What does summertime mean to you? Is it lounging at the beach? Chasing the ice cream truck down the street with your kids? S’mores?
Pete and I celebrated the end of summer with a coast-to-coast road trip across central Florida, with the intention of seeing and doing as much as we could in 24 hours. Also, we had friends in town from Italy, so we wanted to make sure to share with them the “real” Orlando as well as some truly American eats along the way.
If you were following along on Instagram, you know it was a pretty epic. From sunrise-to-sunset, coast-to-coast, and lots of fun in between. Want follow our same route? I’ve included the itinerary below with a few extra suggestions. You can choose to hustle, like we did, and squeeze this all into a day. Or you can take your time and turn it into a whole weekend, spending a day on each coast and one in Orlando. I’ve got some hotel recommendations within each segment in case you decide to make a weekender out of it.
Cheers to a fun-filled end of summer! (And, PS … the weather in Florida is sunny year round, so you can do this anytime.)
EVENING – Orlando
Explore Orlando’s trendy foodie neighborhoods and grab a bite at one of the many independently owned restaurants. Everything from uber casual cafes like authentic Cuban food at Black Bean Deli …
or healthy California-style salads and sandwiches with an excellent wine list at Bikes Beans and Bordeaux.
EARLY MORNING – Orlando
Sunrise and an All-American Breakfast
If you want to get up really early and catch the sunrise, the two best places to see it are at the top of the parking garage behind Panera on Park Avenue to get a whole view of the city, or by the lake at Dinky Dock near Rollins College.
Ordinarily, I’d say a leisurely brunch is the all-American way to start the day. Blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup, scrambled eggs and cheese, bacon, and a bottomless cup of coffee. But with a packed schedule we decided to have a quick bite at Barnie’s Coffee Kitchen instead.
Estimated drive time from Orlando to Kennedy Space Center: One hour.
Make It A Whole Day! – Orlando: If you want to stay the night in Orlando, I highly recommend AirBnb.com so that you can truly get a sense of the community and neighborhoods. Stay in Winter Park, Baldwin Park, College Park, or Downtown. With your extra time, be sure check out my guided walk in the Mills/50 District, an international food tour of Orlando.
LATE MORNING – Space Coast
A visit to Kennedy Space Center is a must. I mean, how often do you get to actually talk to an astronaut and stand underneath a space shuttle? Exactly. It’s epic.
I recommend starting at the Astronaut Encounter where you’ll have the opportunity to watch an inspiring presentation given by a bonafide astronaut! At the end, there is a Q&A, so you can talk to them too! It really gives you a glimpse into what it’s like to prepare for a space mission and will set the mood for the rest of your visit.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit starts with a short film that takes you through the 30 year history of the shuttle program, which I must confess, left me a little watery-eyed. Seeing the progression of technology, challenges, and triumphs really puts in perspective how difficult it was to accomplish. (Hint: we’re still quite a bit away from Star Trek-like speed). Couple that with actually seeing a real space shuttle, whole, in all it’s glory, is really hair-raising.
Also, two must-taste items at KSC: Dippin Dots and Astronaut Ice Cream. These aren’t for flavor, but more for the texture and the experience. Astronaut Ice Cream is freeze-dried and melts in your mouth. Dippin Dots are like little beads of ice cream and are simply fun to eat.
Make It A Whole Day – Space Coast: I highly recommend giving yourself a full day at Kennedy Space Center so you have time to see it all, including seeing the shuttle launch pad. If you spend the night on the east coast, Pete recommends the Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront. I’ve never stayed there, but Pete grew up in Cocoa Beach so he knows the area well. With your extra time, head over to Lone Cabbage Fish Camp to get a taste of Florida swampland and order some fried Alligator tail. Afterward, take a ride on an airboat through the marsh.
AFTERNOON – Orlando
No trip to the USA would be complete without rolling up your sleeves and digging into some zippy barbeque. And no trip to Orlando is complete without a meal 4 Rivers. This local joint is one of Pete’s favorites, so we had to take our Italian friends there. It’s iconic American eats, after all. Plus, 4 Rivers is so popular (and the food is so finger-licking good) that it’s grown from it’s small flagship store in an old gas station in Winter Park, to four brand new locations. We got pulled pork, cheese grits, sweet potato casserole, cole slaw, and bacon wrapped jalapeños.
If you want to “make it a day” in Orlando, I’ve got my overnight suggestions and other must-sees listed above. Now, let’s hit the road and head to Clearwater Beach.
One thing to note, there’s a Starbucks at exit 33 and exit 19 between Orlando and Tampa. You know how much I love coffee. And while I’m not a big fan of the green mermaid cafe chain, you sometimes need a jolt to get you through traffic. I have these memorized for the countless times I’ve driven back and forth between the two cities for work and auditions. Order a Starbucks double shot on ice with a splash of milk. It’s not on the menu, but it’s an old favorite. Two shots of espresso, sweetened, and chilled. Beats their regular coffee, hands down.
Also on the way to Tampa … Hooters. I know. I know. You’re wondering why a “foodie” like me stopped at Hooters. I normally don’t. It was only a brief photo opp stop because of three criteria: it’s the epitome of “All-American Sports Bar,” Nick wanted a photo, and it was founded in Florida. Moving on …
EVENING – Clearwater Beach
The west coast of Florida has the most stunning beaches. Personally, they’re my favorite. White sugar-like sand, tons of coastline, and stunning sunsets. Plus, you can have fireside s’mores. S’MORES!
I would be a terrible guide to my Italian friends if we didn’t do sunset s’mores on the beach. The most picturesque place for this sticky sweet treat is at the Sandpearl Resort where their Adirondack chairs around a fire pit will be so inviting that you’ll stay the whole evening, starting with the sunset and ending with the stars.
Sticky marshmallow thumbprint on your iPhone? Worth it.
Make It A Whole Day – Clearwater Beach: We drove home to Orlando since our purpose was to conquer Central Florida in a day and we had to get our friends close to the other coast so they could catch their flight in Miami the next day. I’ve stayed at the Sandpearl many times. It’s one of my favorite places to stay-cation. With your extra time in Clearwater Beach, I highly recommend Clear Sky Cafe for breakfast and Frenchy’s for lunch or dinner. Also, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home to Winter, the Dolphin) and the Dali Museum are must-sees. In the evening, head over to Pier 60 where they celebrate the sunset each evening with entertainment and local artisans selling hand-made souvenirs.