Where to Stay in Orlando

SD › Best Places in Orlando
Updated: July 20, 2021

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The Best Areas to Stay in Orlando

    Orlando is known throughout the world as America’s theme park capital, home of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld, and more. There’s more to it than this, however – Orlando is actually a big, sprawling city with a modern downtown, a sophisticated culinary scene, and fascinating museums. As well as encompassing the region’s commercial center, downtown Orlando blends into several artsy neighborhoods – Milk District, Mills 50 – as well as the museum hub around Loch Haven Park.

    Southwest Orlando is where all the theme parks are based, anchored by International Drive (I-Drive) and a string of huge shopping malls. Disney and Universal are so big they have their own mini downtowns, Disney Springs and CityWalk respectively.

    To the north of downtown Orlando lie 2 quite different neighborhoods, the upscale enclave of Winter Park and the historic African-American community of Eatonville, childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston.

  • The best way to get around Greater Orlando is to drive – it’s easy and relatively cheap to rent a car (taxi and Uber fares can build up fast thanks to Orlando’s long distances).
  • Shuttles are often available to and from Disney World and Universal Studios – for visits focused solely on these theme parks (or I-Drive), a car isn’t necessary.
  • The weather in Orlando is relatively sunny for most of the year, with mild winters and hot summers; average highs are in the low-90s°F in the summer and high-60s°F in the winter, making it a great vacation destination any time of the year. Late summer (late July–September) is the rainiest season in Orlando and the most unpredictable for weather, although it will rarely rain for more than a few hours on any given day.
  • The city’s official tourism website is visitorlando.com.

The Best Places to Stay in Orlando

Where to Stay in Orlando for…

  • Best Neighborhood in Orlando for First Timers: Southwest Orlando/I-Drive
    International Drive (aka I-Drive) is tourist central in Orlando, and for most visitors, where the action is. The Universal Resort and Walt Disney World have their own array of on-site accommodations for those wishing to concentrate on just one theme park, but there are plenty of cheaper motel and hotel options all long I-Drive, within easy reach of SeaWorld, WonderWorks, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Madame Tussauds, and the rest. Though having access to a car is useful, you don’t really need one here since most hotels offer free shuttles to the major parks, and the I-RIDE Trolley zips up and down the whole strip for just $2 per ride ($5 day pass).
  • Most Romantic Neighborhood: Winter Park
    Winter Park is only a few miles north of Downtown Orlando and I-Drive, but it’s another world with elegant boutiques and restaurants lining the leafy main drag, Park Avenue. Though accommodation is limited in the heart of town, the Alfond Inn is one of the region’s best boutique hotels, and there is a range of romantic activities on offer for couples. Get Up and Go Kayaking offers guided sunset kayaking tours through Winter Park’s “Chain of Lakes” and Venetian-style canals using clear kayaks (there are also “Glow in the Dark” nighttime tours using LED lights). Alternatively, the Scenic Boat Tour makes a similar circuit in the comfort of a pontoon boat. In the evenings, there are plenty of elegant bars to choose from: VINIA Wine & Kitchen is an especially good choice with live jazz sessions on Thursday nights and an excellent wine menu.
  • Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: Downtown Orlando
    Though Disney Springs and Universal’s CityWalk offer a vast array of bars, restaurants, and live venues catering to the theme park visitors in Southwest Orlando, we reckon Downtown Orlando is the best place for nightlife. Wall St. Plaza, is a complex of 7 bars on the main drag, Orange Avenue, while redeveloped Church Street District features bars and clubs. Motorworks Brewing is one of the best craft brewers in the region and there are several other microbreweries nearby: Orlando Brewing, Sideward Brewing, and Ivanhoe Park Brewing among them. Another favorite spot is the plush One80 Skytop Lounge, atop Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic. Downtown is also known for its “speakeasy” style cocktail bars – The Courtesy, Hanson’s Shoe Repair, and Mathers Social Gathering are top examples.
  • Best Neighborhoods for Food and Restaurants: Downtown Orlando and Disney Springs
    Orlando’s culinary scene is surprisingly dynamic, with high-quality options all over the city and several neighborhoods standing out. Downtown offers a decent range of top-notch modern American restaurants, from Artisan’s Table and Ace Cafe Orlando, to the Stubborn Mule and The Boheme. The advantage of staying near Disney Springs in Southwest Orlando is that restaurants are much closer together and easily accessible without a car; this is also the place to indulge that celebrity chef fantasy. Jaleo by José Andrés, Morimoto Asia, Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Guy Fieri’s Chicken Guy!, Frontera Cocina by Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill are all here.
  • Best Neighborhood for Shopping: Southwest Orlando (I-Drive)
    Though parts of Downtown and Winter Park feature indie boutiques and specialty stores, Southwest Orlando (and I-Drive) is the best location overall for shopping in Orlando. Major shopping hubs include the Mall at Millenia, Pointe Orlando and the giant open-air Florida Mall. Discounts galore are available at Orlando International Premium Outlets, Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets. Also in Southwest Orlando, Disney Springs and Universal’s CityWalk are crammed with retail stores.
  • Best Neighborhood for Local Vibe: Eatonville
    To escape the mayhem of theme park Orlando, spend an afternoon in Eatonville, one of the nation’s oldest self-governing African-American towns. Grab a plate of southern-style fried fish with Cajun grits at Soul Food Fantasy, check out the exhibits at Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts (which commemorates the famous author who grew up here), learn about pioneer history at the Moseley House, and mingle with locals over a sweet treat at DaJen Eats Cafe & Creamery.
  • Unsafe Areas of Orlando
    The neighborhoods just to the west of Downtown Orlando tend to report the highest crime rates (such as Mercy Drive, Malibu Groves, Johnson Village, and Carver Shores), though there’s really no reason to go anywhere near these areas. Winter Park, Southwest Orlando, and I-Drive are relatively safe – overall, the crime rate is relatively low compared to the rest of urban Florida, but take the usual precautions at night.

The 6 Best Neighborhoods in Orlando for Tourists

1. Downtown Orlando

The historic heart of the city, Downtown Orlando is a modern business district set prettily on the west side of Lake Eola. It was here that settlers first arrived in the mid-19th century, with Orlando officially incorporating as a town in 1875. In addition to a smattering of skyscrapers, the district features the old Church Street Station, now transformed into a dining and nightlife hub, Wall St. Plaza, a bar complex, the arts district, and the Orange County Regional History Center, housed in the stately 1927 Orange County courthouse. The Amway Center is home to the Orlando Magic, while the Exploria Stadium hosts the Orlando City SC of the MLS. Adjacent to Downtown, Loch Haven Park is home to several major museums, including the Orlando Museum of Art and Orlando Science Center. Just east of downtown, the Milk District – named after the T.G. Lee dairy plant – is an up-and-coming neighborhood of restaurants, bars, and live music hubs, while the smaller Mills 50 district – a burgeoning nightlife spot – clusters around the junction of Mills Avenue and State Road 50 (aka Colonial Drive).

2. Walt Disney World

Most people coming to Orlando come to visit Walt Disney World – some 17 miles southwest of Downtown Orlando, it’s so vast it counts as it’s own sprawling mini city. Since opening in 1971, it has expanded from the original Magic Kingdom theme park and iconic Cinderella Castle to encompass 3 additional “worlds” – Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (home of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge”), each one worth at least a day of exploration. There’s also Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park, 4 golf courses, and Disney Springs, a “downtown” area of restaurants and malls. With over 25 official hotel options on Disney property, park and accommodation packages can help to lower the hefty costs involved – and make it tempting never to leave the resort (cars are definitely not required).

3. Universal Orlando Area

Disney World’s principal competition comes from the Universal Orlando Resort, another vast theme park complex halfway between Downtown Orlando and Disney itself. The park comprises 3 main areas: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure (with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter split between them), and Volcano Bay (an incredible waterpark), with CityWalk acting as a shopping and entertainment hub (a bit like Disney Springs). Like Disney World, Universal encompasses several on-site hotels, but we’ve also looked at several independent properties nearby.

  • Guests at an official Universal Orlando get Early Park Admission (1 hour before everyone else).
  • Most hotels (including private hotels) offer free water taxis or shuttles to the main parks

4. Southwest Orlando/International Drive

Southwest Orlando – the home of Universal and DisneyWorld – is also where the majority of Orlando’s family-friendly attractions can be found, most of them on or near International Drive — aka I-Drive (and the I-4 corridor). Staying here means easy (often walkable) access to WonderWorks Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Chocolate Museum & Café, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, Madame Tussauds Orlando, Orlando Starflyer, and many other attractions. West Sand Lake Road is known as “Restaurant Row”, but I-Drive itself is lined with restaurants and malls.

5. Winter Park

Some 6 miles northeast from Downtown Orlando, Winter Park is the area’s most upscale neighborhood, with tree-lined, cobbled streets, fine dining, and a spread of intriguing museums and galleries. The main drag is Park Avenue, which runs north-south along Central Park to Rollins College at the southern end, home to Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Other highlights include the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, featuring a big collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany works, and the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Taking the Scenic Boat Tour is the best way to appreciate Winter Park’s chain of lakes (there are 12 major ones). There are only a handful of places to stay in the center – most folks visit on day trips or stay out near I-4.

6. Eatonville

Historic Eatonville, just northwest of Winter Park and some 7 miles north of downtown Orlando is a fascinating town. Incorporated in 1887, it’s one of the oldest self-governing African-American municipalities in the country. It’s major claim to fame is being the childhood home of celebrated author Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), commemorated at the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts and the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (aka Zora! Festival). We also love the restaurants here: Soul Food Fantasy and DaJen Eats Cafe & Creamery are favorites.

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