You probably know Orlando as the mecca for all things mouse ears, roller coasters, and retirement living, but there is more to Orlando than the corny stereotypes. “The City Beautiful,” is just that: a city defined by its old oaks dripping in Spanish moss, fine art museums, five-star dining, warm winters, and watercolor sunsets.
Those who visit Central Florida and don’t usually make it out of the kitschy corridor of attractions on the South Side are missing out on the heartbeat of the city. Some of the region’s best food, entertainment, and undiscovered attractions sit quietly in the shadow of the theme parks that eclipse the city.
Where to Stay…
This Mediterranean-style boutique hotel, located in Orlando’s posh Winter Park neighborhood, will fool you into thinking you’ve embarked on a European vacay. Cobblestone streets and French bakeries are just a few blocks away in this historic area, but a farm-to-table experience at Hamilton’s Kitchen, the hotel’s house restaurant, shouldn’t be missed. A lush courtyard and elevated pool on the second floor will keep you occupied on the grounds.
This quaint garden hotel in the center of downtown Orlando is supremely located and excellently styled. Art deco influences characterize this historic hotel. A cottage-style foyer for events and weddings is warm and inviting, and their fairytale garden is just begging for a fanciful photoshoot.
True to its name, The Grand Bohemian is a sultry, chic hotel in downtown Orlando. Plush textures, soft lighting, and art-filled walls elevate this downtown icon. Take a dip in the heated rooftop pool, or indulge yourself in one of the best brunches in Orlando.
This sprawling resort is more than just a place to sleep. The bright and sunny atriums are teeming with native Florida plants and wildlife. An on-site water park, adult-only pool, and floating restaurant experience are just a few unique perks that put the Gaylord on another level.
The Park Plaza Hotel in Winter Park has been showing its signature warm hospitality to guests since 1922. Located right on Park Avenue, a noteworthy promenade of boutiques, shops, and fine dining, the Park Plaza is an elegant way to experience the historic side of Orlando.
Where to Eat…
Orlando’s very own ethically-sourced coffee roastery doesn’t disappoint. With multiple locations throughout the city, you’ll never be far from caffeination. Coffee here isn’t the sugary stuff of classic chains, but more the simple style of European coffee houses. Its warm interior and local baked goods make this the go-to coffee spot for long conversation amid rustic, industrial digs.
Have you ever had avocado toast worth hopping on a plane for? Well, if you’ve been to Buttermilk Bakery, you have. Crusty boules form the hearty base for lemony avocado mash in this brunch favorite. Also on the menu are luscious danishes, melt-in-your-mouth croissants, and soft cookies the size of your hand.
Recreate your study abroad in Barcelona by heading to Santiago’s Bodega. This colorful, artsy restaurant has Spanish classics like patatas bravas, as well as Florida-inspired local bites like Yellowfin Tuna Ceviche. Items come out with impeccable timing as you enjoy the night alfresco, watching Orlandoans stroll by the open-air patio.
Outside of Tokyo, ramen doesn’t get much better than this. Flavorful broths simmer all day and act as the foundation for Domu’s soups. Asian small plates also make the menu memorable. For an appetizer, order the crispy chicken wings and dare yourself to share. For a cocktail, order the smoked old-fashioned and watch the bartender infuse your drink with a smoking plank of wood.
Vegans unite at this unassuming market space on South Street. Bring your barbecue jackfruit outdoors to enjoy beneath the shade of an ancient oak. Market on South is home to two vegan eateries, Dixie Dharma Cafe and Valhalla Bakery. The two unite to feed vegan cravings both sweet and savory. You’d be doing yourself a great injustice not to try the city’s best donuts (vegan or otherwise!).
An Orlando staple and the one of the major reasons Orlando has made it on the foodie map, the Ravenous Pig is a French-American gastropub with a menu revolving around fresh Florida ingredients. Try the shrimp tacos or the Pub Burger, a mouthwatering tower of short rib brisket, caramelized onion, and buttermilk blue cheese.
Another haven for veggie lovers, the Sanctum pledges that there was no flavor sacrificed in the making of its menu. Try one of their hearty bowls available in flavors from every corner of the globe. Go here for a healthy brunch on the weekend and recover with turmeric potatoes or chocolate-hazelnut toast sprinkled with hemp hearts.
The equivalent of Portland’s Salt & Straw, The Greenery Creamery is a homespun ice cream shop specializing in local flavors and dairy alternatives. Indulge in flavors like black ash coconut, whiskey vanilla, and cardamom rose while strolling around downtown’s Lake Eola.
Book yourself an evening at this speakeasy-style dessert restaurant with some girlfriends for a guaranteed night of giggling and reliving your most cringe-worthy sexcapades. Desserts are coyly named, with titles like “Italian Stallion” and “Missionary Crisp,” sure to inspire some reminiscing.
Where to Drink…
Get an alternative look at Orlando’s skyline by sipping on a cocktail in the clouds. The Aventura Hotel’s rooftop bar is the place to be when the sun sinks below the horizon. Don’t forget to look south to see the theme parks’ fireworks pop off in unison.
A true speakeasy, call ahead to get the password and tell them how many “shoes” you need repaired (that is, how many are in your party). This tiny brick bar in the heart of downtown has an Instagram-worthy rooftop and even more picture-perfect cocktails.
Where to Explore…
The home of the Florida Film Festival is a real Orlando pride point. Get there early and grab a cocktail at the outdoor Eden Bar beneath a grove of ancient live oaks. Then, slip into the retro theater and grab a couch for a good indie flick or foreign film. Munch on truffle popcorn or an assortment of elevated theater eats from their menu.
The heart of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola centers the city and brings the community together around festivals, fairs, and the Sunday Farmer’s Market. The circular path that winds along its shores is an easy and peaceful walk. Stroll here at dusk and catch the sunset reflecting in the fountain.
Winter Park’s brick-paved streets enchant everyone who happens upon this North Orlando suburb. Stroll down the well-loved Park Avenue for an afternoon of boutique shopping, croissant munching, and iced-coffee sipping. Fall and spring art festivals here bring visitors and artists from all over the country.
Orlando’s very own tropical jungle sits right in the heart of the city. Just south of downtown Orlando is Harry P. Leu Gardens, a sprawling 50-acre maze of rose gardens, tropical blooms, enchanting forests, and trickling waterfalls. Bring your camera and have a spontaneous photoshoot at this scenic spot, or come here for their movie nights on the lawn.
Orlando doesn’t have a museum mile, but it does have a cluster of fine art museums that are often overlooked by visitors. Orlando Museum of Art is the resident museum hosting rotating exhibitions from artists around the world. Around the corner is the Mennello Museum of American Art celebrating folk art among other American styles. Not far away in the suburb of Winter Park is the Albin Polacek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, a stunning private home on a lake turned into a beautiful display of the artist’s 3D work. And for those who love the art of stained glass, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art — featuring the glass works of Louise Comfort Tiffany — is just a short walk away.
Where to Shop…
Orlando’s very own resale shop has a few locations around the city. You never know what you’ll find at this funky boutique, but whatever you take home will smell of their iconic grape-scented interior.
Mall shopping has never felt so good. Mall at Millenia is an upscale, luxury shopping experience, characterized by the light-filled promenade illuminated by one long skylight. Elevated dining options can be found here, so that you’ll never feel like you were at a mall at all.
Dive into Orlando’s outlet malls if you fancy yourself a real huntress of bargain prices. Two massive and sprawling outlet malls — Orlando International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets — will occupy you for days if you let them.