There’s no denying it! Orlando‘s dizzying rise in fame is due mainly (if not exclusively) to Disney World, Universal Studios, and the other amusement parks that have made it the most visited city in all of Florida in just a few decades, with its more than 50 million visitors a year: more than Miami, more than Key West and every other tourist city in the state.
This has made the hotel industry’s fortune: International Drive and all of Orlando’s outlying areas are teeming with hotels, resorts, and accommodations, with an impressive variety that you can read about in my article on Orlando hotels.
Such growth could not preserve the original spirit of pre-Disney Orlando, which presented itself as a simple central Florida country town of swamps and farms lost in the middle of nowhere. It is said that when it was announced that the Disney parks would be built south of the tiny downtown area, someone commented bitterly on the fact, calling Disney World a “little town in the swamp called Orlando.”
In this article I want to give you some advice on what to see in Orlando outside of the parks (if you are interested in the parks read our guide on the best parks in Orlando): in the compact and modern downtown, there are museums, skyscrapers, and buildings with a contemporary architectural taste, but also retro neighborhoods and beautiful green spaces, parks, and lakes that deserve a walk.
Best Museum in Downtown
Orlando boasts a good number of interesting theaters and museums of various kinds. Here are the best ones:
Orlando Science Center
Among the various places of cultural interest in Orlando, this is the most suitable museum for families with children intrigued by the world of nature: in addition to scientific exhibits on prehistory, the human body, astronomy, biology, and physics in general, you can learn about the flora and fauna of the ecosystem of Central Florida.
Children will find dedicated areas with interactive attractions, they can see baby alligators and pick oranges from the Orange Grove (Orlando is famous for these fruits!); older children will be attracted by the CineDome, an impressive mega-screen where scientific documentaries of considerable interest are projected. Strange but true, weddings are often held here.
Orlando Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art is home to 5 collections of works that draw on the artistic traditions of different cultures throughout the centuries. You’ll find artifacts and artwork from across the Americas and Africa; Native American jewelry, stones, and jewels; and paintings, photographs, and prints by contemporary artists from America and beyond. Also noteworthy are the installations and temporary exhibitions that are set up on the museum’s premises.
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Orange County Regional History Center
Would you like to learn more about the history of Orlando? Would you like to take a trip back in time to see how man related to the Florida wilderness, from prehistoric times to the theme park era? Make your way to E Central Blvd. and enter the historic building that houses the Orange County Regional History Center, an interesting and informative museum with numerous themed exhibits and carefully curated reconstructions of historic buildings, including a 19th century “Pioneer Cabin”.
Parks, neighborhoods, and gardens
Not sure what to do in Orlando? Well, downtown has some beautiful green spaces where you can spend a relaxing afternoon before venturing out to explore the more interesting neighborhoods of downtown Orlando, one of them being Thornton Park.
Harry P. Leu Gardens
Nestled on the banks of Lake Rowena, north of downtown is the fascinating botanical garden of Harry P. Leu, a local businessman who in the 1930s transformed the land around his farm into a lush tropical forest with plants and flowers from every corner of the world. It’s worth wandering aimlessly along the garden’s shady paths, peering here and there at the most unusual plant species, and finally visiting the Leu House, which has preserved the style of an old Florida farmhouse from the late 1800s.
Lake Eola Park
Between one amusement park and another, there is also room for a romantic walk around Lake Eola, recognizable thanks to the elegant fountain that spouts at the center, in harmonious contrast to the skyscrapers of Downtown: it is one of the places of interest in Orlando preferred by tourists, who love to enjoy sailing the lake waters in swan-shaped boats, taking pictures of the landscape and swans (the real ones).
If you’re in town on a Saturday, you’ll find the stalls of the Orlando Farmers Market, which has been located on the southeast corner of the lake since the 1990s, between E Central Blvd and N Eola Dr, just outside the Thornton Park neighborhood.
A quick stop (preferably a food stop) in the Thornton Park neighborhood is a must to complete the restful and pleasant experience of a walk around the adjacent Lake Eola Park. Along Summerlin Avenue and on Washington Street, there is a nice selection of quality restaurants and local eateries where you can sample the cuisine and specialties of Central Florida.
On either side of the neighborhood’s quaint cobblestone streets, you’ll also see a few Craftsman-style log cabins with porches – a good way to get a feel for what a residential neighborhood looked like in turn-of-the-century Florida
Lock Haven Park
Orlando’s largest urban park is bordered by three lakes and is home to several museums and theaters, including the aforementioned Orlando Science Center and the Orlando Museum of Art. In front of the small but curious Mennello Museum of American Art, The Mayor, a 200-year-old titanic oak tree that is one of the largest in the area, rests its huge, tired branches. Lock Haven Park is also home to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, for those who prefer Hamlet to Mickey Mouse.
North of Orlando is Winter Park, known for being an affluent and upscale district. You can get a sense of Winter Park’s vocation by strolling down Park Avenue: graced by Central Park, this street is ideal for those looking for upscale restaurants, boutiques, brand-name stores, and art galleries.
Nearby Lake Osceola can be explored thanks to the Scenic Boat Tour, which explores the local flora and fauna but most importantly gives an idea of the rich standard of living of the families who have their mansions by the lake.
Where to Stay in Downtown Orlando
To understand which are the best areas to sleep in Orlando – depending on which parks you will visit, and other factors, please read our in-depth article, where you will also find targeted recommendations for Downtown hotels in the traditional neighborhoods of Orlando.
Tips on where to stay in Orlando
Excursions in the area and organized tours
Orlando’s central location is quite a fortunate one: from here you can reach both coasts of Florida, or organize a multi-day tour to Miami, Key West and Everglades National Park. Let’s see what are the most popular excursions departing from Orlando.
Kennedy Space Center
Miami and the Everglades
Miami and the Everglades Park are practically on the other side of Florida: the former is 4 hours from Orlando, and the latter requires an additional hour of travel south. For this reason, a single day tour on its own is not recommended, given the amount of things to see.
For those who don’t have enough time to visit Miami and the Everglades from Orlando, I suggest thinking about an organized tour like the one below. In addition to organizing an itinerary that would otherwise be mission impossible, this package offers an airboat experience in the Everglades swamps!
- Suggested Scheduled Tour – Miami day trip and Florida Everglades airboat ride
North of Orlando, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, lies St. Augustine, a unique city in Florida, yet unjustly neglected by classic tours. The distance between Orlando and St. Augustine (1.45 h) is decidedly less prohibitive than the previous excursion, which could also be done on a one-day trip with returning to base.
At the above link, you can read what attractions to visit in this ancient city so rich in history, but below I also want to point out an organized tour with transportation from Orlando that also includes some additional optional services, such as the scenic cruise and the Trolley Tour with a guide.
- Recommended OrganizedTour – Day trip to St. Augustine from Orlando with additional options
Orlando has everything… or almost everything to leave you with a lasting memory of Florida. However, it lacks the sea, which is the big star of this corner of paradise in the United States. Fortunately, Clearwater Beach, one of Florida’s most beautiful beaches, is less than two hours away.
If you decide to get away from the parks and have a nice day at the beach on the fabulous shores of Tampa Bay, you’d better leave very early because there are many things to do besides beach life! Among them, I would like to point out the tour in the Gulf of Mexico by SeaScreamer motorboat and the Day Trip from Orlando with Dolphin Encounter Cruise.
All one- and multi-day excursions from Orlando