Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Florida and Visit Bradenton
When most people think Florida their mind generally goes to theme parks, high tech animatronics, roller coasters, rides, neon nightclubs, weird people and animals, or skylines and street art. But before the commercialization, the Sunshine State was a natural paradise. In fact, there are still many must-see cities in Florida that defy the stereotypes.
Blessed with warm weather and miles of unspoiled coastline, Bradenton and Anna Maria Island are a touch of old Florida where casting a line and chasing the sunset are popular pastimes. An easy hour drive from Tampa on Florida’s west coast, beyond the mainland, they have a 7-mile barrier island, which is home to three separate cities, each managed by their own city council and Mayor.
And while they may live on island time, it’s not a sleepy beach town by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the unique geographical layout has created some pretty interesting attractions. Here are just a few of the many things to do in Bradenton.
Meet the Locals
Part of Manatee County, the real locals are the majestic sea creatures that call this area home. One of the only places on the planet where dolphins live year-round, the natives are not migratory and actually fairly territorial of their little slice of paradise. As such, there’s no particular time of day or season that’s better to spot them. You are virtually guaranteed to see anywhere from 1-50 on a dolphin tour with Paradise Boat Tours. The other residents, the manatees or “sea cows,” are also a sight to behold although they do migrate to warmer locations for the winter. They’re most commonly spotted April through October.
Get a Workout
Want to get up close and personal with the marine life? A 2-3-hour paddle should do the trick. You can rent gear and go at it on your own or follow Captain Rick on a kayak tour with Beach Bums. You’ll paddle through the different habitats of Bimini Bay and Tampa Bay, learning how the mangrove trees are vital to the ecosystem and a nursery for small fish and birds. You’ll visit a bird rookery where pelicans and friends congregate and spot wild parrots, osprey, and if you’re lucky, dolphin pods. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to them and truly wild experience out on the water.
Try Something You Didn’t Know Was on Your Bucket List
Horse surfing isn’t an activity you hear about every day and if we’re being honest it’s more like horse swimming, but that doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it. Taking place on a calm inlet where the river meets the ocean, the sand bar is where the majestic harem from Beach Horses plays. The experience starts with a 30-minute walk along the shore before the staff removes the saddles and you’re off to wade in the water with your steed. I’ve never ridden bareback before and after a little hesitation, the balance came pretty naturally (even for someone with questionable coordination).
After your horse is about waist deep, you can try surfing (balancing on their back), waterskiing (being pulled by their tail), swimming (they become completely buoyant and kick around), and a race back to shore for treats. As someone who’s never done more than a casual controlled walk, I surprised myself with how much I loved going fast without the fear of falling on hard ground. I was also a little hesitant about the ethics of riding animals like this, but the staff assured us that horses don’t have the same nerve sensors as humans and it doesn’t bother them a bit (and it seemed they enjoyed splashing around as much as we did). They have animal chiropractors check up on them often and rotate the horses so they aren’t overworked.
Horse surfing is available year-round but spring and autumn are ideal months weather-wise (you can BYO wetsuit in winter).
Get Back on the See-Food Diet
Surrounded by water, it should come as no surprise that the Bradenton area is known for its seafood with grouper the local fresh catch. Massive Gulf Coast Oysters are also plentiful (baked with garlic from Anna Maria Oyster Bar were personal favorites). I also found the clam chowder to be delightful, especially from Feast. There are plenty of beachfront restaurants with amazing views so make sure to time your visit to sunset at places like Gulf Drive Cafe where you can enjoy all day Happy Hour with beachy cocktails and tiki hut tables.
Splurge on Dessert
It’s a well-known fact that vacation calories don’t count so what better time to treat yo’ self? There are fudge, donut, and ice cream shops just about everywhere you turn so it’s not hard to find somewhere to indulge. The tableside s’mores from Eliza Ann’s Coastal Kitchen were a fun shareable dessert, and the Donut Experiment was a nice DIY start the day. Freshly baked donuts with mix and match icing and toppings, maple bacon and sriracha are popular creations along with the signature Florida Key Lime.
Ginny’s and Jane E’s has cinnamon rolls bigger than my head, while Joe’s Eats & Sweets is as photogenic as it is tasty. The pastel striped building is home to elaborate sundae creations and homemade chocolates.
Drink all the Drinks
If you’re in need of a prescription of sorts, The Doctor’s Office is a mixology-driven craft cocktail bar. Home to one of the sassiest menus I’ve ever seen, drink categories include pick me ups, mood enhancers, and treatments for more serious ailments. (Just make sure you read the fine print and heed their warning that alcohol may indeed cause pregnancy). For more creative beach cocktails or a hair of the dog, Back Alley Treasures boasts wine smoothies and spiked coffee (just don’t tell your boss).
Fly Through the Trees with the Greatest of Ease
An insane treetop obstacle course, Treeumph has five challenge courses that get progressively harder and higher as you go. A massive facility that’s 14 acres and 10 football fields in length, the obstacles are more about balance and stability than strength with gravity-defying swinging logs, cargo nets, and zip lines designed to test your agility. The entire course takes about 2-3 hours to complete so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to play — and work up an appetite.
Start Planning Your Trip: Places to Stay in Bradenton
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