This Charming Florida City Near Orlando Is the Perfect Break From the Theme Park Crowds

Even though Winter Park is near Orlando's theme parks, it feels leaps and bounds away.

Aerial shot of trees, lake, and far off Downtown Orlando

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Cobblestone streets dotted with Michelin-recognized restaurants and locally owned shops, lakes with boat tours, and grassy areas for kids to play tag and fly kites: This is Winter Park, Florida. A hop, skip, and a jump from Orlando’s theme park scene, this town chartered in 1887 thrills in other ways. Its original purpose still holds true: New Englanders founded it as an escape from cold weather. But since that time, the 10-square-mile city has become a year-round destination. Orlando residents love the place, but they can’t keep it a secret anymore. No matter why you’re in the Orlando area, a few days in Winter Park would provide a welcome respite before heading home. In fact, the town has so much going for it, we’d argue that it merits a trip on its own.

Downtown, Park Avenue — where stand-out restaurants and local boutiques dot the brick streets — is the place to be. Just off Park Avenue, Rollins, a small liberal arts college founded 135 years ago, contributes to the town’s robust array of cultural activities. A short walk from downtown lies the waterfront, where six lakes are connected by navigable canals. Ready to plan a trip to this charming city? Here's what you need to know.

Related: The 12 Best Places to Visit in Florida

Stained glass at the Hormer Morse Museum

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Best Things to Do in Winter Park

If you like culture, nature, and shopping, Winter Park will be a new favorite. With a rose garden and beautiful fountains, 11-acre Central Park on Park Avenue hosts many of the city’s festivals and events, including holiday festivities and the Olde Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration. It’s also the perfect place to take the kids to burn off steam in between visiting stores or before going back to the hotel.

More spectacular than you’d imagine, the Morse Museum, located on Park Avenue, features a large collection of Tiffany works as well as other American art. The stunning chapel, which was crafted for the Chicago World’s Fair, is a must-see.

When you’re ready for a break from walking, take the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour around Winter Park’s many lakes, where you'll spot beautiful homes while you learn more about the city's history. Kids of all ages are welcome (even encouraged) to join the fun on the 18-passenger pontoon boats. Water sports, like paddleboarding and kayaking, are also popular around the lakes.

On Saturday mornings, dozens of vendors sell their produce, bread, sweets, and more at the Saturday Farmers’ Market. It's the perfect place to grab ingredients before heading to a park for a picnic lunch.

Save room in your suitcase to treat yourself to an item from one of the many one-of-a-kind shops in Winter Park. You’ll swoon over the stationary and artsy decorative items at Rifle Paper Co’s own store (the brand is based in Winter Park).

Local teens and college students shop at Avalon Exchange, a thrift shop that’s clean, organized, and budget friendly with a mix of retro and popular brands. Stop by Loving Thyself Rocks if for nothing else than to get a selfie sitting on the winged crystal chair at the entrance. Writer’s Block bookstore offers a well-curated selection for kids and adults (plus a fantastic name).

Winter Park Hotels

While visitors only have a handful of lodging options in Winter Park, the surrounding area opens up a multitude of possibilities.

Established more than 130 years ago, The Alfond Inn at Rollins is getting better with age. Sprinkled with incredible paintings from the Rollins Art Museum, the recently renovated lobby is a design masterpiece and fosters family togetherness thanks to a variety of seating arrangements and a corner chess set. An expansion, which will add a new spa and a wing to the inn’s current 112 guest rooms, is expected to wrap up by the end of the year. The location, just a few blocks from Park Avenue, is stellar.

With 28 guest rooms — some with original brick walls — the Park Plaza Hotel is the only place to stay on the city’s famed Park Avenue. There are balcony rooms and suites for people-watching.

About eight miles from Winter Park, Sonder Wellborn is located in the oldest house in the Orlando area. Suites are well priced and spacious, plus the property includes a Victorian garden.

If you’re combining a business trip to the Orlando Convention Center with a visit to Winter Park, the AC Hotel Marriott Downtown Orlando is a great choice. The eight-floor, 180-room property boasts a SkyBar Rooftop Terrace with incredible city views. It’s just eight miles from Winter Park.

Swan boat around Lake Osceola

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Best Time to Visit Winter Park

While you’ll have fun no matter when you go to Winter Park, shifts in weather and special programming favor certain months.

Despite its name, the most comfortable season to visit Winter Park is spring — and the earlier, the better. March feels glorious with average high temperatures reaching about 76 degrees Fahrenheit and the lowest humidity of the year. It’s no coincidence that the organizers of the city’s annual Sidewalk Art Festival, which attracts 350,000 visitors, schedule it for March. It’s a little cooler in February and warmer in April, but still pleasant. You won’t find many April showers in Winter Park — April is the second-least rainy month.

The holidays usher in another magical time to explore Winter Park, especially if you’re bringing children. Two big events take place during the first weekend of December. On Friday, “Winter on the Avenue” transforms Central Park into a holiday wonderland, complete with snow slides, s’mores, and strolling carolers. Everyone gathers around for the lighting of the Christmas tree and menorah. The next day, music fills the streets for the Ye Olde Hometown Christmas Parade. A tradition for more than 70 years, the parade’s headliners include marching bands, fire trucks, and Santa Claus. Winter Park’s weather by far outshines the North Pole, with average December highs in the mid-70s.

Families who have to plan their vacations around school calendars and practice schedules may not be able to avoid a summertime visit. Although it’s typically hot, humid, and rainy, scheduling outdoor activities for the morning or evening will make it less likely that Florida’s temperamental summer weather will interfere with your fun.

Where to Eat and Drink

Orlando locals flock to Winter Park for memorable meals — whether they’re bringing the entire family or looking for a romantic table for two. Winter Park serves up a variety of cuisines and vibes at its top food establishments.

At Briarpatch, the most iconic eatery on Park Avenue, locals line up for mimosas and delicious brunch offerings (think: brown butter Belgian waffles and raspberry lemon cream pancakes.) The housemade cakes — carrot, chocolate layer, and red velvet — are as Instagrammable as they are tasty. You can dine al fresco on the outdoor tables overlooking Central Park or opt for the indoor seating; the dining room oozes Southern charm.

Fresh from earning a Michelin star, Soseki, a 10-seat Japanese restaurant, specializes in a divine multi-course dining experience based on the best ingredients that its farmers, fishermen, and cheese purveyors offer.

With husband-and-wife, James Beard-nominated chefs in the kitchen, The Ravenous Pig hits the spot with a variety of apps, hand-helds, innovative cocktails, and other gastropub fare.

If the kids want pizza, Prato is the place for your family. Request a table on the patio (isn’t there something about eating outside that makes kids less wiggly?) and order them a margarita pie to share while you pick one of the other modern Italian dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.

Getting There

Winter Park is easily accessible by car and airplane. You probably won’t use your car much once you’re in town.

If you’re coming from one of Orlando’s theme parks, the ride will be relatively short. Winter Park is about 30 miles north of Disney’s Magic Kingdom and 15 miles north of Universal Florida on I-4. Tampa, Jacksonville, and Melbourne, Florida are all within two hours or so.

The closest airport is Orlando International Airport, which is about a 30-minute drive to Winter Park. Later in 2023, the Brightline Train’s airport station will connect the city with Miami, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. If you can fly into the smaller (and far less crowded) Orlando Sanford International Airport, you’d still only have about a half-hour drive.

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