When most people think about Orlando, they think of the Disney and Universal theme parks. But there’s so much more to this metropolis, making it a great spot for couples and girlfriend getaways. In 2021, Orlando welcomed 59.3 million visitors making it one of the most popular destinations in the country. Here are some things to explore beyond the parks.
What to Do
Wild Florida has three different components: a drive-through safari, an airboat tour and gator park. The safari experience lets travelers stay in their car as they drive through the park. There are over 100 animals roaming the grounds including zebra wildebeest and buffalo. The airboat experience is a highlight with the vessel gliding across the top of the water in search of eagles, turkeys, wild boar, spoonbills and, of course, alligators. The alligator park is a chance to see animals up close from around the world including: lemurs, sloths, and plenty of alligators.
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is located in downtown Orlando and the center is a showcase for Broadway productions and the Orlando ballet. The spacious building is home to two performance theaters, a 300-seat community theater, outdoor plaza and banquet room. Upcoming shows include: Hamilton, Riverdance and Wicked. Another boat option is the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour located in Winter Park on Lake Osceola. This narrated hour-long tour cruises through three lakes and two narrow man-made canals while explaining the history of Winter Park, Central Florida’s oldest community, which was originally founded by wealthy Easterners in the 1800s.
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Exhibits include Tiffany jewelry, pottery, paintings, art glass, windows, lamps and an elaborate chapel interior created for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The recent expansion has galleries that feature the restored Daffodil Terrace from Tiffany’s celebrated Long Island home, Laurelton Hall and approximately 250 objects related to the estate. Highlights of the museum include leaded-glass windows and iconic Tiffany lamps.
Dining in Orlando
Most travelers don’t realize that Orlando is home to over 6,000 restaurants representing 40 different international cuisines. In 2022, Orlando’s dining scene captured the attention of Michelin, known around the world for their famed star rating system. Michelin released a guide to Florida, highlighting 34 of Orlando’s best restaurants.
Bacan opened in 2021 and has already been named a Michelin-recommended restaurant. Chef Guillaume Robin brings a twist to traditional Florida flavors. The focus is on local ingredients and the restaurant has a partnership with nearby fishermen and Orlando farms to create fresh, made-to-order menu items. Popular dishes include short ribs, duck breast, branzino and whole Florida snapper. One of the striking features of the restaurant is the 20-foot art mural designed by artist Amy Rader.
Modern Bar + Kitchen is especially popular for brunch which is served on both Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 4pm. The small plates concept is popular with groups and couples. Each diner is encouraged to order two or three different dishes to share. Popular dishes include Blue Crab and Artichoke Dip, Hot Chicken and Waffles and the Smoked Salmon Board.
Boxi Park opened in 2019 and has quickly become a popular spot. It is a really unique concept in which small “restaurants” are housed in shipping containers (similar to the food truck idea). The different eaters include Before it Melts, Canonita, Claw & Order, Fowl Play, Grill Next Door, BarNona, Hops + Vine and La Cajita. In addition to dining spots, the 30,000-square-foot, family- and dog-friendly outdoor venue has beach volleyball courts, a live entertainment stage, and hosts a variety of events.
Canvas Restaurant & Market is located in Lake Nona’s Laureate Park Village and has been attracting locals and tourists since its opening in 2016. In fact, it’s been such a favorite in the neighborhood it’s been dubbed the Clubhouse of Laureate Park. It’s one of the few waterfront restaurants in the area and is especially popular at sunset due to its unobstructed views. Nearby is the popular art installation The Glass House which is a popular Instagram spot. Fan favorites include the whole roasted snapper, pan-seared salmon and S’more tart for dessert.
Park Pizza and Brewing Company has over ten pizza options, as well as salads, sandwiches and desserts. They also have an extensive list of cocktails and beer.
Maxine’s on Shine is an eclectic, funky restaurant with a cool vibe and whimsical 1940s décor. The eatery was featured in the Michelin Florida Guide as a recommended restaurant. Popular dishes include: fried green tomatoes and crab cakes; trout; lobster ravioli and the homemade sorbet for dessert. There is plenty of seating both indoor and outside. The inside has many conversational art sculptures and paintings making it a memorable dining experience.
Haven Kitchen is one of the newest restaurants to open in Orlando and it serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner. The eatery was designed to bring the outdoors in with lush greenery, emerald green and midnight blue hues, gold accents, and playful décor such as a feathered peacock chair, making it an Instagram favorite. Favorite menu items include eggs benedict for breakfast, poached Florida shrimp for lunch and grilled Mahi Mahi tacos for dinner.
The Pinery is an upscale eatery located on a former pineapple farm. The sleek, modern restaurant has an expansive menu. Popular appetizer choices include alligator bites and Florida hearts of palm salad with grilled peaches and buffalo mozzarella. Main dishes include pork chops, fish of the day, and seared sea scallops and strip steak. The jumbo asparagus and parmesan truffle fries are popular side dishes. The restaurant was also recognized as a recommended restaurant for the Michelin Florida Guide.
Where to Stay
Lake Nona Wave Hotel is one of the newest properties to open in Orlando and the location—only ten minutes from the airport—makes it a favorite for both business and leisure travelers. One of the most striking attributes of the property is the 500 pieces of art that adorn the walls—there is a strong emphasis on female artists, BOPIC communities and diverse cultures (over a dozen countries are represented). Equal parts hotel and art gallery, the 234-property showcases both up-and-coming and renowned artists.
Technology is at the forefront of the property with many first-of-its-kind amenities including the View Smart Windows that tint in response to the sun and outdoor conditions; the largest single use facility of TOTO smart toilets; voice-automated in-room controls; an in-room Ipad that controls lights, drapes, and connects to the front desk, housekeeping and other departments.
The hotel also has a 50,000 square-foot Lake Nona Sculpture Garden. This outdoor art gallery has eight world-renowned sculptures, including one of the most recognized sculptures in the world, the iconic Charging Bull by Arturo di Modica. The walkable grounds has large palms, climbing vines, fragrant shrubs including ylang-ylang, gardenia, and night-blooming jasmine. As the sun sets, the garden is illuminated with multi-hued lighting elements and special night-blooming flowers.