Things to Do in Orlando (That Aren’t Theme Parks)

Orlando has a lot more to offer than Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter.

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Orlando has a lot more to offer than Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter. If you want to get a feel for The City Beautiful in 48 hours, then theme parks are out. But don’t let that get you down. You’ll still get wide-eyed “Whoa, look!” reactions when you check out the city’s awesome buildings, lakes, and public art. Thankfully, it’s easy to drive around Orlando, which means you can hop in the car and take your pick of plenty of fun sites, from the campy to the outdoorsy to the artsy.

Aeiral view of Orlando, Florida, at dusk, featuring a large Ferris wheel

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Rubberneck on International Drive

From Orlando International Airport, head west toward the southern tip of International Drive. There, turn north and start cruising. You’ll get a kick out of the WonderWorks building — this kid-friendly science center looks like it’s been flipped upside down. Nearby, you’ll spot the mega-high Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, a 400-foot Ferris wheel that’s frequently lit up in playful colors after dark. No, you’re not seeing things; the local Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is built lopsided on purpose. When you’ve had your fill of ogling, depart this touristy corridor.

Two swans swim in Lake Eola Park on a sunny day in Orlando, Florida

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Lunch on the Lake in Downtown Orlando

Hop on Interstate 4 at Sand Lake Road, and point your car north toward downtown Orlando. (The signs will say east, but just trust us.) Seek out the iconic swan-shaped boats — and the real swans too — on Lake Eola, also home to a café and a big playground. Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue is rich with Asian restaurants, most of them Vietnamese, while Mills itself is lined with creative yet inexpensive eateries of all sorts. Artists have turned seemingly every dumpster, utility box, and outdoor wall into a canvas.

Gorgeous large tree at Loch Haven Park in Orlando, Florida

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Get Your Culture Fix

Round out the day at Loch Haven Park, which has a kid-friendly science museum; two art museums, one with a two-centuries-old tree called The Mayor and an outdoor sculpture garden; and several theaters.

If you’d rather stay near city streets, go to the Central Business District instead — parking garages are inexpensive — and explore on foot. Or, use the LYMMO bus, which is free and loops around to modern and historic buildings. Seek out public art like “Our Journey,” which shows people scaling the Amway Center’s GEICO Garage. If you’re lucky, the spectacular new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts will be hosting a free event on its front lawn.

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Wander Through Winter Park

You’ll want at least a ride or stroll along Park Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Winter Park, originally a community of winter homes for wealthy northerners. Today it’s lined with sidewalk cafes and spunky boutiques. If time allows, take in the extensive collection of Tiffany glass, and a full recreation of part of the artist’s long-ago home, at the Morse Museum. Or glide past posh homes on the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour, which travels through a chain of lakes.

Water and trees at Wekiwa Springs State Park on a clear day in Orlando, Florida

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Have Fun on the Water

City explored. Now it’s time to get a taste of Orlando’s waterways. Yes, the city is landlocked, but there are lakes aplenty for watery fun. If you welcome a little physical activity, then rent a kayak or canoe at Wekiwa Springs State Park and just enjoy the peaceful scenery. For a little less huff-and-puff but no less excitement, opt instead for an airboat ride at Black Hammock, where you’ll whiz through alligator-filled waterways.

Take a Stroll

You may want to stretch your legs before heading back to the airport. Point your car toward Winter Garden’s historic Plant Street. Zip into a free parking space, and you’ll be on the West Orange Trail. Trees, gardens, and homes line most of the 22-mile trail, but this bit fronts restaurants and shops along an old-timey road. Walk, jog, or rent a bicycle for an hour. Pop into the Plant Street Market to grab a bite to eat and a few locally made souvenirs to remind you of your 48 hours in Orlando.

What are your must-see spots for a short visit in Orlando? Tell us your faves on Twitter!

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