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Sarasota: Home of the American Circus

Sarasota County is known as Florida's “Cultural Coast”. Here you can inmerse yourself a world of circus, theater and arts. The City of Sarasota greatly benefitted from the development efforts of circus tycoon John Ringling and his wife Mable and became an important location on the cultural map of Florida. John Ringling (1866-1936) and his four brothers established their reputation in the circus business around 1884. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus toured the entire United States by train. In 1911, John Ringling started buying real estate in Sarasota and surrounding areas, where—much to the city’s benefit—the Ringling brothers decided to establish their winter headquarters.

Among others, Ringling built the famous Cà d'Zan mansion for himself and for his wife, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art as well as the St. Armand's Circle residential and shopping district on St. Armand's Key. Despite the Great Depression of 1929 and the demise of the Ringling circus empire, Sarasota still maintained its reputation as the home of the American Circus.

The dazzling Ringling mansion Cà d'Zan is well worth a visit. The Historic Asolo Theater adjacent to the Visitor Center was originally built in 1798 in the Italian town of Asolo. At the end of the 1940s, it was dismantled piece by piece and subsequently reconstructed on the Ringling estate.

The Tibbals Learning Center is close to the theater. The world's largest miniature circus is the heart of the Center's exhibition. Master model builder Howard Tibbals spent over 50 years creating the Howard Bros. Circus Model, a replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The model consists of eight miniature circus tens, hundreds of miniature circus trailers, railroad cars, animals, artists and workers and displays the Ringling circus between 1919 and 1938. Historic circus posters bear witness to the world of American circus at that time.

The Circus Museum also houses the impressive private railcar that John und Mabel Ringling used to travel between New York and Sarasota between 1905 and 1916. On Thursday mornings, you can also watch wood carvers carve elaborate miniature circus animals.

The Ringlings' Cà d'Zan winter residence means “House of John” in Venetian dialect and was built directly at Sarasota Bay. John and Mable Ringling enjoyed traveling to Europe and admired Venetian architecture. It is, therefore, not surprising that their mansion has 41 rooms, 15 bathrooms and was built in the Venetian Gothic architectural style. It also offers a great view of Sarasota Bay.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, built by John Ringling to house his private art collection, includes European, American and Asian masterpieces. Here you will find a variety of paintings and sculptures by the great Old Masters like El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez or Titian as well as contemporary works of art. The museum courtyard features replicas of famous statues and fountains.

Villa Cà d'Zan in Sarasota, Florida
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Historic Asolo Theater, Sarasota

Photo credit: Photo courtesy of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida.

Tip:

No backpacks or food are allowed inside the museum buildings, but the garden is a great place to picnic. Alternatively, the Banyan Café offers snacks such as hotdogs or sandwiches (for under $10) from 11 am to 4 pm. Visitors who prefer not to explore the grounds on foot can take the railway shuttle that operates on the estate.