There’s no question about it: Orlando is the city Disney built. This area’s many theme parks are a huge draw, bringing in visitors from around the world. But what if you don’t need -- or really even want -- a meet and greet with Mickey Mouse? Or what if you think there are better ways to spend your time than waiting in line for hours to board a ride? No worries -- we’ve got you covered! There are plenty of other things to see, do, and experience in Orlando. Here are a few of our favorites.
1. Check Out Church Street
One of downtown Orlando’s most historic hot spots, the Church Street District is worth your time. The metro area grew up around the city’s original train station, and the Old Orlando Railroad Depot is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the Amway Center opened nearby in 2010, the area really began to boom. From haute cuisine to the bustling bar scene, there’s something here for everyone; things are especially vibrant at night. Church Street is a great place to discover all Orlando has to offer… that’s not Disney-related, that is!
2. Get Your Culture Fix
Orlando is home to several terrific art museums that are well worth a look.
The Orlando Museum of Art, founded in 1924, aims to connect visitors not only with art, but with new ideas. The collection includes African, ancient American, and contemporary pieces, and there are regular special exhibitions by a wide variety of artists. The museum is open every day but Monday, and admission costs $15 for adults.
The Mennello Museum of American Art, a gem located in Loch Haven Park, features folk art and offers a fascinating look at the life and times of the people who created it. Most of the works you’ll see come from the collection of Earl Cunningham, but there are also featured exhibitions. Be sure to check out the sculpture garden and its mascot, the Mayor, an enormous 350-year-old live oak tree. The museum is open every day but Monday, and admission costs $5.
To get your Tiffany fix, head to the Morse Museum, home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including -- of course -- jewelry, as well as art glass and pottery. The museum is open every day but Monday; admission costs $6.
3. Hunt For Treasures In Ivanhoe Village
For a funky art deco feel, and lots of treasure hunting, head to Ivanhoe Village. This neighborhood, located on Lake Ivanhoe on the northern edge of downtown, is renowned for its antique stores, art galleries, fun boutiques, and charming cafés. The spot is popular with locals, and off the radar screens of most tourists, which makes it extra special. If you’re a music lover, you won’t want to miss the vinyl at Rock and Roll Heaven. You could spend hours there, and you never know what gem you’ll come across!
4. Visit The Science Center
Science lovers, no matter their age, will love the Orlando Science Center. Located near Loch Haven Park, this sprawling complex contains exhibits on everything from technology to biology and ecology. It’s a terrific spot to spend an afternoon, with many hands-on opportunities. There’s an observatory on the top of the building; at night, you can view Jupiter and Saturn, as well as different galaxies and nebulae. The Hive is the perfect place for tinkerers and inventors to put their creative skills to the test, with an array of tools that are free to use, including a 3-D printer. The Orlando Science Center is open every day but Wednesday, and admission costs $21 for adults.
5. Paddleboat On Lake Eola
Even in the heart of downtown Orlando, you can experience the great outdoors at Lake Eola. The park surrounding the water is beautifully landscaped and is an easy mile-long stroll with sweeping views of the skyline. Believe it or not, this picturesque lake began as a nuisance. A landowner noticed a sinkhole on his property line that continued to grow; it turns out it was fed by an aquifer deep underground. The family donated the land around the new lake to the city for public use, and the lake was named Eola for the landowner’s sweetheart. The lake is home to several species of swans, which were brought to the area in the 1920s. Consider buying pellets to feed these famous residents, or renting a swan-shaped paddleboat to get up close and personal with them on the lake.
6. Get To Know The Grunts At Gatorland
To learn everything you ever wanted to know about alligators, crocodiles, and their babies -- also known as grunts -- head to Gatorland. This park has been an Orlando institution since 1949, and it specializes in educating the public about these enormous reptiles, including the rare leucistic -- or white -- alligator. You’ll see the gators in their natural habitat, and you’ll also encounter other animals, including exotic birds and big cats. There’s even an off-road adventure that takes visitors right through the swamps. Gatorland is open daily; adult day passes cost $29.99.
7. Go Picking
Florida is world-renowned for its citrus, which is harvested there and shipped all over the globe. Consider a pick-your-own adventure at one of any number of groves near Orlando. One favorite is Showcase of Citrus, located just south of the Magic Kingdom. This family-owned farm grows more than 50 varieties of citrus fruits, and visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds and pick what they’d like. Offerings include grapefruit, tangerines, Meyer lemons, and honeybell oranges, the rare treat only available for a few weeks each January. Showcase of Citrus is open daily; admission to the grove and its store is free.
8. Experience The Flavors Of East End Market
To check out some of Orlando’s best foods and produce, head to the East End Market, a hub showcasing local farmers and artisans. There is a farm-to-basket mentality there that’s on full display as you stroll the ground level with its sushi, pasta, juice, and bakery stands. Local groceries and flowers can also be purchased there. Upstairs is private event space for parties and cooking classes, as well as Domu, a ramen restaurant with a dazzling cocktail menu.
9. Treat Yourself To A Spa Day
The point of vacation is relaxation, right? And in Orlando, there’s no shortage of terrific opportunities to do just that. Treat yourself to an experience at some of the best spas anywhere!
The Spa Orlando is well known for its luxe, soothing massages and treatments. Go for a quick hour, or book several sessions and stay for the day. A seasonal food menu is available upon request, and complimentary beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, are served.
The Woodhouse Day Spa offers seasonal services, incorporating essences of melon, herb, and citrus into its treatments. It also lets guests choose from a comprehensive list of spa packages, allowing them to combine options such as massages, manicures, facials, and more.
The resort spa at Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes contains 40 treatment rooms, an outdoor pool, a café, and a full salon. Take your pick from a full menu of services, and then sit back and relax in the incredible zen-like atmosphere. Talk about getting away!
10. Shop Till You Drop
There are plenty of shopping opportunities in Orlando, and many of them are decidedly not Disney-related!
The city is well known for its outlet malls, where you can snag designer items for bargain prices. The Orlando International Premium Outlets cater to both locals and tourists and include numerous designer shops. It’s not uncommon to see shoppers absolutely loaded down with bags after just a couple of hours at this sprawling complex. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
For an elevated, luxe shopping experience, The Mall at Millennia is where you want to go. It features haute brands like Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Burberry, and Gucci.
To shop local, head just a bit north to Park Avenue in Winter Park, where you’ll encounter local fashion designers, art, home goods, and handicrafts.
11. Grab A Bite At The Hottest Spots
Orlando has so many terrific places to dine that it’s hard to narrow down the list.
Kadence features stellar sushi and sake options in a tiny nine-seat space. As you can imagine, reservations are tough to score; you might want to ask your hotel concierge for an assist.
For a bit of authentic Neapolitan food, head to Bruno’s for lovingly prepared pastas and made-from-scratch pizza.
Lombardi’s Seafood has been a popular fish purveyor in Orlando for years, and its café features the freshest catches available at fair prices.
Last but not least, Victoria and Albert’s is one of the best restaurants in the state. Yes, it’s inside Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, but it is a dining experience you’ll never forget. The multicourse tasting menu will set you back hundreds, but it’s guaranteed to blow you away.
If you decide to head to Disney after all, here's how to prepare for your trip.