Spring in Florida is the ideal time to do some exploring, and Manatee County has some of our favorite places to visit. Found along the Gulf of Mexico between Sarasota and Tampa Bay, the county contains Bradenton and Palmetto along the Manatee River as well as the Anna Maria Island cities of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria, and the nearby Town of Longboat Key. There’s also the master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch, historic Cortez fishing village and many other places people proudly call home such as Bayshore Gardens, Ellenton, Samoset and Whitfield. Yes, a whole bunch of locations to survey, and we’ve explored them all with lots and lots of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack breaks along the way.
Like last week’s story about the 10 best places to visit in Sarasota, we wanted this one focusing on Manatee County to work as a guide for locals, snowbirds and tourists alike. You’ll find family-friendly attractions and favorite neighborhoods for dining and drinking. In fact, wherever possible, we’ve added restaurant and bar suggestions while also including recommendations for hotels, with many being destinations themselves. Presented in alphabetical order, here are the 10 best places to visit in Manatee County with lots of suggestions for things to do when you get there!
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Anna Maria City Pier
100 N. Bay Blvd., Anna Maria; 941-254-4219; facebook.com/citypiergrillannamaria
The city of Anna Maria on the north end of Anna Maria Island contains a couple of historic, parallel-running piers that extend into Tampa Bay with views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Both the Anna Maria City Pier and Rod & Reel Pier (continue reading) are ideal spots for watching our famed Gulf of Mexico sunsets, fishing or just admiring sea life such as manatees, sea turtles, tarpon, sharks or perhaps a couple of frolicking dolphins.
The Anna Maria City Pier, originally constructed in 1911 and completely rebuilt after being destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017, recently welcomed The City Pier Grill and Bait Shop, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily with beer (including local craft brews) and wine. Also, there’s a vacant restaurant space that could soon be a Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium learning center. And for more upscale dining options, consider the nearby Waterfront restaurant or walk the length of bustling Pine Avenue to visit the beachfront Sandbar.
More:10 best waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining around Anna Maria Island
More:What are the oldest restaurants in Manatee County? 10 historic dining destinations
452 Third Ave W., Bradenton; realizebradenton.com
A 1.5-mile public park along the south bank of the Manatee River just east of downtown, Bradenton Riverwalk truly offers something for everyone with artwork, a colorful splash fountain, playground, skate park, beach volleyball courts, fishing pier, day dock, waterfront amphitheater, and the pavilion area that hosts various events.
Plus, Riverwalk leads to several of Manatee County’s top dining and drinking destinations: waterfront icon Pier 22 at the Twin Dolphin Marina and neighboring Corwin’s Ice Cream and Smoothies, Oak & Stone with its rooftop Deck, acclaimed local chef/owner Paul Mattison’s Riverwalk Grille, and Caddy’s with its riverfront tiki bars and fun, beach-y setting. Feeling adventurous? Take the Green Bridge with its new pedestrian-friendly walkway and traverse the river north to Palmetto. On that side of the Manatee you will find Regatta Pointe Marina, which is home to Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant and the new Mila’s on the Manatee.
Riverwalk, which will eventually be almost double in length with its planned eastern expansion, also has a pair of hotels I highly recommend, both by Marriott. Near the park’s beach volleyball courts and “outdoor living rooms” you’ll find the Courtyard by Marriott with its pool area overlooking the river as well as the Bistro restaurant and full bar with easy access to shaded, outdoor courtyard lounging. SpringHill Suites, located about a half mile away, near the western entrance to Riverwalk in downtown Bradenton, features a rooftop pool and is home to Oak & Stone, which occupies parts of both the first and top floors.
More:10 best waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining in Bradenton area
More:SpringHill Suites Bradenton Downtown hotel opens Friday
More:Ticket Editor: Let’s talk about Riverwalk expanding east
Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria Island; 941-536-4257; visitbridgestreet.com
Connecting Gulf of Mexico beaches to the Intracoastal Waterway, Bridge Street in the city of Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island offers an alluring mix of restaurants, bars and family fun. For starters, there’s the historic Bridge Street Pier for fishing fun and family-friendly, casual dining (with a full bar) at Anna Maria Oyster Bar on the Pier. For a more upscale dining experience in the evening, including some of the best seafood dishes in the region, be sure to visit The Blue Marlin, which offers outdoor seating (and live music on the weekends) in its charming Trapyard.
Bridge Street’s vibrant bar and restaurant scene also includes the Bridge Tender with its waterfront tiki bar, the Drift-In, the upstairs Bridge Street Bistro with waterfront views and its downstairs Island Time Bar, as well as the latest Daiquiri Deck location. One of the biggest Sarasota-Manatee restaurant and bar openings of 2020, the new Daiquiri Deck building stands three stories high (the limit on Anna Maria Island) with rooftop, open-air seating featuring views of both the Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway. The Bridge Street Bazaar, with clothing, shoes and accessories, occupies the first floor with its sister business, the adorably tropical Fish Hole Miniature Golf, located next door.
Planning on spending a night or two? Book one of the 28 Key West-style rooms at Bridgewalk, which is located right on Bridge Street, across from the Daiquiri Deck and just about a three-minute walk from the beach.
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2603 Gulf Drive, Bradenton Beach; 941-742-5923; mymanatee.org
If you’re looking to combine picnicking in the shade with an afternoon of sunbathing on powdery soft white sand, then plan a trip to Coquina Beach on the southern end of Anna Maria Island in the city of Bradenton Beach. Coquina Beach backs up to a grove of Australian pines that canopy the picnic area and the free parking lot. This means a stroll to the sand usually entails walking by large family gatherings and the alluring aroma of meat being cooked on one of the many grills. In addition to the free picnic tables, you can also rent one of the beach’s five pavilions.
Amenities include playgrounds, restrooms, outside shower and changing cabanas. Plus, there’s a shaded paved trail that runs pretty much parallel with the shoreline and will lead you right to the Coquina Beach Cafe for comfort foods and cold drinks, including beer and wine. The multipurpose trail is also where you will find the popular Beach Market, currently open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Looking for a more upscale dining experience? Take a short drive over the Longboat Pass Bridge to Shore’s relatively new Longboat Key restaurant or the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub, one of the oldest restaurants in Manatee County.
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Cortez Village, 4415 119th St. W., Cortez; cortez-fish.org
For seafood enthusiasts, there might not be a better destination in the state than Cortez. Founded in the 1880s, it’s one of the last active commercial fishing villages of its kind and a true Old Florida gem nestled along north Sarasota Bay, just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Anna Maria Island, and nine miles from downtown Bradenton. It’s home to the free admission Florida Maritime Museum (currently open by appointment only), the must-see Sea Hagg nautical and curiosity shop, and, yes, several of the region’s best waterfront restaurants.
For super fresh seafood in a casual, waterfront setting, dining doesn’t get any better than at Star Fish Company or its sister business Tide Tables. Cortez Kitchen and Swordfish Grill are another pair of great, locally owned and operated restaurants, each with lots of live music to go with the tasty cuisine. The Seafood Shack is a landmark opened in 1971 and going strong under relatively new ownership with neighboring Annie’s Bait and Tackle, a funky little gem for folks who want to enjoy fresh seafood and cold beer like a real local.
Cortez Cafe has been serving fishermen and other fans of hearty, home-style cooking breakfast and lunch for more than 50 years, and for treats, visit the family-owned Tyler’s Homemade Ice Cream a short walk away. Bunny & Pirates Pub is a fun craft beer and wine bar with a “listening garden,” and just outside the village, on Cortez Road, you’ll find another gem us locals love called Cortez Clam Factory. Finally, longtime Swordfish Grill general manager Bob Slicker just opened his own Cortez Village restaurant Slicker’s Eatery.
By the way:Best waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining in historic Cortez Village
Restaurant News: Slicker’s Eatery opens in Cortez
The biggest family attraction in downtown Bradenton, The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature offers exhibits about Florida’s natural history dating back to prehistoric times as well as the all-digital, full-dome Planetarium, the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat (expected to reopen later this spring after renovations) and, for the youngsters, the newly opened, must-explore Mosaic Backyard Universe.
Downtown Bradenton is also home to a bunch of outstanding dining and drinking destinations. Top restaurants and bars include the winning row of O’Bricks Irish Pub & Martini Bar, Fav’s Italian Cucina (which recently celebrated its 21st anniversary) and Jennings Downtown Provision (now also selling stylish clothing, candles and more), with Loaded Barrel serving drinks and slices of pizza late into the night across the street. Also be sure to visit McCabe’s, the most authentic Irish pub in Manatee County, and its sister restaurant Bad Ass Cafe as well as Mr. Fajitas Mexican Grill. Best breakfast and lunch-only options are Robin’s Downtown Cafe, and Sage Biscuit, which is located a short walk from Old Main Street.
Looking for a place to say? One of the best Hampton Inns in the country happens to be the one found in the heart of downtown Bradenton. Originally the Manatee River Hotel that opened in 1926, the building underwent a $21 million renovation before opening as the Hampton Inn and Suites in 2013. There’s also the adorable Londoner Bed & Breakfast occupying a house built in 1906 as well as the SpringHill Suites that I wrote about in the Bradenton Riverwalk entry.
For the record, Old Main Street, aka 12th Street West, ends by the entrance to Pier 22 and SpringHill Suites/Oak & Stone. That’s also where Riverwalk begins, with its official “gateway” right by the east edge of Twin Dolphin Marina and Mosaic Backyard Universe.
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More:7 things you need to explore at new Mosaic Backyard Universe in Bradenton
Manatee Public Beach
4000 State Road 64 and Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; 941-742-5923; mymanatee.org
Located in the city of Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, Manatee Beach features wide open spaces of fluffy white sand and good times at the Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe, which places guests right on the sand. There’s also a playground, benches and volleyball courts; and public transportation is easily accessed since this is a main stop for the Manatee and Sarasota County transit systems. Plus, you’re right next door to the iconic West Coast Surf Shop opened in the 1960s and Skinny’s Place, a classic burger and beer joint established in the1950s.
Other landmark restaurants you’ll want to visit in Holmes Beach include Duffy’s Tavern (another classic burger and beer joint, this one run by the same family since 1971), and for fine dining, treat yourself to an evening at Beach Bistro. One of the most renowned restaurants in the region, it’s where you can dine right on the sand on expertly prepared dishes such as the famed Bistro Bouillabaisse filled with fresh seafood including lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, shellfish and octopus. For hotels, check out the Waterline Marina Resort that opened in 2017 and now includes the The Chateau Anna Maria, recently opened by Food Network stars Buddy Foy Jr. and Jennifer Foy.
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And:10 most famous Bradenton area restaurants everyone should visit
More:25 best burgers in Sarasota-Manatee
1704 99th St. NW, Bradenton; 941-742-5923; mymanatee.org
While we love our white-sand beaches, we also love experiencing parts of Florida’s great outdoors not necessarily dotted with sunbathing bodies. Situated in northwestern Bradenton with multiple entrances, the 682-acre Robinson Preserve is a coastal wetland habitat home to marine life such as the numerous jumping mullet known to startle folks out for a relaxing paddle.
Features include kayak and canoe waterways, hiking paths, bridges, picnic spots, mangrove forests and a 50-foot-tall tower with a magnificent view of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Popular with runners, it also has a rubberized pedestrian-only trail, which if you jog it twice equals a 5K. Also be sure to check out the recent Robinson Preserve Expansion featuring the Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology most people just call “NEST.” It’s a learning center where children of all ages can also crawl and climb among the treetops at The Canopy Zone. Looking for more outdoor fun in West Bradenton? Visit DeSoto National Memorial Park located less than two miles away by the mouth of the Manatee River.
More coverage:10 best public parks and nature preserves in Sarasota-Manatee
Rod & Reel Pier
875 N Shore Drive, Anna Maria; 941-778-1885; rodreelpier.com
Established in 1947, The Rod & Reel Pier remains a famous fishing spot thanks, in large part, to a super-sized shark caught from there in 1973: a world record-breaking hammerhead that measured 17 feet, 1 inch and weighed 1,386 pounds. In addition to being a popular spot with anglers, tourist and locals also love the Rod & Reel Pier restaurant for its fresh seafood such as the excellent grouper sandwiches, cheap draft beers served in plastic cups and the second-floor dining area with open-air seating that places you over the water.
By the base of the pier you’ll find the beachfront Rod and Reel Resort. It contains eight one- and two-bedroom suites and various amenities including a large, heated pool and rooftop terrace/sunbathing deck overlooking Tampa Bay. It’s also just a short walk from one of our favorite beaches, Bean Point, a hidden gem found at Fern Street and Jacaranda Road off North Shore Drive.
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Village of the Arts
1227 12th St. W., Bradenton; villageofthearts.com
Located just south of downtown Bradenton, the Village of the Arts features early 20th century bungalows where residents live, work, and play, with homes doubling as art galleries, specialty stores and even a vinyl record shop called Jerk Dog. Art walks take place the first Friday of each month, but you can visit the village on any given day for dinner or lunch at one of the neighborhood’s four charming restaurants. Arte Caffe serves thin-crust pizza, homemade pasta and other authentic Italian classics while Ortygia offers genuine Sicilian, French and Mediterranean-style cuisine. Birdrock Taco Shack focuses on chef-style tacos while its sister restaurant Cottonmouth specializes in Southern comfort food and is also an outdoor live music venue.
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Seeking freshly brewed beers or some craft cocktails? Stop by Motorworks Brewing with its sprawling beer garden bordering the Village. There’s also the award-winning Darwin Brewing and Taproom, located right across from nearby LECOM Park, spring training home to the Pittsburgh Pirates with its minor league team the Bradenton Marauders playing there from May to September. Opened in 1923 and the oldest stadium used for spring training, LECOM Park was given a smart, $10 million renovation in 2013 that included a boardwalk around the outfield with a large tiki bar overlooking the field.
Wade Tatangelo, the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor, may be reached by email at email@example.com. Support local journalism by subscribing.