Orlando is one of the most sought after vacation destinations in the world, and rightfully so. This historic city is home to unique neighborhoods, world-class attractions, incredible entertainment, and two of the best-known amusement/theme parks ever: Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. The excess of Orlando can sometimes wear a traveler out, so I recommend taking a day trip to see something new and have far less traffic to deal with. Here are the towns that I think you might like.
Disclaimer: I was hosted by KSC, LEGOLAND, and Mount Dora to obtain information to write about them.
Sanford is 30 minutes northeast of Orlando. It is also home to the second international airport in the greater Orlando area, though many people never see more than the airport. I enjoy browsing Sanford’s historic downtown, with excellent restaurants, coffee shops, boutique shops, and photo-worthy murals. Sanford is growing by leaps and bounds, so if you haven’t heard of it yet, I’m sure you will soon.
Lake Monroe — part of the St. Johns River — is in Sanford, and there is a walkway overlooking the river that runs through town. The flowers along the riverfront add beauty to the already gorgeous views, and Barbara-Lee, a red and white 105′ sternwheeler, can provide you a fun boat ride to explore the waterway up close and personal.
I almost always have an authentic German meal from Hollerbach’s, the best German eatery in the state of Florida, in my opinion. The Jäger Schnitzel is my favorite, but the Pork Schnitzel with red cabbage and spätzle is excellent, too. The biggest attraction in Sanford is most likely the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, a well-done animal habitat that also features a carousel, zip line, and obstacle adventures.
Pro Tip: Parking is free at the meters in downtown Sanford.
One of the most unique towns in Florida is Cassadaga, 35 miles northeast of Orlando, a little past Sanford. Cassadaga is named for the lake in New York where Lily Dale is — the most notorious spiritual village in the world. Cassadaga has a considerable population of psychics, mediums, and even camps to learn more about spiritualism in the summertime. Visitors can shop, dine, walk through the picturesque setting, or even have a reading from one of the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp residents.
Cassadaga was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
Pro Tip: I always find time for a meal from Sinatra’s Ristorante at the 1920-era Hotel Cassadaga & Psychic Center.
3. Winter Park
Winter Park is my favorite Orlando neighborhood. It is upscale, trendy, and has a host of boutique shops, restaurants, and wine bars along its tree-lined cobblestone streets. Rollins College is in Winter Park, but for me, the real star of the town is Morse Museum, which houses an abundance of Louis Comfort Tiffany pieces. Shops you cannot miss are Peterbrooke Chocolatier, Siegel’s, and Writers Block Bookstore. You are in for a real treat!
Pencil in a meal while you are in Winter Park — the food is exceptional. I suggest Tabla Indian Restaurant if you like Indian cuisine or Swine & Sons Provisions for Nashville hot chicken or cubanos.
4. Kennedy Space Center
One of the top attractions in the country lies on Merritt Island, an hour east of Orlando. Kennedy Space Center requires an admission ticket but can easily provide a full day of entertainment. You’ll walk on the paths of past astronauts, see rockets and replicas that have been on space missions, and explore the incredible displays and exhibits that share our space history. The Space Shuttle Atlantis has always been one of my favorite parts about exploring KSC, as well as the Saturn V rocket, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the Heroes & Legends area. There are several dining options at KSC, but Dine with an Astronaut is the best, though currently on hold.
Fun Fact: Historic Cocoa Beach is just a few miles south. Bring your suits and take advantage of the sand and surf.
The town of Clermont is 30 minutes due west of Orlando. I recently discovered this gem on a road trip with my daughter. One of the most well-known attractions is a 65-year-old elevator that takes you to the top of Florida Citrus Tower for amazing views. Our favorite thing to do was the Presidents Hall of Fame, where we spent about 90 minutes admiring the exhibits and the incredible miniature White House. There are also wax figures of the presidents, which is both fascinating and scary at the same time.
For lunch, head over to Oakwood Smokehouse & Grill for palate-pleasing BBQ and Southern sides, like roasted corn salad and collard greens. Another dining option is the Orlando Cat Cafe, where you eat your food or drink your coffee amidst a bunch of adoptable kittens and cats. Clermont sits on Lake Minneola, a lovely place for kayaking, boating, and canoeing.
6. New Smyrna Beach
A gorgeous beach day trip from Orlando would be to New Smyrna Beach, a little under an hour northeast from the coast. New Smyrna Beach (NSB) is chock full of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants — but the real star is the beach. Explore palm tree-lined Flagler Avenue and Canal Street, checking out the brilliant artworks, men and women apparel, and tasty coffee shops. Then get out and enjoy the water. A not-to-miss place on Canal Street is the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
A cool NSB offering is a two-hour pontoon boat ride and ecotour with Turtle Mound River Tours of the Indian River and Canaveral National Seashore. Things you may get to see include dolphins, fish, rays, birds, and possibly a manatee. The company also offers longer chartered fishing tours. After you are finished sightseeing or enjoying time on the beach, head to Yellow Dog Eats for a tasty lunch or dinner. The Hokey Poke Tacos, Florida Cracker, and What the Fig sandwiches are off-the-hook delicious.
Pro Tip: NSB is one of the only places you can drive your car on the beach. Driving areas are well marked and the fee is $20 per vehicle.
If you ever enjoyed playing with LEGOS, you are going to love the LEGOLAND theme park in Winter Haven. Only 30 minutes from Orlando, LEGOLAND is a beautiful park with rides, character greetings, waterski shows, and lovely gardens. No matter how many times I visit, I still love looking at the mini-LEGO city creations that are mind-blowing with accuracy and creativity.
LEGOLAND was built on the previous Cypress Gardens property, an attraction that many people my age remember their grandparents taking them to. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, stay well-hydrated, and take time out to indulge in the yummy apple fries with caramel dipping sauce.
8. Mount Dora
Mount Dora is 40 minutes northwest of Orlando and is one of the best towns in the Sunshine State. Mount Dora is a special place. Though it has what many small towns have — great restaurants, shops, and pretty scenery — it is somehow just better; you have to see it to understand it. I’ve been mesmerized by the charms of Mount Dora for a decade when I first visited to see the town’s huge Christmas holiday celebration.
I recommend setting aside some time for a meal at Pisces Rising or One Flight Up Cafe, with fantastic city views. Then, do some shopping at the original and interesting selection of locally-owned boutiques. If time permits, a couple of Mount Dora tours are well worth the time and money. First is a 2-hour narrated CatBoat Adventure tour on a two-person private catamaran across lovely Lake Dora.
The second is a Glide Adventure tour, where you will see Mount Dora by Segway with a group and guide. I adore Segway tours, and if you haven’t tried them yet, it is straightforward. The tour operator will make sure you are proficient on the Segway before you head out. You’ll see things and hear stories that make Mount Dora shine even brighter.
9. Lakeland’s FLW Campus
Lakeland, in Central Florida, houses the most extensive single collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and is 1 hour from Orlando. You will find them and a stunning water dome feature around the Florida Southern College — thirteen structures in total. My favorite is the one-of-a-kind Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. While you are in Lakeland, enjoy a tasty meal from Frescoes Southern Kitchen & Bar or a coffee from Black & Brew, wander through the incredible Hollis Garden, or consider browsing the Polk Museum of Art.
Pro Tip: Take a walk around Lake Morton to see the elegant swans, stars of Lakeland.
10. Dade City
Located 1 hour and 15 minutes from Orlando is Dade City, another place I think you will hear more about in the future. This adorable small town only has a few shops, restaurants, and a gorgeous courthouse, but it is enough to keep you busy for a few hours, plus the drive is enjoyable. Have lunch at Kafe Kokopelli (the short rib tacos are A+) or an afternoon tea at Angel Tea Room before or after browsing the locally-owned stores and antique shops.
If you have time, visit Pioneer Florida Museum & Village, filled with historic buildings and farm equipment.