It took me 26 years to experience your weird, semi-southern charm. And I mean weird in the best possible way. Nobody raves about a trip to Florida, yet everyone acts shocked when you haven’t been – So, here it is, the love letter you deserve because beyond the amusement parks is a no-nonsense state that won over my heart.
I’m going to make an assumption that my trip to Florida was a little bit different than most – not better, just different. After booking a long weekend in central Florida with one of my childhood friends, we agreed that we wanted to spend our long weekend seeing this state’s true colors. Planning an authentic vacation in an area that reeks of tourism isn’t the easiest task, but (with a lot of Googling) I think we nailed it. We flew in and out of Tampa but took full advantage of our rental car, visiting five other cities in only a few days. I’ll break down my favorite memories by location. That way, if you’re nearby at Grandma’s condo, you can maybe sneak away for the day to experience something new.
Ever heard of it? It’s unlikely, but Lakeland really set the tone for our roadtrip. Lakeland is a city on the outskirts of Tampa with no known tourist destinations. However, a lil’ movie by the name of Edward Scissorhands was filmed in Lakeland, so we had to stop. Unfortunately all of the suburbian pastel homes featured in the film have since been painted something boring, but the midcentury Southgate shopping center where Edward visits the beauty salon is still alive and well – although, the colors do appear to be fading with time. Lucky for us, this strip mall also holds a Publix, a SE grocery chain known for their infamous ‘pub subs.’ Yep, our first taste of Florida was from a grocery store’s deli, and I don’t regret it.
We ordered a chicken pub sub with the ‘Spicy Gold’ sauce (dealer’s choice); once the chicken was lathered in sauce, a thick loaf of bread was filled to the brim with our selections. I don’t know what was better: the sandwich or the 5 minute ordering process in which the young man taking our order guided us through every step of the way. And if that doesn’t tell you enough, this is the only food I’m going to rave about in detail after spending three nights in Florida. Yeah, that good.
Ready for the next adventure, we drove an hour east to another colorful stop. Kissimmee lies directly outside of Orlando and houses many tourists and hospitality workers, due to its close proximity to Disney.
Again, not necessarily a destination in itself, but this exhausted city was added to my bucket list after watching director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. If you haven’t seen this film, I urge you to watch it; the movie sheds light on some of the poverty that lies right outside ‘the happiest place on earth,’ while focusing on the story of a young mother and her daughter who live in the Magic Castle Inn and Suites motel. This ridiculous purple hotel that they call home throughout the entirety of The Florida Project is in fact a real motel in Kissimmee, so I dragged us to yet another filming location. After paying our respects to the Magic Castle, we spent our remaining time here entering other nearby filming locations and knock-off Disney stores. If you like to spend your vacations in denial of the sad truths of reality, maybe Kissimmee isn’t for you. For me, it was important to me to see the area that inspired the making of an eye-opening film.
Although we technically spent our first night in Orlando, I have nothing too insightful to say about this amusing city. Therefore, I’m going to leave it at: we drank a lot of rum here, so many tiki bars. Just north of Orlando, however, is the established suburb of Winter Park. Getting ‘lost’ in the neighborhoods surrounding Lake Sue and Lake Virginia was one of the better detours of the trip – because doesn’t everyone like looking at houses they can’t afford while on vacation? Lush landscaping, terracotta roofs, brick driveways … simply give a nice Midwestern wave, if the homeowners catch you drooling. And what do you do when you’re in a well-to-do neighborhood? Go to thrift stores, of course! The Goodwill on Orange Ave in Winter Park is full of treasures, many of which still have the original price tags. If my carry-on wasn’t already ¾ full, I would have come home with a new wardrobe.
Showcase of Citrus
Less than 24 hours in Florida’s Orange county, and we had to start heading back west. To break up the driving, a little research ahead of time led us to Showcase of Citrus, aka the side of the highway in Clermont, FL. This underrated attraction includes a citrus grove, alligators in the wild, monster truck tours, lots of shop cats, the friendliest folks, beer/wine, and their famous creamsicle beverages. Whether their creamsicles are famous or not, they should be – think deconstructed Orange Julius, but with fresh OJ. Because it’s distanced from Orlando’s main tourist traps, the experiences remain affordable and accessible to all. Unfortunately, we visited as citrus season was approaching and didn’t get to partake in picking citrus – next time! We arrived here looking for a unique pitstop, and we left as superfans. I even purchased a Showcase of Citrus patch for my jean jacket.
I get overwhelmed just thinking about everything we packed into our time in St. Petersburg + the surrounding areas. Which is why, if I were to suggest one central Florida city to visit, this would be it. So, what does this city have to offer? Well, for one, The Don CeSar is nearby which is worth the short drive; this Pepto Bismol pink hotel opened in 1928 and has been catering to a bougie clientele ever since – think Great Gatsby on the beach. We couldn’t afford to stay there… and we quickly found out the daybeds weren’t free either when we plopped down to have our morning coffee – but still, it’s a sight to see.
Then there’s downtown St. Petersburg, home to many colorful murals and Haslam’s Bookstore, the largest new and used bookstore in Florida. It’s where I’d recommend stopping on the first day of a Florida vacation (if possible). At Haslam’s, you can grab a book for the beach, and the shop owner Raymond is full of local recommendations. When we shared that we were on our way to the beach, Raymond quickly directed us to the North Beach of Fort De Soto Park which is a tropical paradise: nature trails, miles and miles of beachfront, even ferries to wildlife preserves. We spent our last moments, here, soaking up the sun and frolicking in the ocean. Usually I wouldn’t use the term frolicking, but this was definitely frolicking. Boy, do I love white sandy beaches.
And then we were back to the beginning: Tampa. Similar to Orlando, our time in Tampa was limited to one evening. Exhausted from a day in the sun, we didn’t anticipate the night to consist of much other than a slice of Key Lime pie. Key Lime pie originated in Key West, FL, did you put those two together?? We found the pie slice of our dreams at Columbia Restaurant and decided to chase it down with a nightcap in Tampa’s Historic Ybor neighborhood. Ybor City, once known as the cigar capital of the world, is lined with late 1800s architecture that now houses Tampa’s nightlife – vaguely reminiscent of New Orleans, minus everyone drinking alcoholic slushies on the streets. Meeting a friendly (and drunk) local at one bar led us to experience Ol’ Dirty Sundays. Because the slurred descriptors we were receiving weren’t entirely clear, we weren’t sure what we were in for – until it started. Ol’ Dirty Sundays is an event hosted by music venue The Crow Bar; these events take place in an outdoor courtyard, complete with a DJ, food, art and lots of local break dancers. This was way better than any ABC dance movie; the break dancing kept going and going and going. I was enamored with the environment as a whole + the few drinks I had probably helped, too. Although we had early morning flights, we stayed until what I thought was bar close… turns out Tampa bars close at 3!
There you have it, a complete list of my favorite experiences by location from a few days in central Florida! I respect a Florida vacation where you plop yourself on the beach for a week, but I urge you to venture outside of your sandy comfort zone. This sunshine state has a lot more to give than citrus and Mickey Mouse ears; every location left me wanting more time to explore. If your interest is piqued, keep a watch out for cheap airfare. We found our lodging to be very affordable at under $100 per night via Airbnb. A long weekend in Florida is maybe just what you need this winter.
I love you, FL.