Planning a cruise out of Port Canaveral, Florida? You’re in luck. Chances are, you’ll be flying into Orlando International Airport, and Orlando — home to Disney World, among other major attractions — is consistently named one of the best vacation spots in the U.S. So before you take the 45-minute drive out to Port Canaveral to board your cruise ship, consider spending a few days in Orlando. Whether it’s your first time to Florida’s most fun city or not, we guarantee that Orlando has great experiences to offer for those with interests ranging from theme parks and cultural arts to culinary and recreation.
What to Do: The arts may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Orlando, but this thriving city takes art and culture of all kinds seriously. When Walt Disney transformed acres of orange groves into his animations come to life, the burgeoning theme parks inspired a slew of creativity in this once-rural region. City planners have taken note and prioritize developing and supporting the arts scene as key to the city’s appeal.
Downtown Orlando is a great place to start. The small but mighty Orlando Museum of Art curates an intriguing selection of exhibits spanning everything from traditional illustration to digital art, while the permanent collection includes pieces by Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois. The museum’s compact size is ideal for visitors: It’s small enough that you can be in and out in an hour, but big enough to make an impression. If you’re in town on the first Thursday of the month, join Orlando Museum of Art’s monthly arts party, which rotates themes from local artists to steampunk and draws a crowd with live music, drinks and bites from local restaurants.
Just north of Orlando is another treasure: the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Tucked on a brick-paved street in tony Winter Park, this museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including personal pieces from his home and the stained-glass interior chapel that he debuted at the World’s Expo in Chicago in 1893. You’ll also find Arts and Crafts pottery and Craftsman furniture purchased by the museum’s namesake in the 19th century.
Afterward, stroll down Park Avenue to the boat dock, where the hourlong Scenic Boat Tour takes you out onto a chain of canal-connected lakes. Keep an eye out for blue herons and turtles as you cruise past beautiful homes and the lakeside campus of Rollins College, which has been named one of America’s most beautiful colleges by The Princeton Review.
Come evening, something is always playing at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. This state-of-the-art performance venue is one the best in the country, with four theaters of different sizes, offering everything from local opera and philharmonic performances to touring Broadway shows and big-name concerts from performers like Tony Bennett.
Where to dine: Comfort food is an art form at DoveCote. Helmed by former French Laundry chef Clayton Miller, this brasserie serves simple but exquisite French-inspired dishes such as steak frites and perfectly roasted chicken, in an elegant, airy setting in Downtown Orlando.
Where to stay: Embassy Suites by Hilton Downtown Orlando is an all-suite hotel located in the heart of the city. You’ll be within walking distance of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and downtown restaurants, as well as picturesque Lake Eola.
For Sports- and Recreation-Seekers
What to Do: Florida is known for its beaches, but the state’s interior has its own kind of beauty, with moss-draped live oaks and shimmering lakes fed by an underground aquifer. To soak up the scenery, head to Wekiwa Springs State Park. This 7,000-acre oasis is a natural playground, with 25 miles of hiking trails and a winding river nourished by cool spring water. Rent kayaks and paddle past tropical hammocks down to the emerald-green swimming hole. The springs stay at a cool 72 degrees all year round, so it’s always refreshing, even on the hottest days. When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Wekiva Island to kick back at the Tooting Otter, an indoor-outdoor bar with a wooden boardwalk and plentiful Adirondack chairs to take in the views.
Golf is a natural and the Orlando area is home a slew of public and private courses. Waldorf Astoria Golf Club is one of the area’s best, with a Rees Jones-designed Par 72 course that’s been dubbed one of the “Top Courses You Can Play” by Golf Magazine. Tennis fans will be wowed by the U.S. Tennis Association National Campus, which opened in 2017 as the world’s premier complex for competitor training and play. It hosts pro tournaments throughout the year but also welcomes recreational players on its 100 courts.
If you’re more of a watcher than a doer, Orlando’s pro sports scene has you covered. The NBA’s Orlando Magic play at their home Amway Arena from October through April, alternating games with the pro hockey team, the Solar Bears. Come March, Orlando City Soccer Club draws boisterous crowds of 25,000 or more to the downtown stadium for games that run all summer long. The team has only been in existence since 2015, but it has a die-hard following, and some downtown bars go all-out on game nights, making the bar scene almost as much fun as a live game.
Where to dine: Located at Universal Orlando, sports-lovers will enjoy the NBC Sports Grill & Brew, one of largest in country, with 100 high-definition screens showing myriad games and tasty pub food to pair with the restaurant’s selection of 100 draft and bottled beers.
Where to stay: The all-suite Embassy Suites by Hilton Orlando North is a great base for exploring Wekiwa Springs and downtown, with easy access to I-4 when you want to visit the theme parks.
What to Do: “Top Chef” fans should make a beeline for Disney Springs, an outdoor entertainment complex set around a lake with an intriguing array of restaurants and stores. Rick Bayless’ Frontera Cocina serves up modern Mexican cuisine and seven types of margaritas, while Art Smith’s Homecomin’ is the spot for Southern comfort food, embodied by his buttermilk-brined fried chicken and signature biscuits. Disney Springs rotates out restaurant concepts to keep things fresh, with Jaleo by Jose Andres recently opened. After dining, cruise the lake on a vintage-style amphibious car or get the view from 400 feet above with a ride on a tethered helium balloon.
If you’re in an international mood, head to Downtown Orlando’s Mills 50 District. This eclectic, walkable stretch in the heart of downtown is accredited by Main Street America and a dining destination in its own right. The southern end is marked by a slew of Vietnamese restaurants and Asian markets; Pho 88 is a local favorite for the eponymous soup and rolls. Head north and you’ll find Malaysian street food at Hawkers, “farm-to-taco” Mexican at Black Rooster Taqueria and tasty Cuban empanadas and ropa vieja at Black Bean Deli, among others. Can’t choose one? Make an evening of it, creating a progressive meal with multiple stops.
In nearby Audubon Park, East End Market is part food hall/part education center. Sate your appetite with bites from 10 vendors, including fresh charcuterie from Hinckley’s Fancy Meats (a favorite of New York Times’ food critic Sam Sifton) or decadent cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse. Or improve your own skills with a class at its education center, with lessons spanning anything from gyoza-making demos to workshops on how to start your own food truck business.
Where to dine: Don’t want to take the time to sit? Food truck culture is big in Orlando, with more than 200 rolling eateries plying the roads. Head to TastyTakeover.com to see who’s where, or hit the artsy Milk District Tuesday evenings for a rotating cast of trucks, serving up cuisines from Hawaii to Swedish. Disney Springs and Pointe Orlando also have dedicated food truck marketplaces.
Where to stay: The chic Hilton Orlando gets big marks for style and convenience. It’s located at the convention center, just minutes from I-Drive attractions like Pointe Orlando, and a quick ride to the parks. The vacation vibe is enhanced by five onsite restaurants (including Spencer’s for sizzling dry-aged steaks), a full-service spa and a lazy-river swimming pool.
For Theme Park Junkies
What to Do: Of course, for some visitors, Orlando means one thing and one thing only: theme parks. The big three — Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld — are all situated south of the city, far enough apart to feel like their own universes but close enough together to mix and match. You can easily fill a few days, or a few weeks, sampling all of their attractions.
Opened in 1971, Walt Disney World is the oldest kid on the block, but there is always something new to discover here. The much-anticipated debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge comes on Aug. 29, 2019, and the year is also bringing a new Mickey-themed afternoon street party and the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railroad ride. At Universal, “Harry Potter” fans will love Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a new coaster experience coming to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that takes you deep into a tree-filled Forbidden Forest filled with twists and turns. SeaWorld is replacing Shamu’s Happy Harbor with a newly opened Sesame Street section, populated with characters from the beloved children’s series.
For some retro fun, head to Orlando’s original attraction, Gatorland, which opened in 1941. It’s newest resident, Larry, is an 800-pound alligator who went viral when he was filmed strolling the streets of a nearby neighborhood. He was relocated to the 110-acre wildlife reserve, where he’s a main attraction alongside the Gatorland Express railway and a bird-filled breeding marsh that was seen in “Jurassic Park.”
If you don’t want to commit to a day at a park, there are plenty of shorter ways to have fun. Water parks are a natural in the Florida heat. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon has the area’s best wave pool, while at Universal’s Volcano Bay, the Krakatau Aqua Coaster takes you through a man-made volcano, ending with a plunge through a waterfall. For indoor fun, Pointe Orlando’s Nomadic gets your heart racing with virtual reality experience, testing your skills in a zombie apocalypse.
Where to dine: Mango’s Tropical Cafe is a full-on dining experience, where your Cuban-themed menu is served with a flashy, Carnaval-style musical show. Post-dinner, the restaurant turns into a nightclub, with DJ spinning until 2 a.m. nightly.
Where to stay: Disney fans should make a beeline to Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, which connects to Disney Springs via a skybridge and offers free shuttle service to Disney parks, as well as an onsite concierge selling park passes. Doubletree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando offers shuttle service to Universal and SeaWorld, and is a pickup stop on the I-Drive Trolley route, making getting around a breeze.