Everyone heads to Orlando to have fun at the theme parks, and why not? They’re amazing, and Disneyland is something everyone should do once in a lifetime. There’s one place in Orlando many people don’t visit though, and that’s Downtown. They are missing out big time.
Downtown Orlando is the city’s historic center and has an entirely different vibe. You won’t spot any fantasy castles or cartoon characters on either of DT Orlando’s two main streets. What you will find is a cosmopolitan neighborhood with fantastic public artworks, a spacious lakeside park, museums, and shops. There are places where you can pamper yourself in a luxury spa, catch a comedy show or have a drink in an underground speakeasy. You name it, and DT Orlando has got it.
Going Downtown when in Orlando is a definite must do. Try to squeeze in as many of these fifteen best things to do in DT Orlando while you’re there. You’ll be glad you did.
1. Art Orlando
Grab a map from the DT Orlando Information Center and go on a self-guided tour of DT’s streets to discover the nine contemporary sculptures which are Art Orlando. Not only will you get to know Downtown as you walk around, you’ll be seriously impressed by these stunning works of art.
The Take Flight sculpture decorates the shoreline of Lake Eola and is a flock of metal birds which appear to be caught in eternal flight. The Union is a mesmerizing formation of curved metal wings which move in the breeze. The Cedar of Lebanon is a staggering, three-story high artistic creation representing tree life. Sit in the hand of the Muse of Discovery for a photo. This enormous sculpture of a prone woman is half-buried under a bank of earth and greenery. And those are just a few of them.
Each and every one of the nine Art Orlando sculptures will give you an Instagram-worthy photo. Make sure you snap a picture of them all.
2. Lake Eola Park
Some towns are built on the shorelines of a lake. Not Downtown Orlando. DT has the whole lake at its urban center, and it’s a beautiful stretch of water surrounded by verdant parklands. The lake has a walkable circumference of just under one mile and covers almost twenty-three acres.
Rent a swan boat and paddle across the lake to get some great views of Downtown Orlando’s skyscrapers and get up close to the lake’s magnificent fountain. The fountain, which looks uncannily like a flying saucer, squirts water jets by day and by night illuminates the lake with an amazing display of colored lighting.
There’s a market held in Lake Eola Park every Sunday, frequent festivals and open-air concerts.
Recommended tour: Half-Day Sightseeing Tour of Orlando
3. SAK Comedy Lab
If the SAK Comedy Lab had an official motto, it would probably be – expect the unexpected. This improvisational theater in Downtown Orlando has been putting on ad lib performances nightly for almost thirty years.
The theater, which is on Orange Avenue, can seat two hundred and fifty and concentrates on making folks laugh with made up on the spot comedic acts, songs and one-liners. Spectators of the show are allowed to suggest characters or themes to inspire the performers which can make for hilarious results.
If you want to have a night of unforgettable fun in Downtown Orlando, put SAK Comedy Lab at the top of your list.
4. Juice Bike Share
Explore Downtown Orlando the healthy and economical way by hiring a bicycle from the Juice Bike Share Scheme. The minimum hire time on a pay as you go rental is forty-five minutes. The longer you keep it, the cheaper it gets.
There are numerous hubs in Downtown where you can pick up a cycle or park when you want to visit an attraction or stop for a coffee break. DT Orlando has a great network of bike lanes too, so you don’t need to deal with traffic either.
Lane maps are available from Metroplan Orlando. Plan a route or two before you hit the streets and don’t forget your safety helmet.
5. Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe
Have a home from home evening out and eat dinner while watching the latest film release at the Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe. The theater complex on DT Orlando’s Orange Avenue has twelve auditoriums furnished with plush leather armchairs and all showing different movies.
Get the full cinematic experience from the high tech sound surround system while you tuck into a selection of sliders, plate of soft tacos topped with black beans or a tasty pepperoni pizza accompanied with a wine or beer.
6. Orange County History Center
Explore the five stories of the Orange County History Center to discover all about Orlando’s past plus lots of regional Florida history too.
The museum on Central Boulevard in DT Orlando is housed in a neoclassical, late 1920’s building which was originally a courthouse. There are diverse exhibitions ranging from agriculture to aviation and space travel. Examples of the flora and fauna of Florida, replicas of pioneer cabins and stories and artifacts of the Indigenous natives and African Americans.
The History Center offers a fascinating insight into how life has changed in Florida over the past one hundred years morphing from an agricultural community into tourism.
7. The Walt Disney Amphitheater
The Walt Disney Amphitheater is an events venue in Downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola Park. The music shell-style construction has a design which is a throwback to the 1950’s and is a popular place for festivals, dance performances and outdoor concerts throughout the year.
The amphitheater is backed by the waters of Lake Eola, fronted by enough space to seat well over a thousand people and is equipped with the latest sound and lighting technology.
If you’re in DT Orlando on the 4th of July, head to the Walt Disney Amphitheater. It’s the best place to watch Downtown’s incredible celebratory fireworks display.
8. Hamburger Mary’s
For plain, good old-fashioned food with no frills or fuss in DT Orlando, go to Hamburger Mary’s on Church Street. The frills come out after dinner when the divas hit the stage.
Choose a Proud Mary burger which has a full pound of beef, a Bleu Boy with a blue cheese patty, any of a multitude of other burgers, sandwiches, and wraps or nibble on their homemade mac and cheese balls.
After dinner, the lights go down, and the cabaret begins. Be prepared for some tongue-in-cheek fun from drag acts, female impersonators and comedy celebrity lookalikes.
9. Thornton Park
Thornton Park is a fashionable neighborhood in Downtown Orlando. Its cosmopolitan atmosphere draws the crowds for evening socializing outdoors on the terraces of its cafes and restaurants.
Mix and mingle while strolling the cobblestone-style streets and absorb the Bohemian artistic atmosphere. There are designer boutiques alongside art galleries, pubs, and bars galore many of which have nightly live music and first-class eateries with very trendy menus.
Thornton Park is a great place to spend a whole day exploring followed by an evening out. There is so much to see and do, you’ll probably go back for a second visit.
10. Hanson’s Shoe Repair
If you think you’re about to read about somewhere you can go to get your shoes re-heeled, you’d be wrong. Hanson’s Shoe Repair in Downtown Orlando is a super stylish, underground speakeasy bar on East Pine Street.
The bar has a comfortable, classic polished wood floor and bare brick wall interior. A musicians gallery for entertaining the guests in the rooftop bar and bartenders who know a thing or two about mixology.
Thinking of stopping by there for a drink? Check their facebook page for the password first. It changes daily and without it, you’ll be back to the days of prohibition.
11. Poseidon Spa
Indulge in some decadent luxury surrounded by the glamor of fifties furnishings at the Poseidon Spa. The spa is in the impressive Marriott Grand Bohemian Hotel on Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando.
Get a body scrub or wrap, a massage, a facial or a manicure. Whatever you spoil yourself with, you’ll come out rejuvenated.
If your budget permits the expenditure, drop in at the hotel’s The Boheme restaurant for Sunday lunch with live jazz or to the Bosendorfer Lounge for a classy cocktail.
12. Dr Phillips Center
The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is an entertainment complex on Downtown Orlando’s Magnolia Avenue. This impressive ultra-modern, glass-fronted structure dedicated to the production of the performing arts has two theaters and a third still under construction.
The Walt Disney Theater can seat almost three thousand and hosts the larger productions of musicals including operas and dramas. The Pugh Theater has a capacity to seat three hundred and is used for smaller, more intimate shows.
The center also has a special glass-walled room, the DeVos Family Room, for private functions and the Della Phillips Lobby where theater visitors can take a drink before the show begins.
13. Downtown Ghost Tour
Downtown Orlando has a chequered past and isn’t without its resident spooks. Meet the tour ambassador from American Ghost Adventures, get equipped with paranormal sensory equipment and head off to investigate haunted buildings while hearing about DT Orlando’s fascinating history.
If that gives you taste for more, take the four-hour tour with even more high-tech ghost hunting equipment and stay in the haunted locations for longer. You’ll get a great ghost hunter’s souvenir t-shirt at the end to prove you were brave enough to do it.
14. Wells’ Built Museum
The Wells’ Built Museum of African American History and Culture on South Street in Downtown Orlando is a historic hotel converted to a museum. The hotel was built by Dr. Wells in the 1920’s to accommodate visitors to Orlando who were barred from other establishments because of the segregation rules of the state in force in that era.
The museum houses numerous exhibits and artifacts relating to many of the hotel’s famous guests which include singers, musicians, and sports stars as well as memorabilia related to the Civil Rights Movement.
15. Aero Rooftop Bar
Dance under a night sky lit with strobe beams and laser lights in the Aero Rooftop Bar and Lounge on Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando. Join the main party on the lounge’s outdoor dance floor or take a VIP cabana and watch everyone else do the boogying.
This upmarket club rocks the center of Downtown from Thursday through to Sunday with top DJ’s spinning Hip Hop, Electro, House and Old School Funk. It’s fresh, it’s modern, and just like the rest of Downtown Orlando, it is buzzing.