Set between St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Bradenton is a lovable city where the Manatee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
The river and surrounding county are named after the large, slow-moving marine mammals that are one of the state’s most recognizable animal icons.
Bradenton is a place that means a lot to me, with a wonderful blend of Old Florida, artsy shopping, wildlife viewing, and lovely vistas of the Manatee River.
The population had grown to more than 55,000 residents at the last census, and the city is a principal part of the Sarasota-Bradenton Metro area – home to more than half a million people.
Below is my run-down of the 15 best things to do in and around Bradenton, Florida.
1. Village of the Arts
Comprised of renovated cottages from the ’20s and ’30s, galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and artists’ studios, Village of the Arts on 12th Avenue West in Bradenton is right up my alley.
If you want to get in touch with local history and take the pulse of the local art scene, this needs to be your first stop.
The village sprawls over more than 30 acres and is full of quirky, unique, and unforgettable things to see and do.
It’s the perfect place for an afternoon stroll, a bit of window shopping, or for relaxing with a cappuccino while channeling your inner artist.
Consider picking up a one-of-a-kind piece as a memento.
2. Manatee County Golf Course
Totaling nearly 6,500 yards from the back tees, the Manatee County Golf Course in West Bradenton is a popular option for local golfers, who appreciate its reasonable greens fees, scenic vistas, and well-maintained holes.
Much of the course resides in natural wetlands that, along with its tight fairways and ample bunkers, make it challenging without being impossibly difficult.
Depending on your age, gender, and level of ability, you’ll have five sets of tees to choose from. If you plan on playing during peak times – especially on the weekends – my advice is to book your tee time well in advance of your trip.
3. De Soto National Memorial
Not quite 500 years ago, Hernando De Soto and those under his command landed on Florida’s shores in search of land, gold, and a mythical fountain offering eternal life to those who drank from its waters.
Located a few miles west of downtown Bradenton, De Soto National Memorial commemorates the landing. The grounds are set on more than 25 scenic acres near where the Manatee River joins with Tampa Bay.
When I came here, it was fascinating to think that this humble spot was the first step in a 4,000-mile expedition with a dark and bloody story that would leave a permanent mark on American history.
The memorial’s entrance is on De Soto Memorial Highway, and popular activities include hiking, biking, fishing, camping and bird watching.
It’s a rare mix of the historical and natural worlds that shouldn’t be missed.
4. Manatee County Agricultural Museum
With its abundant sun, long growing seasons, and ample rainfall, Florida is an agricultural powerhouse, and for much of the state’s existence, farming was the largest economic driver.
Located on 6th Street in nearby Palmetto, Manatee County Agricultural Museum offers visitors an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the state’s agricultural industries, touching on livestock, fruits and vegetables, and even commercial fishing.
Photos, documents, first-hand accounts, and a variety of farm implements and memorabilia are on display. The museum is open from Tuesday to Friday and two Saturdays a month.
I spent about an hour checking out all there was to see.
5. Emerson Point Preserve
Located on nearly 400 acres near the mouth of the Manatee River in Palmetto, Emerson Point Preserve is home to a variety of plant and animal species, as well as some ancient Native American archaeological sites that include the now famous Temple Mounds.
The preserve includes a variety of natural trails that are open to bikers and walkers. From a few vantage points, I took in some amazing views of the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Most visitors stop at the visitor center near the ranger’s station before setting off on their own. There are picnic and seating areas, and places to launch canoes and kayaks.
6. Little Manatee River State Park
Located on East State Road 64 about 15 miles from Bradenton, Little Manatee River State Park offers guests excellent fishing, boating, swimming, and hiking opportunities.
The park’s lake was formed in the ’60s when the Manatee River was dammed, and the surrounding environment includes wetland, pine forest, and hardwood sections that are exciting places to explore.
I saw plenty of turtles and even a gator or two when I was here last. But it’s not uncommon to spot a variety of wading and predatory birds and snakes, so if you’re interested in capturing some amazing Florida critters on film, be sure to bring your camera.
The park has ample shower and bathroom facilities, so it’s the kind of place that many families choose to spend an entire day.
7. LECOM Park
When much of the country is still caught in winter’s icy grasp, baseball teams from all over the northeast and Midwest converge on Florida to get their acts together before the regular season starts.
Including nearly 600 covered seats in addition to its uncovered ones, the state-of-the-art stadium hosts the Pittsburgh Pirates annually, and though it’s one of the oldest in the state, it’s received a lot of upgrades over the years.
This is a great place to sit back, relax, and watch some professionals in action without spending half a paycheck for a few beers and a hot dog. The park offers a variety of non-baseball related activities as well, so I reckon it’s worth checking online to see all the things they’ve got going on.
8. Florida Maritime Museum
Sporting more coastline than just about any other state except Alaska, it’s not surprising that the Sunshine State has such a rich nautical history, and there’s no better place to take it all in when in the area than the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez.
The museum sits on nearly five acres and is housed in an historic schoolhouse building more than 100 years old.
The museum’s exhibits touch on pleasure boating, commercial fishing, and maritime transportation, and covers a vast block of time stretching back hundreds of years to when Florida wasn’t even a state.
A favorite of mine was the eye-opening display about hurricanes, charting all of the big ones to make landfall between 1919 and 2019.
Historical memorabilia, ship’s logs, photos, and navigational equipment are all on display.
9. Sarasota Farmers Market
Located on State Street in Sarasota, the Sarasota Farmers Market not only provides a variety of locally grown and produced items, but it’s also a community gathering point, and as much a social event as a shopping one.
The market is open year-round regardless of the weather, on Saturdays from 7 AM until 1 PM.
Fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables may be the stars of the show, but the market is also known for its baked goods, arts and crafts, and prepared food items like honey, salsa, and pasta sauce.
It’s a great way to meet like-minded locals and support farmers, craftsmen, and artists. My essentials are the handmade empanadas, the green tea vendor, and the orchid vendor.
10. The Ringling
From its name, I’m sure you’ve probably figured out that it’s got something to do with the circus; if you find yourself on Bay Shore Road in Sarasota, stop by and check out The Ringling.
The John & Mable Ringling Museum Of Art is Florida’s official state art museum, with more than 20 galleries displaying a collection that runs to more than 10,000 works.
A highlight is the European painting collection, dating from the 1500s to the 1900s, and I spent an hour or two under the spell of the paintings by the Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens.
This is also the state’s premier destination if you’re interested in the long and fascinating story of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, and you can tour the Ringlings’ luxuriant mansion at Ca’ d’Zan.
For much of the country’s history, circuses were a primary form of entertainment, and a rare treat for many.
The facility includes a museum and historic home, and though the former is included in the cost of general admission, the latter isn’t.
11. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
Composed of academics, scientists, and nature-loving citizens interested in making a difference, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s primary goal is to act as a steward of the oceans; they do that through a variety of scientific, preservation, and community outreach programs.
The aquarium’s residents include native and non-native species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, and though the original focus of the facility was on sharks, it has significantly expanded over the years.
For a thorough overview of the facility and the educational and instructional programs available to the general public, check out their website or give them a call.
12. Palma Sola Botanical Park
My place to go for a peaceful moment in Bradenton, the Palma Sola Botanical Park is beautiful oasis on the edge of the Robinson Preserve.
Located on 17th Avenue Northwest, this space includes more than 10 acres chock-full of cultivated gardens containing hundreds of species of plants, flowers, and trees.
Many of the species are rare, and they’re all beautiful and unique in their own ways. There is an ever-popular butterfly garden, ponds with bridges, picnic areas, and an array of well-marked walking paths.
It’s the perfect place to spend a few relaxing hours away from the crowds. For those looking for a unique wedding or family reunion venue, many of the park’s facilities are available to rent.
Meandering along the scenic shores of the Manatee River, Bradenton’s Riverwalk is a trendy and popular attraction that offers a variety of recreation options, at least one of which should appeal to nearly everyone you’re traveling with.
If you’re lucky, you may also see a dolphin or manatee in the water.
The walk and surrounding park are wheelchair accessible, and include a skate park, volleyball courts, and a large outdoor amphitheater that hosts a variety of live entertainment events at various times throughout the year. The main one for me is the 4th of July, as this is the best place to see Bradenton’s fireworks.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a splash pad, playground, and lots of quaint shops and eateries that are all known for their unique products and tasty fare.
14. The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature
Comprised of exhibits and artifacts that touch on history, culture, the animal kingdom, and the natural world, the Bishop Museum on 10th Street West in Bradenton is a one-of-a-kind destination that’s easy to get to and inexpensive to visit.
In addition to its permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum’s staff offers a variety of educational and instructional workshops and programs that are appropriate for visitors of all ages and interests.
I was most impressed by the Native American exhibits, the Bishop Planetarium, and the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation portion of the museum.
Check out their website for hours, programs, and directions.
15. Florida Railroad Museum
For much of its existence, Florida has been a large producer of agricultural products and natural resources. To service those industries, a variety of railroads sprung up from coast to coast.
Located on 83rd Street East in the town of Parrish, the Florida Railroad Museum is the region’s premier showcase of all things related to the venerable railroads of the Sunshine State and beyond.
The museum traces its history back to the early-’80s, and it’s now possible to take an official tour by rail that departs from the museum on Sundays year-round.
The trip lasts about 1½ hours and was one of the most memorable parts of my visit to the Bradenton area.