America’s theme park capital might be famous for its thrill rides and rollercoasters – but there’s more to this sunshine city than twisted steel and overpriced snacks, writes Chris Rowlands.
Mention that you’re taking a trip to Orlando and, chances are, your average friend will ask which theme park you’re visiting. After all, it is home to a host of the world’s biggest parks, fit to burst with attractions, coasters, hotels and more.
Visit Orlando proper, though, and you’ll realise that the parks – and International Drive, where they’re largely based – are far from the centre of town, very much a separate enclave of thrill rides and pricey food.
In fact, give yourself some time to explore this surprising city’s downtown area and you might just find that there’s plenty to be enjoyed – without a rollercoaster in sight.
Start by steering clear of the tourist hotels. This is easier said than done as, between the family resorts of I-Drive and the business hotels of the centre, there’s slim pickings when it comes to affordable, quality accommodation. Thankfully, Orlando has its fair share of AirBnb properties which, while of varying quality, will assure you decent service in the true American style.
We were based just a few minutes’ walk from Harry P. Leu gardens to the northeast of the downtown area and, if you’ve the time and US$10 to spare, this botanical paradise is well worth a visit.
Set on one edge of Lake Rowena, these astounding gardens sprawl across almost 50 acres, providing restful shade and contemplative beauty for the visitors who amble through them. From rose beds to butterfly gardens, there’s plenty here to soothe the soul and inspire the mind.
In the centre of the grounds sits Leu House, from which Harry P Leu and his wife set out to explore the world and collect exotic flora with which to populate their picturesque land and, together with the surrounding jungle, this place serves up a striking (and welcome) contrast with the sprawl surrounding it.
Suitably relaxed, we headed next for the centre of downtown – Church Street – where one finds a curious combination of shiny high-rises and a quaint train-station surrounded by cobbled streets, as if New Orleans met New York and couldn’t settle the squabble.
It’s emblematic of a city with an intriguingly convoluted purpose, serving at once as a home to some 270,000, whilst also providing office space for several large banks, watering holes for thirsty locals and, of course, those out-of-town theme parks for which it’s famous.
Still, Church Street and it’s surrounding areas provide some excellent bars and eateries – including the excellent Hamburger Mary’s. The decor won’t be to every taste, but it’s tough to beat for reasonably priced beer and excellent burgers big enough to fill you up for the weekend. If by some miracle you’ve still space after the savoury course, the desserts are pretty divine, too.
Wander nearby and, if the midday heat has left you with a thirst, there’s a host of bars to try – including Underground Public House, an Anglo-American joint plastered with flags to suit. Home to cheap beer, good bar grub and an all-day drinking vibe, this is the place to sit and sip the afternoon away in air-conditioned comfort – especially if the sport is on.
By this point, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be feeling the need for a good walk around. Take the next day to visit the Kennedy Space Center: around 40 minutes out of town, your best bet is to book on a tour that leaves from one of the theme park hotels. This will include return transport and entry, and is the least stressful way to visit this memorial to all things space.
Whilst the Center is indeed huge, with a range of exhibits, experiences and, of course, rockets, a day trip is probably more than enough, unless you’re a committed space fan.
Though the patriotism and valour with which it’s all presented can wear a little thin, there’s no denying the worth of a visit to this temple of engineering, which includes a free bus tour of the launch pads which, variously, put men on the Moon and helped build the International Space Station.
Upon your return to town, it might be worth a quick nap break, before grabbing an Uber into downtown for a hearty meal at Artisan’s Table, a refined joint serving a host of local fare and, more importantly, excellent cocktails. Yes, it’s a little pricier and vegetarian options are thin on the ground, but it’s an atmospheric way to absorb Orlando’s centre over dinner, before heading for a drink.
Speaking of which, from here you’ve several options: Bauhaus, if you’re after a moody whisky in a low-lit bar; Avenue, if it’s a simple beer; or, as we chose, Joystix.
Now, Joystix is an acquired taste: lurid cocktails are served up by scantily clad waitresses, as punters bash away at the free arcade machines which line the outer walls of this above-ground joint. The crowd, at least when we were in town, was an odd mix, and the vibe was more chaotic than cathartic, but it’s worth sticking your head in all the same – if for nothing else but to have a crack at Space Invaders.
To help clear that head the following day, there’s nothing like a walk around the calming, palm tree-lined Lake Eola, which forms something of a focal point in Orlando. Home to a farmer’s market every Sunday, between 10.00 and 16.00, there are few better ways to experience Orlando at the weekend as the locals do.
Speaking of which, you’ll want to reserve a table at Santiago’s Bodega if you fancy sampling its fine spread of Tapas dishes. Situated just south of Lake Formosa, in the north of the city, it’s perfectly placed to feed you before or after a visit to The Mennello Museum of American Art and the Orlando Science Center – not to mention the Orlando Fire Museum.
Of course, museums are wont to wear one out, which means you’ll likely be wanting a stiff drink before, during or after dinner. Thankfully, there are plenty of places to do just that back in the centre of town.
The Monkey Bar will serve you many a Martini on its street-side balcony, while nearby Herman’s Loan Office channels Victorian styling as it slides craft cocktails across the bar.
As if they weren’t enough, within the same couple of blocks you’ll find The Treehouse, a brick-lined bar in which one pulls up a stool at wooden tables to enjoy drinks seemingly in secret, before tumbling back out into the warm evening air.
There are more, of course, with no shortage of drinking spots and burger joints lining the roads around the Amway Center – which, coincidentally, is where you’ll find Orlando Magic, the city’s basketball team, regularly hosting games. If football – or ‘soccer’ – is more your thing, there’s Orlando City Soccer Club nearby, too, with a growing fanbase duly clad in purple.
Orlando, then, might lack that core sense of cultural identity when compared to somewhere such as New Orleans or, even, Miami – but, in a way, that makes it feel like a secret. Yes, its downtown isn’t stacked with character and there’s only so much to do in a centre that, almost inevitably, feels somewhat business focussed.
All the same, the are bars and restaurants here aplenty, not to mention museums, parks and gardens, all waiting to be discovered. There has to be a reason, after all, why they call it “The City Beautiful”.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS