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6 Hidden Gems in Orlando, Florida

Venture beyond the theme park gates to explore some lesser-known spots in central Florida

spinner image orlando city skyline over lake eola in florida
Under-the-radar experiences can be found within and just outside the Orlando, Florida, city limits.
CrackerClips Stock Media / Alamy Stock Photo

Known around the globe as the home of Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, every year draws millions of visitors seeking a bit of whimsy at the most magical place on Earth. But what can you do beyond the theme park gates? Fortunately, you can find plenty of hidden gems sprinkled in and around this central Florida city, taking you off the well-worn path.

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spinner image the pool at the wave hotel in the lake nona neighborhood of orlando florida
The pool at the Wave Hotel in the Lake Nona neighborhood of Orlando, Florida.
Lake Nona Wave Hotel / VRX Studios

1. Lake Nona

This trendy, 17-square-mile Orlando neighborhood sits 25 minutes from the tourist-focused International Drive. Lake Nona boasts a thriving cultural scene, signature dining, eye-catching public art and world-class sports facilities. Check out Boxi Park, an outdoor venue fashioned from repurposed shipping containers featuring restaurants, live music and events. Pop into the mammoth U.S. Tennis Association National Campus, where you can learn to play pickleball, padel or tennis — or watch many of the year-round amateur and professional tournaments for free. Stay in the funky, tech-forward Wave Hotel, grabbing dinner at the fabulous Michelin-recommended BACÁN restaurant or strolling through the 50,000-square-foot sculpture garden. Take an Aqua Zumba class or ascend the rock-climbing wall at Lake Nona Performance Club — or find your Zen in the facility’s tranquil Chopra Mind-Body Zone.

Ways to save: Access to the Performance Club is included in a stay at the Wave. Non-hotel guests can purchase a club day pass for $25 or add Chopra access for $5 more.

spinner image a roseate spoonbill at orlando wetlands park in florida
At the Orlando Wetlands Park, you might see a spoonbill, above, a snowy egret or an American kestrel.
Joe Tabb / Alamy Stock Photo

2. Outdoor excursions

Explore the wildlife haven of Tibet-Butler Preserve, a 438-acre Orange County park nestled along the shore of Lake Tibet. Stroll the boardwalk and trails, learn about local flora and fauna at the environmental center and bring a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area. If you love birding, pack your binoculars for Orlando Wetlands Park, where you might spot roseate spoonbill, snowy egret or American kestrel. A 1,650-acre, man-made park in nearby Christmas, this birders’ paradise features miles of hiking trails, wildlife viewing, a nature center and free guided tram tours on weekends. Hoping to spot manatees? Go to Blue Spring State Park (about 33 miles north of Orlando). From November through March, hundreds of gentle sea cows flock to the springs, thanks to constant 72-degree water.

Ways to save: Though both local parks are free, the state park costs $6 per vehicle (two to eight people). If you’ll be visiting multiple Florida state parks, you can purchase an annual pass for $60 per person.

spinner image lakeridge winery and vineyards in clermont florida
Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards in Clermont, Florida, has free daily tours.
Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards

3. Wine spots

In Clermont (about 28 miles west of Orlando), Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards stretches across a 127-acre estate, producing a variety of red, white and sparkling wines. On free daily tours (last one starts at 4 p.m.), you can learn about the winemaking process and sip some of Lakeridge’s award-winning vinos in the tasting room afterward. Quantum Leap Winery, in the Ivanhoe Village district, imports sustainably grown, global wines, then finishes and packages them with a reduced carbon footprint in its Orlando facility. You can enjoy wines, charcuterie boards and chocolate options in the tasting room (Tuesday-Saturday) against the backdrop of local artwork adorning the walls. Locals love Orlando’s Swirlery Wine Bar (offering a tasting room, retail shop and wine education programs) and the Imperial (a global furniture store called Washburn Imports by day, a cozy wine bar at night).

Ways to save: Check each wine spot’s website or social media page for special events and happy hours that may offer discounted drinks.

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Soak in a hops-infused hot tub at the Original Beer Spa.
Visit Orlando

4. Craft breweries

If you’re a craft beer fan, choose from dozens of Orlando-area breweries. Try Deadwords Brewing in the Parramore District, Motorworks Brewing in downtown Orlando or Sideward Brewing in the Milk District. For a unique craft beer experience, book a relaxing treatment at the Original Beer Spa that includes a private soak in a hops-infused hot tub and complimentary brews from Ivanhoe Park Brewing Co. To see all brewery locations, check out this interactive map on the Visit Orlando website.

Ways to save: Check each brewery’s website or social media page for special events and happy hours that may offer discounted drinks.

spinner image the sculpture garden at the albin polasek museum
The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens features the creations of the Czech sculptor.
Albin Polasek Museum

5. Cultural venues

If you’re looking for more refined experiences, add some of these cultural institutions to your itinerary. Stroll through the tranquil Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in nearby Winter Park, showcasing the exquisite creations of this celebrated Czech sculptor. Stop in the Orlando Science Center and Planetarium to stargaze, explore hands-on exhibits and catch a larger-than-life film on the 8,000-square-foot screen. See what’s scheduled at the Timucua Arts Foundation, which hosts concerts, wellness programs and festivals in an intimate cultural venue. See your favorite bard production at Orlando Shakes, or take the grandkids to the Orlando Family Stage (formerly known as Orlando Repertory Theater or Orlando Rep) for pint-size fun.

Ways to save: Orlando Science Center offers $22 tickets for those 55-plus, a $2 savings — plus a 10 percent discount off individual memberships. Visitors 60 and older pay $10 at Albin Polasek. 

spinner image plates of food on a table at bosphorous turkish cuisine in orlando florida
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine is one of the restaurants making Orlando a foodie destination.​ ​
Visit Orlando

6. Under-the-radar eateries

Considered a top-notch foodie destination (thanks to dozens of Michelin-recognized restaurants), Orlando boasts exceptional culinary experiences for every taste and every budget. Soak in the gorgeous ambiance at Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine while savoring specialties such as chicken sis kebap. Nosh on steamed roast beef sandwiches at Beefy King, an iconic eatery for more than 50 years. Order fantastic brick-oven pizza at Armando’s Cucina Italiana & Pizzeria, an atmospheric Italian restaurant. For a memorable meal, make reservations at Hillstone — a lakefront restaurant where guests sometimes arrive by private planes on the lake, disembarking at the private pier. Pop over to Plant Street Market, home to an artisan food hall and craft brewery in Winter Garden. Top it off with dessert at the Glass Knife (a casually elegant café) or Better Than Sex (a sexy-themed dessert spot).

Ways to save: Visit during the annual Magical Dining event (Aug. 18 through Oct. 1 this year) to choose from more than 115 restaurants offering three-course prix fixe dinners for $40 per person and (new this year) a higher-tier $60 menu.

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