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How to Spend a Day at the Ringling Museum

It’s hard to imagine a single destination where you can do all of these things in one day: marvel at a miniature circus that fills an enormous gallery, gaze upon a master baroque painting that covers an entire wall, and wander through an American mansion adorned in the opulent style of the 1920s Gilded Age. Yet such a place exists, spreading across 66 acres in Sarasota, Florida: the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, informally known as The Ringling.

John, who along with four of his brothers founded the great American circus that bore their name, aimed to create a place where his fellow Floridians could enjoy art and culture. Now visitors from all over the world wander the estate and experience the myriad exhibits, performances, and gardens, as well as the Venetian Gothic home on Sarasota Bay where John and Mable spent their winters. In short, there’s so much to do when you’re there; you can wing it, or follow our guide for making the most of your visit while staying at Lido Beach Resort.


WHERE TO FUEL UP BEFORE YOU GO

Lido Beach Resort, just a 15-minute drive from the museum, makes a great launching pad for your day. Grab breakfast at the resort’s newly reimagined Drift Kitchen and Bar, where you can take in the 180-degree view of the Gulf of Mexico from eight stories up. You can’t go wrong with the Granola Berry Bowl or Banana Berry Smoothie, or try more exotic fare like Orange-Agave French Toast or Cuban eggs with chorizo sausage.

WHAT TO SEE FIRST WHEN YOU ARRIVE

The man who ran the circus tagged as “The Greatest Show on Earth” liked to think big, and that extended to his art collection. He and his wife, Mable, began amassing an impressive selection after they married in 1905, scooping up whole collections from other members of the wealthy class at auction. They also brought back a few souvenirs from their European vacations: scads of Baroque and Renaissance paintings and sculptures, as well as Classical antiquities, now on view in the museum’s courtyard and 21 galleries. Works by Velazquez, El Greco, Van Dyke, and other Old Masters adorn the walls of the pink, U-shaped palace, which Ringling started building in 1925 and later bequeathed to the state. 

A centerpiece of the collection is the magnificent wall-sized series of tapestries by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, which grace the entrance to the museum. In the Renaissance-style courtyard, you’ll find copies of famous works rendered in metal and stone, including Michelangelo’s David. In recent years, the museum has also added a section for its rotating Asian art collection, and a wing housing contemporary works, making the Ringling a must-see for art lovers.

NEXT: THE RINGLING CIRCUS MUSEUM

The Ringling family started their circus in 1870, and gradually expanded it by acquiring every other major circus of the time, including Barnum and Bailey’s. The Circus Museum, across the courtyard from the Art Museum, is a monument to that heyday. You can walk through the richly appointed train car John and Mable traveled the country in, stand next to the cannon that shot performers through the air, and browse the original costumes and props used by the performers.

Then there’s the miniature Howard Bros. Circus, a 44,000-piece extravaganza handcrafted by a serious superfan. Howard Tibbals began working on his painstaking re-creation of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus as a kid in the 1940s, and finally got to install his project at The Ringling some 50 years later, in the building that he helped finance.

The sheer scale is a wonder: 11 school buses could fit into the area it occupies, and the viewing perimeter around it is the length of one-and-a-half football fields. In the center, hundreds of miniature performers go about their jobs: balancing on the high wire, taming tigers, and riding bareback; tiny workers labor behind cookstoves and even cut miniature meat for the tigers; and little customers walk the midway with brightly colored posters advertising real sideshow acts. The attention to detail and historical accuracy is nothing short of amazing, a handmade tribute to the circus Tibbals loved so much.

WHERE TO STOP FOR LUNCH

To recharge before your next stop, head to the Ringling Grillroom, located in the John M. McKay Pavilion at the entrance to the estate, which offers a large assortment of sandwiches, salads, and seafood dishes, as well as burgers, pasta, and a kids menu. Reservations are recommended, by visiting OpenTable.com. If you just want a caffeine-and-pastry pick-me-up, Mable’s Coffee and Tea is on the second floor of the pavilion.

While out and about on the estate, you can find more choices for a leisurely or quick bite. The Banyan Cafe, located just outside the circus museum, serves up fast and tasty burgers, hot dogs, fries, and more under shade-covered picnic tables. The brightly colored Wandering Chef’s truck serves up specialty sandwiches, like the Pressed Cuban, BBQ Pulled Chicken, Three-Cheese Grilled Cheese, or Caprese.

NEXT: CA’ D’ZAN MANSION

After more than 20 years of traveling to Europe, building their art collection, and establishing Sarasota as the winter home of the circus, John and Mable set out to build the house of their dreams. They had fallen in love with the Gothic style of the palazzos along the canals in Venice when traveling there, and decided to create their own version on Sarasota Bay, which they named Ca’ d’Zan, or “House of John” in the Venetian dialect. Construction began in 1924 and finished in 1926 at a cost of  $1.5 million. 

While the five-story-high, 36,000-square-foot mansion was named after John, it was Mable who oversaw all aspects of the construction. The exterior is covered in pinkish stucco and terra-cotta, and highlighted with decorative tiles and architectural flourishes. The inside was designed to accommodate and impress the many guests the Ringlings entertained, with marble-tiled floors, intricate murals laid into the ceilings, and an 82-foot tower with an open-air landing—as well as a cellar vault used to store liquor during the Prohibition era.

Sadly, Mable died only three years after their home was completed, and John followed her in 1936. His fortune had shrunk to nearly nothing during the Great Depression, and the mansion became entangled in a web of creditors and legal actions. It was neglected and fell into disrepair, so much so that it was the setting for Mrs. Havisham’s decrepit mansion in the 1996 movie version of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Soon after, a comprehensive $15 million restoration revitalized the historic mansion, using historic photos to bring it back to its glory days.

OTHER THINGS TO DO AT THE RINGLING

While the art museum, mansion, and circus museum provide plenty of material for a day’s excursion, you can also stroll through Mable’s restored rose garden, let the kids run loose at the Bolger Playspace, or check out who’s performing at the Historic Asolo Theater. After wandering the estate and exploring its treasures, let it all soak in with a cocktail at the Lido Beach Resort Tiki Bar as you watch the sun sink into the Gulf, a fine end to a full day.

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