Orlando, Fla., is more than just the theme parks. Born and bred in O-Town (that’s what the cool kids call it), I’ve nurtured a soft spot for it in my heart over the years, with even more love for my native city after living elsewhere for two years. A lot of people have been to Orlando as kids, to see Cinderella’s Castle and to visit Universal Studios. But by the time you hit your 20s, most people no longer see the appeal to Orlando, or are clueless as what to do in the actual city (it may be a city, but it acts and feels like a mid-sized town).
So in response to disdainful opinions and in an attempt to negate the nation’s assumption that Orlando equals amusement parks, I’ve compiled a guide to the City Beautiful (no, of course we aren’t vain about how awesome we are). I had a really, very difficult time writing this list up, as the narrowing process was quite grueling.
Orlando is active in the local food movement, with delicious restaurants, bars, and teahouses to prove it.
White Wolf Café:
Eccentric and cozy decorations, with plenty of mirrors and chandeliers (think more rustic as opposed to fancy), White Wolf Café of the Ivanhoe Village district features yummy seafood, burgers and sandwiches, local beers on tap, and delicious brunch items. Try the tiramisu.
Tako Cheena in Mills 50 district looks unimpressive, but don’t be fooled. Tako Cheena features mouthwatering and unique tacos, including Indian, Mexican and Thai-themed fare! My favorite is the Indian Butter Burrito (usually served with chicken, but I always get it without).
Stardust Video and Coffeehouse:
Stardust in the Audubon Park Garden District is a great place for writers, conversation and fun events. They also have great food, offering a lot of meaty meals, but also super vegetarian friendly. With sandwiches, quesadillas and a changing Sunday brunch menu, there is something for everyone. I love the Nameless DJ, a quesadilla made with pork, chicken or tempeh, with cheese, peppers, onions, with a side of salsa and sour cream. Stardust has a lot of local art, hosts Nerd Nite, a farmer’s market on Monday nights, and comedy shows on select nights.
Ethos Vegan Kitchen:
Ethos of Winter Park totally disproves the assumption that vegan food can’t be hearty. With pasta, pizza and comfort food dishes, the whole menu is 100-percent vegan, and oh-so-good. I love the Sheep’s Pie, but have heard the Pumpkin Seed Pesto Penne Pasta is to die for as well.
Jeremiah’s is simply a local favorite. With multiple locations throughout Orlando, Jeremiah’s serves soft served ice cream and a large variety of Italian Ice flavors. You can get a “gelati,” a combination of ice cream and Italian Ice. My absolute favorite is Chocolate Ice Cream with Coconut Ice, but Vanilla and Mango is refreshing and yummy as well.
Blue Bird Bake Shop:
The highlight of this cute and delicious bakery is the cupcakes, but they also make whoopee pies, cakes, muffins, scones, brownies and cookies. Cool fact: National Geographic named the bakery one of the top 10 chocolate chip cookies to travel for. You might end up filling your Instagram account with pictures of the beautiful cupcakes, but they are delightful treats. Ch-chocolate and the Red Velvet are my go-to cupcakes.
Places of Interest and Things to Do:
Take a long stroll around Lake Eola in the heart of downtown, while admiring the thriving swan population (but keep your distance from these white beauties, or rather brutes). You can even rent a swan shaped paddle boat to take out on the lake. But if paddle-boating cramps your style, check out Paddle Board Orlando to go Globo Surf paddle boarding with a group in one of the many lakes scattered throughout the Orlando area.
For a more artsy outing, Enzian Theater is a hidden gem of independent movies. You can order good food and wine while watching quality films at the Enzian, or see a free movie in Central Park of Winter Park on select nights. If you are a Jack Kerouac fan, you can stop by and visit the house where he lived while he wrote “The Dharma Bums.”
If you want to get natural, you can visit the 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens or head over to one of the nearby natural springs for a touch of “real Florida” (Rock Springs is my favorite). Or else, take a 45-minute drive to Cocoa Beach, with Lori Wilson Park a local favorite.
Evani’s Boutique in College Park is a great one of-a-kind, unique clothing, jewelry, and purses filled shop. If you see something you like, get it right away, as there is no guarantee it will be still be there tomorrow. If you find yourself in the Ivanhoe Village district, make sure to go to Boom-Art by Roger’s Studio and the vast Golden Phoenix antique shop across the street. Boom-Art is full of bright and weird art pieces and knick-knacks, whereas the Golden Phoenix has countless beautiful and random antique pieces.
For book lovers, Orlando has a handful of awesome bookshops. For old and used, I go to the small and cozy Brandywine Books, tucked away in the ritzy Winter Park. But The Bookworm, located in the Mills 50 district, another resell store, has almost every book you can think of. Bookmarkit focuses on local authors, and also sells art by local artists.
While Orlando is much more than Disney and Universal, I think it is worth it to stop by them (if you can afford it). The more you explore beautiful O-Town, the more unique little shops and excursions there are to discover.