Orlando, Florida, is smack in the middle of the state, meaning it’s an ideal starting point for many of the region’s best day trips.
But what’s there to see other than beaches?
We’re glad you asked. Today, we’re highlighting some of the best side trip destinations in Central Florida.
Let’s hit it!
About Orlando, Florida
Over 60 million people travel to sunny Orlando, Florida, every year. Most visitors set their sights on Disney World and Universal Studios, but this area has plenty to offer outside its famous theme parks.
Orlando is the biggest city in Central Florida, so there’s something for everyone. The nightlife scene is always popular, and live music is a regular occurrence.
Countless restaurants feature cuisines from around the world. Whether you get a meal from a Michelin-rated eatery or a hole-in-the-wall dive, it’s bound to be delicious.
You won’t find any white sand beaches in the city, but you’ll be within driving distance of some of the best in the country. And it isn’t just the coast that’s worth a visit. Some of the best day trips we could ask for are within a few hours of Orlando. Here are a few of our favorites.
#1 Kennedy Space Center
Less than an hour east of Orlando, you can dive into the history and future of other-worldly exploration at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It’s on Merritt Island, a small strip of land just off the Atlantic Coast.
While you won’t be able to access most of the facility, their Visitor Complex is the next best thing. On any given day, you can stroll through the Rocket Garden to get a close-up view of some of NASA’s most famous spacecraft.
Tour exhibits for missions like Atlantis and Apollo. You can even chat with a real astronaut about what it’s like in outer space!
The Kennedy Space Center is very family-friendly. You’ll find activities and events for adults and children alike. They even have a kennel for your four-legged friends to enjoy while you check out this unbeatable destination.
Pro tip: Check out the Events Calendar before your trip!
#2 Clearwater Beach
To enjoy Florida’s world-class beaches, you’ll want to head to Clearwater. You’ll know this town lives up to its name as soon as you spot the sparkling turquoise waters.
Clearwater Beach is just west of bustling Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico. It takes about two and a half hours to get there from Orlando, but a day trip will still be worth it. Not only will you find spectacular views, you’ll have access to fine dining, top attractions, and one of the most highly-rated beaches in the US.
While you’re here, check out the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, take a cruise on a pirate ship, or pamper yourself with a day pass for a waterfront resort.
And you don’t have to spend much cash to enjoy this coastal town. It doesn’t cost anything to lounge on the beach during the day. And when the sun gets low in the sky, you can head to Pier 60 to see musicians, magicians, and firebreathers put on their free nightly sunset celebration.
Check out other great Florida beaches: 7 Best Florida Beaches (And Awesome Nearby Campsites).
#3 St. Augustine
History buffs will love taking in the sights around St. Augustine. Touted as the Nation’s Oldest City, it’s been continually inhabited longer than any other place in the country, at least by European settlers.
Several forts are now state parks. The Colonial Quarter lets you experience what this city was like under both Spanish and British rule from the 16th to 18th centuries. Throughout town, you’ll see Gilded Age architecture, such as that at Flagler College.
But if that doesn’t excite you, this city has more to offer.
Soak up the sun on 42 miles of Florida beaches or feed the wildlife at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. You can take in the sights on an Old Town Trolley ride or experience a free moonshine tasting at a micro-distillery.
However you choose to enjoy this city, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
From Orlando, it’s about a two-hour drive north to St. Augustine. It’ll take a little longer, but we suggest taking the A1A along the coast for unforgettable views.
Get more travel tips from someone who knows: Greater Than a Tourist-Orlando Florida USA: 50 Travel Tips from a Local (Free on Kindle Unlimited!)
#4 Mount Dora
Mount Dora just might be Central Florida’s hidden gem. Located about 45 minutes from Orlando, this is a day trip you won’t want to miss.
The idyllic small town overlooks Lake Dora, a few minutes south of Ocala National Forest. It attracts antiquers and collectors of all types. You’ll find countless shops downtown devoted to nostalgic goods. And if you like gourmet food and wine, you’ll be in heaven.
It’s also known for its many annual festivals. Events celebrating everything from bicycles to the arts draw thousands of visitors every year.
Beyond downtown, there are countless activities to keep you occupied. You can kayak along numerous waterways, stroll the boardwalk at Palm Island Park, or take a sea-plane ride for a bird’s eye view.
#5 Crystal River
You’ll want to visit Crystal River if you’ve never seen a manatee up close. These majestic sea cows are gentle giants that migrate into the river’s warm waters when temperatures drop in the Gulf. You might see hundreds if you time your day trip from Orlando just right!
Crystal River is an ideal getaway for folks who love the outdoors. You can take a see-through kayak up and down the river to catch a glimpse below the surface.
In late summer, locals and visitors forage for scallops in the shallow waters. You’ll even find prestigious golf courses nearby if that’s your thing.
Venture deep into the past at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. Here, you’ll see pre-Columbian Native American burial mounds. The 61-acre park is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so you might see some unusual species.
Downtown is home to historic architecture, lively bars, and first-rate restaurants. Even if your trip puts you here in the off-season, we think it’s an excellent place to explore. Crystal River is about two hours from Orlando, so if time permits, you can stay for a few days to immerse yourself in local culture.
Don’t forget to book a place to stay: 7 Best RV Parks in Orlando, Florida!
Extend Your Orlando Vacation with Day Trips
Florida is a popular vacation destination for excellent reasons. No matter where you go, you’ll be within a couple of hours of stunning beaches and rich history. So it’s no surprise that Orlando is a great home base for many incredible day trips.
Whether you want to explore the great outdoors, come face-to-face with gentle giants, or step back into the past, you’re sure to find it here!
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