The Sunshine State is one of my favourite places in the world. There’s nothing else really to describe it. The feeling when you step off the plane and the warm air hits you – driving along the i4 and seeing all the road signs indicating that you’re exactly where you want to be. It just makes my stomach swell with happiness and the fact that whenever I’m there I have my loved ones by my side just makes it all the better.
Having travelled there a fair few times on my own now, I seem to have developed a habit of visiting certain places – and have definitely come away with a list of places that are a must in Florida, that I can’t wait to share with you all today! If there are any Florida natives, or generally anybody who loves the Sunshine State too, then please make sure to leave your recommendations of places down below! I’m returning next March with Scott and I’m already counting the days! Eek!
I thought I’d start the list off with perhaps my favourite place in Orlando… International Drive. International Drive is very dear to my heart. A stretch of entertainment stores, restaurants and hotels – International Drive is alive and kicking 24/7. My friends and I always stay on the Drive, and we love driving up and down it when frequenting our way around the town. There’s always something to do, and there are some really great places on there to get incredible stuff for a dream price.
When we first visited 5 years ago, International Drive felt so welcoming to three Brits who stepped off their first solo long haul flight dehydrated and exhausted with no vehicle to get around in. It’s a place to call home.
An outdoor shopping mall in the centre of International Drive, Pointe Orlando offers cinemas, boutiques and Ben and Jerry parlours. It’s a great place to pass through whether during the day or at night – and has a fantastic Tommy Hilfiger clearance store in that has designer deals like I’ve never seen before.
Also, the neighbouring restaurant Bahama Breeze is somewhere that I’ve visited every single time I’ve come to Orlando – and nothing finishes a meal off like wandering over to the Ben and Jerry’s parlour to pick up some sweet treats for the walk back to the hotel.
The Orlando Amway Center
Since picking up a car, visiting the Amway Center has become a little ritual that my friends and I love to do whilst in Florida. We check out whatever’s going on over there, and usually end up watching a match (go Orlando Magic!). I love how passionate Americans are about sports, and it’s so entrancing to see the amount of entertainment that goes into a single game – from the cheerleading routines to the mascot performances and the games they play during halftime. It’s a pretty special buzz.
Also, nothing says holiday like food from the vendors in the Amway Centre – I can practically smell it now…
Super Target & Walmart
The first time we went to Orlando, we visited a Target near the Florida Mall, and not finding much that really made us interested – left with a pretty low opinion of the store. When we visited last week though, we stumbled upon a Super Target that’s approximately opposite the Mall of Millennia – and wow, it was a different story altogether.
I think we ended up frequenting this Target almost nightly, and when mixed in with the Walmart on Turkey Lake Road, let’s just say that I learned the route to both of these within the first few days off by heart. If you’re from the UK, Target reminds me somewhat of Matalan mixed with TK Maxx with a healthy dash of Tescos thrown in there for good measure. The clothing is laid out similar to Matalan, and then you have this abundance of homeware and food items that you never knew you needed so badly that you stumble across when visiting TK and Tescos.
The Orlando Premium Outlets
If you’re after the same merchandise that you’ll see in the Disney parks for a literal quarter of the price, then this is the place you need to go. There’s a set of Orlando Premium Outlets on both ends of International Drive (though the stores deviate slightly from one to the next), but the Vineland ones (located on Vineland Avenue) house the (much) bigger “Disney Character Warehouse” (aka outlet store). I managed to pick up a mug that was for sale in Disney Springs for $24 at the cheap old price of $5 – I’m just going to give you a moment to let that sink in (!!!)
The Orlando Outlets also have a great range of other stores: like Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Nike, Bath and Bodyworks, Abercrombie and Fitch, J Crew and much, much more. Since it’s an outlet store too, you can expect to find all of these with a healthy discount slapped on top – which I’m sure nobody is going to say no to browsing.
Crystal River & Kings Bay
Stepping out of Orlando for a second, I want to talk about Crystal River. We visited here in 2016 to swim with manatees and absolutely fell in love. If you’re after a picturesque drive through the state to do something that you typically wouldn’t, then I can’t recommend here enough. If you want to read about my adventures swimming with manatees, please click here.
The most important thing about visiting somewhere like Crystal River to swim with manatees is that it’s a completely unobtrusive experience. It’s not at a theme park, and you’re not goading anything into swimming with you – it’s simply where the manatees frequent, and if they’re there then great – but if they’re not, then too bad. They decide whether to approach you and how long they’ll hang out with you for, not the other way around. And that’s what’s important about experiences like these – making sure the animals are comfortable and you’re not forcing yourself on or into somebody else’s personal space.
Anna Maria Island
We only visited Anna Maria Island for the first time during our last holiday a few weeks back, and it was an absolute dream. I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to the place, which you can catch up on right here.
There’s nothing not to love about the island – it feels private and so welcoming. With crystal clear waters and white sand – incredibly fresh eateries along the coast and the cutest stores lining their retail stretch in absolutely no way that’s overdone or cheesy. The place is special, and you can tell that from the moment you step foot on there.
Also, you can watch dolphins and manatees swim around you from the pier – which is just about as magical as it sounds. Anna Maria Island is a must-do, I’m telling you.
Universal Studios & Disney World Theme Parks
But can you visit Florida without visiting either Universal or Disney? That’s the real question, and one that I kind’ve don’t want to know the answer to. I absolutely love visiting the theme parks – they’re so much fun, and a fantastic day out for all involved. In Orlando, I prefer Universal’s theme parks to Disney’s – but my favourite Disney park is a tie between Epcot and Animal Kingdom (I just love them both so much!)
They’re also great for photo opportunities, as all parks have such big elaborate sets that you could literally spend all day taking photo after photo of the gorgeous scenery. The only problem is trying to wait for the crowd to separate slightly – ha!
So, 1500 words later – this is my dream guide to Orlando. I’d love to know which of these you guys have visited while in the country and whether you have any other places you love to visit while in the Sunshine State? Be sure to let me know below!