Over 65 million travelers visited Orlando in 2016, with a large chunk interested in theme parks and the resort scene. However, did you know that the Orlando region also offers off-the-beaten-path delights to explore as well? So if you are wondering what to do in Orlando instead of Disney and/or you need a break from the crowds, then this guide on hidden gems in Orlando is for you! Don’t miss out on Orlando’s quaint foodie spots, cultural activities, and refreshing outdoors!
A special thank you to Hotels.com for inviting us to share our thoughts on visiting Orlando.
Is There More to Orlando Than Disney?
Yes, Orlando is famous for its many amusement parks (such as Disneyland), chain museums (like Ripley’s Believe it or Not), and franchise restaurants (Bahama Breeze is actually pretty good though). But tucked between and beyond those conventional attractions, the Orlando region can also offer stunning natural wonders, charming small towns, boutique restaurants, art museums, and much more.
We recently traveled to Orlando to visit family and were pleasantly surprised by the amount of unique Orlando activities we could do that did not involve being shot into the air by a slingshot or melting under the hot sun waiting in a long line for some crowded experience.
Getting Around Orlando: Uber? Car? Bus?
Simply put, getting around Orlando is best done with a car. Especially if you want to reach Orlando’s hidden gem attractions. While there are some public transportation options, the infrastucture of this area is made for driving. In fact, the Orlando-Kissimee region has been ranked as number one for the least walkable in the USA. Thus, it’s much easier to get around Orlando by either borrowing or renting a car. If you don’t want (or know how) to drive, you can order Ubers all around the area to take you between different places. This may be an especially attractive option because the Uber prices are about $20 for 30 minutes of driving. Not bad! And even better if you’re traveling with others, because then that rate is divided by 2 or 3.
Where to Stay in Orlando (& Where not to stay)
The Orlando region is expansive and connects to several other little towns and smaller districts. So if you’re looking for a more off-the-beaten-path vacation, avoid the busy Orlando downtown area as it’s bustling with crowds from around the world. In the downtown area, you’ll also see streets lined up with bustling entertainment attractions such as indoor skydiving, chain restaurants like White Castle, and modern office towers. If the thought of this stresses you out, worry not. There are quiet options!
So what’s the best neighborhood in Orlando? Here are our favorite areas for peace and charm:
Windermere – This is probably the biggest hidden gem in the Orlando region. This walkable town is surrounded by several lakes, parks, and offers a historic downtown area cobblestone streets.
Winter Park – Winter Park is a cute walkable town with tree-lined streets, foodie restaurants, acclaimed museums, and boutique shops. The perfect quiet neighborhood to base yourself out of while exploring the rest of Orlando.
Off-the-Beaten-Path Orlando Hidden Gems
1) Go Kayaking in the Crystalline Waters of Wekiva State Park
Wekiwa Springs State Park spans across 7,000-acres of natural wonders and is one of only two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state of Florida. Located in Apopka, it is just a 30-minute drive north of downtown Orlando. In this park, you can go camping, biking, hiking, horseback riding and canoeing/kayaking. There are different entrances to this park and different companies that provide kayak rentals along different canals.
My personal favorite was Kings Landing which offers two unique kayaking routes. One is through their Emerald Cut. You kayak for about 1.5 hours against the current but through crystalline-blue waters. The way back takes 30 minutes since you’re going with the current. Plan to stay here for the full 4-hour kayak rental since there are several stops along the way for swimming, wildlife viewing, and other stunning photo ops.
Kings Landing also provides a second kayaking route. This one can be done as a tour and you’ll be going with the current the entire time. However, it is an 8-mile trajectory and thus is not for travelers who have never kayaked before. Along this route, the water becomes darker but you’ll be in a dense and more preserved natural setting where wildlife is more easily spotted.
Look out for the following wildlife: coyotes, rabbits, deer, foxes, raccoons, alligators, and black bears.
2) Winter Park: For Food, Shopping & Museum Hopping
Winter Park is a semi-upscale neighborhood perfect for lovers of arts and culture. There are several outdoor opportunities here, too, such as boat rides through its canal/river and the region’s 70+ parks. If you love shopping for artisan goods, downtown Winter Park offers several cute shops, most within walking distance. You can easily park your car and spend an entire day at Winter Park strolling through its cute streets, popping in and out of its museums, and eating at boutique restaurants. Here are a few spots you can’t miss here.
If you love nature:
- Eating at Blu on the Avenue
- Having a cocktail at Hillstone Restaurant’s outdoor patio overlooking Lake Killarney
- Ethos Vegan Kitchen for vegetarian/vegan travelers
- Winter Park Food Tour
- Cornell Fine Arts Museum
- The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
- Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens
- Casa Felix Historic Home Museum
3) Shop at a Local Farmer’s Market
What better way to connect with locals, support artists and small businesses, try local foods, and shop for cute artisan craft goods than to visit a local farmer’s market? Throughout the week, there are several markets in the Orlando region to visit. Here are a few to consider:
- Orlando Farmer’s Market – Sundays starting at 10 AM
- Audubon Park Community Market – Mondays starting at 5 PM
- Winter Parks Farmers Markets – Saturdays starting at 8 AM
- Maitland Farmer’s Market – Sundays starting at 9 AM
- Windermere Farmer’s Market – Fridays starting at 9 AM
- Lake Eola’s Farmer’s Market – (They offer a morning outdoor yoga class for $5)
4) Visit the Stunning Town of Windermere
As soon as you approach Windermere, you’ll realize it’s uniquely distinct from much of the Orlando region. Windermere is surrounded by several lakes and parks, making it more secluded and harder to stumble upon. Founded in 1889, this affluent town is one of the oldest communities in Florida. Beautiful old homes and historic buildings add to the charm of this quaint town of about 3,500 residents.
Consider a day trip here on a Friday when you can stop by the Farmers Market in downtown Windermere. Allow room in your belly for lunch at Pizza 14 or Yellow Dog Eats Cafe. And take a stroll through one of the quiet unpaved streets that lead to one of the many local parks like Lake Street Park.
5) Go Horseback Riding
Leave the hustle and bustle of Orlando city living behind you as you enter one of the many horse ranches in the area. These ranches offer several horseback riding experiences and different routes for a fun half-day experience trotting through nature. If you’re a beginner, consider hiring an instructor for private lessons. Book your spots ahead of time during the weekends, as there are limited spots available. We recommend Hidden Palms Ranch for a unique experience.
6) Day Trip to One of Several Crystal-Clear Swimming Holes & Springs
The state of Florida is home to hundreds of natural freshwater springs including natural swimming pools for travelers to enjoy. Many of these swimming areas are crystalline blue and at great temperatures for swimming. If you want to experience something new and refreshing in Orlando, consider some of these beautiful rivers, swimming holes, and springs for an unforgettable experience in nature.
- Blue Springs State Park
- Kelly Park (Rock Springs)
- Ginnie Spring
- Ichetucknee Springs
- Alexander Springs
- De Leon Springs State Park
- Juniper Springs (mentioned below #7)
- Rainbow Springs State Park
- Silver Glen Springs (mentioned below #7)
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
- Wekiva Springs State Park (mentioned above #1)
There are so many, but there are closer to Orlando. Look up each one of the above-listed swimming areas on Google to decide which works best for you!
7) Explore Ocala National Forest
Spanning across 600+ square miles of natural beauty, Ocala National Forest offers outdoor lovers endless things to explore. In this natural protected area, visitors can:
- Access several springs to swim in (such as Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs)
- Kayak along lush river trails
- Explore hiking trails
- Go biking or horseback riding
- Rent a boat and so much more!
Silver Glen Springs is located within and along the eastern edge of Ocala National Forest. This recreation area is home to springs that produce over 65 million gallons of water daily! This water empties into Lake George (the second largest lake in Florida after Lake Okeechobee).
It’s important to note that Silver Glen Springs is also a sacred and important archaeological site for Native Americans. Please respect these areas, especially the parts that are fenced and marked.
8) Historic Eatonville & Zora Neale Hurston
Just 10 minutes north of downtown Orlando is the historic town of Eatonville. Free Black Americans founded Eatonville in 1887. Let’s put that into perspective: The United States abolished slavery in 1865. And many of the enslaved spent years after not knowing they were legally free. So imagine the effort required to successfully incorporate one of the first self-governing, Black municipalities in the United States at a time like that! That is monumental.
Today, Eatonville is one of the oldest Black communities still in existence today and is a part of the National Register of Historic Places. Come here to support such underrated and meaningful history as well as for the cultural attractions; such as the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts.
For more history on Black American history you can also add the Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture to your Orlando bucket list.
9) Yoga with Goats at Alaska Farms
Picture this: frolicking in the grass holding cute baby goats. Need we say more? On the beautiful property of Alaska Farms, you can enjoy quality time with their pet goats, cows, donkeys, alpacas, and other cute animals. Take one of their guided yoga classes for a much-needed full-body stretch and mindfulness practice. The perfect break between your Orlando off-the-beaten-path adventures. Book your spots in advance here.
Visiting Orlando: Safe Travel Practices
While traveling through Orlando, remember to follow healthy travel practices like washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask, and keeping a safe distance from others. Due to Covid-19, some activities or businesses may be closed so be sure to call ahead before arriving. If you are immuno-comprised, please note that masks are not worn as much in Florida so plan accordingly. Official websites will provide the latest updates on local policies and the status of local businesses.
Please keep your safety and the safety of others in mind at all times. When you are comfortable traveling, please do so mindfully and respect the local regulations. And finally, consider booking a hotel with free cancellation options in the case that you may need to change your travel plans at the last minute.
As you can see, off-the-beaten-path Orlando adventures are not hard to find. So if you’re a foodie or culture/outdoor lover, be sure to add these hidden gems to your bucket list and enjoy all that the Orlando area has to offer!