|Things to Do in Orange County, California|
|Summarized from an article by Jessica Benda Los Angeles Times Aug. 12, 2022|
|Click here to view Roadside Attractions list.|
Hillcrest Stairs Fullerton
$ In Anaheim, there is Gold's Gym. In Irvine, there is 24-hour Fitness. In Fullerton, there is the Hillcrest Stairs.
As a Fullerton native, I can say that locals were thrilled when these huge wood staircases debuted in Hillcrest Park in 2017. The more than 450 steps – which cost $1.6 million to install – make for a brutal leg day as they take you up and down the hillside. A common loop is going up 209 steps straight, then down a 100-step staircase and down another 84-step staircase (Give or take a few steps — it's hard to keep count when you can't feel your quads.) Then, repeat five times.
The parking lot is free and usually uncrowded, but it's also used for the sports field below the stairs, so it fills up when kids are playing after-school sports. Most games take place between 3-5 p.m., so stick with mornings or evenings.
If leg day isn't on the menu, still check out Hillcrest Park. The renovated fountain emits vibrant colors at night, and the pathways are pleasantly lit.
$ The vast majority of shops along Harbor Blvd in downtown Fullerton are small businesses, tended by owners who work the counters themselves. Within a 10-minute walk, you'll pass six coffee shops — the Night Owl specializes in making custom drinks based on your preferred ingredients — while plant stores like Semilla and the Green Place invite you to recline on their couches.
Past 10 p.m. on weekends, the bar-hopping crowd thickens. Bars like Hopscotch and Roscoe's Famous Deli are more low-key, but it's shoulder-to-shoulder dancing in Matador Cantina. Also, don't stress if you hear someone say "DTF" — it means downtown Fullerton.
The Pirate Tower Laguna Beach
$ Victoria Beach is home to what beach-goers call the Pirate Tower, La Tour or simply the Tower. Standing 60 feet high, the sea-stained structure clings to the cliff in the northern corner. Many use the tower – with its shingled roof and tiny windows – as a photo-op without knowing its history.
Said history isn't as magical as the tower looks. In 1926, it was constructed as a simple shortcut to get from the house on the bluff down to the beach. At the time, State Sen. William Edward Brown and his family used the house as a vacation retreat. The tower's unusual architecture is said to be inspired by the family's time in France assisting with relief efforts after World War I.
Since it's further down the bluffs, the tower is only viewable (and safe) during low-tide. You can't go in, but you can explore the base and peer in through the metal-grate door. The wooden staircase is still inside, and nearby is a weathered circular stone wall, formerly a pool.
Beside the tide, your other enemy is parking. The staircase to Victoria Beach is in a residential neighborhood at the end of Sunset Terrace, which is difficult to park on. There's street parking on PCH, or you can park farther down and take the free trolley to the neighborhood. If you only want to glimpse the Pirate Tower and not stay to enjoy the beach, there are a couple of 10-minute parking spots at the staircase entrance.
Duffy Boats Newport Beach
$$$ Join the Duffy boats that hum around Newport Harbor daily with eight friends willing to chip in about $25 per person. Take turns driving the boat as the canopy blocks the sun and seagulls fly above (sometimes hitching a ride on the bow). Bring snacks, drinks and a portable speaker. I recommend grabbing a deck of cards, too.
There are several companies that rent Duffys, but I normally use Newport Fun Tours. An eight-person boat rental costs $185 for 90 minutes. Upgrade to two hours for $250 and three for $380, with prices rising based on time of day. If a Duffy boat isn't your speed, rent kayaks and paddle boards instead.
Balboa Fun Zone Newport Beach
$ The fun zone on the Balboa peninsula is filled with small carnival rides, arcades, souvenir shops and candy and ice cream stores. The street shifts into the pier, where you can sip milkshakes on the rooftop of Ruby's Diner as the Pacific churns below.
Off-season, the beach below the pier isn't usually crowded on weekdays, and weekends are busy but manageable. Parking is hourly and depends on the season. In the Balboa Pier parking lot, it's $3.10 per hour from May through September. Parking can be challenging on weekends.
Bonfires in Huntington Beach
$ Three beaches in Huntington have fire-pits, but seizing one can sometimes feel like you're in "Hunger Games." Still, winning out has a great payoff. Summer weekends are exceptionally difficult as fire-pits are usually snapped up by noon, sometimes earlier. By 2 p.m., beach parking lots are usually full.
Instead, plan a weeknight bonfire and avoid the hassle. I recently visited Huntington State Beach at 3 p.m. on a Monday, and plenty of fire-pits were available. Huntington Beach has over 500 fire-pits across three beaches — 200 at both Huntington State Beach and Bolsa Chica Beach and 100 at Huntington City Beach (which is also home to the Huntington Beach Pier).
After a beach day, watch the sunset then snuggle up on the sand. Don't forget s'mores, snacks and blankets. For the fire, you need wood, kindling and a lighter. Don't panic if you forget something, most bonfire neighbors are happy to offer their extras or help you start your fire.
Pro tip: Parking at state beaches is free if you have a California parks pass.
Irvine Great Park
$ When my friends said we were going to a park, I pictured a field with a playground and a few picnic tables. Instead, we arrived at Irvine Great Park, which has 450 acres of sports fields, artistry and a massive hot air balloon.
At no cost, ride the hot air balloon 400 feet up (first-come, first-served) or spin around the carousel. Sports fans can play at dozens of soccer fields, tennis courts, baseball and softball fields.
The park is unfinished, with additions popping up now and then. In early July, Wild Rivers water park opened on the property. Every time you visit, it might be a bit different than before.
Irvine Farmers Market
$ Dozens of tents — so many that I lost count after 60 — crowd Mariners Church parking lot from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. At this sprawling market that smells like fruit and rosemary, you can find grapes, berries, barrels of apples from Southern California farms, pizza kits, French macaroons, dog treats, wood-shop and the occasional oddball hat store.
It's busy too, but you won't have to wait too long to buy something — unless you're at La Bahn Ranch's booth, which tends to have a line of more than 30 people for its eggs and chicken meat.
Pro tip: Don't confuse this market with the Certified Farmers Market, which is every Sunday at Irvine Great Park.
Santa Ana Art Walk
$ If you happen to be bored on the first Saturday evening of the month, head to the free Art walk. The outdoor festival has live music and dancing, art galleries and art activities. Most lots charge no more than $10 to park.
While you're downtown, glimpse a mural or two - finding one won't be difficult. And if you're looking for something to do any other day of the month, check out the Frida Cinema, a nonprofit showing old movies (and some new ones) and occasional local theater.
Camelot Golfland Anaheim
$ This decades-old castle still reigns as O.C.'s best mini golf course. Wedged between a Strawberry Farm and the bustling 91 freeway, its classic spires attract all ages, especially on busy weekend evenings. With four mini golf courses, an arcade, laser tag and a racetrack, it persists as a popular date spot — so much so that locals nicknamed it "Scamelot" in the '80s because you'd take someone on one date here to make out and then never see them again. (Thanks for the info, mom.)
Aside from the water slides, which I've never seen functioning, Camelot is a well-groomed time capsule. Mini golf is scarce — besides Camelot, you can get a full 18 holes in O.C. at the Irvine Boomers. (It has fewer courses, but does offer batting cages and small rides).
A Camelot round of golf is $13. Laser tag is $10 for 7.5 minutes and the racetrack is $10 for six minutes.
Downtown Disney Shopping District
$$ You don't need to buy a $160 ticket to eat Disneyland food. Corn dogs and churros are sold at stands throughout Downtown Disney, and yes, they taste the same as in the park. Another perk: Disneyland music plays as you snack. Bowl at Splitzville, fiddle at the Lego store and roam the Star Wars Trading Post. Check out Black Tap's fittingly named "Crazy Shakes," stuffed with cotton candy and cookies.
Parking is $10 for the first hour, and you get an additional three hours free with a $20 purchase — easily achieved after a meal at the Jazz Kitchen or La Brea Bakery. Don't lose your parking ticket or you'll be out $66. Yikes.
Anaheim Packing House Eatery
$ Come to this food hall hungry (and thirsty). Try a slice of fruit loop pie at the Pie Hole or chili cheese fries at The Kroft. The Blind Rabbit is a tiny, dark speakeasy accessed through sake barrels and exited through a bookcase — but it's best to secure a reservation a couple weeks in advance. The Blind Rabbit serves absinthe (illegal for 95 years), and it really does taste like black licorice. The strongest variation is a whopping 136-proof.
The Packing House is part of the Packing District, which includes five other complexes within walking distance. But with two stories of succulents and seating, the airy Packing House is my favorite.
San Clemente Cultural Center
$ San Clemente founder Ole Hanson roamed his seaside home for less than eight years before losing it to the Great Depression. Casa Romantica, his Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, passed through decades of shifting ownership before it was listed as a historic place in 1991. Now it's a cultural center (and popular wedding destination) that's open to the public for $5.
Hanson designed the city of San Clemente as a "Spanish Village by the Sea," and this house is a reflection of that goal. Tour the gardens and gorgeous historic home that overlooks San Clemente Pier (also commissioned by Hanson). Pass under the outdoor archways into the Ocean Terrace, but don't stop there. Keep going to the Story Circle, where you follow a short path to a secluded bench. It's a great viewing spot to watch surfers catch waves below.
Los Rios Historic District San Juan Capistrano
$ Stroll through a storybook on the historic Los Rios Street. The Amtrak and Metrolink drops riders in San Juan Capistrano, where they cross the railroad tracks to find a sign post scribbled in different fonts. It's a world of white-picket fences and flowers, even a law office has chickens pecking around the front garden.
Most shops have been fashioned out of houses, kitchens and bedrooms brimming with art or ceramics for sale. Pony rides and a guinea pig pen wait at Zoomars, a petting zoo on the street's end (Adult admission is $15; child admission is $12). Near the road's middle, "Old Mr. Tree" looks great for being over 220 years old.
Customers flock to the Tea House to dine on a charming patio, wearing their best floral dresses and collared shirts. It's popular, so be sure to reserve in advance. While the street is historic, don't worry: most of the buildings have AC.
$ Featuring a desert landscape, a bamboo forest and an absolutely massive Ombú tree, you hop from biome to biome in a single stroll at the Fullerton Arboretum. If you sit on the grassy edge of the South Lake, you can spot plenty of turtles. Bring a book and blanket for maximum relaxation.
Essentially Cal State Fullerton's backyard, this largely volunteer-run botanical garden has faced closure scares before, but it hasn't budged. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested to sustain operations.
Bowers Museum Santa Ana
$$ This small but mighty museum showcases exhibitions about the risky ascent to Everest, gemstone carvings and ancient Chinese art. Most exhibitions are stationary, but new ones go in and out every few months. In the spring, the museum showed off the Crown Jewels of the Walt Disney Archives, including the Heart of the Ocean from "Titanic" and Anne Hathaway's crowns from "The Princess Diaries."
There's usually a community event going on — jazz festivals, yoga or chats with local artists. Adult admission is $15.
Sender One Climbing Santa Ana
$$ Climbing the trembling towers of Sender City, a special section at Sender One Climbing, is just one way to spike your heart rate. You can scale a fake brick building like Spider Man or maneuver up a maze wall. Or you can climb up the ladder to a tall platform and leap off to catch a hanging trapeze. While your brain knows your auto-belay will slow your descent, jumping off still takes some psychological nerve.
For 20 minutes, the attendant operates the drop slide. You don a jumpsuit and cling on to handlebars above your head, which drag you up the massive, near-vertical slide. I only made it 10 feet before chickening out at the height and dropping early, so the attendant encouraged me to go again.
"Why are you scared? I did it," a seven-year-old asked me.
"Yeah, well, you're much cooler than me," I said.
I felt my back leave the wall and then my feet, dangling limply on the handlebars with tiny people watching below. The slide caught me, and though it wasn't cushioned, I can confirm the impact doesn't hurt.
There's side-by-side partner walls that are impossible to climb until you activate the steel handholds. You press a button that releases the next set of your partner's handholds, then wait for them to climb and activate yours, use those to ascend to the next button, and so on. Just check to make sure your partner's face isn't near the wall when you press your button — the handholds whip out almost instantly (I almost took out my partner's jaw.) Ask about a hidden activity: Behind a black curtain inside a tower of climbing walls is a glow-in-the-dark wall.
You clip your harness into auto-belays — meaning a machine slows your descent instead of another person holding the rope — so it's easy to move between activities. And fair warning: Sender City is both kid and adult-friendly, but my recent session was almost all children. However, it's totally worth it. An hour-long session is $30.
Mission Escape Games Anaheim
$$$ We'd all like to believe we'd play the survivors in a horror movie, but here's where you prove it. At these escape rooms at the Anaheim Garden Walk, you solve your way out of a bank vault, the apocalypse, a hideout or — if you want horror— a torture chamber.
Staff will "lock" you in a room with one hour to escape, but they watch you via cameras in case you need a hint (so don't do anything embarrassing). While an hour might seem long, you'll likely need every minute you can get, unless you're the Scooby Doo gang. Be sure to bring your best team — some of the puzzles require serious brainpower. On weekdays, a room is a flat rate of $120 for 2-3 players or individually pay $32 per person with 4-10 players. Other escape rooms have lockers for your bags, but you get to keep them in a basket in the room here.
The Garden Walk offers plenty of activities to supplement the rest of the day. Fire+Ice has great mixed drinks and a DJ on weekends while bands rock out at the House of Blues. Catch a movie, go bowling or simulate driving a fighter jet or Boeing 737 at the Flightdeck Flight Simulation Center.
The LAB Anti-Mall Costa Mesa
$ Enter through the DVD disk archway to find small warehouses of eclectic shops and funky seating at this outdoor mall that may be called an anti-mall, but is indeed a mall (albeit an eccentric one.) A trail of fountain grass leads to colorful vats spilling out water, and even the trash cans are painted. Scribbled requests to the universe dangle off the Wishing Tree, a rusted structure that looks more tent than tree.
Record shop Creme Tangerine and jewelry shop May Martin are both run out of what looks like '60s trailers. Sell your used clothes to vintage shop Buffalo Exchange, then sip an IPA at the laid-back Bootlegger's Brewery.
Shipley Nature Center Huntington Beach
$ "This is what California used to look like a hundred years ago," a volunteer told me at Shipley Nature Center's front gate. The plants are all California natives, lining a usually full-circle trail over 18 acres. One segment is currently closed due to pond flooding, so visitors will have to retrace their steps to get back to the start of the trail. It doesn't tend to get crowded – even on Saturdays – so you'll find solace wandering the oak and buckeye trees.
When you enter, hang a left before the Interpretive Center to see the egrets nesting in the trees, then follow the trail to spot them flying above. A volunteer will help point them out if you're struggling to bird watch. If you can't find a volunteer, they're usually in the Interpretive Center, which includes exhibits about Huntington Beach history, flora and fauna.
Parking is free with a nature center sign and gate on the edge of the lot, but don't be thrown off if it's shut. The main entrance is to the left, deeper in Huntington Central Park. Hours are slim, only operating on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., but a summer nights program runs from 4:30-7:30 p.m. with performances and presentations through August 27. Admission is free, but a $3 donation is advised.
Pirates Dinner Adventure Buena Park
$$$ Pirates Dinner Adventure is next door to Medieval Times, but instead of knights jousting, you watch pirates brawl. For about 90 minutes, chow on a three-course meal as acrobatic pirates and aerial performers sprint around a massive ship. Expect songs, special effects and audience participation, where you compete on behalf of your section (My apologies for utterly failing the green team). If you get stage fright, know that they've definitely seen worse.
This unique experience is best enjoyed with lively friends and a souvenir cup in hand. In true swashbuckler fashion, the bar serves primarily rum-based cocktails. Tickets cost $65 per adult, but get 20% off through recurring Groupon deals.
Requiem Coffeehouse Anaheim
$ Step out of the SoCal sun, venture through a mystical fairy forest and cross under vibrant lanterns all to get to a coffee bar.
Technically, this hidden gem qualifies as an eatery, but the gaming area helped it secure a spot on this list.. Expect to spot wild rounds of Dungeons and Dragons and people playing both board and video games, while others snap photos in the fairy forest. "H2O: Just Add Water" — the 2006 mermaid TV series — is just one throwback show that runs on the television.
The Outlets at Orange
$$ Most locals know this as the Block, despite the new name. Stroll the outdoor shopping center, catch a movie at the massive AMC theater or play ski-ball at Dave and Buster's. Saddle Ranch Chop House supplies outdoor fire pits, a mechanical bull and $18 drinks in jugs larger than your head.
Parking is bountiful but can still get cramped on busy weekends. Don't worry, you'll find a space.
Holiday Skate Center Orange
$$ If you watched the skating scene in "Stranger Things" and thought it looked fun (minus the cruel bullying), this is your spot. Tighten your laces and glide (or stumble, depending on experience) to upbeat modern music sprinkled with '80s hits. Don't worry if you're wobbly, you won't be the only one clutching the side rails. Before visiting, watch the 2020 "Valley Girl" remake, which filmed its skating scenes here.
Admission is usually $12 with a $5 skate rental. Feel free to bring your own skates!
Sawdust Art Festival Laguna Beach
$ Sawdust is an annual can't-miss collection of over 160 Laguna Beach artists that usually runs in July and August.. It's easy to get lost among the rows of decorated stalls that show off photography, woodworking and other art. Don't be shy about chatting up artists at their booths; creating that connection is what makes Sawdust special.
Inside his booth, artist Cliff Wassmann displays fantasy paintings that cross into reality, like a spaceship over the Ruby's Diner on the pier. John Lucero scatters 3D glasses around his booth so visitors can better glimpse his vibrant, abstract 3D paintings of otherworldly creatures and shapes. Drew Weir sells gorgeous bronze doorbells.
Live musicians play at two stages, sometimes to a dancing crowd. Though the festival stays open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. all other days, activities like ceramic and painting classes are usually over by 4 p.m. Entry is $10.
Nearby is Laguna Art-A-Fair, a $10-entry showcase of over 100 artists, and the renowned Pageant of the Masters, an outdoor performance featuring powdered performers who pose as living paintings (and somehow never sneeze.) Pageant of the Masters tickets are anywhere from $30-$300, but open seats can sell for 50% off the day of.
Sherman Library and Gardens Newport Beach
$ This modest botanical center is less than a mile from the beaches of Corona Del Mar. The sea breeze drifts through the gardens as you stroll through succulents, orchids and a humid tropical conservatory. While the gardens are on the small side, the library certainly isn't. Its book collection specializes in the Pacific Southwest and boasts over 15,000 volumes, per its website. Feel free to browse, but you can't take a book home with you.
If a peaceful walk isn't enough to warrant a visit, join a mosaic butterfly workshop or watercolor class. Events are posted on their website, and few things are more relaxing than painting in the gardens. Basic admission is $5.
Oso Creek Trail Mission Viejo
$ Start in Oso Viejo park before embarking on 5.5 miles of trails, which are dotted with over 130,000 plants that have been planted by volunteers since 1997. The loop has lush trees and quaint bridges, making a pleasant walk as long as it's not too hot. Oso Creek's butterfly garden, plant maze and mosaic paths and pillars make it a standout among Orange County's trails. Plenty of these features are just beyond the park, so you don't need to go too far if you aren't up for the full hike.
On one segment off Marguerite Parkway, the Mission Viejo library is just across the street — a nice add-on activity to get some AC.
Brea Downtown Brea
$ Lively but never overwhelming, Birch Street in Brea Downtown is ideal for people who want to go out but don't have the "going out" energy. Paint at Color Me Mine, see a movie at Edwards Theatre or belly laugh at the Improv Comedy Club. I've lounged on the World Market couches longer than I'd like to admit. The Brea Mall is a six minute drive away, a great casual, usually low-priced spot to shop that locals appreciate.
Davey's Locker Whale Watching Newport Beach
$$$ When I shakily boarded one of these boats, I crossed glimpsing a blue whale off my bucket list. Actually, I one-upped my bucket list — because I saw five. This two-and-a-half hour boat tour whisks you off the O.C. coast, bobbing over the waves as you scout for the largest animals on Earth. If you don't see a whale, you're likely to still see dolphins, according to the whale watchers' marine life sightings log.
Arrive 30 minutes early, and if you have motion sickness, prep accordingly. Though it might be warm on land, bring a jacket for when it gets windy. The boat rocks with the waves, so brace yourself on the boat's many handrails. (My grandma is frequently teased for falling into a trash can.) It's $38 per person, but it's usually half-price on Groupon.
Rodeo 39 Food market Stanton
$ This sleek, colorful market feels like walking into Instagram. Home to Oi Asian fusion, Pasta Lab and Dot and Dough's donut puffs, Rodeo 39 is brimming with good photo ops and even better food. And hey, if you want to change up your look midway through, head to the Nail Boss or Skin Design Tattoos. This might be the only place on the list where I urge you to check out the bathrooms. (Just don't snap a photo.)
Santa Ana Zoo
$ This zoo doesn't have any lions, tigers or bears, but there are plenty of lemurs and tamarins swinging in their habitats. The highlight is its new butterfly tent, where hundreds of butterflies glide through lush flowers and around visitors' heads. "It's good luck if one lands on you," one attendant told me. From glamorous monarchs to fliers with massive blue wings, the likelihood of being hit with good luck is high.
The zoo recently broke ground on a river otter exhibit and a treetop system for its monkeys, expected to open next year. In the meantime, adult admission is $12. If you bring your own food, you can picnic under shady trees near the playground.
Orange County Fair Costa Mesa
$ Fried fair food, concerts, local vendors and artists, farm animals and dirt bikes are a sliver of what's on offer across the 130-acre fair that runs in July and August.
Evening is undoubtedly the best time to go as the summer's scorching heat ebbs and the fair lights dazzle. Buy 16 tickets for $20 and ride what you please, but save six. Toward the end, cash them in at the sky ride. At night, your feet dangle as you glide over the fair's neon lights, overlooking the people below you for 10 minutes before it deposits you near the park's exit. Just be sure you take it the right direction.
Adult admission is $12 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and $14 on Fridays-Sundays. It's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, as I learned the hard way. Tickets aren't sold at the door, so be sure to buy them online in advance.
Beach Town Books San Clemente
$ This charming seaside space is drenched in books of all genres, carving out little reading nooks with comfy couches and literature quotes. Used books, the shop's mainstay, are half-off their original prices, and most are in great condition.
Sip complimentary coffee or hot chocolate as you browse. My friend fell in love with a century-old book, whose first page had a handwritten note from Santa Claus to a little girl in the 1920s. I found "The Hunger Games" in great condition on the $1 rack. If you love cheap book hauls, this is your place.
Fashion Island Newport Beach
$$ Many shops are just as expensive as South Coast Plaza, but the vibe is more low-key. Even if you don't buy anything, you could easily kill two hours just by wandering around and soaking in the sun. (For a challenge, try to find all its fountains.) If you do have a flexible bank account, Chanel, Gucci and Bloomingdale's are waiting.
Great Wolf Lodge Garden Grove
$$$ This unassuming building, stamped with a massive wolf paw on its side, contains an indoor water park, arcade, glow-in-the-dark mini golf, Build-A-Bear workshop, Candy Company and a live-action quest twisting through the whole lodge — and that's only a sliver of it. It feels like a woodsy Disneyland, but maybe it's just because half its visitors are wearing wolf ears.
The lodge's biggest asset is its year-round indoor water park. During peak summer months, a day pass is higher than the temperature at $75-$175, but it dwindles to $50 in late August. Half-days are also available. Even when So Cal's winter weather kicks in (a freezing 65 degrees), heat up at the 84 degree water park.
$$ Orange County has plenty of Ferris wheels, but the one at Irvine Spectrum is my favorite. It costs $8 to ride, but if heights aren't your thing, lounge in the courtyard below the wheel's 52,000 LED lights.
The Spectrum also has an 18-foot climbing structure that looks like someone taped Lays chips together, a carousel, a VR space, escape room, movie theater and DIY cake decorating.
Beside the Giant Wheel sits the Hello Kitty Cafe, a pink wonderland of frosted cookies and iced americanos. Grab a latte with Hello Kitty's face in the foam or splurge and reserve Afternoon Tea in the Bow Room — a $60 package of sweets and tea.
Irvine Regional Park Orange
$ You can rent everything from tandem bikes to paddle boats to horses at Irvine Regional Park. A bright green train with a red-kerchiefed conductor chugs around the grounds. At the small but lively county-run zoo on property, spend $2 to see mountain lions and black bears, then stop by the petting zoo. (There's also a coyote exhibit, but many locals see those in their backyards).
The shortest but most difficult hike that starts at the park is the unmaintained 1 mile Puma Ridge trail, and the longest are the moderate Lone Pine Ridge and easy Toyon trails at 4 miles each.
Park entry is $3 per vehicle on weekdays and $5 on weekends; $7 on holidays. Activities are individually priced. Many trees have grown sideways in a twisting grove, and every now and then a peacock struts past. It's not uncommon to see a caravan of 20 dogs on a walk, four to five leashes per walker.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts Costa Mesa
$$$ Four theaters make up the Segerstrom Center, but Segerstrom Hall is the one you'll normally see on advertisements. With nearly 3,000 seats spanning an orchestra, terrace, loge and balcony, Segerstrom Hall is a wonder of Napoleon red granite and glass. As the star stage of O.C.'s largest nonprofit arts organization, many big-name tours pass through it. When picking seats in the Hall, the balcony is the only spot where you might have to squint. I've always liked the mid-terrace or front of the loge, which gets a good view for a cheaper price.
Check out the center's other three theaters on the property, which churn out their own performances.
Knott's Berry Farm Buena Park
$$$ Sometimes in life, you start a berry farm and end up with a theme park — at least if you're Walter Knott. The first boysenberry was marketed here in the 1920s, and the park's fascinating history is preserved through its Old West Ghost Town.
I used to work here, but serving six months as a Camp Snoopy ride operator isn't what scored Knott's a spot on this list. However, I do have pro tips to share. Tuesdays through Thursdays are the best days to go, especially when the summer and spring break crowds hit. Going mid-week in the off season means you can walk on most rides. Moderate rain shuts down coasters since they're all outdoors, but it's when the park is prettiest. The crowds clear out and lights speckle on the sidewalk.
Thrill seekers can't miss Xcelerator, which launches 0-82 MPH in 2.3 seconds and subsequently sends you 205 feet up, Silver Bullet, one of its most loved coasters with 6 smooth inversions, or Ghost Rider, a classic wooden coaster that's nearly three minutes and might send you to the chiropractor. The Calico Mine Ride and Log Ride are family-friendly classics. The stagecoach is a fun hidden gem, but don't be surprised if the horses stop walking and you have to wait a bit.
It has been getting rowdy lately, but it's usually a relaxed park. Be sure to buy tickets online — they're $84 on peak Saturdays but only $69 most weekdays.
One last thing: This park is underrated for its holiday season decorations. Knott's Scary Farm has never disappointed me, and if you go at opening during late September or early October, you can usually make it through all eight mazes. During Christmastime, the old timey buildings coupled with small vendors, quaint holiday shows in the Birdcage Theater, and the smell of hot chocolate brings the holiday Hallmark vibes.
Concourse Bowling Anaheim
$$ On weekends, Concourse Bowling bustles with people as speakers blast pop music. Chuck a bowling ball down a neon-lit lane and then sip a cocktail on the couch. Or, forsake bowling entirely and just get an $8 quesadilla at the snack bar. Full meals like burgers and pizza cost anywhere from $11-$22.
I tried and failed to count how many TVs this place had, but the bar area alone has over 10 playing a simultaneous music video. If coming on a weekend night, be advised that its screens might not be super family-friendly but succeed at sustaining the party vibes. Price ranges from $30-$45 hours per lane depending on day and time, which isn't much when you split it between your group. $5-$5.75 for an individual game is available anytime outside of after 5 on Fridays and all day Saturdays. Shoe rentals are $4.75-$5.75.
Lanes are divided into sections with black curtains, adding a nice element of privacy. If it's busy, be prepared to share the space as there's two lanes per section. If you forget socks, feed $3 to the vending machine, though it does give you cute patterned options.
South Coast Plaza Costa Mesa
$$$ If you're an O.C. local, South Coast Plaza is one of those places you don't realize is such a big deal until you Google it. California's largest shopping center spans over 2.7 million square feet and has over 250 boutiques and 30 eateries. Don't miss the Bridge of Gardens, a nice view over Bear Street that connects the shopping center's dueling sides. Pro tip: Starting mid-November, it's decorated in garlands and a 96-foot Christmas tree.
Crystal Cove Tidepools Laguna Beach
$$ Tidepools can be spotted in four areas of Crystal Cove State Park: Reef Point, Rocky Bight, Pelican Point and Treasure Cove. The best one is Rocky Bight, a parking attendant at, alas, Reef Point lot told me. All four lots are $15 per day, but a states park pass gets you free parking. And while Rocky Bight may be preferred by the parking attendant, you can't go wrong with any of them.
Unless you arrive at high tide. The key to a great tide pool experience is a low tide of at most 1.5 feet, per state park recommendations. Check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Tides and Currents website ahead of time. While you might still glimpse marine life in moderate tide, starfish, urchins and anemones are best found when it's lower. At Reef Point, shiny mussels usually scatter the sea line — a consolation prize if you miss the tide pools. In any case, it's best to bring water shoes as the rocks are slippery (and no starfish is worth that medical bill.)
And if you do happen to arrive during high tide, hey, there's still an ocean to gaze at.
Ocean Institute Dana Point
$$ Nothing says 'casual weekend' like petting a shark at the Ocean Institute, an educational center tucked into Dana Point Harbor. Aside from the gift shop — which sells plastic 75-cent sea animals smaller than your finger — it has three primary buildings to tour, the best of which is the Sahm Marine Education Center. It focuses on the villainization of sharks, working to redefine their image through educational materials and a shark touch pool.
Adult admission is $15, only open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. When you leave the institute, hang a left to drive up the steep hill of Cove Road for gorgeous ocean views. For added fun, walk to nearby Harbor Beach and watch the boats.
Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center Anaheim
$ The name is a fancy way of saying "train station." Nicknamed the ARTIC, this enormous atrium shines both day and night (its LED arches explode with color after the sun sets). Hop on the Amtrak or Metrolink for a 50-minute ride to San Clemente or L.A. Union Station.
If there's time after a day trip, nearby is the Honda Center, one of O.C.'s central concert venues and sports arenas, and across the 57 freeway is Angel Stadium.
Top of the World Laguna Beach Hike
$ It's not literally the top of the world, but it is the top of a very big hill. While only 2.4 miles, it's steep with a nearly 900 elevation gain. The trail lacks shade so it's best to avoid going on a hot day. All in all, be sure you're ready for this level of hike, because you'll likely be stuck on it for at least 90 minutes.
On a clear day, you can see the deep blue of the Pacific. Overcast days, like when I went, are a bit murkier but feel more mystical.
For those who want the view without the sweat: Just pull your car into Alta Laguna Park and walk 50 feet to the trail's end. No incline necessary.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum Yorba Linda
$$ Yes, you know about Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation, but you might not have heard about how his election won every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, or that he loved yellow notepads. (The library collected thousands of his scribbled notes.) In its primary exhibit, eighteen rooms use multimedia, cool lighting and sound effects, artifacts and spatial design to make each one different.
The museum includes a replica of his oval office, where you can sit at his desk. Richard and Pat Nixon are buried side-by-side toward the back of the outdoor grounds — on the same property that Richard was born on. His small childhood home still stands, and you can usually tour inside if you just ask a docent.
The volunteer docents are exceptionally friendly and stationed around the grounds — and they'll give you a personal tour of their zone when it's slow, which is nice if you're tired of all the reading. Adult admission is $25, but there are student, senior and military discounts.
Mission Viejo Library
$ Even on a Wednesday, the Mission Viejo Library is busy. Breathe in the books while the sunlight spills in through large windows. In the front racks, last-chance novels sell for a dollar as people camp out at tables to fiddle with their laptops. If you can't make it to Mission Viejo, try Newport Beach Public Library or Yorba Linda Library. Both boast impressive architecture with relaxing study areas.
Notes from Jessica
Whenever a friend asks where we should go, I send them "the list."
It's what we call the messy page in my Notes app, a compilation of Orange County spots that my friends and I love enough to go to regularly. And, it's saved us hours of time.
It started with a recurring dilemma in my driveway — me settled crisscrossed behind the wheel, my friend's Adidas kicked up on the dash, the Kia spouting '70s music as we brainstormed places to drive to. At best, it took at least 20 minutes to settle on an activity, but at worst it took two hours and ended with a defeated trek back to my couch. We live in one of the most sought-after areas in the country, and — "There's nothing to do."
Orange County offers way more to do than Disneyland. Aside from the perk of usually free parking, it's home to gorgeous hills, iconic beaches and lively attractions. So, thinking that there's nothing to do is laughable.
In early 2021, once again idling on the broken road of my cul-de-sac, I logged the places my friend and I were talking about in my Notes app. I also brainstormed later that night, compiling a document of every fun place I'd been to.
Once we had the options in front of us, deciding became easier. As an act of public service, I share this list with all the O.C. locals idling in their cars (or out-of-towners who want to do something other than go to Disneyland.)
Since I add new places as I find them, this list is always evolving and might not have your favorite place on it — yet. Feel free to add your faves, and even revise the list, in your own Notes app. In the meantime, skim through my love letter to Orange County (which is in no particular order).
A few notes: This list doesn't include eateries or 21+ bars or clubs, unless they're part of a shopping center. And shopping centers were included because hanging out at the mall is a beloved O.C. pastime. All attractions are also within O.C. boundaries. (My apologies to the Aquarium of the Pacific.)
An extra tip for that pesky decision paralysis among two people: One person picks three options, another person narrows it to two, and you both settle on one.
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