12 things to do in Orlando (that aren’t a theme park)

Here's where to find BBQ, magical gardens, and a little Central Florida stardust

Photo: Shutterstock

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Orlando is probably Disney World—unless you’re a huge Harry Potter fan, in which case you’re probably dreaming of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter over at Universal Studios. Either way, Orlando is synonymous with massive theme parks, and while they’re fun to experience, there’s more to the city than roller coasters and costumed characters. Lush green parks, amazing art museums, and some surprisingly good eats and drinks can all be found outside theme park limits. Whether you’re looking to escape Disney for a few days, or you want to explore the real Orlando, there’s a lot to see and do.

Related 9 real-life locations where you can live out your Wizarding World fantasies

When is the best time of year to visit Orlando? The most popular—and most expensive—times to visit often revolve around school breaks, including the winter holiday season, spring breaks, and summer vacation. Summers bring hot, humid weather, and thunderstorms. September and October are ideal for both crowds and weather.

1. Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Q

There are a lot of swanky places to eat in and around Orlando, but sometimes you just want a massive serving of pulled pork and smoked brisket smothered in sauce, which is exactly what you’ll find at Bubbalou’s Bodacious Bar-B-Q. Classics sides like collard greens, mac and cheese, coleslaw, and baked beans round out the meal.

Dark interior of a room with stained glass art pieces on the wall
Morse Museum of American Art. | Photo: Creative Commons

2. Morse Museum of American Art

The Morse Museum of American Art isn’t huge, but it’s packed to the gills with treasures. These items once belonged to Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of the jewelry store magnate who founded Tiffany & Co. The younger Louis Tiffany worked there as a design director, but he’s most famous for his incredible Art Nouveau glass lamps. The Morse Museum has the world’s largest collection of them on display, along with other beautiful items from his personal collection.

3. Hanson’s Shoe Repair

Make sure you’re dressed appropriately and that you’ve learned the password to get in before heading to Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a stylish speakeasy hiding behind a nondescript storefront. Dim lighting, jazz music, and an incredible patio accent the lovingly-crafted drinks to create the perfect Roaring ’20s atmosphere.

4. Stardust Lounge

The retro-inspired Stardust Lounge has a little bit of everything: A low-key dance floor, reasonably priced drinks, kitschy decor, a tiki bar, burlesque shows, and dirty bingo. If you’re looking to have an interesting night out and want to mingle with a sophisticated-but-fun crowd, this is your joint.

A boardwalk path at Mead Botanical Garden
Mead Botanical Garden | Photo: Shutterstock

5. Mead Botanical Garden

You can get a great sense of the natural beauty of central Florida at the Mead Botanical Garden. Explore swamps lined with boardwalks, check out the butterfly gardens, admire the citrus trees, and dip your feet in the freshwater ponds, all while soaking up the Florida sun.

6. The Eo Inn

Book a stay at The Eo Inn, a funky boutique hotel. The historic building features rooms with balconies overlooking the city’s lovely Eola Park. Pieces from local artists adorn the walls, adding a unique Orlando flavor to your stay.

7. White Wolf Cafe

Waking up is a lot more pleasant if your first stop of the day is the White Wolf Cafe. You’ll find huge double mimosas made with a variety of juices, inexpensive Bloody Marys, and out-of-this-world cinnamon rolls, cheese grits, and crab cakes Benedict. Plus, the cafe has a pet-friendly patio.

The front of the Orange County History Center
Orange County History Center | Photo: Creative Commons

8. Orange County History Center

The Orange County History Center curates exhibits on different aspects of Florida history—focusing on Orlando, in particular. From the citrus industry to the rise of the theme park era, the center shares fascinating information about the Sunshine State.

9. Hawkers Asian Street Food

Hawkers Asian Street Food is an Asian-fusion tapas joint that’s incredibly popular with the locals for a good reason: The food is amazing. Try the roti, pork belly bao, and the flight of tea-flavored creme brûlées.

Allen Memorial Fountain at Lake Eola
Lake Eola Park. | Photo: Shutterstock

10. Lake Eola Park

Views of the city and the lake are the highlights of Lake Eola Park. Swans, turtles, and more can be found, and events frequently take place here, from farmers markets and craft shows to salsa festivals and marathons. Take a walk around, chill out on the grass, and enjoy a few moments of peace.

11. Loch Haven Park

Loch Haven Park is home to more than a few great museums, including the Orlando Science Center, the Orlando Museum of Art, and the Orlando Garden Club, to name a few. It’s also where “The Mayor” lives. The Mayor is what locals call the epic oak tree—one of Florida’s oldest and biggest—found in the park.

12. The Ravenous Pig

Rabbit terrine, bacon chops, and house-made charcuterie are the kinds of things you’ll find on the menu at The Ravenous Pig—a gastropub that marries classic pub grub with gourmet flair in a setting that is picture-perfect.