From what I understand, the Ringling family's gift to the public - in the form of these amazing grounds and stunning artwork - was contingent upon an agreement to allow the public a regular opportunity to experience it free of charge, so the museum and the grounds are absolutely free on Mondays. This does not include the Ca D'Zan mansion or the circus museum, but still well worth a day trip from whatever distance. The art is truly amazing - lots of great artwork - my favorite is a tiny portrait stuck in the corner of one of the gallery rooms called "Blue Madonna" by Dolci. If you enjoy portraits with nuance, google this, or better yet, see the real thing at the Ringling.
I won't go into any more detail about the artwork since you can do that on the official website etc.; I would just offer some general advice about how to get the most out of a visit. If it's a hot day, I would recommend walking the grounds earlier or later out of the heat of the day (although they do offer free transportation on golf carts for those who do not care to walk). The banyan trees (which drop roots from their branches) are amazing, and the rose garden is classic. There are countless out of the way nooks and crannies of the grounds where you can take a moment and sit down on a bench and just "be". The Ca' D'Zan mansion sits on the western-most point of the grounds on the intercoastal. If the budget allows it, a tour of this building is essential, because it is absolutely stunning inside. The mansion was restored several years ago, and during the restoration it was used in the filming of the remake of "Great Expectations" with Ethan Hawke and Gwineth Paltrow.
The circus museum is somewhat interesting, but to be quite honest if time is a factor or unless one of your party is a circus fanatic, you aren't missing much by skipping it. I tend to find the displays of old circus memorabilia a bit depressing, actually, but I'm sure that there are those who would very much enjoy it.
The art museum is wonderful, and there are usually some special exhibits in a separate viewing area in the back -- most recently there was a very interesting display of modern and pop art, which my daughters absolutely loved.
There are a few dining venues on site, including an upscale (but pricey) cafe in the main entrance building where tickets are purchased. The gift shop has many prints and other replicas of the artwork in the museum.
In this economic climate, having the Ringling available free of charge on Mondays is something every visitor (and resident) should take advantage of. If you love art and want a taste of how the mega-wealthy surrounded themselves with beauty and decadence in the early Florida boom, this place is a must-see.
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