Shhhhh… don’t tell Mickey or Minnie, but there is another side of Orlando that doesn’t include theme parks — one that is full of art and elegant cuisine. It’s the side of town for grown-ups.
story: Tina Morrison photos: Tina Morrison, Provided By Kessler Collection
A long weekend in downtown Orlando is a classy, refreshing retreat that offers unexpected surprises. Known as the “City Beautiful” — and for good reason — the downtown area is filled with parks, green spaces, art galleries, world-class museums, and performing arts venues. Visitors will find a culturally diverse alternative to the “roller coaster, strip mall, chain restaurant” vacation that, for the past several decades, has been the city’s main identity. In fact, a long weekend was hardly enough time — I saw only a fraction of all that downtown Orlando has to offer.
My first stop on my Orlando excursion was the CityArts Factory, the downtown’s largest collective of art galleries. Located in the Central Business District on Orange Avenue, CityArts is a not-for-profit organization that showcases the talents of local and international artists. Admission is free, but the organization relies heavily on donations and the sale of artwork to operate. The lively studio has a nice contrast between the exposed ductwork and the colorful pops of art ranging from 3-D — crafted with everything from wood to steel — to Gothic oil paintings.
Nearby is the Orange County History Center at 65 E. Central Blvd. The History Center offers three floors of permanent exhibits exploring 12,000 years of Central Florida history. Learn about the pioneers who settled here to the origins of Disney World. Program manager Michael Perkins noted that nearly everything on display is donated. “Most everything is here because of kind donors — some private and some being other museums, and we are utterly thankful for all of it.” I spent nearly three hours exploring and could have easily spent six more. And for those who miss being down at the theme parks, the Universal Studios exhibit at the History Center is a great overview of Universal’s annual events.
Aside from its remarkable art scene, Orlando is also a gastronomical wonderland with many restaurant choices. However, I wanted to try the renowned and elegant Boheme Restaurant, located inside The Grand Bohemian Hotel where I would be spending the night. This restaurant is sexy. There is no other way to describe the stunning ambiance created by the deep red leather booths, crushed velvet drapery, and floor-to-ceiling wine cellar. Chef Laurent Hollaender’s passion for creative cuisine is evident on his eclectic menu. I indulged in an exquisite Cambozola cheese-crusted filet with a roasted carrot and Yukon potato mash. For dessert, I savored a very decadent Nutella molten lava cake.
Before heading to my room, I stopped briefly at the edgy Bösendorfer Lounge, where the centerpiece is an Imperial Grand Bösendorfer Piano — one of only two in the world. The piano produces a sound so intoxicating that a drink is hardly needed. It has been said there is no sound quite like the Bösendorfer.
There is no refuting that The Grand Bohemian Hotel, located in the Central Business District, made my trip memorable. The marble floors, stunning artwork, and life-size statues lend to the Renaissance theme. The staff is inviting and works whole-heartedly to meet every guest’s needs. The rooms are equally impressive. The studded, deep emerald headboard, the pristine white duvet, the plush Berber carpet, the floor-to-ceiling windows with damask draperies — it was one of the most luxurious hotel rooms I’ve ever seen. A hotel this impeccably designed begs you to spend the night after a long day of sightseeing. Resistance is even more futile when you discover the world-class Poseidon Spa. With treatments ranging from a lavender, milk, and honey masque to a heated shell massage, you will most certainly be pampered to the point of falling asleep on the massage table.
With so many art, entertainment, and dining options, which can keep you up rather late, visitors should certainly plan to stay over to experience and rediscover downtown Orlando. Just don’t tell Mickey, Minnie, or Donald that they won’t be missed on your next excursion to the “City Beautiful.”
Beyond the parks
Check out these other Orlando must-see destinations:
Downtown Historic Walking Tour: From October through May, take the opportunity to see Orlando’s historic buildings with local historic preservation expert Richard Forbes. The walking tour begins at 9:30a.m. on the first Friday of each month at the Downtown Information Center (201 S. Orange Ave.) and ends at the Orange County History Center.
Orlando Museum of Art: Founded in 1924, OMA features works by artists John Singer Sargent, Thomas Moran, George Inness, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Suzanne McClelland. Don’t miss the Contemporary American Graphics Collection, considered one of the most comprehensive 20th-century contemporary print collections in Florida. The museum is located at 2416 N. Mills Ave.
Mennello Museum of American Folk Art: Owned and operated by the City of Orlando, this museum’s treasure is the permanent collection of paintings by primitive artist Earl Cunningham (1893–1977). Located just north of downtown in Loch Haven Park, the Mennello also has a lakeside sculpture garden.
Orlando Farmers Market: Before heading home, be sure to visit the market, which is still growing after 25 years in the South Eola District. The family and pet friendly market is open every Sunday from 10a.m. to 4p.m. at 500 E. Central Blvd.