Just outside the gates of Disney World and Universal Studios, there is the charming city of Orlando, full of not-so-hidden treasures that is more often than not overlooked by tourists. Don’t try to resist the allure of the amusement parks—why would you even want to? But you won’t regret it if you take a couple of extra days to see what Orlando has to offer.
Where to Sleep
What to See
Photo by Jeff Nickel CC BY
Located in the heart of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is famous for its swan population. Rent a Swan Boat and spend an hour paddling under spectacular views of the skyline and around the Lake Eola Fountain—Orlando’s “official” icon. Take advantage of that warm Florida climate and visit the Orlando Farmer’s Market, every Sunday year-round in the park. You can find not only the best farm-fresh produce, but also prepared foods, beverages for all ages, arts and crafts, and homemade food, clothes, and accessories for your pets.
Photo courtesy of the Orlando Farmers Market
Photo courtesy of the Imperial at Washburn Imports
Ivanhoe Village, a small neighborhood north of downtown, was once known almost exclusively for its antique and vintage furniture stores. Now, you can still find those antique stores, but boutiques, vintage record stores, and an eclectic variety of restaurants and bars have joined the scene. Washburn Imports is a particular highlight. Full of high quality imports from Asia and the Pacific Rim, customers and friends started bringing in wine and hanging out after store hours among the exotic furniture; this led to regularly occurring after-store-hour parties, which led to the permanent addition of a bar. The Imperial Wine and Beer Garden serves up everything craft—beer, boutique wine, and high-end bar food, and has that “best kept secret” feel. They also host the Sushi & Seoul food truck every week, and regularly present live, local, and mostly acoustic music.
Fans of Art Nouveau and stained glass shouldn’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, home to the most comprehensive collection of work of American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The collection includes everything from his jewelry to paintings, and of course his iconic leaded-glass lamps and windows.
What to Do
Start your morning off right with a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Orlando Balloon Rides will take you up to a mile above the ground as you soar over Disney World and the scenic tree tops and lakes of the Kissimmee area. Don’t let a fear of heights stop you either—they operate the newest, largest, and most up-to-date balloons, with super comfy and spacious baskets that make you feel secure (and if that’s not enough, ask them about their 100% safety record for almost thirty years). Those curious about the technical side can help with inflation and deflation, or just sit back and enjoy the views. Bonus: Each flight ends with a champagne toast!
Even in Orlando, you don’t need an amusement park for a thrill ride. For a day of fun and adventure, head out to nearby Clermont to Revolution Off Road. Choose between ATVs, dune buggies, jeeps, and Mucky Ducks (depending on your age, skill level, and how dirty you want to get), and go on an off road adventure around 230 acres of Floridian countryside. If staying in one place is more your thing, you can fish in Revolution Lake, one of the best “Trophy Bass” fishing lakes in Florida, or try out your archery skills on their Target Archery Course. They keep adding attractions too—so make sure to call ahead for reservations and to find out all the options.
Orlando’s most unique nightlife experience is disguised as a shoe repair shop. If you spend some time at Hanson’s Shoe Repair, consider yourself one of the lucky few—only 40 people fit in there, and you need to call ahead for the nightly password. Once you’re in, make sure not to break the rules—there are no phones, photography, ungentlemanly behavior, or inappropriate drink orders allowed.
Where to Eat
The food truck trend seems to be here to stay, and Orlando’s food truck scene is #1. At the center of it is the Daily City® Food Truck Bazaar, a food truck tour traveling to eleven Orlando-area communities each month. Each bazaar fills a parking lot with around 10 different food trucks, each hand selected by the founder, Orlando’s Food Truck Baron Mark Baratelli. Gourmet, ethnic, BBQ, sweets and more are all in one place, with a fun, street fest atmosphere. Consistently the local favorite: the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck.
Whether you’re a vegan or an omnivore or somewhere in between, Ethos Vegan Kitchen is one of the best places in Orlando to score some comfort food. With their pecan crusted eggplant and vegan takes on standards like meatball subs and American burgers, nobody will miss meat. Definitely try the coconut curry wrap: grilled tofu coated in curried veganaise and tossed with celery, raisins, raw walnuts, coconut and mixed greens—it’s some kind of dream combo of Thai food and grandma’s waldorf salad.
Pie is the best, right? It comes in every flavor, sweet and savory, and is appropriate for every season. Orlando has a special treat for us, and it’s called P is for Pie. This small batch bakery creates modern, artisanal twists on the classic dessert, from scratch, and even made to order. Mini pies, pies in jars, pie pops, normal pies…all the pies, each one more delicious than the next.