Drop that Disney tour book and step away from International Drive. Orlando deserves better. It’s true — there is life beyond the theme parks in Orlando — a thriving city with an abundant amount of independent cafes, theaters, and galleries that make this city an enjoyable place to be. Here are 15 things to do in Orlando beyond the theme parks.
1. Explore the wide range of craft beers
Orlando is a great city to sample a variety of craft beers from local pubs that will bring tears to the finest brewski connoisseurs. Pay a visit to Orlando Brewing Brewery or visit an independent bar on Mills Ave or the Milk District (as long you don’t go to World of Beer, you’ll be experiencing the best of Orlando’s beer scene).
2. See a foreign film while dining at the Enzian Theater
There aren’t enough places like the Enzian Theater, so when visiting Orlando, be sure to stop by this one-of-a-kind place. The theater is built like an ordinary restaurant, but adds rotating cushioned chairs and a wide theater screen for that extra ambiance. Don’t leave the premises when the film ends, because you can take a few steps outside to Eden’s (an outdoor wine bar).
Recommendation: Check out the schedule on Enzian.org and catch Popcorn Flicks in the Park where you can picnic with your family or friends over a free cult classic film.
3. Study exotic flowers at Harry P. Leu Gardens
This 50-acre botanical garden is the perfect exodus for the Thoreau in you, where you can embark on a self-guided tour to learn about all the flora and fauna that Orlando has to offer. This oasis attracts large flocks of birds, so bring your binoculars (if you’re not too embarrassed to be seen with them).
Recommendations: When paying for your visit, be sure to ask the staff about the horticulture classes. From time to time, Harry P. Leu Gardens will offer courses in botany (in case you ever wanted to learn a thing or two about pruning roses).
4. Laugh your butt off at SAK Comedy Lab
Head downtown and watch a hilarious band of aspiring comedians doing improv comedy. Be sure to check what nights are appropriate for kids, because they can be known to have some, ahem, edgy jokes.
Recommendations: Bring a friend to the lab on their birthday, but be sure to call them in advance. Your unsuspecting friend will be blushing red when they call his/her name to participate in the show.
5. Fight off the swans at Lake Eola
Of course this is an exaggeration, but as long you don’t click your tongue and chase them around, you should be fine. This iconic Orlando lake is a serene place to people watch, listen to bands play at the pavilion, and feed stale bread to the ducks. The lake is also known for its swan boats rentals, where you can paddle around in an over-sized plastic swan like a Hans Christian Anderson story.
Recommendations: Check out local artists, farmers, or soapmakers every Sunday at the Lake Eola market. Oh, and avoid the bathrooms if possible.
6. Examine pre-historic bones at the Orlando Science Center
Time to get your learn on. While it’s not the NY Museum of Natural History, it’s still a cool way to get up close and personal with dinosaurs without the burden of a large bustling crowd. While you’re at it, book your tickets to see the 3-D Digital Adventure Theater to immerse yourself in an artificial galaxy or replica of the Serengeti.
Recommendations: Take your kids to the bodies exhibit and you’ll be forever traumatized by the image of your kids gliding in and out of a larger-than-life intestine tunnel. Some things are better seen than said.
7. Browse the Tiffany’s lamps at the Morse Museum
If art nouveau and stained-glass windows are your thing, then you need to trek down to Winter Park and visit the Morse museum, known to house large collections of jewelry, lamps, clothes, statues and mosaics.
Recommendations: Join the curator tour where an expert guide can escort you and a small party throughout the museum to answer individual questions and offer explanation of the piece’s history.
8. Wolf down a banh mi in Little Vietnam
While most large cities will have its own Chinatown, Orlando has its own Vietnamese district with a fair share of Southeast Asian cafes and shops. If your new to Vietnamese food try a banh mi sandwich, slurp some steaming hot pho, or dine on cold vermicelli rice noodles.
9. Make a fool out of yourself at Wall Street Plaza
If lounging at mellow pubs isn’t your thing, you can get down and dirty at Wall Street in Downtown Orlando. With one admission fee, you can access a handful of themed bars and get wild at a giant block party. Just be wary of the boisterous bros that may be whooping and egging people on to take Jäger Bombs or the women that somehow find all of this to be charming.
Recommendations: Don’t go.
10. Lounge outside at a Park Avenue cafe
If the weather isn’t too inhumane, enjoy a nice stroll through 140 boutique shops, galleries and cafes in neighboring Winter Park. While it’s relaxing during the day, it turns into a bustling hot spot in the evening.
11. Vinyl shopping at Antique Row
Use your time in Orlando to get your eclectic shopping done. Whether it’s shopping for rare LPs or Victorian cabinets, you’ll find all sorts of odd assortments at Antique Row in downtown Orlando.
12. Rent a canoe, kayak or a tube at Wekiwa Springs
A short drive outside of Orlando will take you to Apopka, home to the natural springs at Wekiwa Park. Canoe, kayak, or tube fees are reasonably priced and conveniently accessible. You might get lucky (or unlucky) and see a snake dangling from a tree, a wandering fawn, or a turtle lounging on a log.
Recommendations: Bring snorkeling gear or swim goggles to dive 20-feet deep into an underwater cavern.
13. Show your bohemian side at the Orlando Museum of Art
At the Orlando Museum of Art, you can browse through exhibitions and partake in a craft course to learn how to blow glass. Be sure to check out the website for the latest exhibits (they’ve been known to sport artworks of Picasso and M.C. Escher).
Recommendation: Get more bang for your buck by attending a special night event. Because the museum is a bit on the small side, you’ll have more fun with a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres as you explore the museum.
14. Buy organic vegetables at Winter Park’s Saturday Farmers Market
This indoor-outdoor farmers market attracts quality vendors from allover Central Florida. You can sample local honey, snack on a large bag of old-fashioned kettle korn, or bring home a batch of lovely orchids.
Suggestions: If you can’t make it to Winter Park on Saturday, Audubon Park Community Market on Monday is an excellent alternative. (Though smaller, it still has high quality products on offer.)
15. Check out local shows, festivals and events
Grab a free copy of Orlando Weekly and look for something up your alley. Check out an off-broadway adaptation of Hair at Bob Carr theater or jam along to an experimental psychedelic rock band at the Beacham.
Recommendations: Head to retro Grits and Gravy nights at Independent Bar on Tuesdays.