Updated: Aug 30
WELCOME TO ORLANDO
It's so easy to get caught up in Greater Orlando – in the isolated, fabricated worlds of Disney or Universal Orlando (for which, let's face it, you're probably here) – that you forget all about the downtown city of Orlando itself. It has a lot to offer: lovely tree-lined neighborhoods; a rich performing arts and museum scene; several fantastic gardens and nature preserves; fabulous cuisine; great craft cocktails; and a delightfully slower pace devoid of manic crowds. So, sure, enjoy the theme parks and the sparkles, nostalgia and adrenaline-pumped fantasy there, but also take time to 'Find Orlando.' Come down off the coasters for one day to explore the quieter, gentler side of the city. You may be surprised to find that you enjoy the theme parks all that much more as a result.
What to Do in Orlando
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando offers plenty to keep you busy – which is surprising to many.
Cocoa Beach is just a quick 45-minute drive from the city on the Atlantic Coast. Free parking is available at Ron Jon Surf Shop. While you’re there, you might as well go skydiving at Sky Dive Space Center, one of the highest drops in the world at 18,000 feet (5.48km).
Old Florida” is a term that is used to describe Florida in the 1950’s, before the theme parks would arrive. Roadside Americana reigned supreme.
Few attractions are still remaining today, but the ones that are still around are some of the best.
· Gatorland touts itself as the Alligator Capitol of the World, a well-deserved title. The adventurous types can zipline over a pool of hungry gators. If you’re up for a drive, Weeki Wachee Springs gives you the chance to see real mermaids.
· For the astronaut in you, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex gives you a glimpse into America’s Space Program. Be sure to sign up for the guided tour which takes you all around the facility and in the near future, one of the retired space shuttles will be on display. (check this site for special entry ticket deals)
· For a slower change of pace, visit Mount Dora, a charming town north of Orlando. They are known for their annual craft festivals each year and locally-owned shops. You’ll be sure to find a friend here.
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in Orlando
· Orlando is a small city, so it’s neighborhoods are equally as compact.
· At the center of the city is Lake Eola, a nearly one-mile (1.9km) lake that is the focal point of the city. At night, the iconic fountain is lit up in a rainbow of colors and on select night, a fountain show synchronized to music will play.
· Extending to the east is Thorton Park. Single family homes, tree-lined streets and small boutique shops, restaurants and watering holes make this area a great place to relax after walking downtown.
· To the west is the heart of downtown Orlando. Orange Ave. and Church street are known for their bars and clubs.
· Mills Ave. is to the northeast and features trendy eateries.
· Winter Park, an upscale, neighboring city 1o minutes to the north is another hot spot for shopping and dining and a casual stroll.
· If your visit is centered around the tourist corridor. You’ll find more than enough shops, restaurants, child-friendly museums, bars, dinner shows and attractions to keep you busy all day and night. International Drive and Highway 192 in nearby Kissimmee offer a mix of both.
Where to Eat in Orlando
At first glance, Orlando seems to have nothing but chain restaurants. But if you have your own car, and know a local, they’ll steer you to some fantastic gems.
· Around the theme parks,
· For a special occasion, neighboring Seasons 52, offers a fine dining experience with an ever-changing menu, freshly prepared food and great wines.
· In downtown Orlando, Pine Twenty2 offers locally-sourced, all-natural hamburgers that are just bursting with flavor. You can build your own or order one of the house specialities.
· For a sweet ending, stop by The Dessert Lady for freshly made gourmet cakes that are gigantic.
· Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria is located in the Milk District, a short ride from downtown (near the milk factory). They offer an eclectic array of teas and delicious sandwiches in an urban vibe.
But for a true taste of Orlando, you need to schedule your culinary visit around one of The Daily City Food Truck Events.
Scheduled on a weekly basis, rotating venues every week, 20-30 food trucks line up with every imaginable cuisine.
Where to Drink in Orlando
The good news is, there are plenty of places to grab a drink downtown that won’t break the bank.
· For something trendy, Sky Sixty is a rooftop lounge in the heart of downtown on Orange Ave.
· Ember offers food and an outdoor, Mediterranean style patio bar that is always bustling.
· Along Lake Eola you will find several casual watering holes like the Eole Wine Company and Graffiti Junktion (which also has great burgers).
Best Place for a Night on the Town in Orlando
If you’re looking to stay up late, Downtown Orlando has several clubs that keep busy until 2 A.M.
Your best bet for dancing is on Church Street, which offers a range of clubs. Wall St. located just off Orange Ave. is another popular spot with lots of bars and restaurants. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon live music too.
Of course, for that late-night meal after dancing the night away, Bananas Modern Diner is a short drive away. And Steak and Shake, a popular chain in the south will give you the greasy food your tummy deserves!
If you’re staying near the theme parks, Universal Citywalk offers a variety of clubs with individual tickets available for purchase per club, or an all-in-one access pass. A movie theater and mini golf course are also available.
Downtown Disney offers nighttime entertainment with a softer touch, but drinks can be had at Raglan Road, an authentic Irish Pub
Shopping in Orlando
Both the Florida Mall and Mall at Millenia are popular with both tourists and locals. The Florida Mall has a great mix of stores for all budgets while the Mall at Millenia caters to the higher-end shopper.
For great deals, be sure to visit the Premium Outlets. You could easily spend a whole day browsing here.
Getting Around Orlando
Downtown Orlando is a very walkable city, and walking is the preferred way of getting around. But Orlando is a city that sprawls out, so if you’d like to visit anything not in downtown, you’ll need to travel by car.
Public transport by bus is available (GoLynx), but not convenient if time is important to you. You’ll need to make several transfers to get anywhere and the frequency of busses is not timely.
If you’re staying along international drive, there is a trolley that runs up and down the length of the street, making frequent stops.
Don’t forget Uber
Finding free Wi-Fi in Orlando
Free wi-fi is touch and go, depending on where you are visiting. Panera Bread, as does Starbucks.Finding Wi-Fi in Orlando
Brighthouse Networks provides free wireless hotspots at select locations throughout the city if you are a local internet subscriber. However, some of the social media savvy smaller business are embracing free wi-fi for customers and making it available. It’s always a good idea to ask.
Additionally, many of the Orlando restaurants have embraced social media and offer deals through Yelp and Foursquare. Be sure to check-in!
Cocoa Beach is just a quick 45-minute drive from the city on the Atlantic Coast. The closest beach to Orlando. Daytona Beach 1 hour drive from Orlando. Here you can visit the beach or the world famous Daytona International Speedway. Tampa/St. Pete Beach only 1.5 hours drive from Orlando. Here you will relax in the calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Or visit Miami Beach just a short 3-hour drive from Orlando. It’s one of my favorite week-end getaways. It has some of the best beaches in the country, amazing nightlife and an awesome vibe.
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