Travel

10 Reasons to Drive to Orlando, Florida

From global eats to amazing art and scenic lakes, there's way more to Orlando's magic than Disney.

Epic Paddle Adventures
Epic Paddle Adventures
Epic Paddle Adventures

It’s no secret that Orlando is one of planet earth’s most popular tourist attractions. After all, 75 million visitors can’t be wrong. But beyond the realm of anthropomorphic mice and the city’s other family-friendly theme parks, there’s a treasure trove of fascinating experiences throughout Orange County-the Florida one, just to be clear.

From top-notch drinking and dining in the heart of the Central Business District to immersive museums scattered across the outskirts of the city, it’s nearly impossible to run out of things to do during a trip to this sprawling metropolis. Grab your sunscreen, pack your swim trunks, and get ready to tackle everything The City Beautiful has to offer.
 

Super Rico Colombian Restaurant & Bar
Super Rico Colombian Restaurant & Bar
Super Rico Colombian Restaurant & Bar

Eat your way through Orlando’s thriving food scene

With roughly 2.5 million inhabitants scattered across the Greater Orlando area, this massive region has become a true microcosm of global cuisine. On the hunt for some Lao favorites like Pork Larb and Sai Oua? Sticky Rice is at your service. Pining for a hearty helping of perfectly seasoned Tegabino Shiro? Selam Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine has your back. In the mood for a new spin on Bandeja Paisa in the heart of downtown? Look no further than Super Rico Colombian Restaurant. No matter how specific your craving is, Orlando’s certain to have something in store to satisfy.

And if you still can’t decide, consider sampling a cornucopia of flavors at one-stop-shop East End Market. This modern food hall is home to more than 10 distinct dining venues and marketplaces, offering a diverse array of products ranging from artisanal cheeses to handmade leather goods. While each individual storefront has something special, Winter Park Biscuit Company is an absolute must-visit for plant-based diners, offering a Southern-style menu that’s certain to win over even the most ardent of carnivores.

Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Treat yourself to a luxurious hotel stay

A world-class tourist city calls for world-class accommodations, and fortunately, Orlando is jam-packed with them. For visitors that want to stay close to Disney, Caribe Royale Orlando is the way to go-but fair warning, it may be a little tough to tear yourself away from the property once Mickey comes calling. At the moment, this grandiose resort comes equipped with five distinct dining concepts, a massive outdoor pool and waterslide, and a 1.5-mile jogging and biking trail-and given it’s emerging from a $125 million renovation, these palatial accommodations are about to get a lot more lavish.

On the other hand, folks interested in the downtown scene have a whole host of options, too-namely the AC Hotel by Marriott Orlando Downtown. During daylight hours, guests are welcome to hit the fitness center or take a stroll to nearby Lake Eola Park, but once twilight hits, don’t miss out on AC Sky Bar. Located in the upper reaches of the property, this sleek venue provides refreshing cocktails, classic American fare, and stellar views of the surrounding Orlando area.

Visit Orlando
Visit Orlando
Visit Orlando

Cruise through charming neighborhoods

You might be content to spend the bulk of your trip hanging around EPCOT, but a wealth of enticing neighborhoods await if you need a break from the France Pavilion. In the northernmost stretch of downtown Orlando, the ultra-idyllic Ivanhoe Village is the perfect recipe for a relaxing lakeside afternoon. To kick off the festivities, head to open-air hangout The Hammered Lamb for a decadent queso-smothered burrito or Nashville Hot Chicken and Waffles, then walk a few steps east to Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company, a rustic venue armed with a diverse array of brews ranging from the classic Park Hopp’r Golden Pilsner to the Suck It Trebek Sour Farmhouse IPA.

Orlando is no stranger to international culture, so if you’re in the mood for a little Southeast Asian excursion, it’s tough to beat Mills 50. This downtown-adjacent district is sometimes referred to as “Little Saigon” thanks to the spectacular Vietnamese restaurants scattered across the area. Fresh snacks, soups, and excellent noodle dishes can be found at the aptly-named Little Saigon, while nearby Paris Bánh Mì is a top spot for crushing one of Vietnam’s most iconic sandwiches.

Epic Paddle Adventures
Epic Paddle Adventures
Epic Paddle Adventures

Spend a quiet day on the lake

It’s tough to say just how many lakes Orlando has, so let’s quantify it with “a lot.” And while most watersports enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward the coast, that doesn’t mean Orlando lacks a scene of its own. Case in point: Epic Paddle Adventures, a local company that offers ample opportunities for lakefront fun. Wildlife-themed tours abound, including manatee and bioluminescence expeditions, but if you’re looking to take a trek through the heart of Orlando, be sure to book a Night Glow Paddle in Paradise.

If you don’t quite have the sealegs for paddleboarding, no worries. Scenic Boat Tours hooks up visitors with a leisurely day out on the water requiring minimal physical prowess. In business for more than 80 years, this long-running company has perfected the art of lake cruising, carting visitors across Winter Park’s famous Chain of Lakes to marvel at native Floridian wildlife, bask in the beauty of the region’s historic canals, or gawk open-mouthed at ridiculously lavish lakefront mansions.

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

Get cultured at sophisticated museums

Though most visitors associate Orlando with off-the-walls entertainment, there’s always room for quiet introspection at a prestigious cultural institution. For some truly stellar installations, head up north to Winter Park and check out the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. In addition to the vibrant Chinese porcelain collection, you can also peruse the most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany creations, with spectacular leaded-glass windows and dazzling pottery all on display.

If you have any budding STEM enthusiasts in the crew, be sure to squeeze in a trip to the Orlando Science Center. Exhibits cover all walks of life, with endless information about Florida’s native ecosystems, innovations in agriculture, and the inner workings of the solar system. And for any hardcore Jurassic Park fans, the OSC offers ample opportunity to hang out with some of the earth’s most ferocious prehistoric predators from both land and sea.
 

Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Or get weird at eccentric attractions

In the southwestern edge of the city, the Museum of Illusions serves as one of the city’s most mind-boggling-not to mention Instagram-worthy-attractions. Upon arrival, visitors feast their eyes on a wealth of wallside displays ranging from optical illusions to ornate kaleidoscopes, but the real brain-melters are hidden away in their own dedicated rooms. Channel your inner model with a trip to the mirror-laden Infinity Room, or brave the Vortex Tunnel, a swirling tornado of colors that will make you feel like you’re manning a tiny sailboat in the eye of a hurricane.

Just east of Universal Studios, colossal Dezerland Park clocks in at 800,000-square-feet, equipped with a go-kart track, axe-throwing venue, and-perhaps most interestly-the Auto Experience, a massive exhibit spanning roughly 2,000 different cars. In addition to classic cars sourced from Europe, the museum is also a top-tier venue for film buffs, featuring vintage Batmobiles alongside a selection of vehicles used in James Bond films.

Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Mingle with native floridian flowers

If you need to clear your head after a couple of days of urban exploration, pop over to one of the city’s serene natural respites. With 50 acres of land, the Harry P. Leu Gardens are a veritable treasure trove within the world of botany, spanning a verdant pollinator-friendly Butterfly Garden, the historic Leu House Museum, and one of the nation’s largest collections of camellias. And if you haven’t quite met your flower quota for the day, head just north to Mead Botanical Garden to get up-close-and-personal with some of the Sunshine State’s most vital indigenous plants.

Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Embark on a citywide cocktail crawl

A booming food scene and a stellar cocktail lineup tend to go hand in hand, and Orlando is no exception. The city’s Mills 50 district is flooded with exemplary mixology, with TORI TORI leading the charge in classic Japanese highballs, while downtown’s Mathers Social Gathering has been a local favorite for years, serving up complex rum, gin, and rye concoctions in a sublimely gorgeous Victorian-era setting.

While celebrated cocktail bars pervade the city, one very special hidden gem can be found in the Milk District. Known as Orlando Milkhouse, this polished property sports a fantastic menu packed full of crowd-pleasers like Plantation Rum-spiked Milk Punch and the mezcal-forward Última Palabra-but that’s not all. For a savory-sweet punch, start off with a serving of Fritto Misto then follow it up with a scoop of Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie from onsite vendor Kelly’s Homemade Ice Cream.

Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

Catch a star-studded live performance

While the sprawling Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts has been an Orlando fixture since 2014, this amazing venue only gets better with age. Fresh off the heels of its grand opening, the center’s Steinmetz Hall is a masterpiece when it comes to acoustics, ensuring a well-rounded auditory experience that can be enjoyed even without the use of amplification. Performances here range from country-western showcases to Italian opera, but if you prefer a side of fresh air with your tunes, Seneff Arts Plaza hosts a variety of lively outdoor concerts year-round.

Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Hang out with Orlando’s aquatic creatures

It’s a little tough to find sharks, sea turtles, and axolotls vibing in the lakes around town, but fortunately, SeaLife Orlando Aquarium is swimming with a huge cast of undersea characters. Interactive exhibits range from the Cnidaria-loaded Jelly Wall to the Coastal Rockpool touch tank, while the Everglades section shines a light on indigenous Sunshine State wildlife.

While you’re traversing the aquarium, keep your eyes peeled for a few of SeaLife’s resident celebrities. The Sunshine State’s only 360-degree underwater tunnel is home to Chely the green sea turtle, while the aquarium’s Indian Ocean display reveals Joy, a Georgia Aquarium-born endangered zebra shark that’s just one of many aquatic animals involved in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Jared Ranahan is a freelance writer focusing on travel, wildlife, and food & beverage.
 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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