Your one-day travel blueprint for outdoor exploration in Bradenton’s Gulf Coast
The wooden bridge at Robinson’s Preserve helps make these outdoor trails accessible for all levels of mobility. ©Dawn Damico
The Gulf Coast of Florida is popular with seasonal and year-round visitors and you have lots of choices for a day outdoors in Bradenton, Florida and the Gulf Islands. When you’re lucky enough to live here, any day can feel like you’re on vacation. The most delightful adventures can unfold right in your own backyard.
In this article, I’ll take you on a day trip that starts with a one-of-a-kind local cafe, then continues with a walk or bike ride into Florida’s wild side, a drive down one of Florida’s Scenic Highways, a chance to dip your toes in the sand and sea, waterfront dining, city lights, and more.
This itinerary in Bradenton, Florida, is not just a day trip; it’s a curated collection of local flavors, natural wonders, and the allure of exploring your world like a seasoned traveler, even if just for a day. I know you can find many more sites along the way, so use this as your full-day itinerary to follow exactly, or as a blueprint you can customize to match your travel style.
Let’s get started!
*See the map below for all locations mentioned
Local Coffee in Historic Cortez
Fox Mercantile is such a cute local woman-owned business. You’ll love the curated gifts, the delicious coffee or tea, and the space to enjoy it! ©Dawn Damico
Start at Fox Mercantile for a coffee or tea and a bite to eat. Opened in June 2023, this small business is part curated home treasures, part coffee shop, and all local charm. Enjoy the outdoor backyard with its cute yellow-striped mini food truck trailer and various seating areas tucked among the garden landscape. Situated in the historic fishing town of Cortez, this is your gateway to the day’s adventures.
*see map below
Robinson Preserve: Wetlands and Epic Views
Robinson Preserve has many vantage points to enjoy beautiful outdoor views. The Tower is 40 feet tall and rewards visitors with views of five bodies of water in/around Bradenton, FL ©Dawn Damico
From Fox Mercantile, head north on 75th Street NW, Bradenton, towards Robinson Preserve for a walk or bike ride (BYO Bike). There are also kayak launches here; however, we’ll share information about the trails.
Two parking lot entrances are off 99th Street NW, near a residential neighborhood. One entrance will put you close to the Robinson Preserve Tower, a small play area, several restrooms, and a historic house that will be renovated as a future Visitors Center. The other entrance is closer to The Nest at Robinson Preserve. What your plans are for the day will determine which one you choose. You can explore the Preserve by paddling the waterway or walking or rolling the trails.
Over 7.5 miles of easy trails cover 682 acres of coastal saltern, marsh, and mangrove habitats. Most trails are wide, hard-packed dirt and boardwalks, with some paved sections. Check AllTrails for the routes so you can plan your day. You can hike, walk your dog on a leash, bike, or run the trail to the 40-foot high tower (some sources say 53-foot) and look over five bodies of water (Manatee River, Tampa Bay, Terra Ciea Bay, Perico Bayou, and Palma Sola Bay) and four counties (Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas, and Hillsborough).
I counted the steps up the tower but kept forgetting the count! If you’re looking for some incline exercises, this is a great place to do it. Each flight is 8-9 steps, and there are several landings on the way up, so you can go as quickly or as slowly as you like.
From here, you can continue to The Nest at Robinson Preserve. The Mosaic Center for Nature, Exploration, Science, and Technology (NEST) is a treehouse and learning space with events and guided tours throughout the year.
No matter what you choose to do, be sure you bring what you need for the day, like water, snacks, and bug spray. Many sections of the trail lack tree cover and shade, so the sun can feel scorching. There are some shaded sections as well as benches.
Bradenton Gulf Islands
After taking in the view from the Tower of Bradenton Gulf Island Beaches, you can cross the boardwalk to continue your journey to the water’s edge. ©Dawn Damico
Once you have explored the Preserve to your heart’s content, use Highway 64 toward Anna Maria Island and cross over the bridge. This route will put you at Holmes Beach, where you’ll be at the northern end of the Bradenton Beach Scenic Highway. Head south. Just past Cortez Road West, you’ll find Bridge Street, Anna Maria’s hot spot for shopping and dining. You can take some time here to visit local shops, head to the Bridge Street wooden pier, or duck into a restaurant for something to eat.
Next, you’ll head to the beach. You’ll have several to choose from. The goal is to be at Coquina Beach on Gulf Drive South Bradenton Beach FL at the end of the day to witness one of the Gulf Coast’s epic sunsets. You can really choose any spot on the sand to witness the day’s end; however, the south entrance will put you close to the point, the bridge, and Longboat Pass, where you can watch the boats coming in for the night. Photographers may be interested in the aging wooden jetty built in the 1950’s. It once extended into the Gulf of Mexico but has deteriorated and is waiting to be refurbished. As of this writing, it looks like railroad tracks in the sand.
Coquina Beach at Sunset
The south side of Coquina Beach has the added benefit of being by the bridge and the pass where boats come in at the end of the day, and Sunset Tours come out to watch the day’s final goodbye! ©Dawn Damico
Initially, the jetty was built to keep Coquina Beach sand out of Longboat Pass. That worked for about 70 years. Then it didn’t. So, they added a tube filled with sand next to the jetty. That has worked for many years. According to Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources, the next step will be a sheet pile wall. Construction was supposed to begin this year (2023); however, there are no signs of active building as of the time of this writing.
In the meantime, you can gather with locals and visitors to enjoy an end-of-day celebration. The sand is sugary white and cool to the touch. We were there in November, and the water was a pleasant temperature to wade into as the sunset painted the sky.
Beware of This!
What is not nice is the no-see-ums! They are out in force at sunset, so beware! Their little bites are annoying, and the itching will come with a vengeance for several days afterward. Somebody told me that hand sanitizer would help, and they have sprays at local stores like Ace Hardware. Some say Avon’s Skin So Soft helps, and you can also find some local herb-based sprays and ointments at farmer’s markets. I didn’t have any of that, so I slathered on all the after-care lotions and avoided scratching as much as possible. Yikes!
Longboat Key and St. Armands
The tropical vibe follows you down the Gulf Coast. ©Dawn Damico
After sunset, exit the beach and turn right, continuing south along Longboat Key towards St. Armand’s Circle and Sarasota. You can stop at your choice of several restaurants and bars along the way for dinner or drinks with a water view. There are fine dining restaurants; however, you may be looking for something more casual after a day on the trails and at the beach.
If you’re starving, consider Shore Longboat Key or Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub because they are close to Coquina Beach. Further down the barrier island, you can grab a casual bite overlooking Sarasota Bay at Dry Dock Waterfront Grill. If you hold out until you get to St. Armands Circle, you’ll have many choices!
Luxury of Longboat Key
Driving this stretch of Longboat Key is lovely. Lots of green landscapes dotted with banyan trees with hanging roots. You’ll also see luxury resorts, golf courses, and bodies of water on both sides. From St. Armand’s, you can head to downtown Sarasota, crossing over the Ringling Bridge, which is playfully lit with colorful lights every night.
There is such a contrast between the historic fishing town of Cortez, where this day trip starts, Robinson Preserve’s natural open beauty, the laid-back beach vibe on Anna Maria Island, and the luxury beach living along Longboat Key and St. Armands Circle. Florida is like that. A little of this, and a little of that. There are many ways to enjoy a day along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and each can be different.
What would you add to this itinerary for a day outdoors in Bradenton Florida and Gulf Islands?