Sarasota is widely known for its artistic culture and some of the best beaches in the US (Siesta Key was the #1 Beach according to Dr. Beach rankings in 2011). There are also many great parks in Sarasota. If you like the outdoors, Sarasota has many good, scenic walking trails including Red Bug Slough Preserve (off of Beneva Road), Oscar Scherer State Park, and Myakka State Park (20 miles southeast of Sarasota) -- Just to name a few.
As for neighborhoods that offer a "small town feel with an energetic vibe," I would recommend you visit Sarasota and take a look at the different areas so that you can be the judge of the area. What I consider small town and energetic, you might not. On the whole, Sarasota has the amenities of a big city with a small town feel.
Since you are looking for guidance, I am happy to offer up my suggestion on starting points for you.
The closer you live to downtown, the more of the "arts" culture you will get to experience. That's not to say that you won't find it in other areas, it's just that downtown Sarasota has events, such as the Chalk Festival or the Arts Fair on Main Street that offers that artist vibe. Now, you can find properties in or near downtown that are in your price range, but you will be looking at more condos rather than single family homes.
You might also want to try Gulf Gate. This is a neighborhood that is south of Clark Rd and between Beneva and US 41 and is in very close proximity to the Siesta Key Beaches. This area is close to shopping, the mall, the beach, and is about a 10-15 minute drive to downtown. Gulf Gate is unique in that it has its own nightlife section, full of bars, cafes, restaurants, etc. The "nightlife" in Gulf Gate is isolated from the neighborhood, so you won't be interrupted in the middle of the night, but it is close enough so that you can enjoy a night out and be close to home. I would consider Gulf Gate a very walkable area with its many sidewalks and tree lined streets.
You could find a home in your price range that is in the Southgate area, as well. Southgate is in central Sarasota, closer to the art scene in downtown and the beach (about a 10 minute drive to both). As Tammy mentioned, Southgate (roughly) goes from Bahia Vista to Bee Ridge and is between Tuttle and Beneva.
If you are not turned off by the idea of a villa or condo, Palmer Ranch could even be an option. It would be difficult to find a home in the $175,000 range in Palmer Ranch. Palmer Ranch is a nice development that is south of Clark Road to Preymore and between Beneva and I-75. This is a very walkable community, though the prices on properties are higher than what you are looking for right now. Palmer Ranch is a planned development, made up of many deed restricted and non-deed restricted neighborhoods.
These are some areas to get you started. Based on the type of lifestyle you mentioned (small town feel, energetic, arts vibe) I would stick to Sarasota. While many cities around Sarasota are very nice, such as Venice, they don't offer you the lifestyle that you seem to desire. Venice does not offer the same artistic culture as Sarasota, nor does it have the variety of entertainment that Sarasota does.
Sarasota is known for the Player's Theater, the Ringling Museum, Mote Aquarium, and other theatrical and music venues that make this city so great.
Doing the initial research for home searching can be very difficult. I recommend that you visit the area and go around to see each of these areas so that you can hone in on what area you like best.
If you would like more information about properties or areas, want to see any properties/areas, have any other questions, or if there is something else that I can do to help you, please let me know.
I am happy to share my knowledge with you.
In the meantime, please visit sarasota.suncoasteam.com to conduct your own free search. We offer FREE access to the MLS so that you can search for properties. We do not take any of your personal information and do NOT require you to sign up or have an account with us. It is totally free.