I was fascinated learning about manatees’ anatomy and life history, including the challenges they face today.
This habitat is the rehab stage after the initial critical care received in manatee hospitals. You can support the care of injured and sick manatees and help return them to the wild through the Bishop Foster Friends Program. Your donations provide food and specialized care.
Pro Tip: I picked up a couple of stuffed manatee toys and a children’s book about manatees for my grandchildren at the Bishop Museum Store.
6. Bradenton Riverwalk
Overlooking the Manatee River, Bradenton Riverwalk is a 1.5-mile green space spanning downtown Bradenton with a 400-seat amphitheater, an event area, a skatepark, playgrounds, and a splash pad. You’ll find a beach volleyball court, a fishing pier, and a day dock where boaters can tie up and explore downtown Bradenton. I explored a local art show set up across the lawn and watched a yoga class in the distance.
For an educational opportunity, learn about the local ecosystem at the Tidal Discovery Zone.
7. LECOM Park
Bradenton’s LECOM Park (formerly McKechnie Field) has been famous as the spring training home for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1969. The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has a campus in Bradenton, signed a 15-year naming rights deal in 2017. Baseball fans can purchase season tickets, three-game flex packs, or individual game tickets.
8. Palma Sola Botanical Park
I strolled through the 10-acre Palma Sola Botanical Park, which showcases lush tropical plants, fruit and flowering trees, and my favorite, the native and exotic flowers. There were three lakes, multiple gazebos, a screened pavilion, and a butterfly garden. The Manatee Rare Fruit Council maintains an exotic fruit tree section with a shell walkway, benches, and a bridge connecting the rare fruit trees to the back of the park.
9. Mixon Fruit Farms
Explore a working citrus grove at Mixon Fruit Farms. Learn citrus health benefits, and recipes, plus see the packing house and juice being processed. I enjoyed several free cups of freshly squeezed juice. I also tried not to loiter at the homemade fudge counter, where many in my group were researching and tasting the unique flavors. Instead, I picked out an orange swirl ice cream cone.
You can browse the 14,000-square-foot gift shop for unique Florida gifts, jewelry, home décor, children’s books, gourmet specialties, teas, honey, jams, salsas, and more. Buy award-winning wine, Javarama coffees, or select sandwiches, soups, and salads for lunch in the Groveside Café.
Pro Tip: Fruit is in season from November through early May, so stock up and ship a box home.
10. Art Center Manatee
The Art Center Manatee in downtown Bradenton offers over 350 art classes for adults and children interested in drawing, painting, pastels, pottery, photography, and jewelry design. You can also view gallery exhibitions showcasing local, regional, and national artists. It also hosts events and juried shows with art pieces for sale.
Pro Tip: The Artists’ Gift Shop features unique, affordable, handcrafted art by local and regional artists. I found a lovely shell ornament here.
11. Bradenton-Area Blue Wave Certified Beaches
The Blue Wave Program is the first national environmental certification for beaches, designed to help maintain clean, robust, healthy, and vibrant beaches that embrace the seven Blue Wave Ethics. These include leaving no trace, nurturing the dunes, and respecting the ocean.
Anna Maria Beach
On the northern tip of Anna Maria Island, the off-the-beaten-path Anna Maria Beach is a perfect place to swim or catch up on your latest reading in the Florida sun.
Coquina Beach is the longest stretch of beach on the southern end of Anna Maria Island, featuring picnic tables, cabanas, play areas, plus a casual café.
Cortez Beach is a unique, unspoiled “Old Florida” style beach, a long strand of sand on the southwest side of Anna Maria Island. Free parking is nearby.
Holmes Beach is centrally located on Anna Maria Island, boasting 3 miles of stunning white sand beaches, infinite turquoise water, and vacation rentals.
Manatee Beach is in the municipality of Holmes Beach and features white sand, beautiful azure water, picnic tables, grills, bike racks, and benches with local parking. You’ll find playgrounds, a volleyball court, full restrooms, showers, and a foot bath. We stopped at the concession stand for snacks and drinks.
Whitney Beach, a quarter mile long, is across from Whitney Plaza at the north end of Longboat Key. There is plenty of beach for strolling, plus you may see shoreline fishermen or small boats beached on the shore.
12. Cortez Historic Fishing Village
Cortez Fishing Village is a small coastal fishing village right off Anna Maria Island, across the Cortez Bridge. Founded in the 1880s, Cortez has an old-fashioned charm — a timeless fishing village among small beach bungalows, cottages, and single family homes along the waters of Cortez. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, preserving commercial fishing traditions with its museum boasting exhibits and cultural programs.
Pro Tip: Have lunch at Swordfish Grill on the patio and watch the fishing boats unload their catch. We enjoy conch fritters, fresh seafood platters, oysters Rockefeller, and delectable Key lime pie as we listened to live music and sipped our happy hour drinks.
13. Florida Maritime Museum
Surviving hurricanes, economic downturns, and threats to livelihoods, Cortez villagers preserved time-honored traditions, culture, and Florida’s maritime heritage in the Florida Maritime Museum, a renovated 1912 schoolhouse on four acres known as the Cortez Nature Preserve. Drawers of unique seashells, boat models, fishing tools, and equipment tell a story of Florida’s rich maritime history. I found the records of past hurricanes fascinating, comparing the depth of flood waters from one storm to the next.
14. Lake Manatee State Park
A 556-acre state park on the south shore of the manmade Lake Manatee, Lake Manatee State Park is just 15 miles east of Bradenton. You can access 60 camping sites with water, electricity, picnic tables, ground grills, and nearby restrooms with beautiful views of the 2,400-acre lake.
Enjoy fishing for bass, perch, bluegill, and catfish or hiking the 4.5-mile trails. Have fun paddling your canoe or kayaking along the lake shore.
15. Stay At Compass By Margaritaville Anna Maria Sound
The brand-new boutique concept Compass by Margaritaville is situated at the gateway to Anna Maria Island, just west of Bradenton. This unique seaside resort boasts 123 rooms overlooking a stunning marina where I saw a manatee and her baby as I watched from my balcony. You’ll find easy access to white sandy beaches and world-class fishing with the laid-back vibe of a Margaritaville retreat. Compass Bar & Grill offers an included breakfast, and we enjoyed happy hour specials in the afternoon with drinks, bites, and shareables.