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Anna Maria Island: Things to do in Old Florida beach town

Last updated on March 27th, 2021 at 08:23 pm

It’s a surprise and a delight to find places like this still around – a low-rise beach town where a few quaint cottages survive in a largely residential community.

On Anna Maria Island, “things to do” means walking the beach or watching wading birds and dolphins at the shore.

It’s a low-key place. It joins a small number of beach towns that are throwbacks to another era. (We found a similar vibe at Casey Key, 35  miles south, and Pass-A-Grille, about the same distance north.)

There are no high-rises, few chain restaurants, or other signs that paradise has been lost.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include strolling the wide, white-sand beach full of seabirds.

Anna Maria Island has wide, white-sand beaches that are full of seabirds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island: The essentials

Anna Maria Island is seven miles long and there are three communities on it: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and at the northern tip, the municipality of Anna Maria Island. It’s all lovely, but the island gets maybe a bit more charming in the upper section that is Anna Maria Island.

The island is connected to Bradenton on the mainland by two bridges. To the south, a bridge takes you to Longboat Key, and about 11 miles south, to Sarasota.

Anna Maria Island does lack one thing that we crave: parking. But that lack of parking is probably one reason for Anna Maria Island’s character.

Visitors staying on the island are encouraged to leave their car parked and take the free trolley which runs from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every 20 minutes from the Anna Maria City Pier on the north to Coquina Beach on the south. View the map and schedule of the Manatee Trolley on Anna Maria Island.

All three public beaches have free parking, but Anna Maria Island fills up quickly on pretty weekend days, with traffic sometimes lined up on the waterfront Gulf Drive. There is also some street parking, but never enough for demand.

The universal advice on finding parking on Anna Maria Island: Get there early.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include walking around Bean Point, where the beach narrows and the view is spectacular.

One of our favorite Anna Maria Island things to do is to walk around the northern tip of the island, Bean Point, where you can gaze at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance. Here the beach narrows. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island things to do: Pick a beach; they’re all great

The Gulf-front beaches are about as outstanding as you can find in Florida. The sand is powdery and blindingly white; it squeaks when you walk on it. You can find seashells here, as well as spot dolphin right off shore. There are hundreds of shorebirds. The water is clear and aquamarine.

My favorite place on Anna Maria Island is Bean Point, the beach at the northern tip of the island, where you can walk around the end of the island and gaze out at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay and wild Egmont Key, a state park and national wildlife refuge accessible only by boat at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

On Thanksgiving Day, we headed to the northern tip of the island and found a parking space on the street near a beach access point. The beach was filled with families building sand castles, people strolling or stretched out on lounge chairs. We walked around Bean Point and paused to sit on a bench in the shade

The main beaches, all with lifeguards and free parking are:

Manatee Public Beach, 4000 State Road 64 and Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, which has on-site food and beverages, picnic tables and beach gear for rent.

Cortez Beach and Coquina Beach, located at the southern end of Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach. Some say this is the least crowded beach. On Sundays, a craft market spreads out under the shade trees at Coquina Beach. There are picnic tables, grills, a walking trail and concessions.

Bayfront Park, 310 N. Bay Boulevard. It has lots of parking but it does fill up on weekends. There’s a playground and some shade, but this is a beach on the bay side of the island, not the Gulf, and it lacks the broad, pure white sand of those amazing Gulf beaches. It is a good place to park to walk around Bean Point, which is a beautiful place to watch the sunset.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include strolling on the free and scenic fishing pier at the end of Bridge Street. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include strolling on the free and scenic fishing pier at the end of Bridge Street. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island: Things to do beyond the beaches

Anna Maria Island has plenty of appealing restaurants and bars and cute shops with apparel and decorative items.

One of the most popular districts is Historic Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach, just south of the causeway to Cortez. Parking is hard to find. (You can try nearby Cortez beach parking and walk over.)

This small entertainment district is located on the bayfront, anchored by a free fishing pier with fantastic views across the water to the fishing village of Cortez. A few of the buildings on Bridge Street are 80 to 100 years ago and lend an Old Florida ambiance. In the middle of the block is a lushly landscaped garden that turns out to be a compact miniature golf range, probably a fun evening activity.

On the bay side of the island, you’ll find another free fishing pier, the Anna Maria City Pier, 100 N Bay Blvd. Newly rebuilt in 2020 after hurricane damage, there is a cafe at the end that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. You can get ice cream, beer or wine. Here’s the menu.

From many locations (including from the Bridge Street Pier) you can also arrange to get out on the water in various ways. There are dolphin-spotting tours, fishing charters, parasailing, sunset tours, jet skis and kayak rentals.

One bucket-list activity: Riding a horse into the water along a sandbar. The location is 20 minutes from Anna Maria Island. There’s more information, including a video, at this story on horseback riding on Florida beaches.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include visiting Cortez, a fishing village where white pelicans hang out in a funky harbor full of fishing boats.

Just minutes from Anna Maria Island is Cortez, a fishing village where white pelicans hang out in a funky harbor full of fishing boats. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

My favorite thing to do on Anna Maria Island: The fishing village of Cortez

Ten minutes east of Anna Maria Island on the Cortez Road, you’ll find the historic fishing village of Cortez. I’ve written a whole guide to Cortez. Cortez started as a rural community of fishing families in the 1890s. Descendants of those settlers still live here and there are still commercial fishing operations here, dating back many decades.

If you visit Cortez, you can tour a small, free maritime museum (reservations are required) and wander a neighborhood of cute, historic cottages.

The best thing to do, though, is to eat seafood at a classic Florida fish shack. There are a half dozen waterfront seafood restaurants but my favorite is the Star Fish restaurant, an outgrowth of the adjacent large seafood wholesale company founded in the 1920s. Star Fish has perhaps 15 tables overlooking a beautiful expanse of water and fishing boats and all food is ordered at the counter and all orders are cash only. The seafood is fresh and well-prepared and you can’t beat the view and ambiance.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include kayaking to see wildlife. These are magnificent frigate birds in breeding plumage.

One excellent thing to do in Anna Maria Island is to get out on water to see wildlife and scenery. We kayaked in Cortez Cove, where we found a rookery island where magnificent frigate birds displayed breeding plumage. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island: Many great places for kayaking

The coves and shores along Sarasota Bay are excellent places to paddle. If you stay away from the channel with its power boats, you can find scenic beauty and tremendous wildlife.

There are many kayak trails in the vicinity, all mapped out in an outstanding guide produced by Manatee County called Paddle Manatee.

During our visit, we stayed in a fabulous vacation rental on the water in Cortez and could launch a kayak from our own dock. We explored Cortez Cove and, wow, did we love the experience. (You can reach the same area by launching from the Coquina Beach North boat ramp, 1507 Gulf Drive South, Bradenton Beach, and then paddling carefully across Sarasota bay to Cortez.)

Cortez Cove is rich is both history and natural splendor.

We saw flocks of white pelicans, brown pelicans, herons, osprey and more. There were schools of fish visible in the water. The best part was reaching a rookery island as we paddled east along the shore where magnificent frigate birds were hanging out with their breeding plumage of vivid red neck wattles. I’d never seen this before.

The harbor at Cortez is full of funky derelict fishing boats, shanties on stilts and other colorful boats.

Anna Maria Island: Things to do include admiring the cute cottages that dot the island.

Cute, often historic, cottages dot Anna Maria Island, giving it an Old Florida feel. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Marie Island: Things to do include many parks and preserves nearby

Anna Maria Island is a good base for exploring the many natural and historic wonders of the southern Tampa Bay region. A few spots to explore within a half hour:

DeSoto National Memorial Park, 8300 Desoto Memorial Hwy, Bradenton, FL 34209. This is actually a national park, although quite small and modest. It has a spectacular location on the Bradenton River and a well-done three-quarter-mile trail along the water and through the mangroves, telling the story of the indigenous people and the Spanish explorers. There is a small museum, not currently open. (During normal times, in the winter there is a living history program telling the story of the native Americans.) It’s free.

Emerson Point Preserve, 5801 17th St W, Palmetto, FL 34221. A real hidden gem, this site located on a peninsula at the very bottom of Tampa Bay, has several miles of trails both on land and for kayaks. It’s best attraction, though, is a stunning Portavent Mound, a shell mound created by Amerindians a thousand years ago. A boardwalk crosses it, through a magnificent landscape of huge trees and lush plants.  The preserve is free. We launched our canoe from the trip of this island and paddled along its shore.

Terra Ceia Preserve State Park, 130 Terra Ceia Rd, Terra Ceia, FL 34250. A wild and undeveloped preserve (which means no restrooms, among other things) this park has three marked hiking trails and paddling trails along Terra Ceia Bay. The preserve is free.

Kayaking Frog Creek in Palmetto. This is one of the best paddles you’ve never heard of. Your launch point is hidden behind a private campground in Palmetto. You can launch your own kayak ($10 fee) or rent one. What makes this paddle remarkable is that in one trip, it encompasses two completely different environments — a canopied fresh water cypress and oak creek with open water areas flowing into tidal salt water mangrove tunnels.  Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Frog Creek.

Gamble Mansion for Civil War history. The Gamble Mansion has white columns to rival Tara and was the site of a dramatic Civil War event. It’s the only antebellum mansion left in South Florida, and a good reminder of region’s history. It’s about 40 minutes from Anna Maria Island. While the grounds are open, the mansion itself is closed because of the pandemic.

Golf carts are the island way of life on Anna Maria Island.

Golf carts are the island way of life on Anna Maria Island. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Where to stay on Anna Maria Island

There are a number of resorts, inns and hotel, but this is largely a residential island and many visitors use vacation rentals instead. Some historic cottages are available. Few buildings are taller than three stories.

From the Editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm rates and details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

If you find out-of-date or inaccurate information, we’d love to hear about it so we can update the article. Use the comments section below.

Florida roadside attractions: The gift shop at Boyett’s Citrus in Brooksville. (Photo: Doug Alderson.)
Wacky Florida roadside attractions: Boyett’s Citrus in Brooksville
donald mcdonald park campground
Best little campground: Donald MacDonald Park in Sebastian

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Friday 26th of March 2021

Actual Islander here. Born and raised. Not sure anyone in the comments is a real Islander. This place has changed drastically however it is still a top beach in the Country. Many, many locals benefited financially from the change. It is what it is. Those saying it is too crowded, where do you go instead?


Friday 26th of March 2021

Please correct typo: Ten minutes EAST of Anna Maria Island on the Cortez Road

Pam Spall

Sunday 7th of February 2021

I lived on Anna Maria in the late fifties and early sixties. The island I so loved was being ruined at that time. The main roads were sand. You could get hung up just like in the northern snow, if you didn't know how to drive in it. It was an absolute wonderland then, but everything changes. It saddens me how commercial it has become. I no longer have a wish to visit there. I will always remember it in my dreams!!

David Herrmann

Thursday 14th of January 2021

Enjoyed your views of my island.. Anna Maria... I first visited during spring break 1981 on lbk at what was Holiday Inn holidome... with my wife n 2 daughters.. we loved so much that I was lucky to buy a home on AMI in spring 1988... have we changed absolutely, for the better... yes traffic is very challenging at times.. but our views of sunsets are endless... and just to see the many new families seek our beaches just amaze me.. yes. Several older florida style bungalows have disappeared. But a few .. including myself have held out to keep the island charm... now.. today's bridge street is just what I had hope would develop... some new structures but for the most part we are old school florida. And I just look at how far we have come. And just wished you could see our new street filled with people and now new tropical landscape... yes we have changed... but... I love my AMI. dearly.. and just to make a statement worth repeating.. last spring with covid.. as we all experienced differently... let me tell you.. those of us who lived here... including lbk ppl.. all wished we had all the madness that was taken temporarily taken away from us.. yes we missed the people and traffic ..lastly our local law enforcement is simply.. the BEST.. they welcome you and make us all feel safe.... they enjoy our island life and want you to enjoy our lifestyle and of course.. we need to be respectful to your AMI. .

Jennifer John

Tuesday 5th of January 2021

Tough comments crowd. Compared with the rest of Florida vacation spots these days, AMI remains one of the few places that has retained that "Old Florida" charm. Don't tell anyone else.☀️

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