There are some towns that capture you. Places that seem to speak into the best parts of your soul shielding you from the barrage of deadlines and beckoning you to explore on foot. Mount Dora, Florida is such a place. It is a town that time has forgotten in the best of ways. A city whose downtown seems to pulse with an artistic heartbeat that is every bit as vibrant as the people that call it home. I have lived here for more than 3 years and I still catch myself smiling as I walk down the quaint streets thinking, this really is “someplace special”.
For a town with a population just shy of 14,000 residents, it punches well above its weight. Mount Dora draws upon the best elements of Saint Augustine and Savannah without selling itself into the unbridled throes of tourism. In short, it is a hidden gem; still unspoiled by rampant brand saturation and clogged roadways. That time may come, but for now Mount Dora is a town with historical buildings, charming art shops, and superb bakeries.
To try and distill one perfect Saturday in this Central Florida village would be like trying to capture a Picasso in one brush stroke. The sheer variety of great things to do Mount Dora could easily take up many perfect Saturdays. But, once again as is my duty, I will attempt to provide one such Mount Dora day that can only be described as perfect.
1. 8:00 am – A Local Icon and Fresh Air in the Parks
Personally I find the mornings to be invigorating. A time when the air is still crisp (well if its not summer) and the excitement of a brand new day is in full bloom. That’s why I tend to favor being outside and experiencing that magic time of the day. Between the months of November and May that feeling is just magnified with the arrival of cooler weather. Fortunately a stroll outside can also lead you to a Lake County icon, the Mount Dora Lighthouse. This small picturesque lighthouse is the perfect place to start your day and grab a quick selfie. Is it tall? No. Can you tour it? No. Is it worth checking out? Absolutely. Park in the lot near Gilbert & Palm Island Park and make your way North to see the lighthouse. Snap your required pic and then take a walk along the Palm Island Boardwalk for a view of the lake wildlife including birds, squirrels, and the occasional alligator.
2. 9:00 am – Go European for a Light Bite
Now that you have had the opportunity to stretch your legs a bit, make your way to the center of downtown where the rest of your days adventure truly begins. If you’re like me, then you have probably worked up an appetite so its time do breakfast the European way. Make your way along 4th avenue until you run into Alyson A. Bakeshop. A relative newcomer to the Mount Dora bakery scene, this exquisitely designed bakery excels at creating incredible baked treats including cookies, cakes, and loafs. While those are all wonderful, you are here for the magnum opus of morning delights… the scone! Alyson A. Bakeshop makes some of the best scones you can find in a 500 mile radius. My personal favorites are the honey vanilla or the lemon scones, but I can assure you all of them will meet your mouth with satisfaction. If you need an additional morning pick me up, pair said scone with an iced coffee.
For some, this light fare may not be enough to fuel for your busy day, so after the morning scone cross the street and stop in at Codys on 4th for an egg sandwich or other breakfast staple.
3. 10:00 am – Mid Morning ‘Putz’
Mount Dora does certain things very, very well. Shopping and sugar being a few of those things. Sure, in some context those could be considered vices but in Mount Dora there is no such thing. For my wife and I, the mid-morning “putz” around the local shops is more than just a good time, it’s tradition!
Start at the Modernism Museum gift shop to find some unique gifts that are sure to brighten your day. If you have not been to the Modernism Museum, it is definitely worth a visit. The art installations change but this fairly small museum packs a great punch of quality exhibits including objects from the estate of David Bowie and furniture from renowned modernist furniture designers Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. Head towards Donnelly but make sure you pay a quick visit to Julianne’s Coastal Cottage for a sample of frozen wine slushy (yes please) and a few quick laughs at the WOW Factory next door. At the corner of 4th and Donnelly visit the Mount Dora Marketplace where you will find a plethora of vendors all under one roof. The marketplace is relatively new, but is definitely worth a visit. For a touch of France cross the street and stop in at Black Swan Mercantile where you will find high end gifts in a smartly decorated store within the Renaissance building. The Black Swan is another one of those spots that I can lose my wife for an extended period of time. If you are headed towards the waterfront make sure you take a quick gander into the Checkered Moon. They have a diverse range of curated goods for nearly every stage of life.
Finally, no putz would be complete without a sweet treat at Le Petite Sweet. As soon as you walk into the charming patisserie you are greeted with warm smiles from the staff and a dessert case with hand crafted pastries that will blow your mind and taste buds with flavor. I have been to a number of pastry shops from France to Portugal to Napa (yes I have a sweet tooth) and I still believe that La Petite ranks up there with the best of them. If you are feeling like adulting today, try the Lavender cookies which are the perfect delight for someone who is aiming for refined yet subtle flavors without overwhelming sweetness. Want something a bit more decadent? Reach into the cooler for a macaroon ice cream sandwich. These beguiling behemoths are all made from scratch! Craving a classic? Select any of the rotating freshly made pastries in the case and savor each and every morsel… believe me, they go down easy.
There are so many great shops in downtown Mount Dora that we have barely even scratched the surface. Everything from custom spices to local art can be found along the main boulevard and the hidden alleys that make up the gridded downtown. My recommendation is to make this part of your day a “choose-your-own adventure” and explore with reckless abandon!
4. 12:30 pm – Cuban Lunch
Once again, we find ourselves in a pickle for selecting a great place for lunch. While they’re are certainly no shortage of delicious options, my personal favorite spot is Copacabana. A little bit hidden from sight of Donnelly, “Copa” as I affectionately call it is a Cuban restaurant that you don’t want to pass up. The decor is simple and unassuming and the food is spectacular.
Try the cuban sandwich for a take on the classic or go for the bistec de palomilla, a thin steak marinated in garlic and covered in sautéed onions. Don’t forget to slather any of your meal choices with either the red or green sauce. The choice is yours but my favorite is the green (the red is spicier). Since it is also past noon go ahead and order yourself a Copa mojito. You deserve it.
5. 2:00 pm – Tour Lake Dora
Now that you have a full belly and hands full of great gifts, it’s time to relax a bit… or not. Lake Dora from the shoreline is a beautiful sight but even more dramatic is the view from a boat. Take a tour around the lake and through the Dora Canal to experience old Florida in all of its natural splendor. The two most popular ways to make your way along the waterways are by a pontoon tour boat or in a small convoy of CatBoats. Never heard of a CatBoat? Well, imagine a miniature 2 person catamaran with an outboard strapped to the back. Lots of fun! Whether you opt for a more relaxed pontoon boat cruise or the CatBoats the views are the same… spectacular. The Dora Canal in particular is a sight that you just have to experience for yourself. It is a small slice of pristine Florida nature that reminds you the value of being still.
6. 4:00 pm – The Happiest Hours or Dinner… Dealers Choice
Ok so I must make a full confession: I really enjoy Happy Hour. There is something so… well happy… about relaxing before dinner with a strong libation in my hand and good conversation. I will also admit though that not all happy hours are created equal. While there are an abundance of cheap drinks in Lake County, few places can truly capture the spirit of a spirit. One such place that brings together a refined sense of atmosphere, stimulating conversation, and may I say some of the best cocktails in all of Lake County is the restaurant 1921 Mount Dora. Located on 4th Avenue in the heart of downtown, it is a refined respite from the more casual restaurant choices usually found in the area. The restaurant brings together a flair for the dramatic with modern art plastered across the walls and velvet chairs crowded around natural wood tables. The food on the other hand tends to vacillate towards Florida favorites and upscale Southern comfort food. If you choose to dine here you will not be disappointed. While I have spent time many nights dining on delicious meals it is the bar that has brought us here tonight. Pull up a seat around the rather large rectangular bar or one of the many tables that surround the outer peripheries, you are in for a treat. What to order you ask? Let me be your guide, or better yet ask one of the knowledgable mixologists for an excellent recommendation. My personal favorite is the 1921 old fashioned, an enticing take on an American classic. The cocktail list may rotate but this drink is a staple. If you are feeling hungry reach for the happy hour food menu and try the 1921 burger or honestly anything else… no joke, they are almost all incredible.
I cannot begin to tell you how many nights we have come for happy hour but have ended up staying for dinner and dessert. 1921 is just one of those places that draws you in and keeps you coming back for more.
7. 6:30 pm – Dinner at a Mount Dora Favorite
Dinner is an epicurean affair; a time when chefs step up their game to showcase the best of what they can offer. Dinner at the Goblin Market is no exception. The food is central to the overwhelmingly pleasurable experience. Situated in a converted home, three book-lined dining rooms allow for an environment that is intimate and sumptuous as the food. The warm dimly lit theme carries up the narrow staircase into the second floor dining room and ultimately spilling into a beautiful “Hemingway-esque” bar lounge. The cocktails here are fantastic and innovative but it is the upscale cuisine that we seek. If you are feeling hungry go for the Cheshire Pork Chop. This bone-in beauty is every bit as tender as flavorful. Want to dance on the lighter side? Try any of the fish dishes. The salmon or the Idaho trout are both particularly delicious. The wine selection is somewhat limited but well curated with a wide variety to meet any palette. So grab a glass or better yet, why not a bottle?
The Goblin Market is just one of those places that you should be confident that no matter what you order on the menu the chef has ensured the quality will always be there. In short they are consistently wonderful. A little word of warning. The Goblin Market can get very busy especially on a Saturday night, so plan accordingly and get reservations.
8. 9:00 pm – Time to Go Home… errr probably not
Mount Dora has had a reputation for shutting down early. While that still holds true in many ways there are still a few great spots that stay open late for anyone looking to up the ante (as if the mojitos, happy hour cocktails, and wine with dinner weren’t enough). If you plan on staying in the heart of downtown swing by the Magical Meat Boutique for some great beers and a lively atmosphere that stays open until 2am. This British pub is a place that beckons a visit. If you don’t mind traveling a bit outside the core, head East on 5th avenue until you run into Highland street. This corner contains a number of busy late night bars but my personal favorite is Mermaid Juice. Everything about this place is funky and wonderful! Imagine grabbing a beer in your best friends garage who also happens to be an antique collector. Ummmmm….. yeah you just need to check it out to understand what I am talking about. Mermaid Juice also carries a HUGE selection of craft beers and wine so if you are looking to try something you won’t get at the neighborhood grocery, head to the Mermaid!
Once again, I must tell you that this is by no means an exhaustive list of all the great things that can be found in Mount Dora. It is a small town that has so much to offer for locals, visitors, or snow birds. Mount Dora is truly someplace special.
Have some other ideas for a perfect Saturday in Mount Dora? Drop us a line or tell us some of your favorites in the comment section below!