Things to do in Anna Maria Island, Florida
By Helen Wright
Anna Maria Island is the bucket list Florida destination you didn’t know existed. Basking in a sunny spot on Florida’s west coast, Anna Maria Island is an idyllic beach town with views over the Gulf of Mexico. This charming coastal city has possibly the best beach in Florida, with some spectacular sunsets, best enjoyed with a fruity cocktail in hand. Plus, there are so many things to do in Anna Maria Island, you’ll be easily entertained or can choose to unwind and embrace those laid-back Florida vibes.
We spent a long weekend on Anna Maria Island as part of our Florida family road trip in October. After a busy week at the Orlando theme parks, we were ready for some relaxed beach days and Anna Maria Island was the perfect place. Orlando to Anna Maria Island is a 2hr 15 minute drive, or if you want to fly in directly, the closest airport is Tampa (a one-hour drive).
The best things to do in Anna Maria Island
When is the best time to visit Anna Maria Island?
Bradenton and Anna Maria Island used to be a bit of a hidden gem, but the destination is becoming much busier year-round now as more people realise its many charms. Like a lot of Florida, Anna Maria attracts those traditional snow birds – usually, retired people coming to the sunshine state for some warmer weather and staying for up to three months. This is when you will see Anna Maria Island getting busy, with a lot of apartment and house rentals booked out from January to April – peak season for Bradenton. The weather in Anna Maria Island during this period is warm but not hot. In January, the average temperature is around 22 degrees (high), dropping to 10 degrees (low). It begins to warm up in May, staying in the 30s until October. We visited in September and it was hot! We were blessed with sunny days and it was 32 degrees with blue skies for our whole stay, apart from the last day when it clouded over (obviously sad to see us go).
The beach on Anna Maria Island
By far, the number one reason to visit Anna Maria Island is for the completely gorgeous beaches. There are seven miles of beach on the island and each one has a completely different appeal. As Brits, we come to Florida to enjoy the sun and so the best time to visit Anna Maria Island for the weather is between May and October. June and July can sometimes be busier due to the USA and UK school holidays, but weather-wise, it’s perfect.
We absolutely loved hanging out at the beach. After a fun and manic time in Orlando beforehand, Anna Maria’s laid-back beach vibe is the perfect way to compliment a theme park-heavy start to the holiday. We stayed at Bean Point (often cited as the best beach in Florida) but you are spoilt for choice with beaches on the island, which all have fluffy white sand, clear blue waters and (if you’re lucky), the odd manatee or dolphin pod swimming past to say hi. There is also a huge choice of beach bars and restaurants to enjoy the view, but more on that later…
Where to stay in Anna Maria Beach
As a family of four, we wanted a bit of space to stretch out, so we opted for a two-bed apartment holiday home with Anna Maria Vacations. The cottage-style home had a contemporary beach style, with two double bedrooms and a full kitchen. The kids were happy to discover a huge TV, complete with all the streaming channels. Our complex housed four apartments and a communal laundry room as well as a shared pool on a quiet, residential street. We lucked out, as Bean Point, arguably the best beach on the island, was a five-minute-walk away.
The Anna Maria Island Free Trolley
One of the things I liked about Anna Maria is that it has lots of environmentally friendly elements. Most people switch their cars for electric golf buggies on the island and there are ample charging points. It makes the roads a lot safer and less congested, as well as being better for the environment. We walked or cycled to most places around the island but if this doesn’t appeal, there is also a free trolley service running between 6:30am -10pm daily. This will transport guests between Coquina Beach and the City Pier with multiple stops in between, running every 15- 20 minutes.
Rent bikes and cycle the island
The island is so flat and the roads are very safe, so renting bikes during our stay was a no-brainer. There are a couple of local companies on the island, but Beach Bums came highly recommended. We rented bikes for the day ($14 for an adult cruiser bike, $10 for a kids bike and $14 for Isobel’s child seat). You can also hire trailers instead of baby seats (also $14 for the day). Alternatively, if you just want a little ride for fun, you can rent a bike for one-hour at $5.
Renting a bike is such a great way to explore the island and get your bearings, especially if it’s your first visit. The roads are quiet, but even when cars did pass us, drivers are really cautious and dramatically slow down for you. We cruised through the mostly residential streets and along the ocean front, stopping for an ice cream and a cool down under the trees that line the beach.
There are bike racks outside most shops, restaurants and cafes and beach access is also much easier with a bike than a car (as parking is limited). You will find bike stations at every beach entrance. Helmets are required for children, but not adults.
Go to Bean Point
We have a whole post dedicated to Bean Point Beach, but it really is the most beautiful spot, so a visit here should be top of the list of things to do in Anna Maria Island. Unlike some of the other beaches on the island with facilities like lifeguards, cafes, toilets and showers, Bean Point is known for its natural beauty and unspoilt environment. This is what makes it one of the most beautiful beaches in Florida, but if you come for the day be sure to pack a lunch and lots of water and supplies.
Bean Point beach sits right at the top of the island with unobscured views across the Gulf of Mexico. The water is so clear, it is not unheard of to spot dolphins and manatee swimming close to the shore and you won’t be able to resist taking a dip (and a hundred photos). It’s also a beautiful spot to see other wildlife and birdlife. Sandcastles, sunbathing and swimming are the order of the day, but Bean Point becomes even more spectacular at night as one of the best places on Anna Maria island to watch the sunset.
By total fluke, our holiday home was walking distance to Bean Point and we came to the beach every day – it was irresistible. The sunset takes almost two hours to set, so come prepared with drinks and snacks, sit beside the wild grass and take it all in. It’s so beautiful and peaceful.
Create your own donuts at the Donut Experiment
One of the most fun and unique things to do in Anna Maria Island is the Donut Experiment on Pine Avenue. At this super hipster donut shop, you get to design your own donut. Yeah baby! Starting with a plain vanilla dough, you then choose your icing, topping and drizzle from a list of fun flavours and options. Hand in your form and the donuts get made in front of your eyes. I’m not sure who liked it most – me and Simon or the kids!
As well as being a fun activity, especially for children, the donuts were absolutely delicious! When we visited on Saturday morning, the whole store was packed and there was a queue out of the door. The coffee was really good too and a lot of locals come here for breakfast in Anna Maria, ordering a classic donut to go. As a Brit, eating donuts for breakfast is a bit random, but let me tell you, I could certainly get on board with it and so could Finn!
thedonutexperiment.com (210 Pine Avenue)
Eat the best tacos at Poppo’s Taqueria
Speaking of great food, this taco shack needs a special mention and should be high on your list of things to do in Anna Maria Island (or, rather, eat). Right next door to the Donut Experiment, is Poppo’s Taqueria, an unassuming little taco bar that serves delicious food. Everything is fresh, locally sourced and ethical and MAN you can tell. This family-owned business was started in Anna Maria by three siblings and has now expanded into Tampa too. This is no surprise, as Tampa is an undiscovered foodie destination and one of my favourite places to eat so they deserve these Tacos. Save my post on Tampa to read later, as it’s just across the Bay.
There are a few seats inside and on the outdoor porch, but Poppo’s is more of a takeout place. It’s ideal for grabbing lunch and enjoying it on the beach, which is a five-minute walk away. The taqueria is a build-your-own concept (pick your filling / sauce etc). Simon went for traditional tacos, but I opted for a quesadilla from the specials menu which, I kid you not, is the best quesadilla I have ever had. It was so ridiculously good I would swim back to Anna Maria for another bite. You must go and try it for yourself!
poppostaqueria.com (212 Pine Ave)
Explore Anna Maria’s Main Street: Pine Avenue
One of the essential things to do in Anna Maria Island is have a wander around Anna Maria’s main street, Pine Avenue. We had a lovely afternoon exploring the charming shops, galleries and cute cafes. Pine Avenue is what all high streets should be: community led, with local, sustainable businesses, many selling recycled, refashioned or vintage goods and items produced by local artists. It’s a refreshing change from other more commercial parts of Florida and a great place for original souvenirs and keepsakes.
Pine Avenue is the hub of the island, with some great cafes and restaurants (and its own website if you want to find out more about it pineavenueinfo.com). Stop for happy hour at gRub, a bar and BBQ joint with a lively atmosphere. The citrus garlic pulled pork is a game-changer and veggies should try the roasted vegetable empanada. Wash it all down with a Frosé to-go and enjoy as you continue along Pine Avenue. North Shore Café on the same road is also a nice place to grab a coffee and a buffalo chicken wrap (very specific, but very good).
I love the Key West-style buildings along Pine Avenue – which are energy efficient and storm-strong (leading to a LEED-certified green award). Most of these are home to Anna Maria’s lovely boutiques and shops, one to definitely check out is the Shiny Fish Emporium (306 Pine Avenue). Inside is an explosion of colour, curiosities and quirky things, including clothes, accessories, chocolates and sweets. A play area devoted to children (but adults welcome) holds art workshops, including painting sand dollars, a kind of sea urchin fossil.
Fun things to do in Anna Maria Island: Visit the old jail
If you are interested in the history of Anna Maria Island, the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum
(402 Pine Ave) is a modest little showcase that tells the island’s story from its origins to the present day. The Historical Park next door still has the original ‘City Jail’. Built in 1920, it was designed to detain anyone intoxicated and causing trouble outside the nearby roadhouse so they could “sleep it off”. With no windows and a blanket of mosquitos, it was apparently very effective! Getting a family photo in the jail is one of the more silly and fun things to do in Anna Maria Island and we couldn’t resist!
Enjoy Anna Maria’s natural beauty
The stunning beaches are the headline act, but one of the nicest things to do in Anna Maria is to explore the natural beauty of the island. Weaving in-between the lush houses and palm trees are a series of refreshing waterways, ideal for kayaking or paddle boarding. You can rent a board from AMI Paddleboards ($75 per day with free delivery to your accommodation) and take a casual cruise through the mangrove tunnels, spotting a wide range of birdlife and wildlife. One popular route to kayak near Anna Maria Island is the Robinson Preserve in north-west Bradenton, where you can explore more than 600 acres of winding mangrove tunnels and salt marsh.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, there are plenty of things to do in Anna Maria Island but it’s also just a really lovely place to just ‘be’. You can wander aimlessly around the island (which is what we did on day one, and it was great) or the Anna Maria Island Historical Society kindly offer free, downloadable walking tours to follow, providing lots of history and information as you go.
Follow the coast road along from the Anna Maria City Pier to the Rod and Reel Pier, have a nose at some of the beautifully maintained beach houses, spot dolphins, stingray and manatees swimming off the coast and stop to chat with some of the island’s friendly residents, because everyone here is so nice and so chatty. This was one of our favourite things to do in Anna Maria Island and a great way to get a real feel for island life.
Watch the sun setting
Since Anna Maria Island has perfect views over the Gulf of Mexico, anywhere on the coast of the island will guarantee a beautiful sunset. Sundown on Anna Maria is a spectacle with wide orange skies and a warm glow over the white sand. Grab a blanket and a takeaway (tacos from Poppo’s anyone?), find a location and get comfy on any of the beaches to watch the sun go down.
You could also take a slow walk along the beaches as the sun sets, starting at Bean Point and heading south towards Holmes Beach. The sky changes every few minutes, so make sure you have enough space in your phone to capture a thousand photos. Those feeling more adventurous could go for a sunset swim or paddleboard out in the gulf. I can’t think of a nicer way to watch it! Just remember to come into the shallow water when it starts to get dark for safety.
Other good places to watch the sunset are along White Avenue, Holmes Beach, Manatee Public Beach (the AMI Beach Café has live music nightly and tables on the sand, which is an ace spot) and on the Rod and Reel Pier (where you can snack on a Grouper Sandwich and have a cold beer at the same time).
The Sandbar Cafe
Deserving of its own mention when it comes to sunsets on Anna Maria Island is The Sandbar, a wildly popular restaurant on the beach, close to Pine Avenue. When it comes to sweet spots, it doesn’t get much better than this, with the sprawling beach at the front, a huge terrace and front row seats to the sunset. However, getting a table is a commitment. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, operating a first-come-first-seated policy. This is absolutely fine, but prepare to wait up to two hours to be seated.
Before you go running for the hills, it sounds worse than it is, because The Sandbar has a lively bar, a kiosk window for taking cocktails onto the beach and of course, all that sunset action to keep you entertained while you wait for your call. The front desk will message you when your table is ready.
The Sandbar is actually a perfect spot for families, as the kids can play on the sand in front of you while you relax and enjoy a drink. As a parent, you can’t ask for more than that! Just plan ahead and get there around 4pm to be seated in time for the sunset. The Sandbar is an Anna Maria Island icon (it has burned down and been demolished by a hurricane, being restored and rebuilt with help from the community on both occasions), known for fresh seafood and farm-to-fork produce. Many menu items are sourced from the nearby Gamble Creek Farm or from ethical Pine Avenue suppliers.
sandbardining.com (100 Spring Ave)
The Anna Maria City Pier
Originally built in 1911, the Anna Maria City Pier is an important part of Anna Maria Island’s history. However, Hurricane Irma in 2017 completely demolished the old-style wooden structure, leaving it in ruins. After a huge restoration project, the City Pier reopened in 2020 after a three-year closure. Retaining its classic features, the new pier is stronger, beautifully lit and features a laid-back seafood restaurant at the end of the pier.
citypiergrill.com (100 S Bay Blvd)
As well as being a historic part of Anna Maria Island, the City Pier (and the Rod and Reel Pier) is also a great place to spot marine life, including manatees and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. The best time to spot manatee is in the winter months as they migrate closer to the land for the warmer water, but they have been spotted off the coast of Bradenton all year-round. Look for circular ripples in the water, as manatees come to the surface for air and this could be a sign of one about to emerge.
The other cute pier on the same side of the island is the privately-owned Rod and Reel Pier. We spent more time on this pier because it was closest to our holiday home at Bean Point. The Rod and Reel Pier is shorter than the City Pier, but has a great pub and grill on the end. A visit here is one of the nicer things to do in Anna Maria Island because it has a very local feel with families fishing off the side and a real mix of tourists and members of the beach community enjoying a cold beer in the sun. Another Anna Maria Island institution, the Rod and Reel Pier has been here since 1947 and as mentioned earlier, is a great spot for the sunset.
rodreelpier.com (875 N Shore Drive)
We had the most fantastic time in Anna Maria Island and we hope you do too. I have been plotting to go back ever since we left, so I might even see you there! Follow us on Instagram for more updates.
Thank you to Visit Florida and Bradenton Gulf Islands for helping us plan our visit. For more fab things to do in Anna Maria Island, take a look at bradentongulfislands.com
Our accomodation was hosted.
How to get to Anna Maria Island, Florida from the UK
Virgin Atlantic fly from London to both Orlando International Airport and Tampa International Airport, with flights starting from £370 return in Economy Light. virginatlantic.com. Tampa is a 1hr drive from Anna Maria Island and Orlando is 2 hour 15 minutes.
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