Orlando is synonymous with roller coasters and water slides, but locals know there’s more to the city than theme parks. Clear kayaking adventures, bustling community markets, hidden gem restaurants, and craft beer tours are just a few of the amazing experiences Orlando has to offer. The next time you make the trek up I-4 to pay Tampa’s sister city a visit, delve into the city through the eyes of a local. These 10 experiences will show you a side of Orlando you likely didn’t know existed.
Many people don’t realize the vast array of options for enjoying nature near Orlando. Kayaking is a great way to sneak in a good workout while also marveling at the city’s natural surroundings. Get Up and Go Kayaking is one of my favorite local kayak companies, offering guided tours in clear kayaks. Paddle along the clear waters of Rock Springs Run or explore the Winter Park Chain of Lakes at sunset. Rock Springs Run is the more challenging paddle of the bunch; you’ll be fighting the current to start and some passages are narrow, but the run is absolutely beautiful. You may even spot a resident otter or alligator. For a more local experience, stick to the Winter Park Chain of Lakes tour, which will have you paddling through Venetian-style canals right before sundown.
Limo Cycle Craft Beer Tour
North of Orlando lays the city of Sanford, featuring a walkable downtown full of fun experiences, historical buildings, restaurants, and a burgeoning craft beer scene. Hop on the Limo Cycle craft beer tour and pedal your way to three different breweries during the weekly craft brewery tour. You’ll get a specially prepared beer flight at each brewery, in addition to insights on each brewery’s unique process. As you sip on beer in between stops, your guide will share Sanford history. Beer enthusiasts won’t want to miss this tour! For bonus points, pick up a free Central Florida Ale Trail map during the tour to start collecting stamps at local breweries.
Orlando Food Tours
There are so many great restaurants in Orlando and not nearly enough time to savor them all. Book a ticket with Orlando Food Tours for a glimpse at the foodie scene in Winter Park or Audubon Park. The Winter Park tour features five to six tasting stops along Park Avenue in addition to several historical highlights. The Audubon Park tour recently launched and features six tasting stops in the Garden District, a local hub for sustainable produce, eclectic community events, and dining. Tours run every weekend on Saturday and Sunday in Winter Park and every Sunday in Audubon Park.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Soar over Central Florida early in the morning in a hot air balloon, marveling at the area’s natural beauty as the sun rises. Both Bob’s Balloons and Orlando Balloon Rides launch out of the Davenport, FL area about 45 minutes from downtown Orlando. It’s totally worth the drive to get to know Central Florida’s more natural side on this early morning adventure, and you’ll get to tick an item off your bucket list. Perhaps most surprising is the serenity and quietness you experience while gliding above lakes, orange groves, and tourist hot spots. Keep in mind that this excursion is weather dependent–wind, visibility, and the forecast all play their part.
Movie Night at Leu Gardens
Harry P. Leu Gardens is a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Orlando. The peaceful gardens open their doors to visitors after hours on the first Friday of most months for movie night. While many movie night events are geared towards families, Leu Gardens caters the experience to date night by screening PG-13 blockbusters (La La Land is the next feature) and allowing outside food, beer, and wine. There’s typically at least one food truck on site, in addition to popcorn and snacks for purchase. For an awesome date night, pick up takeout from East End Market, bring along your favorite bottle of wine, and cozy up together on a blanket on the lawn. The gardens open at 6pm, so arrive early to explore before the movie begins at sundown.
Wekiwa Springs State Park is every local’s go-to spot for cooling down on a hot day. The springs are cool and refreshing at a temperate of 72 degrees year round. While it’s fun to spend the day at the state park, Wekiva Island is a hidden gem complete with private cabanas, Adirondack chairs, an on-site bar and restaurant, and water sport rentals. Laze the day away, go for a swim, and relax amidst the beauty of Central Florida. The park does fill up fast on weekends, especially in the summer, so make sure to arrive as early as possible. It’s not unusual for the park to be full by 12pm on a summer weekend.
Tasty Takeover in the Milk District
Foodies will love this local food truck meet-up. Every Tuesday from 6:30-10pm, more than 10 food trucks gather in the Milk District behind a strip of hole-in-the-wall bars and boutiques for Tasty Takeover. You can bring your food truck fare into any of the bars, and alcohol is permitted outside in the food truck area. The event is a great example of partnership between local businesses, a common occurrence in Orlando’s unique neighborhoods. Parking can be difficult, so plan to arrive early if you want to snag a good spot. Lake Eola Park is only a short drive away if you’re looking for something to do before the food trucks arrive.
“Only in Orlando” Restaurants
Orlando has gotten national media attention for its blossoming food scene, so make sure to add a few foodie hotspots to your agenda. Dining on a budget? Try the Mills 50 district, full of budget-friendly and casual favorites like King Bao, Pig Floyd’s, Black Rooster Taqueria, and Hawkers Asian Street Fare (all within walking distance from each other). For something sweet, don’t miss Buttermilk Bakery and Valkyrie Doughnuts. Want to splurge for date night? Indulge in the new menu at Urbain 40, treat yourself to Sunday brunch at Dovecote, or nosh on Mexican cuisine at the beautifully appointed Reyes Mezcaleria. Other notable favorites include KrungThep Tea Time (famous for their extensive tea selection and Instagrammable desserts), The Ravenous Pig, and Soco.
Infiltrate a Local Resort
The theme park area resorts are immaculate and fun to explore. Whisk away to Italy for the day at Loews Portofino Bay, or book the full daycation experience at Four Seasons Resort Orlando, which boasts a lazy river, adults-only pool, spa, waterslides and more. If you’re a Disney fanatic, hop on the monorail to visit all three resort stops. Bonus points if you tackle the Disney monorail pub crawl! If you’re in the mood for a pool day, check out our list of Orlando resort pools which welcome visitors for the day without an overnight reservation.
Another surefire way to immerse yourself in the community and foodie culture of Orlando is paying a visit to one of our local markets. Located in Audubon Park, East End Market is part community garden, part indoor artisan market. Inside, you’ll find local businesses offering everything from gorgeous succulents to decadent 1/4lb cookies and artisan cheeses. Outside, the inviting courtyard features live music on Saturdays and ample seating. Other must-visit markets include Plant Street Market in Winter Garden (home to Crooked Can Brewery), and The District at Mills 50.
Orlando is the Theme Park Capital of the World, so I’d be remiss not to mention at least one. The newest theme park to join the scene is Universal’s Volcano Bay, an impressive water theme park that manages to feel like a tropical paradise despite its location alongside I-4. I’m not a huge theme park enthusiast, but this park is 100% worth visiting. There are plenty of opportunities for relaxation, like the lazy river, private cabanas, two bars, and the wave pool. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, cruise along the fearless river and get your adrenaline pumping on the waterslides inside the volcano, including the infamous trap door slide. There’s truly something for everyone here.
Feature image credit: Get Up and Go Kayaking