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Get to know Downtown Orlando

Most people who have been to Orlando haven’t actually been to Orlando, but have hovered in the manufactured unrealities of the city’s famous theme parks. Real Orlando, any local will tell you, is a vibrant, international city with everything going for it. About every fifteen minutes a great new restaurant opens, or a new section of bike trail is paved, or a luxury high-rise gets approval or a nest of swans hatches. Waterbirds are a big thing here. Though it’s associated with middlebrow entertainment, Orlando is a cosmopolitan place, small enough that neighbors care about each other but big enough that they don’t judge. Even in the heart of downtown, there’s as much foliage as concrete, and you’re more likely to encounter a flock of ibis than a gang of pigeons. Downtown includes not only apartments and condos but bright bungalows and midcentury gems, as well as columned mansions peeking through the Spanish moss in the live oaks.
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History & Culture

Orlando was an agricultural town (oranges, pineapples, and celery, mostly), with some light industrial made possible by the railroad. That all changed, of course, when Walt Disney discovered a swamp he could turn into a global empire. With Disney World (and a million other amusements, some even older) came tourists, and the economy has been booming almost ever since. Perhaps because of the theme parks, Orlando has attracted and retained a very creative population, so arts of all varieties — high- and lowbrow, serious and surreal — are the lifeblood of the community. Buildings are decorated with murals, and playhouses, live music clubs, and art galleries are filled nightly. Orlando’s population skews young, in contrast to that Florida stereotype, so downtown doesn’t empty out like other cities’ “financial districts,” but is alive with bars and nightclubs until the wee hours.

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Dine & Shop

You won’t go hungry in Orlando. Along every major avenue, on the banks of every lake, and tucked into every shopping center are fantastic culinary options that range from formal steakhouses to family eateries where the menu is in a language other than English. There’s a farm-to-table revolution going on here, with an army of pastry artisans and cocktail experts manning the ramparts. Every neighborhood has a few local favorites that stay busy all week long, and there’s a list of special-occasion restaurants that one person will never have enough occasions to try. Shopping is a big-city experience, too. Although it lacks a Rodeo Drive, all the big brands are here because they want to sell to international tourists hungry for luxury goods. Retail costs are lower here than in many big cities, and that means that funky little shops — often selling handmade goods — can exist side-by-side with the national chains. You’ll never want for something to buy here, no matter how studiously you avoid the souvenir shops.