15 Best Things to Do in Palmetto (FL)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
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Near where the Manatee River meets Tampa Bay, Palmetto is an understated but attractive city. An historic district reaches down to the riverbank and preserves more than 150 years of history here.

On these streets you’ll find a charming historical park, showing off pieces of old Palmetto, and there’s a museum recording the history of local agriculture next door.

The Manatee County Fairgrounds make up a large swath of the city. Taking place in January, the fair is among the oldest in Florida, and one of my favorite things to do in the area.

Head west and you’ll reach Emerson Point, blending fantastic bay views, mangroves, and Native American history.

And not to forget, right across the Manatee River from Palmetto is Bradenton, with an effervescent downtown and artists’ quarter. 

1. Manatee County Fair

Manatee County FairSource: Carol (vanhookc) / Flickr
Manatee County Fair

Going back more than a century, the Manatee County Fair is one of the Sunshine State’s oldest.

This is among the region’s premier annual attractions. On the schedule are agricultural and livestock exhibits/competitions, pageants, midway rides and games, live entertainment, and lots of tasty food options.

In fact, the Fair Court has everything you could want, from candy apples to elephant ears, which are a big weakness of mine.  

The fair is held at the Manatee County Fairgrounds and takes place over 11 days from the middle to the end of January.

With so much to see and do, it’s worth checking the website to make sure you don’t miss anything.

2. Emerson Point Preserve

Emerson Point PreserveSource: Ric Schafer / shutterstock
Emerson Point Preserve

West of Palmetto, between the mouth of the Manatee River and Terra Ceia Bay, sits Snead Island. At the far western end of the island you’ll come to the Emerson Point Preserve

These 350+ acres are composed of a range of habitats, including mangroves and picturesque oak hammocks. You can drive or ride along the main roadway, which leads to an elevated vantage point and little beach where you can contemplate the bay.

Rising over the mangroves on the north side of the peninsula is an observation tower. From the top here there’s a spellbinding panorama, taking in Tampa Bay, Terra Ceia Bay, and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the north.

Still, my favorite thing about Emerson Point is its Native American past. The Portavant Mound here was built by the Safety Harbor culture around a millennium ago, and can be visited on the Pioneer Trail.

3. Palmetto Historical Park

This attraction first took shape in the early 1980s when a group of residents banded together to help save the city’s original Post Office (c. 1880), which was threatened with demolition.

This was moved to the site of the old city hall and school building. Today the campus comprises the 1914 Carnegie Library, a 1920 one-room schoolhouse, a turn-of-the-century cottage, the Cypress House military museum (c 1930s), and a replica chapel.

The Carnegie Library is open through the normal hours. Still, if you want to see the interior of all of the buildings you’ll need to join the guided tour. This takes place at 2:00 pm, and, to my mind, is not to be missed.

4. Riverside Tours

Based out of the Regatta Pointe Marina is the only tiki boat tour company operating on the Manatee River. 

Established in 2009, Riverside Tours offers cruises aboard the River Skipper II, which had just been rejuvenated when I climbed aboard.

There’s a range of experiences available, but the staple is the daily guided tour, taking place at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm. 

Infused with lots of anecdotes and intriguing historical facts, this two-hour cruise glides along the Manatee River and connecting waterways. Dolphins and manatees are likely to make an appearance at some point.

Later, you’ve got the popular Sunset Party Cruise, while there are also special pub crawls and beach runs to DeSoto Cove, Passage Key, or Beer Can Island.

5. Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant

This truly unique restaurant has an extraordinary location, at the end of a pier in the Manatee River. I don’t think I need to tell you that the sunsets are breathtaking here.  

Rising above the yachts at the Regatta Pointe Marina, the Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant is in fact three establishments in one.

On the ground floor is the casual but upscale Reef & Grill, for lunch and dinner, and with indoor and outdoor seating. At this spot, I couldn’t get enough of the grouper sandwich, which comes blackened with a tangy cilantro lime slaw. 

Meanwhile the Snook Deck is a waterfront patio bar, perfect for laid-back afternoons, and live music every Saturday night.

Lastly there’s the Second Floor, with an elegant seafood menu, and open on Friday and Saturday evenings.

6. Felts Audubon Preserve

In 2002, local residents Otis & Anita Felts bequeathed their water-laced property to the Manatee County Audubon Society with the stipulation that it never be developed.

These 28 acres are made up of a variety of habitats, among them basin marsh, mesic hammock, and pine flatwoods.

In all, more than 160 bird species and 33+ kinds of butterflies have been documented at this beautiful place. The signature bird though is the painted bunting. 

One of the fastest declining songbirds in the United States, this species is recognized by its bright plumage in colors from yellow to blue. I had the pleasure of seeing one at the Felts Preserve within five minutes of arriving.

7. Manatee County Agricultural Museum

Manatee County Agricultural MuseumSource: Manatee County Agricultural Museum, Inc. / Facebook
Manatee County Agricultural Museum

Next door to the Palmetto Historical Park there’s a museum lifting the lid on farming in the area.

Exhibits touch on citrus farming, livestock, and even commercial fishing. I saw photographs, farm equipment, and firsthand accounts of those who settled in the area more than a century ago.

When I was here, the main exhibit was Dairy Days of Manatee County. This enlightening display looked back at the mid-20th century, when more than two-dozen dairy farms were in business in the county.

The museum is open from Tuesday through Friday, and on the first and third Saturdays of each month as well.

8. Sutton Park

In the very heart of the Palmetto Historic District, Sutton Park is on a whole block, and is the main space where people congregate for the city’s public events.

For instance, in March this is the setting for the Party in the Park following the DeSoto Children’s Parade. 

Sutton Park is also where the live entertainment takes place during Palmetto’s Fourth of July celebrations.

These events are hosted at a sizable central pavilion/stage along 10th Avenue. For everyday amenities there’s a walking trail, and a children’s playground beneath some grand live oaks.

9. Bradenton

Palmetto is just the width of the Manatee River from the dynamic city of Bradenton. Here I’ll detail just a few of the things you can get up to, just a few minutes from Palmetto.

The first thing to mention is the downtown area, which shines for its dining, culture, and the picture-perfect Riverwalk, where you can look back at Palmetto.

The star attraction downtown is surely the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, looking at the natural and human history of the gulf coast, from prehistory to the present. I’d allow some time to see a show at the planetarium, which had just been updated when I was here.

Last but not least, Bradenton is home to LECOM Park (1923), where the MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates have come for spring training every year since 1969.

10. Manatee Village Historical Park

A nice partner to Palmetto’s own historical park, this attraction is a few minutes away in Bradenton. Manatee Village Historical Park is a collection of buildings from the early days of settlement in Manatee County.

There are more than a dozen structures to check out, most of which have been preserved and moved to this site. 

A few that stood out for me were the 1903 Wiggins General Store, 1912 Stephens House in a Cracker Gothic style, and the fine Old Meeting House church, dating back to 1887.

Also remarkable is Old Cabbage Head, a 1913 locomotive named for its peculiar spherical smokestack. 

There’s a little playground to keep kids entertained, while the village staff conduct regular guided tours of the 1850 Manatee Burying Grounds.

11. Independence Day Celebration

Independence Day Celebration, Palmetto BaySource: Buganvilla / shutterstock
Independence Day Celebration

The city’s top annual event is a patriotic shindig to mark the Fourth of July. This celebration has been recognized with multiple awards down the years, and has two main elements.

First you’ve got awesome live music by renowned performers. These shows take place at the pavilion in Sutton Park, usually kicking off around 5:00 pm. 

When I was here, the headline band was Great White, while country star Wynonna Judd had played a couple of years before. The music is complemented by a roster of food and craft vendors.

Then after sunset everyone heads down to the bank of the Manatee River to catch the dazzling fireworks show.

12. Village of the Arts

Village of the ArtsSource: psyberartist / Flickr
Village Of The Arts

Within walking distance of downtown Bradenton, Village of the Arts is a unique and eclectic community of artists. With hundreds of historic homes, this district comprises galleries, studios, and many restaurants and coffee shops.

The village is spread over nearly 40 idyllic acres, with preserved residential architecture from the 1920s and 30s.

Village of the Arts is the perfect place to spend a relaxing afternoon strolling, drinking coffee, and looking for a certain something that you won’t find elsewhere. For much of the year, there’s live entertainment, festivals and fairs.

My time to come is the first Friday and Saturday of the month, for one of the best Art Walks I’ve ever seen.

13. Terra Ceia State Park

At the mouth of Tampa Bay, about ten minutes north of Palmetto is a state park with more than 2,000 acres of mangroves, wetlands, and upland hammocks.

The joy of Terra Ceia isn’t much in what you see now, but what you’ll see in the future. This is former agricultural land carefully being returned to nature. 

When I was here, you could get onto a trail system at the end of Hightower Rd, adjacent to I-275. The trail branches off into the Pine Flatwoods Loops, Salt Flat Spur, and Hammock Loop, each around three miles long.

As most of the landscape is defined by water, the best way to encounter Terra Ceia is by kayak.

14. Blackstone Park

Blackstone ParkSource: Dave Peterson / Facebook
Blackstone Park

On the north side of Palmetto High School, this public park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Amenities include baseball and softball fields, racquetball courts, a soccer field, and a playground for the little ones.

There’s also a skate park that’s popular with the teen crowd. For those who’d rather eat onsite than leave and come back, there are food concessions as well. The sports fields are often reserved for leagues, but most of them are open to the public when not in use.

Finally, if you’re in town with a pup, I’d recommend the dog park here, with covered shelters and free waste bags provided.

15. Bradenton Area Convention Center

One reason you might find yourself in Palmetto is for an event at this convention center/arena near the Manatee riverfront.

The Bradenton Area Convention Center has been part of the city since 1985, and was given a makeover in the 2010s.

On the calendar are large-scale sports competitions, RV shows, circus events, gun conventions, concerts, art fairs, and tons more. 

The complex is also home to the local visitors bureau. Here you can discover all of the wonderful things on offer in the wider Manatee County, from golf courses to beaches, restaurants, and tours.

15 Best Things to Do in Palmetto (FL):

  • Manatee County Fair
  • Emerson Point Preserve
  • Palmetto Historical Park
  • Riverside Tours
  • Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant
  • Felts Audubon Preserve
  • Manatee County Agricultural Museum
  • Sutton Park
  • Bradenton
  • Manatee Village Historical Park
  • Independence Day Celebration
  • Village of the Arts
  • Terra Ceia State Park
  • Blackstone Park
  • Bradenton Area Convention Center