Orlando, Florida is a city of many welcome contradictions. Orlando is by and large known for its world-famous amusement park scene, encompassing everything from the original Disney World and the more recent Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the still underrated Crayola Experience. But in recent years, there’s also been a renaissance of beatnik art, food, coffee, and more that have made it a culture maven’s city worth getting to know a bit better.
The popularity of the aforementioned theme parks is well established, which is why we don’t have much to add to the canon of things you can already read about them elsewhere.
Instead, this Insider’s Guide to Orlando, Florida offers a new take on Orlando that’s worth getting excited about. It focuses on cool things to do in and around Orlando that most visitors miss. And while we do briefly address Disney below, it’s far from the focus. There’s a lot more to Orlando than its initial association with Disney, and we’re excited to present the quirky finds and must-stop spots detailed below. From food to fashion and fun, random experiences like DIY candle making, this guide covers it all.
But first, here’s a quick overview for first-timers:
Orlando, Florida is smack dab in the middle of Central Florida, so it’s got lots of lakes, but it’s not near the beach. Disney World is the big draw for most families traveling here, but the city has an impressive coffee and food scene underscored by a brilliantly diverse artistic culture that is worth exploring in its own right.
We love the walkable brick streets of downtown and the well-kempt beauty of Lake Eola Park, which make the heart of the city feel approachable and small-town-y in the best way.
^ In this area, there are plenty of chic restaurants, clothing stores, juice bars, and boutiques that invite exploration. And perhaps because of its affordability, there are also a number of talented local artisans making really cool stuff worth buying. (Looking at you, Cool Hand Robyn and Ojo Market! <— More on these guys, below.)
The preponderance of Spanish moss hanging from the trees in boho neighborhoods like Thornton Park, meanwhile, make Orlando reminisce in parts of genteel Southern cities like Savannah and even Charleston.
Downtown, with its quaint streets and flurry of activity, is definitely more walkable than up-and-coming neighborhoods like the Milk District– but those who have a car and know where to go will have no problem getting the most out of their stay. That’s where this guide comes in handy. Bookmark this list for easy reference later!
Florida, moreover, tends to be subject to a lot of judgment and Internet cliches, but as you’ll find in all of our Travel Well city guides, there are always wonderful and charming things to be found when you look with a thoughtful eye.
Below, we present our insider’s guide to Orlando, Florida. Enjoy your trip!
Wander Around Harry P. Leu Gardens
The Harry P. Leu Gardens contains nearly 50 acres of outrageously beautiful semi-tropical gardens and mostly shaded trails that any nature lover visiting Orlando should make time to explore. This garden and botanical estate was donated to the city of Orlando by Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane Leu, in 1961.
Today, the property features dozens of themed gardens planted within a matrix of meandering trails and lakes. The estate is shaded by 200-year-old oaks and forests of palm trees, fig trees, roses, azaleas, camellias, cypress trees, and more. Wandering around here, moreover, feels like an escape to another country.
This “living museum” of nature features over 40 different plant collections, including gorgeous antique species brought over from various other parts of the world. The rose garden, which is Florida’s largest, even features rare “old garden roses”– aka varieties that existed before 1867– as well as modern roses. It’s the centerpiece to the entire estate and features a beautiful fountain behind which people often get married. (If you visit on a weekend, you’re likely to see chairs set up for late afternoon ceremonies!)
The Tropical Stream Garden, Butterfly Garden, White Garden, Vegetable Garden, and Camellia Garden are also not to be missed.
The Details (+ Some Pro Tips)
The Tropical Stream Garden features a wide variety of palms, bananas, birds-of-paradise, gingers, heliconias, tree ferns, monstera, and fig trees that reminisce of Hawai’i’s tropical rainforests.
The Butterfly Garden tends to put a smile on every visitor’s face, as it’s planted with a variety of colorful flowers designed to attract precious pollinators. Here, you’ll see everything from potted red chilis to cheerful lilac petunias grown in pots alongside elegant plantings of desert sunflowers, zinnias, and multicolor colius.
The Vegetable Garden adjacent to it, meanwhile, is truly lovely, with a magnificent blooming huckleberry bush, succulent vine-ripened tomatoes, colorful and transfixing artichokes, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables that are well adapted to Central Florida’s humid, warm climate. (The produce grown here is donated to local food banks!)
Also not to be missed is the White Garden– featuring only white plants or plants that have white blooms or foliage– and the Camellia Garden, which showcases the largest documented camellia collection in Eastern North America.
The Camellia Garden, moreover, features over 200 varieties of Camellias that bloom from mid-October through March.
^ If you’re visiting during these months, make this portion of the garden a top priority! Camellias smell amazing, they look totally gorgeous, and some rare Japanese Camellia trees even have cute little pears growing on them once the blossoms pass. (Normally, you can only find these kinds of beautiful, early-season blooms in places like Portugal.)
For Mr. Leu, these intoxicatingly fragrant trees were a favorite feature of the garden, and with good reason. Between the camellias and the rose garden, flower lovers will have plenty to fawn over.
And for arts & culture lovers, Leu Gardens also has special programming like movie nights and horticultural classes. Check the official website for the latest event details.
As of this writing, the garden is open 9 to 5 every day (no entry after 4 PM) and tickets are $15 per person. Do yourself a favor and check it out!
Leu Gardens is only a 6-minute drive from the Orlando Museum of Art (detailed below). Go here to cool off after your visit to the garden and make a day of it! Afterward, stop by Milkhouse for lunch at Chichetti Kitchen, ice cream at Kelly’s, or coffee at Foxtail Coffee Co.
Get Classic Cubanos at Black Bean Deli
Black Bean Deli specializes in traditional Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja (the National Dish of Cuba made from shredded beef with green peppers in a wine tomato sauce served with rice, black beans, plantains, and salad;) and Picadillo (ground beef with carrots, potatoes, raisins, and olives).
The real draw, here, however, is the gorgeous selection of sandwiches, including what might be Orlando’s best cubano. Cuban sandwiches are a unique aspect of Orlando’s food vernacular, consisting of sweet ham, roast pork, swiss cheese, and pickles on pressed, panini-like bread.
If you’ve never had Cuban food or want to try an authentic Cuban sandwich in Florida, this is a great place to get one. (Plus, they travel well for takeout or picnics!)
The Media Noche sandwich on sweet bread is also AMAZING and equally as popular. Ideally, try both. They also have empanadas in a variety of flavors like Pollo (stewed chicken) and Papas Rellenas (ground beef and pork).
The building’s cute whitewashed exterior is flanked by potted cacti and blooming crepe myrtle– you can’t miss it. There’s select seating in the covered outdoor patio as well as indoor seating in the air-conditioned, black & white tiled interior.
It all feels very modern, as does the ink pen illustration of the building that stands as the deli’s unofficial logo. Inside, you can find it printed on funky T-shirts and koozies for sale.
For dessert and coffee, Black Bean Deli sticks to tradition, as well, offering classics like tres leches pound cake, flan, rum cake, and guava-cheese pastelitos. Pair with a cafecito (Cuban espresso) or iced cafe con leche for the perfect finish. And if you’re craving a Latin Soda, Topo Chico, Jupina, or bottled oat milk cafe con leche that wouldn’t feel out of place at a hip juice bar– well, they’ve got those, too.
Related: The 11 Best Restaurants in Orlando.
Check Out Cool Street Art via CityUnseen (& Look For It Around Orlando)
Cool graffiti art is a defining aspect of the streetscape in Orlando. The nice thing about a warm, consistent climate is that it invites creativity into the public eye via decorated indoor-outdoor spaces.
Street art, moreover, is everywhere in Orlando, from outside of beatnik art galleries to the exterior of Santiago’s Bodega (a great place to get brunch in Orlando, detailed below!). You’ll often see it on the side of coffee shops and Pho restaurants in the Mills 50 District.
Oftentimes, these murals are subtle, blending in with surrounding architecture with seamless aplomb. Nevertheless, it’s worth noticing. You don’t necessarily have to seek it out, but pay attention. It will add to your experience of the city.
In fact, street art is so zeitgeisty and emergent as a prominent aspect of culture in Orlando that the city has designed an app around it.
Visitors can now also the CityUnseen App to see murals across Orlando in a 3-dimensional capacity using cutting-edge augmented reality technology. Ideal for tech-savvy art lovers, it’s an intriguing way to bring the city’s most colorful spaces to life– and it’s free.
Get Coffee at Stardust Video and Coffee
Stardust Video and Coffee is not really “on” the Internet, so it feels like an amazing hidden gem! Even the exterior of this Audobon Park cafe is hidden beneath a layer of hanging vines, so walking into what feels like an enchanted vintage ex-pat bookstore is a just wonderful perk of getting coffee here.
The facade is even covered with vines, so you can’t see the sign outside, as if the coffee shop itself is trying to hide from the world. Once you step inside, however, it’s immediately clear that this place is something special. Don’t let the lack of internet presence or barely-readable, vine-covered exterior fool you: this place is awesome and it’s been a locally beloved cafe for years.
We love the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the vintage memorabilia, plus the well-used photo booth and cheeky graffiti-like notes that have been saved over the years. They even have a signed photograph from Britney Spears, who, according to this note, “loved [Stardust coffee] so much she [did it] again.”
It’s a legendary artsy and offbeat cafe, with a bar that’s open late. Plus, it’s only 10 minutes by car from Lake Eola. There are used copies of Nobokov’s Lolita for sale and graphic tees that say things like “Life’s a riot”. You get the vibe.
Also, FWIW, the food here is lovely and very veggie-forward. Take, for example, the Luis Guzman vegetarian chili, which has been “a crowd pleaser for decades.” They also make a great “Neo-Philly”: a pressed sandwich made with tempeh, onions, red peppers, vegan mozzarella and bbq sauce.
Many of the salads and sandwiches, moreover, are listed with a “CV” meaning they “could be veganized.” You get the idea– the menu is cheeky. Vegans and vegetarians are openly welcome alongside meat eaters who enjoy sandwiches like the Crispin Glover (pesto chicken with parm, tomato, and lettuce) and the Grinderman (chicken, pesto, goat chez, and hot sauce). They even have an “American Psycho” hummus sandwich that is never made the same way. Unlike their coffee, which is reliably excellent every time.
Related: The 9 Coolest Coffee Shops in Orlando.
Get a Halo Massage at The Salt Room (One Of The Few Places in The World Where You Can Do This!)
The Salt Room is a holistic wellness center that is the only place in the U.S. where you can receive a halo massage— aka an indulgently relaxing massage that takes place in a salt room.
Salt Therapy, aka Halotherapy, is exactly what it sounds like. The treatment simply involves sitting in a relaxing room and breathing in air infused with tiny salt particles, which is very good for your respiratory system. (Think of breathing in salt water at the beach.)
Halotherapy, moreover, has also been shown to relieve symptoms of allergies, asthma, bronchitis, stress, colds & flu, COPD, and sinus infections. It’s great for your lungs, which is why some people get these treatments medicinally, as a natural alternative to OTC drugs.
Normally, you sit in a reclined chair in a salt cave– aka a room whose walls and floor are caked with Himalayan salt. (It’s sort of like a giant sandbox made from 4 tons of salt.)
At The Salt Room in Orlando, however, you can take this healing relaxation practice to the next level by getting a massage in a salt-infused room! It’s incredibly relaxing, and a great way to melt away nervous tension and physical or mental stress in the body.
For a real treat, book a 90-minute Halo Massage with Gabriele, a German grandmother who has been doing excellent trigger point massage for 40 years. (She’s amazing, but books up quickly.)
Beyond this bespoke treatment, The Salt Room also offers classic salt therapy for adults, kids, and families– as well as Lymphatic Drainage, Salt Stone Massage, Vibrational Sound Therapy, Infrared Sauna, Facials, LED Light Therapy, and signature wellness treatments like the Jindili Lime Blossom Body Scrub made from sustainably-harvested sugar and cold-pressed macadamia nut oil.
It’s all lovely and super restorative. In the past, they’ve even allowed visitors to practice yoga in the salt cave.
Out front, they sell cute, cheeky wellness gifts like weighted eye relaxation masks; boutique skincare products; astrological soap, candles + pencils; and hand-poured locally-made beeswax candles in various darling scents like lilac and blackberry anise. They even sell salt lamps for those who want to take the experience home.
Ultimately, The Salt Room is a hidden gem for Organic Wellness lovers and not to be missed if you’re into massage, halotherapy, or both! The combination of halotherapy and massage is something you don’t often see– and we know a thing or two about spas.
While salt therapy is a common practice in Europe, it has taken a while to gain traction in the U.S., mostly because real salt caves are hard to find. Evidence for the efficacy of salt treatments, however, dates back to the 1840s, when Dr. Felix Boczkowski documented the surprising respiratory vitality of Poland’s salt mine workers.
Try Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream
Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream is a bucket list Orlando staple for creamy, rich ice creams in classic flavors like strawberry, coffee, and chocolate as well as foodie-beloved twists like Ore-Dough and Banana Pudding. (They also make excellent sorbets in refreshing flavors like passionfruit.)
Be sure to check out their seasonal menu, featuring items like this past April’s Rice Krispie Cream ice cream, Rose Almond Pistachio, and Vanilla Swirl. Otherwise, stick to their menu of Kelly’s Originals, including Blondie (so good!), Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie, Cookie Monster, and Caramel Scotchie. The Butter Pecan and Mocha Almond Fudge, meanwhile, are among the best around.
In addition to cake and sugar cones, they also offer shakes, floats, tasting flights of 4 house flavors in a waffle bowl, and sundaes– plus pints to go.
Ultimately, with their cute pink cups and a repertoire of over 100 seasonally-rotating flavors in their recipe stash, Kelly’s is a great place to go for delicious, nostalgic ice cream in Orlando. Foodies and picky eaters alike can get behind it. In the warmest weather months (e.g., SUMMER), it’s the perfect indulgence.
…And/Or Get Vegan Ice Cream from The Greenery Creamery
This Downtown Orlando hotspot has vegan and dairy ice creams that are frequently the talk of the (dessert-loving) town. The Greenery Creamery is a boutique ice cream shop in Downtown Orlando that is very hip and modern.
Their charming Mickey Mouse scoops (above) are very on-brand for Orlando– but their flavors are wildly original. Take, for example, the Lavender Blueberry and Speculoos vegan flavors. These they sell alongside classic cream varieties like the super popular “Triple C”– coffee, cookies, and cream– and “Cookie Monster”, aka blue vanilla ice cream with crushed Oreos. There’s something for everyone, and they also make milkshakes.
Following a trend that was seemingly pioneered in NYC’s Chinatown, they also have pan-Asian-inspired specialty flavors like Ube (purple sweet potato) and Cherry Blossom Milk Tea (aka organic hojicha with cherry blossom infused jelly swirls). The hand-made vanilla and black-ash waffle cones are even made with black sesame seeds in the batter, for extra umami.
Best of all, many of the dairy options at the Greenery Creamery feature organic milk and other ingredients that will please foodies, like hibiscus and basil crumbles, rose crystals, Maldon sea salt, organic cacao nibs, and more.
They also have select baked goods, dog pins, and bags of artsy, Eola Coffee Company beans for sale.
Get a Mani/Pedi at These Local Nail Bars
Manicures + Pedicures at Velvet Nail Bar
Those looking for a quick, quality manicure downtown should stop by Velvet Nail Bar, a state-of-the-art 350-square-foot facility that’s easily the most modern nail salon in Orlando.
The staff here do such great shaping and moisture/massage treatments as a routine part of their manicures and pedicures, so it’s sure to be a tension-releasing experience. They offer many great add-ons for a great price, as well– like their Velvet Sunrise treatment, which includes a luxurious exfoliating sugar scrub, warm macadamia nut oil rub-down, hot stone massage, and wonderful cuticle shaping.
Overall, the staff here is professional and nice, and there’s a welcome emphasis on cleanliness, which can sometimes get neglected at nail salons of this size. (For most manicures, they’ll ask you to wash your hands between steps. Love that! Also, when booking, ask for Hang if you can. She’s great.)
Here, it’s all about the extras. Each manicure can be topped up with moisturizing treatments like additional warm oil massage and paraffin wax moisture treatments. It’s super affordable and fast, and ideal for booking last minute, as they have a large staff that can often accommodate walk-ins.
It’s a fantastic value, and the salon is walkable to other cool area spots like Bynx Coffee Shop, Cool Hand Robyn, and The Greenery Creamery.
Gel Manicures + Nail Art at Revel Beauty (Book in Advance)
Those interested in gel manicures or super custom nail art, meanwhile, should see Ayla Freeland (by appointment only) at Revel Beauty, which is right next door to Stardust Video and Coffee (detailed at the top of this article).
^ This salon is much more intimate and quaint than Velvet (see image of their sparse aesthetic, above) so it’s ideal for bespoke detail work and those seeking gel manicures in a stylish setting. If the vibe at Velvet is more modern, clinical, and speedy, then Revel is more about having a slow, intimate, artsy manicure experience. Choose your own adventure.
Ayla Freeland also makes custom press-on nails, which in itself is a very Florida thing. When in Rome? You betcha! Check out her impressive body of work here.
Explore The Wave Hotel: Get Dinner at Bacán And/Or Drinks at The Living Room Bar
Get a drink at the Living Room Bar and/Or dinner at Bacán, the signature restaurant and bar at The Wave Hotel, the hot new hotel in Orlando which is an absolute must for art and design lovers.
The concept here is “meant to inspire and create new energy”, and as such it remains one of Orlando’s best-kept secrets despite having received national attention for its impressive art collection.
The art, architecture, and design of this entire hotel is absolutely amazing. It feels very Alice in Wonderland in the sense that everything is fun, eclectic, whimsical, amusing, and approachably ornate.
For drinks, start at the impressive Living Room bar. The whimsical “gathered” feel of the Living Room’s towering walls, designed by Amy Parry, inspires happiness. The wall features over 300 works of art by artists like Eero Saarinen, Warren Platner, Sarah Gee Miller, and Marcel Wanders. Some were commissioned specifically for the hotel, and others Parry gathered specifically for the bar.
There are even mini versions of Jeff Koons’ iconic balloon dogs, positioned strategically above a couch turned cheekily on its side. The whole concept is cheery, innovative, and well-worth the picture.
Just beyond The Living Room lobby is Bacán, one of the hotel’s two restaurants, which is excellent for dinner and easily Orlando’s coolest fine dining restaurant.
I recommend going early for drinks at The Living Room and a quick wander through the sculpture garden before having dinner at Bacán. Experience these three in succession and you’re sure to have the perfect night!
First of all, Amy Rader’s massive 20-by 10-foot mural in Bacán is as gorgeous as it is transfixing– it’s the first thing you see when you enter the restaurant, and it commands attention and awe. (See the photo, above.)
^ Secondly, the food here is excellent. Try any of the signature micro-gastromy leaning dishes– like sous vide Truffle Chicken or Heirloom Florida Tomato Salad with artfully plated housemade green goddess dressing– for a real treat.
Everything on this seasonal menu is thoughtfully conceived and locally sourced when possible. The flavors are inspired by food of the Americas (think: Duck Breast, Grilled Short Ribs, and Branzino a la Plancha) all of which is artfully prepared in the open-theater kitchen.
For dessert, I love masterworks like the recent Esfera de Chocolate, which features a melting orb of chocolate that disappears as the dessert is presented on the table. Like all the food here, it’s lovely and a thrilling way to close out a delicious meal.
Bacán Literally Means “Cool” or “Awesome”
The 50,000 Square Foot Lake Nona Sculpture Garden, meanwhile, is filled with permanent sculptures and visiting exhibits by world-class artists, as well. The collection includes Arturo di Modica’s Charging Bull, one of the most recognized bronze sculptures in the world. (The artist made five of them, including one that famously lives on Wall Street in New York City.)
The surrounding garden also features over 300 palm trees, 12 sculptures, and lovely night-blooming Jasmine that perfumes the breeze. And, because it’s located right outside of Bacán, you can really make the most of your visit if you came early.
And, FWIW, every floor of the 17-story undulating hotel features 18 “artistic suites”, and no two rooms are alike. The entire concept reflects what was, and remains, a wildly impressive undertaking, with an impressive collection of art that was gathered with passion and deliberate purpose.
Overall, this is one of the single coolest destinations in Orlando, which is why I strongly recommend making the drive to the outskirts of the city for it. I promise: it’s worth the trip! And, of course, the food.
Meander Around Lake Eola Park
Lake Eola Park is sort of like the Central Park of Orlando– and it’s super beautiful and well-kept. Ducks, mangroves, rainbows in the water foundation that spouts water from the center of the lake, etc.
Somedays, when the light hits just right, you can see a rainbow in the mist of the lake fountain, and it’s just a lovely, magical thing. The Lake is always glittering and it’s surrounded by tropical mangroves, hibiscus flowers, blooming crepe myrtle, and spiral ginger plants.
It’s lovely to go for a walk around the lake at golden hour, or early in the morning before it gets too hot. There’s a small playground, waterfront dining, and even a venue for live music that’s hoppin’ on the weekends.
As a result, this is a popular destination for families, runners, or those just looking to get out and stretch their legs.
The Orlando Farmers Market also takes place here on Sundays 10 AM to 3 PM– though “farmers market” is something of a misnomer. It’s more of a hot food pop-up than a proper farmers’ market, with vendors selling ready-to-eat items like arepas, burgers, and Mango Kings’ ginormous tropical mango coladas (which are served in a whole pineapple). There are also booths selling things like “futuristic” ice cream, dip mixes, blue cheese, and various crafts.
If you go, look for Adair’s Edibles’ locally-made “coconut crackle”, and be sure to get some flowers fresh from the charming City Beautiful Flower Truck. (<— Easily the most Instagrammable truck in the city!)
Explore Reclaimed Vintage Design at Warehaus
Warehaus has GORGEOUS collected furniture and other reclaimed, handcrafted vintage items. As a result, it’s a great spot for shopping locally, thrifting, or just getting design inspo that reflects the hipper side of local sensibilities. Shop here for vintage glassware and ceramics, retro baskets, laid-back light fixtures, candles, wall decor, textiles, cheerful tables and chairs, and more.
Even if you don’t buy, it’s worth it for the design inspo and aesthetically-pleasing sight lines. There are lots of pinks and aquamarines. Plus, you’re buying locally from a collection of items sourced with sustainability in mind. Warehaus’ slogan perhaps says it best: “Quality Vintage + Good Vibes”. Emphasis on the vibes.
Visit The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (aka “The Tiffany Glass Museum”)
The Morse Museum of American Art is an incredible institutional gem in Winter Park, Florida, just 15 minutes outside of Orlando. Colloquially known as “the Tiffany glass museum”, this incredible archive of stained glass masterworks is not to be missed, especially for those who love the intersection of art, design, history, and culture.
The museum is known internationally for its collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the artist and founder of Tiffany & Co. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, once called it “the most comprehensive and most interesting collection of Tiffany anywhere.”
Here, visitors can stroll through galleries of leaded-glass lamps, beautifully restored stained glass windows, mosaic glass pottery, and other decorative art from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Not to be missed is the museum’s showstopping centerpiece, the Tiffany Chapel: a Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior that Tiffany created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This grandiose and stunningly ornate masterwork was painstakingly recreated on site over many years, at the direction of the museum’s founder Jeanette Genius McKean, who assembled the pieces over several decades along with her husband, Hugh McKean (an artist who studied at Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall estate in 1930).
Today, the museum galleries advance knowledge and appreciation of Tiffany glassmaking on a grand scale. Several galleries feature stunning early 20th Century decorative art, along with Tiffany Jewelry, information on the history and art of Tiffany glassmaking, and recreations of the daffodil terrace at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall.
There’s a lot to take in here, so plan several hours for your visit. The beautiful, sunlit courtyard provides a welcome backdrop for quiet contemplation– and with all the colorful, stained glass windows on display, a quiet elegance pervades the space. There is no other stained glass collection quite like this in the world. Please: don’t miss out!
Insider Tip: Exploring Winter Park
Because the Morse Museum is located on Park Ave– the main drag in Winter Park, where all the shops and restaurants are located– it’s a good landing place to begin a day spent exploring Winter Park, which is very “upscale” and pedestrian-friendly with its impressive homes and red-brick streets.
You can also make it a two-for art day by walking over to the Rollins College Art Museum, which is free and open to the public.
Or, go to The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens to explore the world of internationally-acclaimed Czech sculptor Albin Polasek in the estate’s serene sculpture garden.
Winter Park also has a weekly farmers market every Saturday from 8 AM to 1 PM, as well as a wildly popular pontoon boat tour that leaves every hour on the hour. Check out Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours for more info.
^ These 1-hour rides take place on local Lake Osceola, where guests can get a glimpse of some of the area’s most beautiful (re: fancy!) homes from the water. The rides are first-come, first-serve, and they tend to sell out on the weekends.
Shop at Spiral Circle Metaphysical Bookstore
This. Place. Is. So. Cool.
Spiral Circle is a metaphysical/spiritual bookstore and curiosities shop that “is like Cambridge in the 1970s”– or so claims my mom, who was as enamored with this spot the first time we ever stepped inside this wonderful, quirky shop.
This is a comparison that makes sense, as Spiral Circle has been a fixture of the Orlando community for the last 45 years– though it still feels like a hidden gem. Today, Spiral Circle is basically a one-stop shop for all things esoteric– including crystals, botanicals, tarot cards, books, and more.
The shop itself is housed inside a cute bungalow-stye home with macrame’d trees outside. You can’t miss it.
On the front steps, there’s even a mystical vending machine selling everything from “Remember the 90s mystery bags” to tarot cards, crystals, locally-made jewelry, witchy wicks, sunglasses, science fiction books, tote bags, playing cards, tea, and incense. (It’s called a Vexxed Vending Machine, it features curious products made by local artists, and it’s amazing. See below.)
Inside the shop, meanwhile, you can find everything from smudge sticks and energy cleansing kits to build-your-own chakra-healing jewelry. There are “magic seeds” and crystal soap for sale. They also have the widest selection of tarot card decks that I have ever seen in one place. (And I tend to flock to quirky destinations like this one.)
There are funny greeting cards, culturally and politically inspired illustrations, cute prints, and sewing patches that say words like “Empath” in bold type. I also love their “surprise crystal” bags and the “surprise message” bags, which feature a trinket, gem, or premonition closed inside a gift bag that you cannot open until you buy it.
^ Purchasing one of these surprise bags feels like the perfect souvenir from this still independently run bookstore– think of it as the metaphysical/spiritual equivalent of a fortune cookie. It’s just one of many whimsical treasures you can find here, and like Spiral Circle’s shop itself, the adorable quirk of it all is truly one-of-a-kind. “Coming here is an energy shift,” the current owners once told Orlando Magazine. “It’s nurturing for the spirit.”
Shop for Pretty Plant Pots at Cool Hand Robyn
Cool Hand Robyn Pottery + Plants is a gorgeous place to shop for concrete planters in the local style. Go here for “plants, pottery, and positive vibes”.
Orlando is no stranger to the nascent plant renaissance that has gripped culture writ large, and Cool Hand Robyn is a fun place to stoke that addiction or kindle it anew. I adore their signature Figure Bud Vases as well the gorgeous, one-of-a-kind Geode Crystal Planters. They also sell truly unique pots like minimalist circle vases, watercolor-style pots, and planters whose walls look like flowers frozen in amber.
Fortunately, most of Robyn’s work is also sold on Etsy, so if you’re flying home you can still scope the shop for ideas and then have your favorite items shipped to you later.
If you’re a die-hard plant lover, drive or Uber over to Palmer’s Garden & Goods afterward for a real slice of local plant paradise. You can find something exotic to fill your planter or just take notes on what grows well in Orlando– the plants here are wild, lush, and inviting.
Visit The Orlando Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art specializes in curating exhibits that reflect modern cultural zeitgeists.
With its rounded, whitewashed exterior, the museum dates back to the 1920s, when the institution was founded by a group of local art enthusiasts.
Today, OMA hosts work by artists of local and international acclaim, from Miami-based Jared McGriff (we love his approachable watercolor paintings like 2021’s Lime and Sunshine) to Chicago-based Nick Cave (known for his wildly imaginative, multi-textured armor sculptures).
They also have a robust collection of African Art, Art of the Ancient Americas, and an impressive Contemporary American Graphics collection.
The visiting exhibits, however, are the real draw here.
OMA regularly hosts critically-acclaimed specialty exhibits like Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane Masterpiece Drawings From The Casa Buonarroti, and Oliver Jeffers: 15 Years of Picturing Books, among many others.
They even have a giant Dale Chihuly sculpture in the special exhibits foyer, which ensures that, at the very least, there will definitely be something to take your breath away.
Thus, for art lovers, OMA is de rigueur on any Orlando itinerary. They also have a great gift shop with adorable art-inspired kids’ books, art scarves and totes, handmade jewelry, plus great coffee table art books, prints, and decals inspired by popular exhibits.
Do A Cupcake Tasting at Sugar Divas Cakery
Sugar Divas Cakery is the premiere cake-making outfit in Orlando– and we know a thing or two about cakes. At their fun and funky storefront in SoDo, they make cupcakes “frosted to order” (a detail that I love, as it keeps everything super fresh) and they serve cool, unique flavors like Mango and French Toast.
In addition to the standard pallet of flavors (Rainbow Confetti, Red Velvet, Chocolate, Cookies n’ Cream, etc) they also always have a seasonally rotating “Cupcake of the Month”. (Recent examples include Caramel Latte and Gingerbread, ideal for sharing as a quick afternoon treat!)
Fun, elevated takes on cupcake flavors like Champagne & Berries, Reese’s Explosion, and Coconut Peach make the cupcakes here a real dazzler for dessert lovers. As a result, Sugar Divas also offers tasting flights which are typically the kind of thing that people do before ordering a wedding or party cake– but I think it’s fun to do with a friend, just because.
Otherwise, whether you’re looking for an elaborate Cinnamon Bun Minnie Mouse Cake (hey, it is Orlando, after all– see above!) or you simply want to try one of their bespoke cupcake flavors, this is THE Orlando bakery for cake lovers, trust us.
Pour-Your-Own Candles at Artifact Candle Foundry
Artifact Candle Foundry is a DIY candle-making studio where guests can book a seat to make their own candle from scratch. This unique candle pouring experience must be booked in advance, and at the time of this writing, it costs $10 per person + the price of vessels and materials, which can range from $30 and up.
The process begins with a fun, bespoke experience of smelling different scents from their signature “candle wall”, in order to determine which fragrances speak to you the most. Samples on this wall range from comforting and familiar (including scents like lilac, lemongrass, leather, orange zest, cedar, fresh-cut grass, “baked bread”, bergamot, vanilla, campfire, etc) to wild and wacky (they even have some candles that smell like cannabis, “clothesline”, “old books”, and wasabi).
Then, a mixologist guides you through the process of pairing your most complementary scents, mixing essential oils of these fragrances, and combining them in balance to make a one-of-a-kind candle whose scent is completely unique to you.
At the end of the process, you’ll even get to name your candle!
Ultimately, the candle-making experience yields an 8 oz candle poured in a standard rocks glass– but you can also make a pour-your-own three-wick candle bowl for an added charge. Reed diffusers, fragrance sprays, and fragrance oil are also available for purchase.
All candles take 48 hours to set, at which point they will be available for pickup or delivery with a perfectly-centered, smoothly-set wick. (The candle fairies at the shop regularly check in on the candles throughout the curing process, adjusting and recentering the wick to prevent bubbling or bends, which yields the smoothest burn possible.)
Dine at Any of These Cool Restaurants
In addition to Bacán and Black Bean Deli (both detailed above), there are a number of wonderful Orlando restaurants worth seeking out during your visit.
Santiagos Bodega does a wildly-popular, highly-regarded tapas-style brunch, which consists of all-you-can-eat courses ordered in tandem like a tasting menu. It’s a lively and colorful spot with a great patio and a wide variety of dishes to please every palette, from refreshing salads to hearty meat and egg dishes to pasta and deep-fried croissant french toast (yes, that’s a thing).
Soco Restaurant is easily one of the best and most approachable dinner restaurants in Orlando, known for its signature “Southern meets Contemporary” style. (Thus the name: SoCo.) Located on a hopping corner in Thorton Park, it has gorgeous towering ceilings adorned with maximalist curtains and low-lit, archival lighting. There’s indoor and outdoor table seating as well as a lively but elegant bar area, so you can really choose your own vibe.
^ Exciting dishes to look out for here include the popular Shrimp & Grits, the market price Soco Steak, a beautiful Scottish Salmon, the Pork Belly Biscuits, and the famous Grilled Meatloaf on Lobster Mashed Potatoes (yes, it’s an oddball pairing but it’s their signature dish and its so, so good!), as well as specials like the recent Catch of the Day, a gorgeous flounder enrobed in lemon-butter sauce with a decadent pecan crust.
Vegans, meanwhile, should head to The Market on South for Dharma Kitchen‘s casual vegan cuisine, which is ideal for picnics and takeout. They make the area’s best vegan fried “chik’n” (including a vegan take on Nashville ‘Hawt’ Chicken) and they have great sandos, including an excellent Carolina BBQ Jackfruit sandwich.
^ Dharma Kitchen is in a shared incubator space with Valhalla Bakery, who serve amazing vegan baked goods like “succulent” chocolate mouse and peanut-butter dark chocolate layer bars.
For those looking for some spice, Tabla Indian Cuisine hits the spot. This beloved Indian food staple serves an excellent Shrimp Tandoori, Butter Chicken, and Mango Bhel chaat, as well as a whole roster of well-done Gujurathi and North as well as South Indian-inspired dishes like Coconut Fish Curry and Vindaloo. Everything on the menu is excellent, moreover, and they can make each dish without any spice, extra mild, mild, or as hot as you’d like it!
Finally, those seeking healthy dining options in Orlando should head to the Farm & Haus market stall inside of East End Market (detailed below). In addition to sourcing the best organic and local ingredients in Orlando, they cook everything in avocado oil, instead of harmful seed oils like canola or soybean oil. Thus, it’s one of the best “healthy” restaurant options in Orlando– especially if you’re a food or really into straight-from-the-farm produce, meat, and eggs.
^ I love their salads and veggie burritos, and they serve excellent breakfast sandwiches all day. The menu is short, but the eggs alone are worth the trip.
Read More: The 11 Best Restaurants in Orlando.
We’d Be Remiss If We Didn’t Mention Disney (& Magic Kingdom, Specifically)
Magic Kingdom is really the most “magical” Disney experience for first-timers. For the quintessential experience (or if you only have time to visit one park), be sure to go here. Ideally, it takes an entire day or more to experience the depth of what Magic Kingdom has to offer.
There are daily parades and live music performances in front of the castle, as well as fireworks and more song-and-dance affairs at night. Characters from some of Disney’s most popular movies and iconography– like Elsa from Frozen, as well as Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and the Chipmunks– regularly parade around the streets bringing wonderment and joy to all.
Plus, the streets are beautifully manicured, paved in sleek cobblestone, and lined with ever-blooming flowers and trees. If ever there was a utopic landscape in Florida, Magic Kingdom has it. Be sure to keep an eye out for subtle details like the vibrant colors and greenery; it really adds to the experience.
While Epcot is more science-y (ideal for teenagers or an older family crowd) and Hollywood Studios is more commercial (think: Star Wars- and Toy Story-themed experiences), Magic Kingdom maintains the same gentle whimsy that was its defining characteristic when the park first opened in 1971.
Magic Kingdom is also where you’ll find the most “iconic” Disney rides, like The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (also known as “the teacups”), Dumbo The Flying Elephant, and the iconic water roller coaster, Splash Mountain. The Country Bear Jamboree, meanwhile, is one of the few experiences with air conditioning, and Pirates of the Caribbean is a perennial favorite for adults.
Meanwhile, die-hard theme park enthusiasts are quick to point out that getting roasted Turkey Legs and/or a Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bar at one of the pop-up food stalls around the park is part of the local iconography. Basically: you didn’t have the full Magic Kingdom experience if you didn’t try one of these at least once.
To optimize your time, take the ferry to Magic Kingdom and take the train back, that way you can experience the charm of approaching the castle by water while also being able to leave quickly via the tram once you’ve had enough. (Ha, it can be overwhelming.)
Also, be sure to buy a pair of iconic Minnie Mouse ears from any of the shops on Main Street (like the Emporium), and stop by The Confectionary for Disney character-themed treats like gourmet Mickey Mouse Rice Krispie treats, candy apples, chocolate-covered pretzels, and more.
^ Both shops are styled like Old Time candy shops and corner stores, respectively. So, there’s a lot of nostalgia and plenty of bespoke products to make shopping on Main Street a fun activity in and of itself. They don’t call it “The Most Magical Place on Earth” for nothing! ✨
Shop Dried Flowers at Janet’s Dry Humor
Janet’s Dry Humor is a lovely little dried flower boutique with two pop-up locations in Orlando. The first is at Porch Therapy inside of East End Market, and the other is at The Heavy plant shop in Winter Park. (<—- Both are cool places to check out, but East End Market is OG.)
The flowers here are truly gorgeous and ethereal– and being able to custom curate a dried flower bouquet is a unique find. Plus, they won’t ever wilt, they’re super light and easy to carry, and you can bring them home safely on a plane or a long car ride.
We love the cheery dried protea, the feathery pampas, the colorful phalaris grass, and the papery pink fan palms that give this unique Orlando flower shop a decidedly Floridian flavor. Flower lovers: you won’t want to miss this. Build your own bouquet, or grab a pre-made one courtesy of the house floral designers. It’s all lovely.
… And Grab a Snack at East End Market
The East End Market in Audobon Park is worth seeking out if you want to grab a coffee, juice, or lunch while also shopping locally in one of the area’s most hopping market halls.
This neighborhood market and culinary food hub is home to popular weekend eateries like Winter Park Biscuit Co, Farm & Haus, Dochi Mochi Donuts, and Gideon’s Bakehouse. (<— Known for their huge cookies with chocolate chips pressed on the outside.)
They also have a small courtyard that occasionally hosts live music, local retailers like Porch Therapy and La Boutique, and an outpost of local coffee house Lineage Coffee Roasting.
Plus, there’s a cheese and charcuterie counter, Hinckley’s Fancy Meats, where you can buy local cheese alongside specialty terrines and gourmet meat items like wild boar ribs, duck liver pate, antelope “armadillo eggs”, maple bourbon bacon jam, and ghost chili bacon (not for the faint of heart!).
Mostly, we love Farm & Haus‘ delicious farm-to-table salads and burritos, featuring quality add-ons like farmhouse sunny-side-up eggs and roasted local chicken. Everything on this menu is cooked with avocado oil and it’s very vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-avoider friendly; thus, it’s an ideal spot to enjoy a healthy lunch in Orlando.
On your way out, grab a green juice and some almond butter balls or avocado chocolate mouse (!) from Skyebird Juice Bar & Experimental Kitchen, also located inside. All of their snacks are plant-based, gluten free, and organic.
Orange and Lemon Picking at A Showcase of Citrus
While technically located 1 hour outside of Orlando, going orange and lemon picking at A Showcase of Citrus is a very cool, uniquely Florida experience.
For local produce and nature lovers, it’s worth the drive to this rural farm stand and farm to experience citrus picking firsthand. They also have a world-famous creamsicle!
The picking season here runs between November and May. If you’re unsure of what the farm will be offering for U-pick at the time of your visit, simply call them at 352-394-4377 and ask what’s on the trees. Valencia Oranges tend to have the longest picking season, which is great because that is one of the area’s most iconic, quintessential fruits.
Otherwise, they also offer grapefruits, lemons, and limes for picking. For kids and families, they also have the “World’s Largest 4×4 Monster Truck”, a petting zoo, as well as Beer, Wine, & Slushies for refreshing yourself on a hot Florida day.
Get a Deep Tissue Massage at Allora Day Spa
This walk-up spa in Thornton Park has a welcoming interior in the heart of Orlando’s most walkable downtown area, near Lake Eola. The street is bustling, but the serene interior of this popular Orlando Spa is quiet, centering, and secluded.
Their Calma Swedish Massage is uniquely excellent and ideal for curbing knotty, tight muscles. Massage treatments at Allora can often be booked a day or two in advance, if you have flexibility in your schedule. Otherwise, call ahead to put this indulgent relaxation treatment on your calendar. (They also do couples massage.)
If you don’t go home and sleep immediately afterward, consider walking to Soco Restaurant for brunch, lunch, or dinner after your treatment. It’s an ideal way to round out a relaxing afternoon!
What To Buy in Orlando
- Culturally relevant art books, scarves, jewelry, totes, glasses, and more at the Orlando Museum of Art
- Pottery at Cool Hand Robyn
- Adairs Edibles’ coconut crackle
- T-shirts at any of the trendy local coffee shops
- coffee beans at any of the trendy local coffee shops
- dried flowers at Janet’s Dry Humor
- make-your-own candles at Artifact Candle Foundry
- crystals, 90s nostalgia trinkets, tarot cards, prints, and more at Spiral Circle Bookstore
- stickers, art prints, and other decals at East End Market
- local valencia oranges and sweet apple melon at local grocery stores like Earth Fare and Sprouts Farmers Market
- funky clay earrings by Ojo Market (above shown)
Other Cool Things of Note
- Getting Tea at The Tea Room Experience (above shown) is cool– just be sure to book your sitting ahead of time!
- The Marketplace at Avalon Park features 11 foodie-approved restaurant stalls where you can sample some of the area’s best food all in one place. Whether you’re looking for a specialty cocktail, a burger, a sweet treat or seafood étouffée, you can find it here.
- If staying for a while, order #RealBread through Nomad Bakehouse.
- Tropical fruit lovers should look out for Mamey sapote, otherwise known as “sweet apple melons”, at local grocery stores and markets between March and September. Its sweet, silky texture is almost like a cross between cooked sweet potato and avocado, so it’s great for eating fresh or in smoothies. This fruit is typically only found in places like Hawai’i, but it does grow in South Florida. This is why you can find it at select markets in Orlando when it is in season (which is, again, between March and September). If you’ve never tried it and are a foodie, it’s worth seeking out the experience!
- Deli Desires is a hipster enclave for Florida bagels and cult-favorite bialys. The latter comes in two unique flavors: caramelized onion with poppy seeds and smoked jalapeno with muenster cheese.
- Cypress Grove Park has nice, shaded walking trails for running, strolling a baby, picnicking, and beyond. If you’re looking for a quiet place to chill in nature that isn’t oppressively hot, this Cypress-tree-filled park on the shores of Lake Jessamine is the place to do it. Spanish moss hanging from towering boughs wafts gently in the breeze, and there’s plenty of shade. There’s also a playground and sports courts for public use. Other pretty places to walk around Orlando include: Thornton Park, Baldwin Park, the neighborhood surrounding Lake Lawsona, and the Orlando Urban Trail.
- Jillycakes‘ cupcakes are super cute! Think of them as Orlando’s answer to Georgetown Cupcakes in DC.
- Sugar Rush Marshmallows, meanwhile, are adorable and great for gifting!
- Miscellaneous Gift Shop is a cool market featuring locally-made items from funky clay Ojo Market Earrings to beautiful stationery, candles, tea, baskets, and other lovely trinkets.
- Ding Tea Orlando is a great place to try boba tea in Orlando. (<— They have a really cool “popping” passionfruit boba and crispy boba tea, as well!)
- Lutz’s Watermelon Festival on the Farm takes place 90 miles from Orlando every August. It’s a day trip from Orlando, but still worth mentioning. Here, visitors can enjoy everything from ice-cold slices of watermelon, live music, and food trucks to a watermelon throwing contest and a Lil’ Miss Watermelon pageant. As a result, it’s great for kids, families, and people who just love “all things watermelon.”
- The Poseidon Spa at the Grand Bohemian Hotel offers a wide variety of upscale treatments, including customizable neuromuscular massage. Fancy!
- Orlando is one of the few places in America where you can learn to ride a Lift eFoil Electric Surfboard. Check the brand’s website for the latest tutorial information.
- Finally, for those looking for a beautiful, centrally-located place to stay in Orlando, I strongly recommend this gorgeous 3/2 apartment downtown. Air BnB is often the way to go when booking a stay in Orlando, as it gives you the most “local” experience. (Hotels here have more of an international style that doesn’t always reflect the local vernacular.) This one is ideally situated and has private parking so that you can get the most out of your trip. Enjoy!
Related: The 11 Best Restaurants in Orlando.
The 9 Coolest Coffee Shops in Orlando. (<—- For the “But first, coffee” crowd.)