Downtown Orlando is filled with all sorts of historical lore and local gems, but you must know where to look to find them. One of the best ways to peel back The City Beautiful’s layers is to participate in one of these unique experiences.
Established in 1880 (and still the only cemetery within Orlando’s city limits), the 82-acre Greenwood Cemetery has served as the resting place for Orlando’s who’s who for more than a century. Besides being the eternal abode to many former Orlando mayors (including Mayor Cassius Boone, Orlando’s first school teacher and great grandson of Daniel Boone), the cemetery’s many elaborate gravestones shaded by towering live oaks also display the names of local celebrities — including legendary baseball player Joe Tinker, and Thomas Gilbert Lee, Orlando’s most famous milkman and founder of T.G. Lee Dairy.
Get a Closer Look: You can wander through Greenwood on your own; it’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. But, the best way to explore it is via the Moonlight Walking Tour, which covers about four miles and is scheduled monthly when the moon is the fullest. “There are no lights in the cemetery, but when the moon is full, its light bounces off the granite and illuminates the entire area,” says Don Price, who serves as the cemetery’s sexton. Price guides the free 90-minute tours, which are peppered with little known bits of trivia and fascinating stories from Orlando’s past.
Lake Eola Fountain
Lake Eola’s iconic fountain, officially called the Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain, was struck by lightning in 2009. The blast completely destroyed the internal mechanics and rendered the fountain inoperable. Two years and $1.6 million dollars later, the refurbished fountain was unveiled, this time retrofitted with LED lights and dancing water jets that put on a colorful six-minute show at 9:30 p.m. each night. On August 15, the schedule will expand to include two shows per night (one at 8:30 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m.) through October; after that, show times slightly change each season).
Get a Closer Look: The fountain can be seen from almost anywhere inside the meticulously manicured 43-acre Lake Eola Park, but the best vantage point is from inside a paddle-powered swan boat, which can be rented daily for $15 per half hour from the dock adjacent to Relax Grill. Consider a visit on Wednesday through Saturday evenings, when the swan boats are permitted on the lake until 10 p.m.
Orlando’s Dining Scene
There are more than 100 restaurants and cafés in the downtown area, from gourmet burger joints to swanky tapas bars. Nine more are scheduled to open within the next year (including the much-anticipated German bar and restaurant, Mulvaney’s, which is set to open on Church Street in August). While these eateries span the entire downtown core, you’ll find most grouped together in a handful of downtown dining hubs including the Church Street District and the Thornton Park District.
Get a Closer Look: Plan your own progressive dinner or leave the details to one of Orlando’s foodie tour companies, including Dishcrawl Orlando, which takes guests to four undisclosed restaurants in one night; the only detail attendees know is the meeting place, which is revealed ahead of time. Orlando Taste and City Foodie Tours are great options, as well. Tours through these companies typically take two to three hours to complete, and cost anywhere from $45 to $140 dollars.
Downtown Arts District
Thanks to the Downtown Arts District, Orlando has a vibrant cultural scene. A total of 21 galleries dot the city center, with several clustered together inside the CityArts Factory and Church Street Exchange building. Of particular note are Jai Gallery, where you’ll find works by speed painter Rock Demarco, and the gallery inside the Grand Bohemian Hotel. This artsy boutique hotel is also a great place to sip a handcrafted cocktail — try the Angels Martini, made with Grey Goose La Poire, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and champagne.
Get a Closer Look: A fantastic time to tour the Downtown Arts District is during the Third Thursday Gallery Hop, a monthly art party designed to spotlight local artists. Galleries, restaurants and boutiques join the party with nibbles and drink specials, as do local musicians and street artists, who can often be found entertaining the revelers as they wander through the district from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Downtown Historic District
Orlando’s Downtown Historic District houses approximately 80 historic buildings, including 15 listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural styles vary throughout the district’s eight blocks, where everything from Victorian to Art Deco influences can be seen in buildings dating as far back as the 1880s.
Get a Closer Look: You can easily tour the district on your own with the City of Orlando’s self-guided map, which was created by the Historic Preservation Board. To really dive into many of the stories associated with each of these buildings, though, you’ll want to head out on the free, 90-minute tour led by Historic Preservation Officer Richard Forbes on the first Friday of each month.
Photos Courtesy of City of Orlando, Michael Gavin and Douglass J Nesbitt