Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.

Best Things to Do in Orlando

BY Matt Meltzer | November 29, 2021

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” Orlando? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Orlando?”

Orlando, in the collective American consciousness, is more or less a synonym for Disney World. Sure, there’s a skyline we may have seen while returning from commercial breaks during Magic games, and we have a vague idea there’s an actual city there, but for a major American city it’s still a bit of an unknown. What few know is that Florida’s third-largest metro area is a burgeoning spot, full of creative people doing cool stuff with food, drinks and music. Delve a little past Disney, and see all the best stuff to do in Orlando, Fla.

You’re here for theme parks

Its nickname is “The Theme Park Capital of the World,” so it makes sense that — as enchanting a city as Orlando is — the vast, vast majority of its visitors are here to spend some quality time with the Mouse. Or to get hung upside down while traveling at breakneck speeds. Since there are literally entire categories of the Internet devoted to breaking the theme parks down, we suggest you lean in. Here’s a brief overview so you know what your options are.

Walt Disney World in Orlando. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Walt Disney World in Orlando. Photo via Shutterstock.

Walt Disney World

1375 East Buena Vista Drive, Orlando, FL, USA

The world’s family vacation capital actually sits just south of Orlando proper, sprawling out over 42 square miles. In addition to the Disneyland clone Magic Kingdom, it’s also home to EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. You’ll also find Disneyland’s two water parks at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon; an entertainment area at Disney Springs; and camping at Fort Wilderness.

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Universal Studios. Photo via Shutterstock.
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USA. ORLANDO. FLORIDA. APRIL. 2017: Roller coaster The Hulk. Islands of Adventure. Universal. Photo via Shutterstock.

Universal Studios Florida

6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL, USA

Though it lacks the history of the Hollywood original, Universal Studios Florida is home to the Hogwarts Express and an entire Harry Potter Hogwarts experience, as well as a brought-to-life Simpsons Springfield and Shrek 4D. The park also throws some of the city’s best seasonal celebrations, with a family-friendly Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights.

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Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Photo by Shutterstock.
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ORLANDO. USA. FLORIDA. APRIL, 2017: Poseidon's Fury. Islands of Adventure. Universal.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

7000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL, USA

For thrill seekers and roller coaster addicts, few places in America can rival Islands of Adventure. Its newest ride is the Jurassic Park VelociCoaster, a high-speed trip through dangerous dinos. But you can’t show up and not feel the deafening power of The Hulk, take a dip on Dudley Do-Right’s log ride or visit King Kong’s Skull Island.

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Volcano Bay
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USA. FLORIDA. ORLANDO. AUGUST, 2017: New aquapark Volcano Bay Universal. Photo by Shutterstock.

Volcano Bay

6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL, USA

The only Orlando waterpark viewable from the Interstate, Volcano Bay’s iconic mountain has become an unmistakable part of the theme park skyline. The artificial peak houses the tallest body plunge slide in the country, where you’ll drop down a 70-degree angle over people swimming in the wave pool below. It’s also got scores of other slides, including two more than drop you over 120 feet.

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Neighborhoods not ending in “land”

So, now that you’ve done the theme parks, it’s time to discover the real Orlando. And, surprise surprise, there’s actually a lot more to it than Mouse-seeking tourists assume. One of the fastest growing cities in America has spruced up its sprawl, and offers diverse, vibrant neighborhoods worth exploring.

Mills 50, Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Mills 50, Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.

Mills 50

Mills 50, North Mills Avenue, Orlando, FL, USA

This neighborhood at the cross section of Highway 50 and Mills Avenue has become an international enclave, and as such is the best place to go to find food from all over the planet. You’ll discover immigrants from Southeast Asia, Puerto Rico and Mexico opening up shop all over the area, with restaurants like Hawkers Asian Street Food and Nha Trang Subs headlining a global smorgasbord of options.

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Audubon Park nabe, Orlando.
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Audubon Park

Audubon Park, Orlando, FL, USA

Once a drab collection of payday loan joints and tattoo shops bordering a military base, Audubon Park has taken those old strip malls and filled them with independent, unusual businesses. Peek inside the nondescript shopping centers and you’ll find spots like Stardust Video and Coffee —  an old video store converted into a cocktail lounge and coffee house. And Redlight Redlight brewery, the neighborhood’s funkiest watering hole.

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Winter Park, Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Aerial Photos of Chain-of-Lakes and Lakefront Property in the Orlando, Winter Park and Maitland Florida Areas. Photo by Shutterstock.

Winter Park

Winter Park, FL, USA

Technically, posh Winter Park is a separate city, effectively beginning where Audubon Park ends. But it’s also one of the best areas for food in all of Florida, boasting stalwart spots like The Ravenous Pig and 4 Rivers Smokehouse. The town is ripe with Mediterranean architecture, most notably on the campus of Rollins College. You can also get some exercise running or kayaking the city’s chain of six lakes.

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Downtown Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Orlando downtown welcome sign with tropical scene

Downtown

Downtown Orlando, Orlando, FL, USA

Once a generic collection of low-slung skyscrapers, downtown Orlando has turned into a legitimate destination for things other than basketball games and bars along Church Street. The bustling city center is home to the MLS’ Orlando City Soccer Club, as well as a performing arts center and top restaurants like Ember and Kres Chophouse. There’s also Lake Eola, a calming place to walk that feels worlds away from a big city.

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Experience Orlando culture that doesn’t involve cartoons

The worlds of art, sports and music aren’t limited to what can be performed in 25 minutes in Tomorrowland. Orlando has plenty of culture lying beyond the parks, you just need to know where to look.

Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts in Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.
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ORLANDO, FL - Feb 17 2017:Dr Phillips Center for the Perfoming Arts.Located in Downtown Orlando Florida on Feb 17 2017.

Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts

445 S Magnolia Ave, Orlando, FL, USA

Orlando’s state-of-the-art performing arts center opened in 2014, and instantly put the city on America’s cultural map. It’s home to Orlando Ballet, Central Florida’s hometown ballet company, and also hosts big-name touring Broadway shows and smaller regional concerts.

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Orlando Museum of Art. Photo by Shutterstock.
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ORLANDO, FL – NOV 29: Orlando Museum of Art at Loch Haven Park in Orlando, Florida, as seen on Nov 29, 2019.

Orlando Museum of Art

2416 N Mills Ave, Orlando, FL, USA

The Orlando Museum of Art may be the city’s most under-appreciated cultural attraction. The institution dates back nearly 100 years to 1924, and serves as much as an education in Central Florida history as it does a showcase for local artists. It’s a manageable space, too, with only about a dozen exhibits at any given time. So if it’s brutally hot out and you want a nice place to enjoy AC that’s not a shopping mall, take a morning and check out OMA.

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Exploria Stadium in Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Exploria Stadium in Orlando. Photo by Shutterstock.

Exploria Stadium

655 W Church St, Orlando, FL, USA

You don’t need to know anything about soccer to appreciate an Orlando City Soccer Club match. The local MLS franchise has some of the most fanatical fans in the sport, and the almost-always sold-out Exploria Stadium is a nonstop parade of cheers, singing and energy that never disappoints. Tickets can be hard to come by in this 25,500-seat stadium, so book well ahead of time.

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Eat around the world somewhere other than EPCOT!

When you’re one of the fastest growing cities in America, diversity is bound to follow. Orlando has benefited from waves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, who’ve added intriguing global options to its already-burgeoning American food scene.

Hawkers Asian Street Food in Orlando.
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Hawkers Asian Street Food in Orlando.

Hawkers Asian Street Food

1103 North Mills Avenue, Orlando, FL, USA

Though Hawkers has now expanded to much of Florida and up the Atlantic coast, the pagoda-shaped Mills 50 original is a beautiful showcase of Orlando’s diversity. The restaurant was started by four friends from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam, who have created a menu of street food staples from their respective cultures. The Korean Twice Fried Wings and Roti Canai will make it a must-visit every time.

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Pizza Bruno in Orlando.
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Pizza Bruno in Orlando.

Pizza Bruno

3990 Curry Ford Road, Orlando, FL, USA

One of the best pizzerias in Florida is tucked away in this unassuming residential neighborhood, where 48-hour-proofed dough and addictive garlic rolls combine for memorable meals. While the standard pies are always standouts, opt for the Crimson Ghost with sopressata, basil and Mike’s Hot Honey.

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East End Market in Orlando.
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East End Market in Orlando.

East End Market

3201 Corrine Drive, Orlando, FL, USA

Part farmers market, part artisanal collective, the East End Market is also Orlando’s best place to stop for eclectic food. It’s set up as a community hub, a dozen merchants (as well as an option for vendors to apply to be a pop-up), a small business incubator kitchen and a large events space, which gives it a unique vibe. You’ll find Winter Park Biscuit Company, a fast-casual restaurant serving vegan diner food; Dochi Japanese mochi donuts; Domu, a ramen spot; La Femme du Fromage, selling artisanal cheeses and more. But the star of the show is Gideon’s Bakehouse, a cookie shop with creations that will change the way you judge cookies forever.

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The Ravenous Pig in Orlando.
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The Ravenous Pig in Orlando.

The Ravenous Pig

565 W Fairbanks Ave, Winter Park, FL, USA

New American gastropub food can sometimes skew a little nondescript. Not the case at this spot from James Beard-nominated chefs James and Julie Petrakis. They are effectively Orlando culinary royalty, and any trip to the city necessitates a stop here. Try the pastrami brisket with IPA mustard or goat cheese tortellini with black truffle, and you’ll understand why people say these two have shaped how people eat in Orlando.

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Drink your way through town too

Because Disney has imported thousands of creative people to Central Florida, the ones who’ve stayed around have gone on to make some pretty cool things outside of entertainment. Among them are the bars, breweries and other spots that make Orlando a fun place to drink.

Hanson’s Shoe Repair in Orlando.
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Hanson’s Shoe Repair in Orlando.

Hanson’s Shoe Repair

27 E Pine St, Orlando, FL, USA

What fun is a craft cocktail bar without a historic building and a secret password? This kinda-secret cocktail lounge sits on the third floor of the Hanson Building, the odd Orlando structure that dates back to the 1880s. You’ll need to find the daily password on the bar’s Twitter page, then head upstairs and enjoy expertly mixed drinks in a setting some say is the oldest in Orlando.

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Aku Aku Tiki Bar in Orlando.
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Aku Aku Tiki Bar in Orlando.

Aku Aku Tiki Bar

431 E Central Blvd, Orlando, FL, USA

Orlando is the only major landlocked city in Florida, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still boast a tropical tiki bar that’s not part of a theme park. This downtown bar sits just off the shore of Lake Eola, a tribute to a mob-era Vegas bar of the same name. The must-try cocktail is the Tiger F**ker, an obscene concoction of blackberry and jalapeno that has become a local legend.

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Stardust Video and Coffee in Orlando.
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Stardust Video and Coffee in Orlando.

Stardust Video and Coffee

Winter Park Rd, Orlando, FL, USA

For retro, hipster drinking, nowhere in Central Florida does it better than Stardust. Whether you’re looking for old movies on TV, mismatched, vintage furniture or snarky sayings on the walls, Stardust offers it all alongside a pretty solid menu of cocktails and a fantastic selection of craft beers. It’s also worth visiting during caffeine hours too, as during the day it doubles as a mobile-office coffee shop.

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Ten10 Brewing in Orlando.
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Ten10 Brewing in Orlando.

Ten10 Brewing

1010 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL, USA

Orlando’s beer scene isn’t as massive as you find in Miami or Tampa, but if you want some local suds hit up Ten10 in Mills 50. The welcoming tap room pours a small collection of ales and dark beers, most notably the Urban Trail Pale Ale and Subtropic Saint Kolsch. The wings here are also among Orlando’s best; the ghost pepper wings could be a food challenge unto themselves.

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Catch a live show that doesn’t include Cinderella

Live music is as abundant in Orlando as it is anywhere, and because even people who visit the parks enjoy a night out, you’ll find big acts in small venues here pretty regularly.

House of Blues in Orlando.
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House of Blues in Orlando.

House of Blues

1490 E Buena Vista Dr, Orlando, FL, USA

Yes, HOB is a chain, and yes, it’s inside the Disnefied Disney Springs. But for gospel brunches and great bands that might not have arena-sized followings, there’s no better venue in Central Florida. Check out their calendar to see who’s in town; oftentimes you’ll find A-list artists playing intimate shows too.

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The Social in Orlando.
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The Social in Orlando.

The Social

54 N Orange Ave, Orlando, FL, USA

You won’t find many chart-topping bands playing small shows at The Social, but this downtown venue is an ideal spot to catch local indie bands and international acts. Capacity caps out at 400 people, and most nights the place is sold out. So if you wanna check it out, plan ahead.

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Tin Roof in Orlando.
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Tin Roof in Orlando.

Tin Roof

8371 International Drive, Orlando, FL, USA

Along over-the-top International Drive, one wouldn’t expect to find a place for local musicians to do their thing right under the Orlando Wheel. But that’s exactly the scene at Tin Roof, where up-and-coming regional artists can play almost any night of the week. They’re accompanied by a better-than-average bar menu full of tacos, tenders and dozens of cold beers.

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Where to Stay in Orlando

For all its newfound originality, Orlando is still a little lacking when it comes to boutique hotels. For obvious reasons, the innovative hotel inspiration went mostly near the theme parks. And while you’ve got plenty to choose from out that way, if you’re looking to stay in town there are still a couple of cool options.

Grand Bohemian in Orlando.
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Grand Bohemian in Orlando.

Grand Bohemian

325 S Orange Ave, Orlando, FL, USA

The art-filled Grand Bohemian is, without competition, the coolest hotel in downtown Orlando. It’s a space where sculptures fill the lobby, dark, Asian décor fills the restaurant, and each room is a quizzical collection of offbeat quirkiness. The Grand Bohemian is still long on luxury, though, offering a full-service spa and a heated rooftop pool deck, complete with chandeliers. Its downtown address means you’ll often be sharing the elevator with visiting NBA teams and acts performing at the Dr. Phillips Center. 

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AC Hotel by Marriott Downtown.
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AC Hotel by Marriott Downtown.

AC Hotel by Marriott Downtown

333 S Garland Ave, Orlando, FL, USA

Spanish import AC’s Orlando outpost is a glass tower marvel that brings some European elegance to downtown. The outdoor rooftop bar might not technically be on the roof, but its location high above the city still provides one of Orlando’s top rooftop cocktail views. The rooms are the same sleek, modern design you find in ACs around the world. And for a boutique feel in a city of chains, it does the job nicely.

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