Travel Planning: Visiting Downtown Orlando

1. Jump on the Amtrak and stop at a random location between Orlando and Tampa: $10 to Tampa, less to downtown Kissimmee and downtown Lakeland!
It may seem weird that the first thing I'm telling you to do while in downtown Orlando is hop on the train and go somewhere else, but the Orlando train station is actually quite pretty.  It's old style charm and gorgeous curved wooden benches bring back a feeling of old-world travel, without the purse-scraping pain.  A round trip ticket to Tampa is $20- and stops in downtown Kissimmee and downtown Lakeland, both adorable little towns with shops, places to eat, beautiful lakes, ice cream parlors, and parks.  The train is comfortable and with temperatures reaching the high 90's in the summer, is a welcomed break from outdoor exploring.

2. Stop at roadside attractions.
Florida in general has a ton of roadside attractions.  There's Dinosaur World off of exit 17 on I-4, going west.  There is Gatorland, too.  There is Fantasy of Flight on I-4, as well, and of course the Jet Ski World complex by exit 44 on I-4.  Downtown Orlando is around exit 84-86 going east on I-4, so those are a ways away.  However, driving in and around the Orlando area might pose quite a few surprises: open air markets around Lake Eola, farmer's market in Winter Park, and random fairs pop-up all throughout the summer.  Be sure that anything with fruit will probably be over by early afternoon, but fairs and other cultural events typically extend into the night- such as the Zora Neale Hurston celebration in Eatonville, around exit 92-94.

3. Walk around the neighborhoods of the Historic District in downtown Orlando. 
When I say 'Historic' I don't mean to astound you with dates, people, and places- not in Florida, anyway.  The homes in this area display plaques with the year of their completion, ranging from the turn of last century (1910) to post-World War II (1950).  It's nothing compared to walking around states in New England, but the homes are beautiful, very un-Florida-like, and the age of the streets allows for really old trees creating gorgeous canopies over the street.  Even on a hot day, it's safe to walk around and enjoy walking through time, passing through the varied styles and architecture of homes throughout the decades.

4. Stop by the Orlando Public Library, check out local events.
The Orlando Public Library is pretty huge.  It's got 4 floors of wonder for you to explore and hosts many free events throughout the month.  Stopping by the library is a great way to escape the rising temperatures outside, and hopefully walk into a free show.  Musical groups play every Friday at noon, and there is a little cafe inside, too.  If you are around there during the night, the side of the building has a riddle to solve which make the side of the building play music and light-up if you get the riddle right and the order of hand-buttons to push!  However, note that internet access is only for cardholders and the library tends to be a place for the homeless to get their read on, too.  Don't hate!

5. Check out one of the downtown eateries: Drunken Monkey,  the Breakfast Club, Tijuana Flats, Napasorn Thai, Crooked Bayou, Beefy King.
Not exactly Tavern on the Green or as exciting as eating at the top of the Space Needle, but still pretty awesome!  Downtown has a (small) variety of eateries for nearly every appetite.  The Drunken Monkey is a quiet little coffee shop with vegan sandwiches and delicious baked goods.  They often have mini-art shows, improv, and game nights.  The Breakfast Club is the only all-breakfast diner downtown, and has excellent service- ask for the crepes!  Tijuana Flats, an original Orlando eatery, has fun mural paintings, a hot-sauce bar, and awesome tex-mex food!  There are a few Thai places, sandwich shops, and sushi places, but I prefer fried pickles.  For that sort of delicacy, stop by Crooked Bayou on Central Blvd.

6. Visit the Orlando History Center and check out their visiting exhibit!
The Orlando History Center is inexpensive and awesome.  It used to be the original courthouse downtown, and still has the courtroom open for your perusal.  They often have traveling exhibits and other events you can attend.  I recently saw the Jim Henson exhibit and it was wonderful.  The permanent exhibit focuses on the early settlers of the area, their lifestyle, and the growth and expansion of central Florida.  There are fun hands-on projects for kids, too!

7.  Visit Leu Gardens!
On a cool day, or post-rain day, Leu Gardens is spectacular.  Lots of trails ribbon around the massive grounds and pass through rose gardens, historic plantation home, vegetable gardens, an old cemetery, and of course many, many plants and flowers.  It is actually quite nice, and free before noon.  There are many areas to hold a wedding, as well, so don't be surprised to see lots of brides-to-be taking pictures of the areas and notes on how to decorate.  

Notes in closing:
8. Stay hydrated, in the shade, and pick up the Orlando Weekly.  The Orlando weekly lists upcoming events in the Orlando area and is a great source for things off the beaten path.

9. Go thrift shopping.  Now.  There are plenty of old people in Florida, and as such, there are plenty of their things in awesome thrift stores throughout the area.  You can find just about anything, and in great shape!  My entire board game collection and furniture have come from thrift store visits.

10. Do not cave and go to Disney, Universal, Sea World, or anywhere on I-4. Please.  For more information on discovering central Florida and downtown Orlando, check out my friend Ashley's blog, Pulse of Central Florida.
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