In the heart of Orlando, those in the know snicker at the fools who believe theme parks are our city's main draw. With bars, clubs and live music venues that go above and beyond the moment the sun goes down, locals know the truly treasurable Orlando experiences are encountered in more genuinely fun spots – during a legendary guest DJ night at Bullitt Bar, at the lip of the stage at the Social, on Player 1 Video Game Bar's interactive dance floor, or even at the bottom of a punishingly strong double at Wally's. Go beyond the norm, and you'll see Orlando's underground fosters so much more than our pre-packaged reputation suggests.
400 W. Church St., 407-440-7000, amwaycenter.com
The biggest national pop stars stop at Amway, making its calendar our city's one-stop shop for finding arena rock, in addition to detailing sports and other major events occurring on downtown's biggest stage, which Paul McCartney graced.
929 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 407-975-3364, austinscoffee.com
For fans of open-mic nights, this establishment hosts some of the best amateur nights for music and comedy. It's a friendly launch pad for a variety of budding talents and also happens to serve some of the best iced coffee in town.
5405 Edgewater Drive, 407-730-3999, bombshellstavern.org
With one of the city's most active concert calendars, Bombshell's provides an awesome alternative venue that hosts rad heavy rock and punk concerts weekly that music fans would be remiss to ignore.
North Gemini Boulevard, 407-823-6006, cfearena.com
Don't discount this venue just because you're not a student – CFE Arena books mainstream rock and hip-hop artists like the Avett Brothers and Kendrick Lamar, invites national comics to town, hosts sports and holds many special events that are a huge draw for community members to come down to campus.
The Copper Rocket Pub
106 Lake Ave., Maitland, 407-645-0069, copperrocketpub.com
For fans of rock and blues, Copper Rocket is a mainstay, with excellent local shows and the occasional surprising national band stopping through. You really can't beat their trivia nights, and don't expect to beat the regulars at pool either.
Hard Rock Live
6050 Universal Blvd., 407-351-5483, hardrock.com/live
Allow yourself plenty of time to park and haul ass through CityWalk to see shows at the Hard Rock, which often includes nostalgic tribute concerts in its Classic Albums Live series, the nation's best touring comedians and the type of big-name bands that form the venue's longstanding legacy.
House of Blues
1490 E. Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista, 407-934-2583, hob.com
This Downtown Disney venue is where you'll find your mascara-caked pop-punk acts, as well as the occasional '80s reunion act. But enough good can't be said about the venue itself, which is cozy and inviting and offers great vantage points.
The Plaza Live
425 N. Bumby Ave., 407-228-1220, plazaliveorlando.com
For live sound, the Plaza rules all in Orlando, whether you wind up in the big room or the small room. When you see acts booked here, join the rush to reserve front row seats for the best folk, country, hip-hop, comedy and classical music you'll hear performed within our city limits.
The Smiling Bison
745 Bennett Road, 407-898-8580, thesmilingbison.com
The foodie favorite transforms into a jumping music club after 9 p.m. when the jazz, country, folk and rock styles of seasoned local musicians take the stage and admirably push the Bison's notably excellent menu to the background. Don't miss out on Jazz Tuesdays.
St. Matthew's Tavern at the Orlando Beer Garden
1300 N. Mills Ave., orlandobeergarden.com
When now-defunct dive the Peacock Room closed, St. Matthew's Tavern quickly picked up the vastly creative concert calendar that often features intriguing one-off shows by hip punk, rock and soul bands on the chill outdoor stage. It's also become like a second Stardust Video and Coffee for whimsical performance art and variety shows.
Stardust Video and Coffee
1842 E. Winter Park Road, 407-623-3393, stardustie.com
The Stardust main room provides a den that welcomes all the weird ideas its devoted community cooks up in terms of quirky live music performances, original plays, performance art and nerdy nights aplenty. Plus it's there for you with hangover brunch on Sundays.
100 S. Orange Ave., 407-649-8540
One of the few bars downtown you can depend on for live music every night of the week, Tanqueray's provides all the funk, jazz and blues you can handle, including a talented crop of locals like Kaleigh Baker, Leisure Chief or Ancient Sun performing regularly.
Timucua White House
2000 S. Summerlin Ave., 407-595-2713, timucua.com
The family home of Cirque du Soleil conductor Benoit Glazer is also home to stellar jazz and world artists, and Glazer frequently opens the doors of his self-made venue for free, once-in-a-lifetime shows. Also, tasteful promoters the Civic Minded 5 host many of their events in the beautiful space with stunning acoustics.
578 N. Orange Ave., 407-872-0066, venue578.com
With some of the best EDM nights in town, it doesn't matter if we can't call it Firestone anymore. Venue 578 brings massive hip-hop stars and huge international talents to town for unique shows made even more memorable by the bar's winding layout.
DRINKING & DANCING
1205 N. Mills Ave., 407-796-2522, bartcade.com
Combine classic arcade games, campy '80s movies and a cooler full of craft beer, and you'll get Bart, the Mills 50 bar/art/arcade. They pack a lot of fun into the small space they have, with mostly free arcade gaming and a lounge area for those not interested in the nostalgic allure of Frogger or Missile Command. Most of their inspired art shows are pop culture-themed.
3001 Corrine Drive, 407-644-2844
It's either your dream or your nightmare: a karaoke night with an attentive audience who will hang on every squeaky note as you eke out your rendition of "I Touch Myself." But that's what you get at Big Daddy's, where you can get a stiff drink or knock back pints for courage before signing up to serenade the other barflies.
33 E. Pine St., 407-839-0999, bullittbar.com
Hip downtown watering hole Bullitt Bar parties hard and often hosts incredible DJ nights that, we kid you not, often feature legendary rappers like Nas and Talib Kweli, who filmed a music video at Bullitt Bar last year. Follow their Facebook (facebook.com/bullittbar) if you don't want to miss out.
CityWalk at Universal
1000 Universal Studios Plaza, 407-363-8000, universalorlando.com
Whether you've been dragged there by visiting friends and family, know someone who works out at Universal or are just out on some tourist-inspired whim, CityWalk has its own merry lure for locals in Rising Star karaoke, Bob Marley: A Tribute to Freedom and Margaritaville. Although there's no cover to get on the strip, you will have to pay to park.
114 N. Orange Ave., 407-450-2041, thecourtesybar.com
Orlando is not trying to be Brooklyn, but the Courtesy Bar's theming does transport you a little bit, although their craft cocktails pay homage to local ingredients. Go for happy hour to enjoy the punch of the day.
819 E. Washington St., thefalconbar.com
In Thornton Park amid burger joints and sports bars, this art bar provides a hip alternative setting with original concepts that form the basis of both art shows and music nights; it's a fun escape on certain nights and otherwise divinely low-key.
The Geek Easy
114 S. Semoran Blvd., facebook.com/thegeekeasy
In the expanded bar in back of A Comic Shop, you'll find weekly open mics, creative performance pieces and the best nerd rock in town, or just enjoy guzzling beer while you pore over your new favorite graphic novel.
740 E. Bennett Road, 407-504-7699, giltnightclub.com
Housed in the notorious Roxy space on Bennett Road, Gilt Nightclub expects you to break out your baller threads (there's a dress code) to enjoy hip national and international DJs in style.
Hanson's Shoe Repair
27 E. Pine St., 407-476-9446, hansonsshoerepair.com
A lavishly designed throwback to speakeasy culture, Hanson's asks that you call ahead to get the password, then ascend the stairs to a warm den for classic cocktails mixed the old-fashioned way.
The Hideaway Bar
516 Virginia Drive, 407-898-5892, thehideawaybar.net
In a loud building done in Miami Dolphins colors, you wouldn't expect to find a dive bar that feels delightfully small-town, but that's the Hideaway, where people are serious about pool, sports and strong drinks. Incidentally, it's also a great greasy-food joint in the morning to cure your hangover.
70 N. Orange Ave., 407-839-0457, facebook.com/independentbarorlando
I-Bar is hipster central. There's no other way to put it, which makes it a target for teasing, sure, but it also means that you always have a story to tell after a night there. Themed dance nights often feature D-list celebrities and nostalgic pop stars.
1036 N. Mills Ave., willspub.org
A tiny bar with huge heart, Lil Indies mixes up some of the city's most innovative cocktails and is home to Eugene Snowden's Ten Pints of Truth, a raucous live music night that we strongly urge anyone with a soul to attend at least once. Best of all: There's rarely, if ever, a cover.
Little Fish Huge Pond
401 S. Sanford Ave., Sanford, 407-221-1499, littlefish-hugepond.com
You never know quite what you'll find going on at this trippy hangout: intimate soul performances, pirate parties, hookah-passing, or maybe even cheese-inspired art shows. End your all-nighter here, and you'll swear the whole thing was a dream the next morning.
55 N. Orange Ave., 407-426-8007, lizzymccormacks.com
Drunken camaraderie marks this Irish pub with one of the longest happy hours in downtown Orlando and one of the best atmospheres, to boot. You don't want to be anywhere else for St. Patrick's Day. The pudding shots are a great trashy tradition.
64 N. Orange Ave., 321-245-7730, olde64.com
In the former Bar-BQ-Bar space, Olde 64 serves as a before-and-after spot for many attending concerts downtown, alongside sister-space Aero, the rooftop bar where you can party in the elements.
Player 1 Video Game Bar
8562 Palm Parkway, Lake Buena Vista, 407-504-7521, player1orlando.com
Go overboard as a game geek at Player 1, where there are 30 classic arcade games in addition to modern consoles, a motion gaming dance floor, plus cash tournaments for the true l33t.
2810 Corrine Drive, 407-893-9832, redlightredlightbeerparlour.com
If Orlando was famous for something other than Mickey Mouse, it'd be Redlight Redlight. Their exhaustive beer list and impeccable taste make it tempting to take up residence on a barstool, and now they brew their own award-winning beers on top of everything else.
20 E. Central Blvd., 407-317-9129, tiernightclub.com
Tier Nightclub is where you go to look good and feel good, with enough debauchery on their dance-packed calendar to get wild any night of the week.
Wall Street Plaza
19 N. Orange Ave., 407-849-1532, wallstplaza.net
Special occasions, from New Year's Eve to Oktoberfest, belong to this cantina-themed meeting place for the masses. Located at the epicenter of downtown Orlando, Wall Street Plaza and its seven venues take up an entire city block. Plus, the new carnival environment of Sideshow upped the fun factor even more in 2014.
Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors
1001 Mills Ave., 407-896-6975, wallysonmills.com
Wally's is the only place in town as committed to your drinking habit as you are. It's open at 7:30 a.m., meaning you can find a good, strong drink or marvel at Orlando's celebrities in full drunken splendor at pretty much any hour. n