When You Visit the Bradenton Area on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Get Outdoors and ‘Love it Like a Local.’ Here’s How.
Sugar-sand beaches, mazes of mangroves, and palm-studded trails through nature preserves: The Bradenton Area, FL, is an outdoor oasis.
Locals started calling their community the “Friendly City” back in 1924 — fast forward a century, and exposure to the natural world is now scientifically proven to engender generosity, trust, and a willingness to help others. Bradenton remains the Friendly City today, its 240+ days of annual sunshine giving both locals and visitors plenty of opportunities to get outside and reap the benefits. From kayaking along Anna Maria Island’s seashore to fishing out in the Gulf, it’s easy to fall in love with the area. And many do: A whopping 94% of travelers return within 11 months of visiting.
How can you reciprocate that friendly spirit? The best way to show your love for Bradenton is to give it the local treatment. In 2021, the community launched the “Love it Like a Local” campaign to safeguard the region’s diverse ecosystems, which act as homes for manatees, nesting sea turtles, and many other threatened species. The campaign’s pillars — respect, sustainability, and preservation — are vital to ensuring the Bradenton Area maintains its sublime surroundings for future generations.
For further education on how to explore the outdoors responsibly, check out the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. The organization is dedicated to promoting stewardship of the natural world and the human communities within it. And for tips on how to experience the best of the Bradenton Area while protecting the places that make the Friendly City…well, friendly — read on!
The Bradenton Area is a water sports wonderland, with 75 miles of designated paddling trails. Gliding through tidal marshes and mangrove forests is better than a trip to the zoo: Manatees munch on seagrass, bottlenose dolphins play in the distant surf, and if you look up, you might catch the coral-pink feathers of roseate spoonbills flapping overhead.
To learn more about Bradenton ecology, go paddling with a tour group. Beach Bums, a beach-supplies outfitter on Anna Maria Island, offers guided kayak and paddleboard excursions that include paddling tutorials and insight into local plants and animals. For a leisurely self-guided tour through the mangrove tunnels of Robinson Preserve, rent a kayak or paddleboard from Surferbus, a vintage bus often parked at Palma Sola Causeway Beach. Already a paddle pro? Rent your craft of choice at AMI Paddleboard Adventures. They deliver rentals to destinations along Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.
Leave No Trace’s Plan Ahead and Prepare principle is a paddling prerequisite. Check the marine forecast and current water conditions, know your desired route, and travel in groups. The average speed for paddling is roughly 2-3 miles per hour; if you’re considering a long trip, make sure to bring plenty of food, water, and sunscreen. Poor planning and unexpected conditions can result in actions that are more likely to damage the shoreline, contaminate the water, and impact aquatic wildlife. Not interested in doing the prep work? Hire a local guide.
Bradenton spoils those who love the outdoors. Miles of comfortable trails zigzag through the region’s dozen nature preserves, showcasing everything from wild wetlands to historic sites. For panoramic vistas, head to Robinson Preserve. A 53-foot observation tower overlooks the park’s 682 acres of marshes, mangroves, and coastal salterns, which visitors can explore on paths for strolling and biking.
Native American history takes center stage at De Soto National Memorial, part of the National Park Service. The site chronicles the controversial 1539 expedition of conquistador Hernando de Soto and its impacts on the Indigenous peoples who lived in the area. A mile loop through the preserve, peppered with interpretive signs, snakes through mangrove forests at the mouth of the Manatee River. Park rangers occasionally lead free tours; inquire at the visitor center for more information.
If you prefer a stroll with sweeping Manatee River views, check out Bradenton’s casual and convenient downtown. Here, you’ll find the Bradenton Riverwalk — a 1.5-mile green space with an ADA-accessible trail where locals run, walk, and roll past verdant lawns, public playgrounds, and outdoor art installations hugging the riverbank. For an even better view of the river, ascend the ramp to the new observation tower in the eastern portion of the Riverwalk, where you’ll also find an expanded boardwalk, gazebos, and picnic tables.
Leave the landscape better than you found it: Carry a bag to collect and dispose of trash left by others. Leave No Trace also advises hikers to protect natural areas by remaining on designated trails — even when something scenic inspires going rogue. Traveling off-course can damage fragile habitats, harming local at-risk species like the gopher tortoise and Florida scrub-jay.
Snook. Mahi-mahi. Redfish. Mullet. The Bradenton Area’s rivers, bays, and lakes are an angler’s delight, with chances to reel in some serious catches. As a result, the tastiest locally sourced meals aren’t only farm-to-table — they’re also dock-to-dinnerplate.
Hankering for fresh-caught fish with a side of local history? Head to Cortez, believed to be the oldest active fishing village on the west coast of Florida. Fishing is a time-honored Gulf Coast tradition, and this village does a fantastic job preserving the past — 97 of its buildings appear on the National Register of Historic Places. Explore the community’s legacy at the Florida Maritime Museum, then settle down at a dockside restaurant serving salty sea fare.
Dive deeper into the Bradenton Area’s culture by casting a line yourself. To make the most of a fishing trip, book a charter captained by experts; they often provide gear, permits, and training for first-timers. Captain Jarrod, an Anna Maria Island native who runs Jarrod McKenzie Fishing, leads small groups on near-shore adventures in his 24-foot Carolina Skiff. Cortez Deep Sea Fishing takes large-group expeditions on a 62-foot party boat. With Captain Morgan Charters, rod-and-reel isn’t the only raison d’être — you can also take a relaxing sunset tour or dolphin-spotting cruise. And for anglers who want to fish from dry land, try your luck at a public fishing pier — just remember to get the proper license before casting a line.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a big catch, but don’t let celebration overshadow responsibility. Help animals avoid getting tangled in fishing line by storing fishing gear safely and recycling fishing lines in designated areas found at piers and local docks. If you spot a marine mammal like a turtle or manatee swimming nearby, protect them by not casting a line. And if you do happen to see an animal in distress from a fishing line, call Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to assist.
It doesn’t take long to spot some of Bradenton’s most revered residents. Turtles and osprey sunbathe on the banks of Lake Manatee, blue herons hunt crabs in seaside preserves, and sea turtles lay eggs on Anna Maria Island’s beaches come summer. The best time to spot wildlife is during dawn and dusk. You’ll find most animals in nature preserves and parks, but don’t underestimate their reach: Pay attention, and you’ll see hints of wildlife everywhere.
To learn about the region’s diverse fauna, consider joining a guided adventure or visiting a museum. On Paradise Boat Tours, guests learn about manatees, rays, and all types of aquatic birds — and it’s almost assured you’ll see bottlenose dolphins. At The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, the Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat allows visitors to get close to Bradenton’s gentle “sea cows.” No time for a museum? Stop by Portosueno Park — in warm weather, manatees lounge in the lagoon here.
The wild world isn’t your petting zoo. If you encounter wildlife, practice passive observation, which means you should remain quiet, maintain a safe distance, and never offer food. You’re visiting their home without a formal invitation. Remember to show animals respect.
Beach bums take note: If you want sand between your toes, beeline for Anna Maria Island. The 7-mile island’s powder-white shoreline is the envy of Florida’s Gulf Coast, catering to early risers who claim waterfront real estate before crowds arrive.
Coquina Beach, a vast expanse on the island’s southern edge, is well suited for family outings. Grab a bite at Coquina Beach Cafe and spend the day building sandcastles steps from a playground and pavilion. Bean Point Beach on the island’s northern tip is a secluded paradise. Stop by at sunset to see kaleidoscopic clouds float over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. And don’t forget you can hop on the free Anna Maria Island trolley and let someone else worry about the driving while you check out the sights.
Traveling without beach supplies like chairs and umbrellas? Fear not: Beach Suites offers luxury beach-day packages, including games, pillows, a Bluetooth speaker, and more. Just name your beach of choice, and the company will take care of the rest — including set up, break down, and waste disposal.
Preserve Anna Maria Island’s pristine beaches by following three steps from the Bradenton Area’s Love it Like a Local campaign. First, consider transportation: Bicycle rentals and free beach trolleys are both eco-friendly ways to cut down on fossil-fuel usage and air pollution. And, starting this summer, a water ferry will run Friday through Sunday to take you from downtown Bradenton to Anna Maria Island. Second, protect your skin while protecting the landscape: Use biodegradable, marine-friendly lotion instead of aerosol sunscreen. The latter releases harmful chemicals into the environment and breaks down aquatic reefs. Third, leave the beach litter-free. Protecting the beach today allows someone to enjoy the beach tomorrow — and after experiencing the best of Florida’s Gulf Coast, there’s a good chance that “someone” will be you.