Heading to Orlando for vacation, or looking to take a staycation close to home? Just ask a Florida native how to do Orlando – outside of the theme parks!
This post was first featured on Feast + West. It has been updated for accuracy.
When you think of Orlando, Florida, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Yep, that’s right: Walt Disney World! Orlando, smack in the middle of Central Florida, is one of the top family vacation destinations in the world, and for good reason. Genius Walt Disney may have built his biggest theme park resort on swampland, but his great idea drew some stiff competition to the area – Universal Studios, Sea World, and Legoland popped up over the years, to attempt to dethrone the Mouse. Their rivalry works out well for vacationers and locals, who have so many choices on where to spend their vacations and money!
I’m a native Floridian, actually having grown up along the east coast, but am a frequent visitor to Orlando. With the help of a few local friends, I’ve put together a pretty dynamic list of places to dine, drink, and have fun in town that don’t involve $100+ dollar tickets to wait in a 2-hour line in the blistering Florida heat to ride the newest, fastest theme park coaster. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I own annual passes to Disney and Universal myself, and highly recommend visiting both!
(But if it’s theme park food you’re hungry for, don’t worry – I’ll be covering those places individually in a new series that’s coming to the blog this fall!)
Being a food blogger, I’m pretty open to trying anything at least once, and Orlando is full of unique places that offer quite a variety of interesting food and drink!
- Cask & Larder – Just flying in? Stop by this gem right inside IOA! Cask & Larder welcomes you to Orlando with what they call “Farm-to-Terminal Dining.” A stop here means craft beers brewed just 20 minutes away, creative cocktails, Southern-inspired fare, local produce and meats…and an incredibly full belly. Balk if you want, but I highly recommend the Burnt Ends Meatloaf – let it pleasantly surprise you as it did me.
- Ravenous Pig – Cask & Larder’s sister restaurant, across downtown in Winter Park, is another gem that highlights Florida’s seasonal foods. From fish freshly caught only a short drive away, to locally grown veggies, to pasta handmade on a daily basis, this gastropub will blow you away. Try the charcuterie!
- Tapa Toro – The name might right a bell – as a sponsor of the Food Wine Conference, we’ve ended the weekend there for the last two years running. Go for the paella, stay for everything else. Seriously, the atmosphere is fantastic (live music and flamenco? Yes please.) The tapas are obviously amazing, the drinks are on point, and Head Chef Wendy will make sure you roll out fat and happy. Plus – bottomless sangria and mimosas during Sunday Brunch? Winning!
- Moonfish – Located on Sand Lake’s Restaurant Row in Dr. Phillips, the atmosphere is incredibly romantic here, and the food fits the bill. When you walk in, you’re greeted by a roaring, flaming grill, and walls filled with various award-winning wine bottles, and even though you know your pocketbook make take a dent, the evening will be totally worth it.
- Se7en Bites Bake Shop – Baked goods are pretty much my life, and this sweet little sweets shop will treat you right! I had the pleasure of meeting the ladies behind the adorable bakeshop at a blog conference event, and I was so happy to finally be able to visit and drool over their creations in person. Their noms range from savory sandwiches to the most amazing cupcake flavors to a terribly creative weekend brunch.
- The Food Truck Bazaar – These traveling boxes of deliciousness are all the rage across the country, and Orlando is no exception. They are constantly on the move, and if you’re in the right place on the right nigh, you can score some delicious bites. Some of my favorites include Tamale Co., SwedeDISH, and The Big Cheese.
- Peterbrooke Chocolatier – It wasn’t until I met owners Kevin & Jami Wray that I understood why so many of my fellow bloggers love this place so much. It’s not just about the incredible chocolate delights they make – it’s the spirit of the entire store. The employees are super friendly, and they can whip up the meanest Sea Salt Caramel Broissant you’ve ever had – if you’ve ever tried one! They’re seasonal items, so if you’re lucky enough to score one, let them know I sent ya!
- The Wine Room – A few steps from Peterbrooke is the coolest wine bar I’ve ever been to. Picture this – you have a card. You load it with money. You swipe it, press a button on one of their numerous machines, and now there’s wine in your glass in 1 oz. (taste), 3 oz. (savor), or 5oz. pours (indulge). They even serve a full menu of tasty food, just in case you need a little something to soak up your vino. It’s a nice way to spend the evening with a spouse, best friend, or a group of girlfriends.
- Keke’s Breakfast Cafe – My husband and I stopped here on a whim after dropping a friend off at the Orlando airport a few years ago, and any time we are in the area in the morning, this is the only place we will eat breakfast. Their waffles, while simple, are off the chain good.
- Prato – More Park Ave. love, this modern Italian spot uses only local produce, as well as locally grown animal products, and has a menu that changes by the day. It’s sad when you fall in love with a dish, only to come back and not find it available. The good news is, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a new dish to love!
- Jillycakes – Oversized cupcakes are a way of life, and Jillycakes only knows oversized! The creative bakers here offer a wide variety of rotating cupcake flavors, even including a few savory types (Thanksgiving dinner is incredible if you’re in town around the holidays.) And yes, they even do specialty cakes for any event.
- Le Cellier – I know I said no theme parks, but I had to mention my fave! Having been a passholder for the last five years, I’ve eaten at many wonderful Disney restaurants, but the best by far has to have been this Canadian gem, located inside the Epcot park. It was the place I first tried authentic poutine, enjoyed a pint of Moosehead Pale Ale in the only place outside of Canada that serves it, and celebrated my most recent birthday with some great friends and a Black Angus rib-eye. They also make a mean cheddar cheese soup.
- The California Grill – The crown jewel of Disney’s Contemporary Resort is definitely worth the price you pay to eat there – if you can get a reservation. The Grill is one of the most popular dining options on Disney property, and they employ some of the world’s finest chefs to create amazing sushi, succulent seafood, and the best damn Chocolate Mousse Cake I’ve ever put in my mouth (seriously, eat this cake.) Plus, you can enjoy the Magic Kingdom fireworks show with a bird’s eye view, and without paying for park admission.
Obviously, there are numerous theme parks in and around the city to choose from, but Orlando has so much to do that doesn’t involve mice and wizards!
- International Drive – A very busy road, cutting through the heart of Orlando’s entertainment district, with nothing but fun things to see and do all the way down. Hop on the I-RIDE Trolley if it’s too hot to walk, and make sure to stop for a round at one of the numerous miniature golf courses you’ll find.
- + Hop a ride on the new Orlando Eye, a ferris wheel that takes you 400 feet into the sky, allowing you to see all of the city.
- + Want to try skydiving, but too chicken to do it from 20,000 feet? iFLY Orlando gives you a real skydiving experience, but inside a wind tunnel! Professional skydivers use the tunnel for training, if that’s indication of how authentic it is!
- + Seeking something a little more thrilling? Check out the Magical Midway and their Slingshot. It’s a bit too much for me!
- The World Of Chocolate Museum & Café – If you’re a chocolate fan to any degree, this newer museum is a must-visit! Marvel at the impressive chocolate sculptures, try some of the best chocolate from around the world, and then learn how to pair it with wine, all for a very affordable price.
- Airboat Rides & Tours – A little off the beaten path, but if you want to experience the swamplands of Central Florida, an airboat ride is the best way to do so! As a kid, my family would take our airboat on the St. John’s River, and set up camp on one of the many islands you can find as you wind your way through the muck and gators. The only danger on one of these tours is not wearing your earphones – those boats are crazy loud!
- Orlando City Soccer – We have our very own Major League Soccer team now! If you come at the right time of year (March-October), you can catch an MLS game, or maybe even spot the players at a local event.
- Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex – If you don’t mind a short drive to the Space Coast, you’re in for a treat at the place where NASA history has been made so many times over. Often overlooked with the cancellation of the NASA program, the complex is guaranteed to take you back to a better time in space exploration; you can get up close and personal with Space Shuttle Atlantis (which is ridiculously massive,) meet an astronaut, and if you’re lucky, get to watch a rocket launch – something we Floridians take for granted.
- Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba – People go to Vegas to see shows, but we have a very special and very exciting one right here! Dramatic, colorful, and breathtaking, La Nouba is one show you don’t want to miss while in Orlando. The current show is only running until December 31, 2017, so get there soon!
- Cocoa Beach – If you’re looking to hit the beach instead of the pool or water park, this is Orlando’s closest…and it’s about a 30 minute ride.
- Golf – Interested in a round of good old cleats-to-the-turf golf? Orlando is home to the famous Bay Hill (where the Arnold Palmer Invitational is held every March), but if you want to spend a little less for an equally fulfilling experience, the Shingle Creek Golf Club is where it’s at. The resort is magnificent, as well, with wonderful restaurants to choose from, and a spa that can’t be beat.
- Church Street Station – This has come a long way from where it was a few years ago. A commuter railway station in the past, it was once a lively nightlife scene in the 70s and 80s, but by the turn of the century, was mainly a ghost town. After the Amway Center (home of the Orlando Magic) was opened, businesses began to flourish on Church Street, and it’s once again becoming a night time hotspot. Ceviche is a Spanish tapas bar with amazing sangria and late night flamenco that should not be missed.
- Lake Eola – a quiet haven in the heart of downtown, you can relax on a swan-shaped paddle boat with your sweetie, enjoy a play at the amphitheater, or simply stroll around the nearly mile-long stretch of flower-studded sidewalk around the lake.
- Wekiwa Springs – One of the many, many, many springs in Florida, here you can kayak down one of Florida’s only designated wild and scenic rivers. If you’re super outdoorsy, you can even pitch a tent and camp on the river.
Orlando has some of the best shopping in the world outside of the LA & NYC-type cities.
- Park Ave. at Winter Park – What can I say about Winter Park? It’s my favorite place to go in Orlando (outside of Disney.) The shopping on the quaint strip down Park Avenue is varied and exciting, to boot.
- + If you’re on the hunt for a fancy balsamic or homemade jam, The Ancient Olive can fulfill every foodie’s dream.
- + The Doggie Door has every kind of pooch accessory one could want, plus a very nice selection of wine for the furmommy or furdaddy doing the shopping.
- + If the smells wafting out to door of The Spice & Tea Exchange don’t draw you in, you might need to get some allergy meds.
- + It’s easy for me to get lost in bookstores, and The Writer’s Block Bookstore has more than just books to fawn over.
- Mall at Millenia – While not hidden at all (it’s quite prominent as you drive down I-4), the Mall at Millenia is Orlando’s #1 spot for luxury shopping, and worth mentioning because the sheer size dwarfs the fact that it contains not only a giant Apple Store, but also a Sony and Windows store. Fashionistas and Techies unite here.
- Orlando Vineland Premium Outlet – In case you’re looking for a Coach bag on the cheaper side, this outlet has you covered – along with over 150 other chains hawking their goods for cheap. For what it’s worth, this is the nicest outlet mall I’ve shopped in anywhere.
- East End Market – a hub where food and craft collide, this marketplace is tucked away inside the heart of Orlando. While the large two-story space focuses largely on food, there are gems hidden inside: Bookmark it, a bookstore featuring works by local authors; Porch Therapy, a garden shop with an array of succulents and houseplants to choose from; and Lineage, where they sell some of the greatest roasted coffee I’ve ever been able to brew in my home.
- Disney Springs – Disney just finished a multi-million dollar makeover! Since the closing of Pleasure Island in 2008, the shopping mecca of the Disney resort has seen a decline in visitors. The red flag went up, and the place is slowly turning into something magical again. Multiple new restaurants, luxury stores & shops, and experiences have opened at Disney Springs, including The Art of Disney, where you’ll find any and every kind of Disney art imaginable; Sublime Gifts & Finds, a shop full of the cutest home decor; and my favorite, Disney’s Days of Christmas, where it’s red, green, and Mickey 365 days a year.
- Orlando Farmer’s Market – A not-so-ordinary farmer’s market, held every Sunday along the banks of Lake Eola. You can even bring your dogs for a stroll as you peruse the wide selection of craft items, artwork, baked goods, and seasonal produce.
If you feel like trekking a bit further from Orlando, may I recommend…
1 hour; New Smyrna Beach (my hometown!) – A quaint little beach town with a crafting, surfing, eating, and drinking problem. Plenty of delicious, fresh local food waits for you around town, and the best night out after a day on the beach dubbed “The Sharkbite Capital of the World” includes the Flagler Crawl (drinking at all the bars along Flagler Ave.)
2 hours; St. Augustine – America’s Oldest City, celebrating it’s 450th anniversary in 2015, is full of history, charm, lots of foodie stops, and at least a weeks worth of things to do.
1 hour; Tampa/St. Petersburg – West coast life! Tampa’s nightlife cannot be beat unless you head down Miami way, and St. Pete’s art scene is as diverse as its cuisine.