“Oh, you live in Orlando? So you must be at Disney World pretty often, huh?” is a question locals get asked. All. The. Time. The answer? A simple “no” sums it up. The fact is, there’s so much to do in “The City Beautiful” that you could easily spend an entire trip to Orlando embarking on botanical strolls, scoping out adorable bungalows and stuffing yourself silly on culinary delights—and skip the Magic Kingdom altogether.
But before you hit the (O-)town, get those bags checked in. There aren’t a ton of hotel choices in downtown Orlando, mostly because so many are situated closer to the theme parks about 20 miles southwest. But if you do opt for a stay in the city, the Grand Bohemian Hotel, run by Marriott, is a good way to go. In terms of decor, the Grand Bohemian is a suitable substitute for Disney; it’s somewhere between Liberace and Versace, with a distinctly art deco spin. Velvet-accented rooms are each punctuated with a tufted headboard that the Queen of Hearts herself would surely try to slip into her suitcase, and the common areas also center on bold pattern-play and jewel-toned color schemes. You’ll definitely want to carve out time to lounge by the pool on the hotel’s whitewashed rooftop, which offers a 360-degree view of the city.
Start your day by swinging into Propagation for a top-notch cappuccino, made with locally roasted coffee beans and served with a side of minimalist design; the cafe-slash-studio stocks a curated selection of midcentury furniture that you’ll want to ship home. Alternatively, another great spot is Downtown Credo, a nonprofit cafe that leaves it up to the customers to determine how much to pay for cold-brewed coffee, cafe con leche and more. (Don’t worry about awkwardness; suggested prices are provided.)
Once you’re properly caffeinated, a stroll through the Harry P. Leu Gardens is not to be missed. One of a number of botanical gardens in Orlando—the tropical, rainy weather really lends itself to some fanciful flora—the property features 50 acres of gardens and forest, all easily navigable on foot via smooth walking trails and shaded by countless varieties of bamboo and trees ranging from oak to palm. Be sure to stop by the citrus grove and the rose, herb and butterfly gardens.
You’ve seen the flora; now head over to Lake Eola in the heart of Orlando’s Downtown District for some fauna. Enclosed by a park and a walking trail, the lake positively teems with wildlife, including flocks of swans, ducks and ibises—just don’t expect them to shuffle out of the way for pedestrians. You can get even closer to the action (and channel a bit of Boston in O-Town) by renting one of the swan boats for a spin. The lake is actually a sinkhole, for which Florida, for better or worse, is now famous, so you can tell people back home that you survived a sinkhole via swan boat.
There’s also a little-known literary connection between Massachusetts and Orlando: Lowell native Jack Kerouac lived in a sweet little bungalow in the College Park neighborhood, and it was here that he penned The Dharma Bums. Thanks to the Kerouac Project, the house now plays host to a new resident writer each season, so it’s not open to the public. That said, a quick drive-by is totally worth it, if only to scope out the neighborhood and the massive, Spanish moss-covered oak tree that looms above the home, its muscled limbs extending clear across the street.
Time to eat. Orlando doesn’t get nearly enough credit for a stellar food-and-drink scene fueled by Cuban and South American classics, craft beer and Asian eats, to name just a few of the global influences. Black Bean Deli serves up casual Cuban fare on aluminum trays. Go for a platter, which includes chicken, beef or papas rellenas with plantains, beans, rice and a salad, but save room for dessert—there are always a few flavors of flan on hand, plus a solid selection of craft cans to wash it all down. Half a mile along on East Colonial Drive (but worlds away in flavor) is Mamak, which specializes in Asian street food. Grab a table or sidle up to a spot at the communal high-tops and tuck into classic comfort foods like tom yum mee soup or fusion favorites like fries tossed with five-spice seasoning. And do not miss the chance to tipple at Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a brick-walled speakeasy in the heart of the city. The ultra-cool ambiance is topped only by the expertly crafted cocktails, but beware: To get in, you must have the “password” down pat. A quick call to the bar’s (sorry, the shoe repair’s) landline will go to voicemail, which provides the nightly password.
All that walking, eating and cocktailing (with nary a theme park meltdown) means you should sleep well—and wake up hungry. Brunch, anyone? Santiago’s Bodega has an epic all-you-can-eat brunch, complete with bottomless mimosas and sangria, for $40. Or you can partake in something a little lighter just a few paces away at Ten10 Brewery, a months-old microbrewery that pairs beer with fresh doughnuts every Sunday morning starting at 11:30 am, giving the hair-of-the-dog a sweet spin.
-For a boutique hotel experience, check into the Park Plaza Hotel in Winter Park, a ritzy suburb just a few miles north of Orlando.
-Undecided on dinner? The Mills 50 district is a T-shaped section of Orlando with a high concentration of some of the city’s best restaurants, cafes, bars and businesses. It’s a safe bet to set as a base, so tell your Uber driver to pull over when you see Mills 50 flags on lampposts.
Black Bean Deli blackbeandeli.com
Downtown Credo downtowncredo.com
Grand Bohemian Hotel grandbohemianhotel.com
Hanson’s Shoe Repair hansonsshoerepair.com
Harry P. Leu Gardens leugardens.org
The Kerouac Project kerouacproject.org
Lake Eola Park cityoforlando.net
Mills 50 mills50.org
Park Plaza Hotel parkplazahotel.com
Santiago’s Bodega santiagosbodega.com
Ten10 Brewery ten10brewing.com