Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker was right. When I interviewed him in January at the annual Braves Fest fan event at Truist Park, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Sarasota/North Port is awesome. It’s a great place to bring your family. The beaches are really nice. There are good restaurants. Once you get down there and learn the area, it’s just sneaky good.”
After scouting the region myself for a few days, I can’t help but echo his sentiment. The metro area of about 750,000 residents, 60 miles south of Tampa, is quaint, fun, and crazy about baseball.
Before getting into details, though, let’s clear something up—the spring home of the five-time defending National League East champs isn’t technically in Sarasota. Yes, it’s in Sarasota County, but depending on whom you ask, they might tell you that it’s in North Port or Venice. City lines are blurry in these parts. And with a new planned community, Wellen Park, rising around the stadium, locations are only getting more confusing (though the mammoth development does promise more nearby restaurants and entertainment options for future fans).
One thing is obvious: CoolToday Park, which opened in 2019, will be the centerpiece of your Braves spring training weekend (last home game is March 27 against the Boston Red Sox). Even with the stadium crew still fixing tattered signs, dislodged pop-up bars, and other remnants of last September’s Hurricane Ian, it’s easy to see why the place puts a smile on Snit’s face. In terms of on-field dimensions and architectural quirks (like behind-the-fence seating in right field), it’s a lot like Truist Park—but there are only 15 rows of seats in the lower level, bringing fans much closer to the action. An open, 360-degree concourse provides drink rails and views from all vantage points. Also reminiscent of the team’s hometown venue, tributes to Braves history are everywhere, including murals, quotes, and a retired-number monument plaza.
While there isn’t a bad angle in the 8,000-seat venue, grab a spot by home plate for an early look at new Braves catcher Sean Murphy or claim one of the Adirondack chairs on the left-field hill for a laid-back perspective on the action. To get even closer, sign up for the Braves’ VIP Experience and watch pregame batting practice from behind home plate ($140, includes food and beverages at the LECOM Legends Club and premium parking). Regular tickets start at $35 and include parking.
Barbecue, seafood, tacos, and other food options abound, but I recommend the messy Kitchen Sink Nachos at Superior Pools Tomahawk Tiki Bar & Grill—an open-air, covered restaurant perched above left field, with bonus attractions of sunset views and live music.
Of course, you’re here for baseball, so convenience to the park is key. I stayed at the nearby Hampton Inn & Suites North Port. Opened in 2020, the hotel has pleasant, modern rooms, with enough USB ports for a robotics club. I can also recommend the tuna rolls at Fuji Sushi Hibachi Noodles and shrimp fried rice from IAsia. Or try your luck waiting in line at popular Mexican restaurant Blue Tequila—which is much less crowded at lunch.
If your travel companions want a break from the park, Sarasota County is also home to Siesta Key Beach, consistently one of the highest-rated beaches in America (though a good 45-minute drive from North Port). Blue waters and sugar-white sands will lull you to sleep at this aptly named barrier island, but good luck nabbing one of the free parking spots if you’re not there by 1 p.m.
For a taste of Old Florida, scoot over to downtown Venice. The center of town feels like a set from a wholesome ’50s sitcom. I’m talking adorable gazebos, drawbridges, and active seniors riding bikes along the sidewalk. Explore touristy shops like Island Gift Nook and Venice Olive Oil, or check out the lively arts scene, which this month includes “A Celtic Celebration” by the Venice Symphony.
Made in Italy is a friendly restaurant that’s essentially divided into three parts: an intimate side with a lengthy bar, a brighter section with a wood-fired pizza oven, and an outdoor seating area that’ll get you very close to the aforementioned cyclists. “Yeah, I’ve eaten there,” recalls Snitker, possibly reflecting on memories of a tasty chicken marsala or margherita pie. “It’s awesome.” Right again, Snit.
On your way home, make one last pit stop on the 2200 block of South Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. There you’ll find two Florida-grown eateries: Graze, a fun diner offering all-day breakfast, and PDQ, a Chick-fil-A–like spot that’s open on Sundays. If you can’t decide between them, don’t sweat it. You’re not trying out for the Braves’ 40-man roster—a few nibbles from both won’t hurt anything.
This article appears in our March 2023 issue.