Chances are, the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Orlando is Walt Disney World. And you’d be right. But, as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, there’s so much more to Orlando than its world-class theme parks. From local breweries to crystal clear springs and Michelin-starred meals, “The City Beautiful” is an exceptional destination in its own right. If you are visiting for the first time, or planning a quick getaway, here are our favorite things to do in Orlando.
- How to get around Orlando
- Family-friendly things to do in Orlando
- Outdoor things to do in Orlando
- Where to enjoy live entertainment in Orlando
- Where to shop in Orlando
- Where to eat and drink in Orlando
- Where to stay in Orlando
How to get around Orlando
One superlative that Orlandoans are not proud of is the city’s designation as one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities in the US. While City Hall is working on major improvements to be implemented in the next couple of years, driving or using a ride-share app is going to be your best bet for getting around. On weekdays, hop aboard Sunrail, the regional commuter train. Stops include buzzy downtown and elegant Winter Park.
Family-friendly things to do in Orlando
When you’re tuckered out from theme parks, you won’t have to travel far to find activities for little ones to enjoy. If the weather’s nice, there are more than 100 parks in the City of Orlando, and if it’s not, there are plenty of museums nearby.
The Orlando Science Center
The Orlando Science Center houses four floors of interactive exhibits, labs, two large theaters, and an observatory. Engaging daily Science Live! programming makes the museum a great rainy day (or any day) stop for curious kids and entire families. The center also hosts special evening events: pizza dinner and interactive programming for Kids Night at the Museum, and boozy Science Night Live events for the 21-and-up crowd.
Colonel Joe Kittinger Park
Colonel Joe Kittinger Park is adjacent to Orlando Executive Airport, an easy stop off the highway and a perfect spot to watch small planes take off and land. There’s a fenced-in playground for small children with a slide and picnic area for snack breaks. Built to honor those who served in the Vietnam War, the park is crowned by a refurbished F-4 Phantom aircraft that was used to provide air support during the war.
Southern Hill Farms
Southern Hill Farms is a seasonal operation, but if you’re lucky enough to be in Orlando during a harvest season, a visit to the farm is a wonderful family activity. Strawberry picking starts in December, blueberries in March, and peaches in May. During these times, visitors can grab a basket and pick their own fruit. There’s lots of space to play yard games, enjoy the food trucks, and sometimes even ride carnival rides. The spring and fall seasons are also an opportunity to pick your own sunflowers and take photos in the glorious fields.
Outdoor things to do in Orlando
Florida’s sunny weather and year-round warm climate make it the ideal place to spend time outdoors. Orlando is home to the headwaters of Everglades National Park, underscoring the importance of being good environmental stewards while exploring, as water flowing south from here makes its way to the Florida Everglades. And, more than 100 lakes provide ample opportunities for water recreation, despite being a 45-minute drive from the ocean.
Kayak Rocks Springs Run
About thirty minutes north of Orlando lies King’s Landing, but don’t expect any Game of Thrones references here. Instead, you’ll find a small outfitter where you can rent kayaks and canoes or book a tour of the crystal-clear waters of Rocks Springs Run. Emerald Cut is the most photographic section of the paddling trail, but keep your eyes peeled for turtles, gators, and otters.
Lake Eola Park
At the heart of Orlando’s downtown is Lake Eola Park. The lake is encircled by a trail occupied by joggers and people walking dogs, and on Sunday mornings, the farmer’s market crowd. But Lake Eola is best known for something else: swans. Since 1922, the lake has been home to the beautiful birds. Paddle boats shaped like oversized swans are available to rent for a relaxing cruise around the lake.
Enjoy 50 acres of enchanting greenery at Leu Gardens. Inside, you’ll find more than a dozen specific gardens, including a large rose garden, butterfly garden, and vegetable garden. The winter holidays are an especially magical time to visit, when one million twinkling lights are installed around the property for the Dazzling Lights event, complete with a laser light show and live singers.
Where to enjoy live entertainment in Orlando
More than just the heart of the city’s business district, Downtown Orlando is also the city’s hub for large-scale live entertainment. Take the Sunrail train downtown and grab a drink at one of the many local restaurants before heading to a show or sporting event at one of the venues below.
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Catch a concert or a Broadway show at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The performing arts center covers two full city blocks downtown with three theaters — the massive Walt Disney Theater, the more intimate Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, and Steinmetz Hall, one of the world’s most acoustically-advanced concert halls. The plaza immediately outside is also used to host concerts, cultural festivals, and even art installations. Next year a cabaret space called Judson’s is scheduled to open, promising to be a popular spot for sophisticated evening cocktails.
Where to shop in Orlando
The country’s number one tourist destination is famous for its gift shops. But it’s also a great place to pick up luxury goods at fabulous prices and eclectic locally-made products.
Mall at Millenia
Mall at Millenia is an upscale shopping mall, replete with a food court, big-box and designer boutiques, and electronics stores. Anchored by Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus department stores, the mall also features upscale restaurant chains like The Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory, and P.F. Chang’s.
Orlando Premium Outlets
Orlando Premium Outlets has two sprawling locations in Orlando, but it’s the location on Vineland where you can find the higher-end stores. Peruse significantly marked-down prices on designer brands in every market from Prada handbags to Le Creuset kitchenware; shopping here could easily be a whole-day activity. Luckily, there is a food court, two Starbucks locations, and even a bar on site.
Disney Springs is a multifaceted shopping, dining, and entertainment complex on Walt Disney World property. There’s a bowling alley, movie theater, Cirque du Soleil show, and tons of shops — from Anthropologie to the World of Disney. Don’t forget to make dinner reservations at one of many well-known culinary outposts, like Jaleo by José Andrés and Morimoto Asia by Masaharu Morimoto. And, the best part: parking is free.
For a more local vibe, peruse the various independent shops in Ivanhoe Village. Swanson’s Ivanhoe Roe is home to Oh Eco Orlando, Orlando’s first community-based sustainable shop and refillery, and the aptly-named Yay! Tiny Shop, a 200-square-foot treasure trove of eclectic goodies. Down the street, you’ll find The House on Lang and Gold Dust Home, each a well-stocked boutique in a converted old house. You can also stock up on beer and wine at GB’s Bottle Shop or Tim’s Wine Market.
Where to eat and drink in Orlando
Over the past few years, Orlando has quietly become a bit of a foodie town. When Michelin Guide visited Florida for the first time this year, nearly a third of the restaurants that made their way into the guide are located in Orlando. Four O-town restaurants earned Michelin Stars, while seven specializing in lower-priced eats were honored with Bib Gourmands. On that list, Indian cuisine at Bombay Street Kitchen and Peruvian fare at Papa Llama always book up ahead of time, so grab reservations early.
East End Market
East End Market is home to a variety of stalls, including a vegan “chicken and biscuits” spot, juice bar, artisanal cheese shop, and Gideon’s Bakehouse — famous for their half-pound cookies. Pick up an original chocolate chip treat to enjoy in the garden and wash it down with on-tap iced coffee with coconut milk and maple syrup from Lineage Roasters. Upstairs, The Neighbors bar and gift shop is a great spot to stock up on local gifts and enjoy boozy ice cream. On weekends, East End is usually packed, with good reason; it often doubles as a spot for emerging vendors to host pop-ups.
Lazy Moon Pizza
The team at Lazy Moon Pizza has one goal: to allow their customers to “eat, drink, and be lazy.” With two locations in town, Lazy Moon is famous for its oversized 30-inch pizzas with names like “Jason’s Mom” and “Treehugger.” Each slice is bigger than your head, but you can also order a full pie, if you dare.
Toppolino’s Terrace — Flavors of the Riviera
If you have kiddos (or are a kid at heart), do your very best to snag reservations for a character breakfast at Toppolino’s Terrace — Flavors of the Riviera on the top floor of Disney’s new upscale Riviera Resort. The experience is certainly one to remember — the soundtrack and Mickey and friends’ costumes reflect the artistic Italian Riviera theme. The immersive theming extends to the food presentation, where dips and spreads are plated to look like paint on a palette. Best of all, the bread, non-alcoholic drinks, and sides are all-you-can-eat, and kids under three eat free.
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine serves an Anatolian menu in a richly-decorated setting. You absolutely cannot miss ordering the signature lavas bread with muhammara red pepper dip. It comes to your table puffed up like a balloon and is ready to eat once someone in your dining party pierces it with a knife to release steam. Save room for dessert; either of the baklava options pair perfectly with warm Turkish tea.
Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company
Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company is adjacent to its namesake Lake Ivanhoe. Book a private brewery tour, or swing by to taste their wide assortment of beers. Brews have witty names like Park Hopp’r, Guavacation and Florida Can Recover. Trivia takes place every Thursday night at 7:00 PM.
Hanson’s Shoe Repair
You’ll need the password to get into Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a prohibition-era-themed speakeasy complete with era-appropriate cocktails. Located in what is believed to be the oldest building in downtown Orlando, the name pays homage to the Hanson Shoe Repair Shop, a business formerly located in the building and the first in the city to feature an electric sign. Check the establishment’s Twitter or place a call to obtain the daily password.
Where to stay in Orlando
Throw a stone any direction in Orlando and you’ll hit a decent hotel. There’s no shortage of lodging in central Florida, and there are several fantastic options, here are our top suggestions.
We hope you love the spaces and stays we recommend. Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.
The Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport Hotel
Early flight? The Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport Hotel is located directly inside the terminal, so you’re sure to catch your plane on time. Bonus: views of the runway from your bedroom and plane-spotting from the breakfast table.
Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort
If you’re feeling fancy, there’s no beating the exclusive Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. With multiple restaurants (including Michelin-starred Capa, on the rooftop), a relaxing spa, and a pool with a lazy river, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t leave the premises the entire stay. Watch fireworks from your balcony at night and enjoy character breakfasts in the morning.
The award-winning Alfond Inn is a boutique hotel tucked away in quaint Winter Park. Owned by Rollins College, a private liberal arts college in Winter Park, net operating income from the hotel goes to the school’s scholarship fund. Bonus points: it’s a dog-friendly property. An expansion project is currently underway, paving room for a new wing with a wine bar and spa.
The Lake Nona Wave Hotel
The Lake Nona Wave Hotel is a new property situated near the airport, in the master-planned community of Lake Nona. With a focus on art and technology, the hotel features a beautiful sculpture garden and highly-automated room designs. The pool deck gives Vegas pool-party vibes, with its colorful cabanas and weekend DJs. The hotel also offers a “goodnight library” of books for children, written by authors from historically marginalized communities, with an emphasis on social justice.