By Susan & Simon Veness
For every big-city location in Florida there is a ‘hidden gem,’ an area that is an attraction in its own right, worth seeking out for an essential part of that city’s experience. This series introduces these delightful – and often historic – sections of the Sunshine State.
Everyone thinks they know Orlando. It is one of Florida’s prime attractions and rightly world famous for its theme parks and other attractions, which include Disney, Universeal, SeaWorld and more.
But there is another side to The City Beautiful, as Orlando is otherwise known. And it is a far more laid back, authentic and downright civilised experience. Welcome to the city suburb of Winter Park.
Established in 1881 – four years before the city incorporation of Orlando itself – as the brainchild of a Chicago industrial magnate looking for a healthier resort community, this leafy residential area has become the upscale, alternative experience to the theme parks in recent years as visitors look to escape the frenzy of Disney and Co for a while.
And escape it they certainly will, with a sense of great style, green spaces and good food. LOTS of good food. We’ll come to that in a minute, but the first thing you should know about Winter Park is that it is the repository of much of Orlando’s artistic heart and soul.
The lovely campus of Rollins College – Florida’s first four-year university – was established here in 1885 and is still an essential corner of Winter Park’s elegant background, boasting the likes of the free-to-enter Cornell Fine Arts Museum, the Knowles Memorial Chapel (on the National Register of Historic Places) and some fabulous Spanish-Mediterranean architecture.
Rollins is at one end of the main thoroughfare of Park Avenue, and this is where you should spend most of your time. With its Café Society vibe, fine boutiques and plentiful restaurants, the Avenue is Entertainment Central, boasting as it does the essential attraction of the Morse Museum of American Art, which features the world’s largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany and other representations of late 19th and early 20th century art in some beautiful settings.
Golf fans should make a note of the historic Winter Park Country Club here, a nine-hole walking course that often has tee-times at short notice and provides a delightful stroll in the midst of a charming residential area.
History buffs will be enchanted by some of the period houses along the way, notably the restored Spanish Revival historic home of Casa Feliz (open to the public free of charge from noon-3pm on Sundays and 10am-noon Tuesdays and Thursday) and Albin Polasek House & Studio, dedicated to the work of the Czech sculptor.
For the full overview, all visitors should sample the 50-minute Scenic Boat Tour, which leaves from the dock on East Morse Boulevard on the hour from 10am-4pm daily and provides a gorgeous panorama of the area’s lakes, canals and mansions ($14/person, cash only).
But, while these are all great reasons to visit Winter Park, the real reason it is so popular with those who discover it is the fabulous array of shopping and dining, primarily along Park Avenue, but also in the blossoming Hannibal Square district, Morse Boulevard and the central part of Orlando Avenue from Fairbanks to Lee Road.
The wonderful range of individual boutiques includes essential curiosities such as the trendy Rifle Paper Co, DeVanes gifts, Peterbrooke Chocolatier and Alex & Ani fine jewellery, while the list of tempting cafes, bars and restaurants would easily fill the entirety of this blog on its own!
Suffice it to say, if you sample any of Italian gastropub Prato, the Southern style of The COOP, 310 Park South, Luma on Park, Pannullo’s Italian Restaurant, the brunch-style Briarpatch, Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine, Mon Petit Cheri Café, eclectic Boca Kitchen or Garp & Fuss, you will have enjoyed a classic taste of the Park Avenue area.
Travel a bit further afield, and each of Ravenous Pig (more great gastropub style), Hillstone (with gorgeous sunset views), The Glass Knife (dessert heaven) and barbecue-centric 4 Rivers Smokehouse are equally compelling for memorable meals, while The Brewstillery – a combination of Winter Park Distilling Company and Bear & Peacock Brewery – and Foxtail Coffee Co provide more essential tastes of the area.
And, if you’re here in March, look out for the Sidewalk Arts Festival – the largest of its kind in Florida – for a full sampling of all that Winter Park has to offer, wrapped up in three days of pure artistic fun, food and shopping!
PS: Be sure to start any visit to Winter Park at the Chamber of Commerce’s Welcome Center on Lyman Avenue (just half a block west of Park Avenue). Here, as well as clean restrooms and complimentary bottled water, they can supply area maps, walking tours and other handy ideas for enjoying the area.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.