The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Orlando, Florida 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, massive theme parks are synonymous with Orlando, and while they're incredibly fun to experience, there's also more to the city than roller coasters and costumed characters. Lush green parks, amazing art museums, and some surprisingly good eating and drinking 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.
There are a lot of swanky places to eat in and around Orlando, but sometimes you just need to eat a massive serving of pulled pork and smoked brisket smothered in sauce out of one of those red plastic baskets like you'll find at Bubbalou's Bodacious Bar-B-Q. The sides (always important to the BBQ experience) are solid too. Classics like collards, mac and cheese, coleslaw and baked beans round out the meal.
The Morse Museum of American Art isn't huge, but it's packed to the gills with treasures. Specifically, treasures that once belonged to Louis Comfort Tiffany; he was the son of the jewelry store magnate who founded Tiffany's and Co., and 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.
You can get a great sense of the natural beauty of Central Florida at the charming Mead Botanical Garden. Explore the swamps lined with boardwalks, check out the butterfly gardens, gawk at the citrus trees, dip your feet in the freshwater ponds, and take a leisurely stroll while soaking up the Florida sun nature trails.
Make sure you're dressed appropriately, and that you've learned the password to get into Hanson's Shoe Repair, because this speakeasy is worth it. Dim lighting, jazz music, and an incredible patio accent the lovingly-crafted drinks to create the perfect 1920's atmosphere.
The kitschy, retro-tastic Stardust Lounge has everything. A low-key dance floor! Pool! Reasonably priced drinks! Weird decor! A great crowd! A tiki bar upstairs! Monthly burlesque shows! Weekly dirty bingo! If you're looking to have an interesting night out and mingle with a more sophisticated but still fun crowd, this is your joint.
Since we're exploring Orlando's less chain-y side, book a stay at The Eo Inn, a funky boutique hotel. The historic building features rooms that have balconies overlooking the city's lovely Eola Park, and pieces from local artists on the walls, adding some unique Orlando flavor to your stay.
Waking up is a lot more pleasant if your first stop of the day is the White Wolf Cafe. It's got a cool, antique-y vibe, and they offer $6 double mimosas made with a huge variety of juices, and $3 Bloody Marys. Plus, they have a pet-friendly patio and out-of-this-world cinnamon rolls, cheese grits, and crabcakes Benedict.
Next, discover some fascinating Central Florida history! The Orange County History Center does an awesome job of curating exhibits on different aspects of Florida history (and Orlando specifically). From the citrus industry in the state to the theme park era, and everything in between, there's something for everyone.
Views of the city and the lake are the highlights of Lake Eola Park. Swans, turtles, and more can be found all around, 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.
Hawkers Asian Street Fare 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 brulees.
Loch Haven Park is home to more than a few great museums (the Orlando Science Center, the Orlando Museum of Art, the Orlando Garden Club, to name a few), and it's also where "The Mayor" lives. The Mayor is what locals call the epic oak tree, one of Florida's oldest and biggest, that stands in the park.
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).
Redlight Redlight is the essential hipster beer bar of Orlando. With over 40 rotating taps that feature local favorites and some weird exotic stuff too, and an even larger selection of bottles, even the pickiest beer drinker will find something to like here.
Booze + arcade games + funky decor from local artists = the perfect low-key weekend night. Specializing in craft beers and classic, retro games, BART combines the best parts of being a kid with the best parts of being an adult in a fun, laid-back environment.
The best time of year to visit Orlando for a 48-hour adventure: Summers in Orlando bring hot, humid weather, thunderstorms, and large crowds. September and October are ideal for crowds and weather if you can manage it, but the most popular (and most expensive) times to visit often revolve around school breaks (spring, winter, and summer vacations).