What To Do In Orlando

Discover what central Florida offers beyond the theme parks 

Ten years ago, Orlando was synonymous with theme parks and waterslides. Don’t worry: those family favourites are still alive and well. But today, a new side of Orlando has emerged from under the shadows of the mouse, a grown-up version of the City Beautiful with an emphasis on art, culture and creative cuisine. From the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts—a crown jewel in Orlando’s city centre—to the thriving urban districts that let every part of Orlando’s personality fly, this destination is now certifiably hip.

Where to Eat

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Whisper Creek Farm, photo by Brian Carlson

Exploring everything from contemporary Asian fusion to Southern comfort food with a modern twist, Orlando restaurants are steadily transforming the local culinary scene into a food-lover’s paradise. 

With its international spin on Southern barbecue fare, Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa in Mills 50 has created diehard fans relentlessly hungry for this no-frills restaurant’s Asian, Latin and Caribbean-inspired tacos and platters piled high with brisket, ribs and roast chicken. Of the sandwich selections, The Big Floyd is a must, but bring your A-game appetite, as this tangy mélange of brisket, pulled pork and sausage is as filling as it is tasty.

For something a little more upscale, head to Thornton Park, where chef Greg Richie rules the roost with two gems: Soco, a Southern restaurant with progressive leanings and Baoery Asian Gastropub, which opened last fall and serves an eclectic variety of casual Asian small plates while old kung fu movies show on screens throughout the restaurant. 

Located inside the JW Marriott Orlando Grande LakesWhisper Creek Farm: The Kitchen and The Brewery is an in-house, first-of-its-kind nano-brewery producing craft beer made from grown-onsite ingredients. Sip on seasonal beers in the ultra-cozy, rustic space, and dine on small plates of elevated pub grub designed to pair perfectly with the house brews. Cross your fingers that the slightly hoppy and refreshing Surplus Honey Citrus Ale, a pale ale infused with honey harvested at the resort, is on tap.

Cocktails to Sip 

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Hanson's Shoe Repair, photo by Patrick Michael Chin

Orlando’s cocktail scene has reached incredible heights—especially downtown. Here, the worlds of food and spirits have merged thanks to a strong movement toward drinks that are no longer simply mixed, but crafted. 

Proudly concocting their own sodas, mixologists at The Courtesy keep an arsenal of herbs and spices at the ready for their impressive list of specialty cocktails served in the stately yet fanciful bar in downtown Orlando. Try the French Bengal made with Bluecoat Gin, Herbsaint absinthe, Darjeeling tea syrup, chamomile water and lemon.

Across the street and up a steep flight of stairs, The Woods’ bartenders unfurl a selection of seasonally inspired cocktails—like the Sasquatch, made with Vida mezcal, Carpano Bianco, St. Germain and mushroom bitters—from behind a gargantuan wood bar housing more than 200 whiskies, 50-plus gins and nearly 70 craft beers. 

In the mood for something different? Just like a true speakeasy, Hanson’s Shoe Repair is tucked clandestinely on the third floor of Pine Street’s NV bar and recreates the Prohibition-era secret cocktail culture. Call in advance and snag the password for entry. Once a 19th-century shoe shop, the bar resides in one of Orlando’s oldest buildings and fits just 20 to 30 visitors inside the exposed brick-walled space and outdoor rooftop courtyard.

Districts to Wander

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Lake Ivanhoe, photo by Brian Carlson

Orlando’s booming neighbourhoods are no accident. They were spun from the City of Orlando’s Main Street Program, an initiative that began nearly a decade ago to help the city’s urban districts develop their own commercial hubs and unique characters. Today, scores of locally owned restaurants, shops and bars, plus a slew of monthly events, are evidence that the plan is working. 

Among Orlando’s must-visit ’hoods is Ivanhoe Village. Once known as the city’s historic Antique Row, the area still houses a handful of antique shops, but it’s now a hot spot for upcycled clothing and furniture stores, funky cafés and restaurants, and a lovely lakefront park where paddleboarders launch into Lake Ivanhoe throughout the day. Wander into Washburn Imports, where you’ll find exotic, imported furniture sold during the day, and an awesome and unexpected watering hole—Imperial Wine Bar—that comes to life at 5 p.m.

For another eclectic district, head to Mills 50, which is best known for its international eats and city-sanctioned murals and graffiti art. Here you’ll find Cuban cuisine intersecting with Vietnamese and Thai at the Black Bean DeliHawkers Asian Street Fare and Tako Cheena. You’ll also find the opportunity to participate in a full moon (or new moon) drum circle at Dandelion Communitea Cafe, listen to a local band at long-time favourite Will’s Pub or sip a glass of wine at Quantum Leap Winery, which blends delectable wines and showcases local artists on its walls. 

In quiet College Park, artful shopping is at the forefront thanks in part to a new gallery-style space called The Shoppes of College Park, where 11 vendors offer a unique array of merchandise, from garden succulents to wall art. For more local flavour, head to Audubon Park, a residential neighbourhood that boasts pretty gardens, wild peacocks and a cool retro vibe. Music-lovers will enjoy indie music store Park Ave CDs, which stocks hundreds of new and used CDs, LPs and posters, while dessert-lovers shouldn’t miss P is for Pie Bake Shop, which creates some of the best pies in the city.