Lake County, Florida is home to over 1,000 lakes and is the state’s geographical center. It’s often called Real Florida or Old Florida—beauty and allure that pre-date Disney or Universal by decades.
To me, Mount Dora brought home the Old Florida moniker. We fell in love with this small, charming town. There are no high-rise condos…no chain hotels or restaurants. The streets are still cobblestone in some areas, everyone knows each other, and the locals still outnumber the guests. This small town in Florida is worth a visit.
Mount Dora has the feel of a small New England town but with lots of Old Florida charm and there is so much to do. No matter what kind of getaway you’re looking for whether it’s a couple’s retreat, a girls’ weekend, or a family trip, there is truly something for everyone.
Once a haven for hunting and fishing enthusiasts arriving by steamboat to escape chilly northern winters, today’s visitors flock to Mount Dora, just 40 minutes northeast of bustling Orlando to play on 4,500-acre Lake Dora and see wildlife but also to shop for antiques, soak up the vibrant art scene, and stroll the historic downtown.
The charming, compact city center sports an abundance of restaurants, sidewalk cafes, independently-owned shops, and art galleries situated along picturesque streets studded with palms and towering oak trees cloaked in Spanish moss—a true postcard-worthy scene.
While the pace is slow there is never a shortage of things to do. Start with my list of 11+ things to do in Mount Dora!
1. Spend a day by the lake
Lake Dora is one of seven cobalt-blue lakes in the Harris-chain-of-lakes, each connected by rivers or canals for a total of 77,000 acres to explore. The waters are a haven for bass fishing, bird watching, boating, and even manatee spotting but simply taking in their beauty from the shore is a rejuvenating way to spend a day.
Mount Dora’s eastern location on the lake means gorgeous lakefront sunsets too. Camp at a local RV park or stay at historic Lakeside Inn where you can walk the shoreline, relax by the waterfront pool with a book, or dine at their on-property restaurants with the lake as your backdrop.
2. Hunt for antique treasures
Collectors from across the country descend upon Renninger’s Antique Market, a sprawling antique center, flea market, and farmer’s market where 200 vendor booths overflow with vintage finds in all styles. During its Antique Extravaganzas, the market hosts more than 1,500 antique dealers and more than 800 booths.
3. Stroll the downtown streets
The walkability of Mount Dora is a true highlight and just about any local inn or bed and breakfast will afford you easy on-foot access to all the charm of downtown. The unique downtown makes Mount Dora special; there isn’t another city like Mount Dora because of its historic downtown. With all independently owned shops, bars, restaurants, and museums, Mount Dora is truly one of a kind in Florida.
4. Get out on—or over—the water
Ready to venture beyond the shoreline? Lake Dora’s water activities are plentiful with a variety of boat tours and rentals, seaplane rides, and water sports of all sorts from skiing and tubing to wakeboarding and wake surfing. Beautiful Lake Dora offers many scenic tours by way of covered pontoon boats, seaplanes, kayaks, or cat boats.
The history of the waterway and the nature you will experience on any of the tours offered is amazing. Adventure Cat Boat Tours are two-hour, guided trips on a two-person mini catamaran where you’re in the driver’s seat (after some instruction from the pros, of course). You’ll experience nature and history in the most unique way as you cruise across Lake Dora and through the famous Dora Canal.
Cruise at a slower pace on the 80-foot New Orleans-style paddlewheel boat, Dora Queen, which launches from the adjacent town of Tavares and offers two-hour rides complete with live music and cocktails on board.
5. Support the arts
Mount Dora is an artist’s and art lover’s haven with independently-owned galleries throughout town and art festivals throughout the year. The largest, Mount Dora Arts Festival takes place in February (49th annual; February 3-4, 2024) and is one of the top-ranked fine arts shows in the country. This year, 250 artists will line the streets in addition to a kid-friendly area, food and drink vendors, and live music.
6. Walk the boardwalk
A must-see for any Mount Dora visitor is the Palm Island Boardwalk on the south end of town on the waterfront. This elevated nature walk will take you out onto Lake Dora at a safe distance from the water for the ultimate viewing of wildlife. The boardwalk may be experienced on foot or via a Segway PT for the adventurous. Visitors stroll under old-growth live oaks and tall cabbage palms and among knobby cypress trees with ample opportunity to spot migratory birds and even gators.
7. Visit a freshwater lighthouse
Just a bit north of Palm Island Boardwalk is Grantham Point Park, home to one of Florida’s few freshwater lighthouses. Sometimes referred to as Lighthouse Park, Grantham Point Park was created from road rubble and fill to create one of Mount Dora’s famous landmarks—the lighthouse. Built to represent the Port of Mount Dora, the lighthouse appears on many symbols. The 35-foot-tall lighthouse is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks and a great place to watch boaters and enjoy the sunset.
8. Step back into the future
Home to an impressive collection of midcentury modern furniture, Mount Dora’s Modernism Museum is a worthwhile stop for design history buffs and those who want to learn. The museum has hosted many exhibits since opening in 2013 including Memphis Collective furniture and design objects owned by David Bowie and sculptural furniture by artists George Nakashima and Wendell Castle.
9. Mount Dora restaurants
For a town of 13,000, Mount Dora has a lot of good options for dining. With more than 36 restaurants and cafes in the downtown area all within walking distance you are sure to find something that will satisfy your palette. For sunset, the big patio at Pisces Rising has terrific views. In 1921, elevated fare from celebrated chef Norman Van Aken pays homage to local Florida ingredients with an eye toward modernity and sustainability. You can’t beat the clam chowder at Tony’s Clam Chowder Seafood Restaurant.
Several of the bars and restaurants have live music on weekends.
10. Get into the holiday spirit
Christmas in Mount Dora is spectacular with millions of lights throughout town and a large singing Christmas tree. Festivities kick off the weekend after Thanksgiving when over 2 million lights get draped over downtown, its historic homes, and Donnelly Park; and the Christmas tree on Main Street is officially lit. This night is arguably the most magical of the season.
Get your decoration inspiration at the 45th Annual 2023 Christmas Tour of Homes on December 2 and 3—it’s a self-driving tour of six beautifully decorated homes decked out in their holiday finest.
11. Visit the oldest continually operating hotel in Florida
Whether you stop by to take in the Lakeside Inn’s spectacular Lake Dora view, grab a meal at one of its four on-site restaurants, or book a stay, a visit to this pretty yellow piece of history is a must. The oldest continually operating hotel in Florida started as the 10-room Alexander House when visitors in the late 1800s enjoyed Florida’s mild winter weather and the bounty of the lake. Today, visiting the 85-room Victorian-era inn feels like stepping back in time and is a place where you can truly unwind.
I said I’d offer 11 things I love about Mount Dora but there are more: I love it for the sunsets over Lake Dora, all the birds you see on the lake (including bald eagles), the big Christmas light display in December, and Boathouse Row, a few blocks of boathouses converted into cottages perched over the water along Lake Dora Road. (Start at the restaurant Pisces Rising, cross the railroad tracks, and stroll down Lake Dora Road.)
I could go on, but you get the idea: There is a lot to love about this little town.
The very name Florida carried the message of warmth and ease and comfort. It was irresistible.