Things to do on Anna Maria Island, Florida
1. South Florida Museum and Planetarium
There are an incredible number things to do on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
Sand and sea aside, one of them – surreally – is the opportunity to explore both outer space and manatee at Bradenton’s South Florida Museum: the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
This unique museum offers 3 for the price of 1 in terms of its attractions, boasting not only exhibitions concerning local history and culture, but the dazzling Bishop Planetarium Theatre and the Parker Manatee Aquarium, home to rehabilitating manatees and local Floridian sea life.
“For a small city, this museum is a little over the top”, Provost and COO, Jeff Rogers told us as we were led into the museum’s Planetarium.
Seeped in darkness, we entered the vast dome and sat back in our reclining chairs: an immersive trip into space about to begin. For an hour, we travelled the universe while musing existential questions; Jeff trying to explain Dark Matter as we went.
It wasn’t the introduction to Anna Maria Island I’d expected, yet it was truly brilliant.
Visit Bradenton’s Famous Manatee
After exploring outer space, why not head to the museum’s aquarium to meet Anna Maria Island’s official mascot: the manatee.
Inside the aquarium is a tank holding 60,000 gallons of water. Here lived Baca, Lagoon and Gale – majestic, mystical manatee. Victims of either cold stress or propeller injuries, these manatees were temporarily living here until they were nursed back to full health.
I was star struck – mesmerised by these real-life versions of Bradenton’s mascot. Looking like something between a hippo, a seal and a small elephant, these gentle and calm creatures clearly had their own personalities (despite their sedentary appearance).
On our way out, we headed to the ground floor of the aquarium, now stood underneath the giant tank. Here we had a full view of the animals as they swam lazily past; their bellies floating just above our heads.
It was a fantastic introduction not only to a surprisingly diverse museum, but to Manatee County itself.
2. Bradenton Village of the Arts
Bradenton’s Village of the Arts should definitely top your list of things to do on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
A live-work community, the Village of the Arts is home to a host of historical cottages, posing as both homes and cute galleries.
Painted vivid colours and with gardens filled with dedications to the Virgin Mary and Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the neighbourhood is a fantastically eclectic place to explore.
As we walked through, I spotted a blue cottage offering fish tacos and a green home housing a bakery; guests seated inside its living room. Every inch of this neighbourhood had its own hidden surprise, whether it be a skeleton mural or a yoga studio.
It was a village like no other and definitely an alternative thing to do on Anna Maria Island.
Anna Maria Island
3. Shopping On Anna Maria Island
It’s rare that island life lends itself to fantastic retail experiences. Yet Anna Maria Island begs to differ.
On our first morning on Anna Maria Island – the sea mist still rolling in – we headed to Pine Avenue: ‘the greenest little high street’ in America.
Here, all stores are independent, including the Olive Oil Outpost, specialising only in the finest balsamic vinegars and gift shops overflowing with luxury clothing and toiletries, such as the Pink & Navy Boutique.
Each store is housed inside a traditional wooden cottage, with some of these buildings transported to the Island by train from Chicago (purchased from the department store Sears and Roebuck). Even the estate agents here was painted a mint green, with Barbie pink lettering decorating its walls.
Walking inside and we were met by a small Shih Tzu: Kiwi. Behind her, her owner (and owner of the store) Rebecca appeared: “Welcome to the Shiny Fish Emporium, ladies” she said, smiling.
Rebecca personified everything about her store: a beautiful, peaceful, oasis of calm. Looking around – homemade jewellery hanging from pink stands and illustrations dangling by coloured ribbons – and I couldn’t imagine a cosier spot.
Rebecca and her husband, Chris, were originally from New York, moving to Anna Maria Island to escape the rat race and the cold. Here, they decided to set up a store that let their creativity run wild, offering families a ‘sand dollar’ painting experience.
And so it was that Claire and I soon found ourselves in painting shirts, focused intently on decorating tiny, delicate shells. In the background, Christmas music tinkled and Rebecca offered mugs of steaming tea.
It was a lovely morning, in a truly lovely store – and one that represented all that Pine Avenue stood for: creative, independent and welcoming.
4. Yoga & Paddle Boarding on Anna Maria Island
“Listen to the sounds surrounding you and feel the water beneath you”, our yoga instructor, Rachael whispered.
Overhead, an osprey called out and the water lapped gently at my SUP board. With the Florida sun on my back and views out across the water, this was surely one of the most scenic yoga classes I’d attended.
Whilst the gentle rocking of the board meant you did have to engage your core somewhat, the entire class was an incredibly peaceful experience.
Paddling back to shore, Rachael explained that she also held classes at Anna Maria Island’s popular Island Yoga Space, but these SUP classes were her favourite.
“People always think they’re going to fall in, but it’s much more gentle than that. The water helps you be present and in the moment. It’s very zen”.
Whilst there are lots of things to do on Anna Maria Island, Florida, this is definitely an activity you have to try.
5. Boat and Canoe Tours on Anna Maria Island
Of course, I couldn’t write a guide to Anna Maria Island, Florida, and not mention its stunning marine life. A boat tour, or kayaking trip should therefore definitely come top of your agenda.
Paradise Boat Tours
With thick sea grass and mangroves to hunt in and live amongst, Anna Maria Island is not only a paradise for its human visitors, but for its underwater inhabitants, too – including manatee and dolphins.
Our first foray into this underwater world came courtesy of Paradise Boat Tours and a dolphin spotting tour (one of the best things to do on Anna Maria Island).
As our boat bounced over the surf, I imagined that we were far out at sea; a bottomless ocean below me. However, we then passed a man stood in the water, the waves barely reaching his knees.
“The perfect environment for the dolphins,” our guide said laughing. After passing the glittering, waterside home of a Cocoa-Cola Executive, our boat came to a standstill and we held our breath.
Already, a few dolphins were beginning to appear – their fins rising and falling in the shallows. Turning to look at them, I heard a rush of water to my left as a male dolphin appeared, suspended mid-air.
For five minutes, this energetic little dolphin jumped alongside the boat, keen to impress either us, or a local female.
It was a fantastic and extremely professional boat tour and one we’d highly recommend.
An Eco Kayak Tour
A few days later and we exchanged our paradise boat for a small kayak, courtesy of Beach Bums’ and their Eco Tours.
Gliding out onto the water, our guide, Rick, led the way. This tour was gentler than the boat ride, and whilst seeing dolphins was a bonus, it also focused on the smaller inhabitants of Anna Maria Island, Florida.
As Rick told us about his childhood on the Island (idyllic, of course), we paddled past a bird rookery, where Roseate Spoonbills, Blue Herons and White Egrets lived. The Herons reminded me of wizards; long feathers hanging from their beaks like beards. We also explored a forest of mangroves, before wading for oysters and giant clams.
This beautifully peaceful tour was a really heavenly way to see the Island – and gave us an appreciation for the smaller, but in no way less impressive, wildlife that surrounds Anna Maria.
6. Horse Riding (and Surfing and Skiing)
Every now and again, a person will experience an out of body experience – a moment when the surreal reality of that particular moment is difficult to process.
I had one such moment as I clung onto a horse’s tail, speeding through the choppy waters of a local lagoon. “Congratulations, you’re horse skiing!” my guide shouted from ahead, as I sped across the water.
Located just off Anna Maria Island, Beach Horses offers visitors the chance to not only horse ride, but to ride horses as they swim.
For thrill seekers – or for those simply bored of horse skiing – they also offer a ‘horse surfing’ activity. This involves standing on the back of the horse as it swims; an activity that requires clenched bum cheeks and almost superhuman balance.
It’s bizarre and surreal, but brilliant fun.
As we turned back (and now firmly seated atop my horse), my ride began to swim powerfully through the water, as views of Tampa Bay appeared up ahead. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget and absolutely something to include on your list of things to do on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
7. Bike Hire on Anna Maria Island
A fantastic way to explore the island is to hire a bike – something we did multiple times.
We’d highly recommend the fantastic Beach Bums, found on Pine Avenue. Offering retro-style bikes to hire (we’d definitely recommend hiring their kitsch ‘cuiser’ bikes) for $14 a day, you can also hire bike seats for babies, trailers (for little kids) and more traditional gear bikes.
For those feeling a little more adventurous, SUP boards, golf carts and kayaks can also be rented.
8. Sunsets on Anna Maria Island, Florida
My first sunset on Anna Maria Island is one I’ll never forget.
The horizon ahead of me was endless; no start or finish line to be found. As the sun set, a wash of pink and purple cascaded across the sky as the white sands bounced the light upwards. Close to the surf, flocks of egrets took flight – fluttering silhouettes against the setting sun.
It was a sunset that took a breath away and one that I would watch again on my final night on the Island (albeit this time with a lump in my throat).
If you’re visiting Anna Maria Island – or indeed need a reason to visit – let these sunsets be it.
The soft, endless beaches of Bean Point, Longboat Key and those that run along Gulf Drive North offer perhaps the best viewing points.
9. The Best Beaches on Anna Maria Island
For a relatively small island, there are an impressive number of beautiful beaches on Anna Maria Island.
By far our favourite thing to do on Anna Maria Island was to pack a bag and head to the beach for the day – enjoying their alabaster white sands and warm waters.
Perhaps our favourite beach was Bean Point – a place that not only offers spectacular sunsets, but is also a tranquil and secluded spot during the daytime. A little off the beaten track, it’s best to walk or cycle here. Please note that there are no facilities at this beach, so you’ll need to pack a picnic.
For those looking for a busier spot filled with amenities, then head to Manatee Public Beach. Here you can hire deck chairs, umbrellas and cabanas, and the fantastic AMI Beach Cafe is nearby (a delicious lunchtime spot).
A slightly quieter beach, found on the southerly tip of the island, is Coquina Beach. There’s another fantastic beach cafe here and a wonderful shady picnic spot.
10. Mini Golf on Anna Maria Island
After a few cocktails, one of our favourite things to do on Anna Maria Island was a quick game of mini golf a The Fish Hole.
A very cute 18 hole course, this miniature golf course is perfect for adults or families, and has the added bonus of also offering great food and drink.
Surprisingly beautiful, there is also a Koi pond here, alongside a veritable jungle of native Floridian plants – including over 50 different species of exotic flowers and shrubs.
Things to do on Anna Maria Island: Final Thoughts
Anna Maria Island, Florida, sets itself apart from the rest of the Sunshine State.
It is peaceful, independent, charming and determined to uphold a piece of 1950s Florida. Each evening, locals sit on their verandas and families gather on the beach for BBQs and games.
Here, there are no grinding Tampa nightclubs, no identikit retirement villages, no screaming theme parks. It’s instead a uniquely peaceful place – an island facing the horizon, waiting for its next sunset.
I can’t wait to return one day, ready for its next display.