Mention Orlando and you probably think of Walt Disney World, Sea World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Those and the many other theme parks around the area are indeed the main reason tourists flock to the city, but in actual fact none of them are in Orlando itself.
Here, we’ll take a look at what you will find in this part of the Sunshine State, and the hidden gems that will allow you to see the real Orlando – so whether you’re taking a break from the parks or just looking to explore Florida’s “City Beautiful”, you’ll always have an exciting to-do list to tick off.
Where to eat
Skip the huge chains that pepper Restaurant Row and Winter Park, and instead head down to the Mills 50 district, where you’ll find tons of independently-run eateries that are good for the soul and easy on the wallet.
Asian food is the local favourite here, and there’s a blossoming Asian-American community to prove it – whether youâre looking at the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese pho cafes or feeling heady from the aromas coming out of the Korean barbecue place next door. There’s even a Chinese/Latin fusion restaurant along here called Tako Cheena, offering up Chinese meat tacos and braised beef burritos. Heaven for any travelling foodie.
If you’re looking for a more traditionally American meal, look out for 4 Rivers Smokehouse – any local will tell you this home-grown chain promises the best slow-cooked meats in the city, including brisket, pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, burgers, and melt-in-the-mouth burnt-ends sandwiches. Oh, and if that’s not enough, they’ve also got a cake shop in Winter Garden.
- Hawkers, 1103 N Mills Ave, Orlando
- Anh Hong, 1124 E. Colonial Dr, Orlando
Where to shop
Orlando is home to some of Florida’s biggest shopping malls, including the massive Florida Mall. You’ll find about 200 outlets here, and it’s a hit with tourists looking for cheap American goods. If you head down to the south of the city, you’ll find the smaller but incredibly beautiful Mall at Millenia, which promises the more upscale brands like Tiffany and Gucci – perfect for a more relaxed shopping experience!
Outside the malls, there’s a wealth of boutique stores worth discovering; your first port of call should be the fantastic Farris and Foster’s chocolatier in Northeast Orlando, where you’ll not only find beautiful handmade chocolate delights, but also learn to make them yourself – the store hosts various parties and date nights, so if you’re looking for something special, book yourself a place!
Elsewhere you can discover the multicultural communities of the city – Little Saigon, around Downtown North Mills, is home to a number of Vietnamese gift shops and restaurants, while Little India over in the South Orange Blossom Trail area promises Indian shops and even a small Indian cinema. If you fancy discovering a little of Latin America, head to International Drive (locally known as I-Drive) and check out Little Brazil – once you see the flags, you’re there!
Stick around I-Drive, as you’ll also find loads of opportunities for a shopping spree here, and it’s open until 11pm, so you can really splash out – just make sure you can carry it all home!
- Mall at Millennia, 4200 Conroy Road, Orlando
- Orlando Premium Outlets, International Drive, Orlando
Where to party
While everybody else is heading out to the CityWalk at night, you can really take advantage of the real downtown Orlando and discover the hidden gems that make this city’s nightlife so diverse. Of course, if you do want to let your hair down and join the crowds, the most glamorous place to be is around Universal Orlando Studios – but for those who want to take it easy, we’ve got plenty of recommendations for you too.
Your best bet is the Winter Garden area, particularly early on in the evening, when you’ll avoid the college crowd and the larger groups of party-goers. The nightlife here is warm and understated; we’re huge fans of the Tatame Sake Lounge just off Park Avenue, which offers dozens of sake variations, traditional Japanese decor, and often live music too to add to the atmosphere. They also do small Asian plates here, so it’s a good choice if you need a snack before the evening starts. From here you can also walk over to Luma on Park for cocktails, soft lighting and a truly chilled out way to spend an evening.
If you’d like something a bit more hectic but off the beaten track, you can’t do better than The Beachum, one of Orlando’s top venues for live music and top DJ performances. It’s often missed by tourists in favour of the resorts, but it’s a fantastic destination for a night out if you feel the need to get your dancing shoes on.
- TatÃ¡me SakÃ© Lounge, 223 W Fairbanks Ave, Orlando
- The Beachum, 46 North Orange Avenue, Orlando
Where to go
Let’s take a look at your sightseeing tour of the city. There are a number of essential landmarks that almost all visitors to Orlando will head to first: the Bok Tower Gardens, the Florida Citrus Tower and of course the Central Florida Zoo and its Botanic Gardens. However, there is much more to discover, whether you want to see the weird and wonderful, or explore the great outdoors of the City Beautiful.
There are a number of unusual attractions across Orlando that warrant visiting, whether you’re travelling with kids or not. The Orlando Science Center is a great destination for rainy days, or as a chance to get out of the sun for a bit – and with four floors of interactive games, displays and exhibits, you’ll likely be in there all day. There’s also Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando Odditorium – we don’t see many odditoriums in the UK, so while you’re in America you really must indulge in this utterly bizarre adventure. You can expect to find everything from shrunken heads to ancient tools, alongside visual illusions and an overwhelming collection of items and trinkets collected over the years.
We’d also like to recommend the International Trolley and Train Museum. You don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy this, although admittedly it’d probably help – no, the reason we love this strange little exhibition is that it recreates much of the world in miniature around a huge indoor track layout – one of the oldest in the world – and at a fraction of what it’ll cost you to get into It’s A Small World over at the Magic Kingdom. Take a ride and discover the gardens, cities and even waterfalls, and look out for the other miniature tracks around the museum as you go.
If you’d rather be outside enjoying the sunshine and the city, there are plenty of places to do so that aren’t teeming with people. Lake Eola Park is a little section of paradise in the heart of Downtown Orlando, complete with a huge lake, swans and other birds to watch, and boat trips out onto the water for those who fancy it. The real highlight though is the water and light show at night – it’s on at 8pm and 9.30pm, so don’t miss it!
Finally, it’s well worth taking a day trip out to Kissimmee Disney Wilderness Preserve. This preserve is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna native to Florida, providing natural wetlands for the conservation of local wildlife. It was built by Disney to offset the space and resources used for the theme parks, and it’s an incredibly peaceful, beautiful spot to explore just outside the city limits.