Have you got a little vacation to sunny Orlando planned, but the Magic Kingdom and roller coasters aren’t your thing? Here is an easy itinerary of places to see, things to do, and food to eat that will get you, and keep you, out and about. Adventure beyond the attractions and theme parks and see how the locals spend their time.
Day One: Thursday
Lunch is a good place to start. Hit Tijuana Flats for fresh, zingy Tex-Mex. There are a variety of locations, but the one on SR 436 in Casselberry is nice and roomy. Enjoy the funky décor, watch some sports on the screens. Be sure to sample the Hot Sauce Bar! It ranges from mild and tasty to melt-your-face. Good prices on cervesa. The Ultimate Nachos will feed two as a meal, the burritos are awesome any way you like “em.
After lunch, head over to Harry P. Leu Gardens. This place is packed on nice weekends, so hitting it during the week is a must. It costs a couple of bucks but is worth it for a nice stroll. What sort of plants do you fancy? Roses? Got “em. Bamboo garden? Wetlands? Butterfly garden? They even have a vegetable garden and notes on Florida history. You may be able to catch an event on orchids or potted herbs. This place can take an hour or four, depending on your level of interest.
You are close to downtown, so you might as well head there next. Wander around the ViMi, that is, the Vietnamese District. Have a Bubble Tea. Check out the import stores. You will find the streets downtown a little confusing, once you turn down Orange Avenue. Fortunately, this is the only area in the city navigable by foot (aside from International Drive). So after ViMi, drive over a few blocks to Church Street Station.
Shell out for a decent parking garage, I’m keeping you here for a while. First, check out what is going on at the comedy club, Orlando Improv-see when the show is. But don’t plan on eating there! If you want to check out the Church Street Station itself, excellent. Otherwise, there are loads of shops and restaurants off the side streets of downtown and you don’t have to pay to access them. You have your options for dinner, Manuel’s, White Wolf Café-it all depends on your price range! But avoid the chains in this part of town. No reason to go with familiar when there is all this local fare to choose from!
After a late dinner (or a normal dinner and a comedy show), you’ll notice the atmosphere changing. Around 9 and 10, the clubs start to open up. And there are a lot of them! All the way up and down Orange Ave and near Church Street. But it’s a Thursday, you say? Yes! The locals love a Thursday downtown, especially the young and the hip! Stay away from Paris Hilton’s monstrosity. The kids love Bar-B-Q Bar, Independent Bar, and hanging around wherever has the best drink specials. The little dance floor at Independent Bar (formerly Barbarella’s) heats up after midnight with the latest hipster music-poppy, fun stuff. Watch them shake and jerk, admire the hairstyles, or enjoy cheap drinks and awesome bartenders! An alternative to any of the clubs I mention throughout is Parliament House, if you are gay or very, very gay friendly. Additionally, Southern Nights is slightly lower key-both near the downtown area.
Day Two: Friday
After last night, might you be wanting a hangover breakfast? First Watch on 17/92 a.k.a Mills Ave, has great options but can involve a wait any day of the week. Back in Casselberry is a hole in the wall place called Bagel King. Eggs, bagels, pastries, and home-style potatoes for cheap. You’ll notice the chatty wait-staff really knows their regulars and they’ll treat you just the same!
After getting fueled up, take your coffee over to Park Avenue. On one end is Rollins College, the home of education for the rich and spoiled here, and on the other end the street fades into elegant residential areas once past the Morse Museum which is home of the world’s largest Tiffany Glass collection. Park Avenue is shopping heaven! Cute locals stores, art, fashion, a few chains and a collection of eclectic restaurants and wine bars all set in a gorgeous landscape of roses and oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. You’ve got your work cut out for you. Someone wants to shop and the other doesn’t? Plop yourself down somewhere and sample wine. Don’t miss out on the specialty chocolate shops, and try something new like chocolate dipped potato chips or lavender truffles. No doubt you’ll have to fight it out about where to eat lunch!
*All right, now, I know I said you wouldn’t go near a Theme Park. And you’re not, really. It just happens to be on the same I-4 exit. You are going, after you finish shopping, to Downtown Disney. From Park Ave, the drive can take a while. This place is a good way to spend the entire rest of your day. Wander the shops, get sucked in to the Virgin Megastore, enjoy the screaming children in the Disney Stores and then eat dinner. After dinner, you are going to make it ON TIME to a show at the Cirque Du Soleil. This is the most expensive thing you’ll do all weekend (on this itinerary) and you must get tickets in advance. But it is worth every penny.
Afterward, have a snack. Walk back across and go to Ghirardelli Chocolate. All the ice cream here is fantastic, of course, but don’t bother. What you want is a chocolate milk shake. And you will drink more of it than you think you will. Oh, and some McDonald’s fries go great with that. Then, be a kid! Play with the Legos for goodness sake! Because we are going to be very adult and dance the night away at Pleasure Island, where a fee gets you in all the clubs and you mingle with people from all over the world.
Alternatively, you may choose to hit Universal Studio’s CityWalk and catch the Blue Man Group. There are dining options and a variety of clubs to choose from here, as well.
Day Three: Saturday
I get it. You are exhausted today. But nowhere near as tired as if you had been schlepping around the Attractions all week. May I suggest a leisurely brunch at the Winter Park farmer’s market? A small affair for the produce, but inside is a gourmet delight.
Afterward, another leisurely pursuit-high end shopping at the Mall at Millenia. A large mall, artistically decorated, with everything from an Apple store, to Urban Outfitters, to Tiffany’s, to Neiman Marcus. You’ll have no difficulty finding either a quick lunch or something more upscale at Blue Martini.
Endure that for as long as you can, and then prepare to enjoy some arts. The Orlando Museum of Art and the Science Center (if you have kids or have a little childlike wonder yourself) are a great way to spend some time. The OMA has unique exhibits, and notable traveling shows make their way there all the time. The Science Center is hands on fun for everyone.
Later you may like to check out what is playing at the Enzian, the art house theater of note, and enjoy some delightful dinner dining and wine. And since it is Saturday night, you could always head back downtown if you are up for more clubbing. Saturday is a good night for the nicer clubs. Young professionals, the pretty money, this is when they shine. Which clubs? Heck if I know, not my scene! But meander up and down Orange Avenue will again find you at the perfect spot for your style.
Day Four: Sunday
Today is a day of relaxation. You could head over to the Atlantic, about an hour away, and do a little body boarding. Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, or for a quieter time, I prefer Canaveral National Seashore where there are fewer people.
Or, stay closer to town and head over to Wekiwa Springs in Apopka. Take your bathing suit, towels, and/or your hiking boots and bug spray! Stop at the Fresh Market or Whole Foods on your way and grab a few things for lunch. A small fee to park gives you access to a range of activities. Sun yourself by the hot springs. Swim in the crystal clear waters. You can rent a canoe (bring cash) for a run down the river-keep an eye out for gators and other wildlife! (Don’t worry, the swimming area is protected.) There are also miles of trails. A shorter one is a boardwalk through wetlands and a much longer one leads through pine scrub and saw palmetto forests.
And finally, one last recommendation for dinner. If you like sushi, Fuji Sushi is the place to go for reasonable prices, excellent quality, and truly unique and interesting combinations of flavors. If sushi isn’t your thing, Lemoncello is a wonderful Italian place. Or there is Blue Bistro. Reservations are necessary, and the food is to die for with just the right amount of adventurousness.
Further Recommendations for Successful Exploring
Hopefully I have given you a few ideas to get you away from the Theme Parks and into the community. This really is how the locals live! Orlando is filled with opportunities for exploration. Grab a copy of the free paper, the Orlando Weekly, to see what is going on. There are always great music shows, art openings, and new places to eat. Once you get away from Disney, Universal Studios, and International Drive, the real adventure begins! Never hesitate to ask the locals, from your first waitress at Tijuana Flats to the clerk at the boutique shoe store on Park Ave, we all have our favorite places and trust me-we are used to you asking! Enjoy!