The best way to have fun on a trip is by finding the things that you would enjoy doing if you lived in that city. Then amp it up for the week. So if you’re a comic book collector, seek out hole-in-the-wall comic shops. If you love hikes, finding awe-inspiring hiking trails. If microbrews are your thing, tour the local microbreweries. It’s no wonder that people get burnt out on vacations of endless lines and crowds. Who seeks that out in their normal, everyday life?
My favorite trips include lots of sun and nature, vegan meals aplenty, and shopping for unique groceries and kitchen items. One of the best surprises about being vegan while traveling is the way that it’s taken me to areas I might not have sought out if I was sticking with chain restaurants and the usual tourist scene. I like getting a glimpse of a local’s viewpoint, and unearthing some hidden treasures that wouldn’t necessarily be on a pamphlet in the hotel lobby.
With those things in mind, here are some of my favorite things to do in Orlando (that don’t involve theme parks):
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
While Nile Ethiopian Restaurant is located in one of the more touristy areas of Orlando with gobs of traffic and neon lights, this unassuming restaurant in a strip mall is worth seeking out. With semi-private huts for groups or standard dining tables in the main room, it’s a wonderful place for getting a wide platter of injera, smattered with colorful wots (stews). It’s not a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, but they have lots of vegan options. We’d visited Nile on a prior trip and were eager to revisit it again.
The sambusa appetizer (below) is filled with lentils, green peppers, and onions. It’s a tasty start to the meal. The crust is light and flaky and has the texture of fried rice paper.
I like to get the vegetarian Taste of Nile platter, which is a very generous amount for two. (I think we could have invited at least one or two more people over, and there still would have been plenty.) It comes with cabbage, red lentils, split peas, collard greens, shiro azifa, and tomato fitfit.
I love when Ethiopian restaurants have a dish that sets them apart from others. The one at Nile that does it is their cold lentil salad, which is heavily laced with horseradish. It has a clean-your-nose-out bite that is a welcome surprise to balance the other savory wots on the platter.
The injera is not as dark and teff-heavy as some injera I’ve tried, making it on the milder and more muted side. I prefer a stronger-tasting injera, but otherwise it tasted fresh and pliable.
The service is very warm and friendly. It’s one of those places that makes me wish I was a local, so that I could be a regular.
East End Market
East End Market is a two-story structure with dozens of different merchants sharing the space. There is a working garden market in front of the building. The lower half of the building is a large open room with shops, market areas with produce and freshly baked bread, and restaurants. (For my Southern California readers, it’s reminiscent of The Market at Santa Monica Place.)
The upper half features a variety of standalone stores, including Bookmark It, a book store which features local authors and books on the local food movement.
One of the restaurants on the main floor is Skyebird, a raw restaurant and juice bar. They have salads in mason jars for people on the go or in bowls for those who want to stay and eat at the long counter in front of their kitchen.
Their taco salads are fresh and filling with romaine, raw taco meat made from nuts or seeds, pico de gallo, and a cashew sour cream that tastes very similar to the cashew dressing that I make at home.
To immerse yourself in beauty, a relaxing place to spend an afternoon is Leu Gardens. With 50 acres of gardens, a tropical garden, rose garden, and more, it would be hard to see it all.
It’s amazing to see tropical fruits like papayas growing, and to walk freely through the expansive gardens. They have rotating artwork, and when we were there they had human-sized frog sculptures located throughout the gardens. It’s called Ribbit the Exhibit, and it’s there through March 31st.
It’s free to visit Leu Gardens the first Monday of every month.
Artichoke Red Vegan Market
Artichoke Red is a small, all-vegan grocery store with specialty goods, vitamins, supplements, health and beauty products, vegan wine and beer. They also have a selection of vegan Twinkies. (You can read a lengthier post about Artichoke Red from my prior visit in 2013.)
The local vegan food truck, The Squid Box, is there selling brunch on Sundays. Unfortunately, they were elsewhere the weekend we were in town, though, and so we weren’t able to try them.
The British Shoppe
If you’re looking for Doctor Who magnets, teapots, and Jammie Dodgers, you’ve come to the right place. The British Shoppe is a small store with an eclectic collection of British goods, including canned vegetarian haggis. (Only $11 a can! Yikes!)
Directly across the street from The British Shoppe, Raphsodic Bakery is a vegan bakeshop that sells a variety of gluten-free baked goods as well. We picked up a couple of filled cupcakes and enjoyed them with cups of coffee. There’s a small seating area and local artwork on the walls.
This beautiful park is one of my favorite places in the entirety of Orlando. Lake Eola Park is home to a variety of birds, including a large population of swans. The Walt Disney Ampitheater overlooks the water. There are always runners jogging the perimeter of the lake, and it’s a relaxing place to take a leisurely stroll.
You can rent four-person swan boats for $15/half hour and paddle around the lake. It was drizzling when we toddled around the water, but it didn’t dampen the view.
Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a delightful vegetarian restaurant, is also a pleasant mile walk away. I’ll be doing a full write-up about Dandelion in an upcoming post!