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More than 50 million travelers descend on Orlando each year, making it the most-visited city in the United States. Obviously, the famous theme parks are a major draw, but there are plenty of other tourist and cultural attractions—as well as more locally known destinations. No matter what your age, background or interests, whether or not you have a family in tow, and regardless when you visit, there's never a shortage of things to do in Orlando.
3 Must-Sees in Orlando
Most tourists have at least one theme park experience while in town; just about anyone can find something of interest between the numerous Disney, Universal and SeaWorld parks and properties. For a more culturally enriching experience, head to the museums and theaters clustered in Loch Haven Park. Also, don't miss all the authentic Vietnamese and other East Asian dining and shopping centered around the intersection of Colonial and Mills Avenues in the city's Mills50 District.
Where to Stay in Orlando
If your trip revolves around one corporation's theme parks—and especially if you have children and don't mind spending a little extra—stay at one of the on-site hotels for easy access and free transportation between its attractions. If, however, you want active nightlife or to explore Orlando's neighborhoods, cultural offerings and independent businesses, stay in a downtown hotel for a convenient central location. If you want to score cheap lodgings, many of the hotels just outside the theme parks run good deals to draw tourists.
Best and Worst Times to Go to Orlando
Orlando and the theme parks are insanely crowded when kids are out of school for extended periods, notably during spring, summer, Thanksgiving and winter breaks. Even long weekends like Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends get quite busy. Add in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Florida summer, and June through August is definitely the worst time to visit. In contrast, mid-September through late October offer great weather and some of the slowest times at the theme parks and other destinations.
Where to Get Lost in Orlando
The city doesn't have an abundance of large pedestrian friendly areas, but Ivanhoe Village is right down the street from Loch Haven Park and an appealing place to wander and explore independent businesses. Among the highlights are antique shops and a wine bar inside an antique shop called The Imperial; a cool record/CD store, Rock and Roll Heaven; the delicious White Wolfe Cafe, a favorite among locals, especially for Sunday brunch and dinner; great cocktails on a great patio at The Hammered Lamb; handmade pop-art creations at the Boom-Art by Rogers Studio; and sweets from Twisted Bliss or Backhaus German Bakery and Deli.
The Best Deal in Orlando
Spend an afternoon or evening at Lake Eola Park with or without kids, for free or on the cheap. It's a scenic place for a stroll, and you get close to swans, ducks, impressive native Florida birds and turtles. Paddle out on the lake in a rented swan boat and drop by the unique playground if you're with little ones. If you're there on a Sunday, don't miss the massive farmers market at the east side of the lake, and there are often free concerts and other events going on. To the south and east of Lake Eola is Thornton Park, one of Orlando's nicest neighborhoods, with diverse dining, snacking, drinking and shopping options; also, downtown's Central Business and Church Street Districts are immediately to the west, offering more to see, do, eat and drink.
Transportation in Orlando
If your visit is mostly about theme parks, there are lots of transportation options, including free ones between the different parks and properties owned by the same corporation. But the parks try hard to keep people contained in their little bubble, so don't count on them to get you to other places you want to see. Because the parks are situated about 20 minutes south of downtown, because the city's coolest neighborhoods are a bit spread apart, and because public transportation isn't too convenient, consider renting a car if you plan on exploring the area.
Getting in from Orlando International Airport (MCO)
The theme park hotels and resorts offer their guests free shuttle service to and from Orlando International Airport. If you're headed elsewhere, the public transportation options are fairly limited, so your best bet is generally a taxi or a shared shuttle for a cheaper ride. You'll also find every rental car agency you've ever heard of at the airport.
Local Tip for Visitors to Orlando
Relatively few tourists ever make it beyond the theme parks and the giant tourist trap called International Drive, and many leave thinking these represent all that Orlando has to offer. If you stay in these areas, you don't experience any of Orlando proper and its many amazing neighborhoods, charming smaller neighboring cities, restaurants, cultural institutions and other destinations. Devote some time to the north of the "tourist corridor" on your trip.
Author's bio: Eric Mohrman is a freelance travel and food writer living in downtown Orlando. Crazily enough, he really likes traveling, eating and writing. And he wants to show you how much more there is to Orlando than theme parks.