Despite what many tourists may believe, Disney World and downtown Orlando are not one and the same. Orlando, a city of 2 million people, has a thriving downtown worth a day or two exploring. Here are some tips for spending a perfect day in "The City Beautiful."
Start the day at Thornton Park. The little pocket off downtown boasts brick streets, 1920s bungalows, and a beautiful fountain with a quaint collection of a cafés and shops. Benjamin French Bakery serves delicious croissants and espresso. After fueling up, stroll over to Lake Eola park, considered the heart of downtown. A shaded playground is fun for the kids, along with swan boats you can rent by the half hour to take in the city skyline by water.
Take a walk around the lake to admire the sculptures, created by artists from across the globe commissioned by See Art Orlando. Children and adults will love the whimsical “Monument in Right Foot Major” near the playground. Rumor has it, if you sit in the palm of “The Muse of Discovery” near the amphitheater, you’ll find inspiration.
Finally, even if you can’t see a show, be sure to drive by the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, recognized by Travel + Leisure and Southern Living magazines as being among the top venues in the country.
Take a short drive from downtown to Loch Haven Park. The best of the city’s cultural attractions are concentrated here, beneath sprawling oaks and sandwiched between three scenic lakes. See the permanent and traveling exhibits at the Orlando Museum of Art, then head over to the Mennello Museum of American Art for a primitive flavor of Americana. Kids will love the Orlando Science Center, which is like one big educational playground. Next door, there’s even a Shakespeare theater, a children’s theater and a fire museum.
For lunch, the Mills 50 district offers some of the state’s best international fare. It’s difficult to decide with options like Hawker’s Asian Street Fare, Black Bean Deli for Cuban, Black Rooster Taqueria for Mexican street tacos and Pig Floyd’s for globally inspired barbecue.
Stop in at the City Arts Factory, especially the third Thursday of the month for their open house of art galleries. City Arts Factory houses half a dozen galleries of local and international artists. Upstairs is the Sak Comedy Club, an improv comedy club suitable for all ages, where Wayne Brady of “Whose Line Is It Anyway” got his start before making the big time.
After some laughs, walk just a few blocks down Orange Avenue to DoveCote, created by James Beard recognized chefs James and Julie Petrakis with Chef Clayton Miller, for amazing French fare without pretension. The Rusty Spoon, helmed by another award-winning chef Kathleen Blake, offers the area’s best farm-to-table cuisine with a great bar.
There’s no need to leave, because Downtown Orlando is a happening spot at night. Church Street and Wall Street are closed to vehicular traffic, creating a lively street-party atmosphere that’s perfect for bar hopping. On Pine Street, JoySticks promises an evening of fun with free vintage video games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. For a casual night of conversation with friends, head to the Courtesy for some of the best craft cocktails around. Or, take things up a notch at One80, a nightclub perched atop the Amway Center, offering spectacular views of the skyline along with a rocking party scene.