Nearly everyone thinks they know Orange County, California, but few actually do. More than 3 million people live in this Southern California oasis. Tucked in between Los Angeles and San Diego counties, most people know some of its residents are infamous for their fame and wealth. It also has some of the best beaches in the country with a world-renowned and picturesque coastline. Orange County’s notoriety also comes from how it’s been portrayed on the small screen. There’s the more recent “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” and the older hit shows “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” and “The O.C.”
But, what most people rarely see is the real OC. The Orange County where 18th century history is on display in San Juan Capistrano. The Orange County where cutting-edge culinary dishes are devoured in Anaheim. The Orange County where a world-renowned symphony wows audiences. And, the Orange County that features a neighborhood island which lures hundreds of thousands of travelers.
Yes, the OC is beaches, babes, and beauty. But, it’s also cultural and artistic, which makes it the perfect spot for travelers looking for a more meaningful vacation and travel experience.
If you only have a weekend in the OC, then make sure you see, do, and experience some of the things on our official Orange County bucket list below.
Visit the Triple Crown of Beaches
Crystal Cove Beach
If the beaches in Orange County were horse races, then Crystal Cove Beach would be the Kentucky Derby in the Triple Crown of beaches. It’s consistently ranked high on lists of top beaches, including TripAdvisor’s recent Top 25 US Beaches list. Located in the ritzy Newport Coast area of Newport Beach, it’s 3.5 miles long and is along Pacific Coast Highway. It’s part of the storied Crystal Cove State Park. The entire park features hundreds of canyons, bluffs, tide pools, and coves. And, the Crystal Cove Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Oscar-nominated flick “Beaches” was filmed at one of its 46 cottages. Crystal Cove Beach’s exquisite beauty, Hollywood charm, and history make it a tourist mecca for just about any traveler.
Main Beach, right in the city of Laguna Beach, also sits on Pacific Coast Highway just like Crystal Cove. This public beach was once voted the No.1 beach in the OC by the Orange County Register. This massive beach has a grass park, a landmark lifeguard tower, basketball courts, volleyball in the sand, and rollerblading tourists. It’s no doubt the most active beach in the OC. It’s also near lots of art galleries and trendy restaurants on PCH. As you might imagine, trying to grab a metered parking spot is as hard as winning the lottery at times, especially in the summer. But, the entire area is a perfect place to eat and shop before frolicking on the beach.
Doheny State Beach
Located in the city of Dana Point, Doheny State Beach has lots of history and hundreds of thousands of tourists. Designated California’s first state beach, it spans more than 60 acres with both south and north sides. Doheny even gets an honorable mention in one of the most famous surfer songs—the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Unlike Crystal Cove and Main Beach, Doheny State Beach is more educational than fun and fitness-oriented. It hosts a number of classes and programs created to educate visitors on local marine and bird species including sharks, stingrays, octopuses, and pelicans. You’ll also find an aquarium, exhibits, and indoor tide pools. There’s also a campground where you can eat and hangout after taking those marine science classes.
Explore Balboa Island
Balboa Island used to be one of the most under-the-radar neighborhoods in Newport Beach. Now it’s a highly trafficked and in-demand area with multi-million dollar homes. It’s so expensive that it rivals New York City when it comes to the priciest real estate in the nation. It’s also become one of the best spots to travel on vacation. The artificial island is accessible by a two-lane bridge. And, although it’s part of one of the most ostentatious and contemporary cities, Balboa Island still looks like small town USA with Main Street being Marine Avenue, where mom and pop ice cream shops and bakeries are still prominently featured. It’s such an idyllic place that it’s been featured on the TV show “Arrested Development.” But, travel further into Balboa Island and you will find 3,000 residents, wide bayfront homes with big yards, boats docked at the pier, and hotels.
You could spend a few days on the island, but if you’re short on time then here are a few suggestions. Make sure to visit the candy store Sugar ‘n’ Spice, the very first frozen banana and Balboa Bar shop on the Island. When it comes to dining, try the flip-flops appropriate restaurant Picante Martin’s, where you’ll have your choice of tacos, enchiladas, rice, beans and an assortment of other homemade Mexican fare for less than $20. If you prefer European cuisine, try the Italian spot Ciao or the French restaurant Basilic. Both are relatively inexpensive and have an old-world taste in a contemporary setting along Marine Avenue. And, if you decide to spend the night on this charming island, then try booking a room at the luxurious 4-star Balboa Bay Resort located on the bay. Check out the massages offered its world-class spa and eat at its seafood restaurant along the waterfront. And, as you might imagine, travelers flock to this abode between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But, even if you can’t nab a room, it’s worth spending some time sipping wine at the Waterline Newport Beach Restaurant.
Travel to Mission San Juan Capistrano
If I could only do one thing in Orange County, traveling to the unbelievable historical site Mission San Juan Capistrano would be it. The city of San Juan Capistrano lies at the southern tip of Orange County. The Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded by the Spanish in 1776 in what was known as colonial Las Californias. It’s one of the oldest and coolest landmarks in California combining historical, religious, and cultural history all in one. Owned by the Catholic Church, yet operated by a non-profit which solely depends on visitor donations, it spans 10 acres with a parish school and a basilica. It’s also the seventh of 21 missions and is referred to as the jewel of all the missions because of its original Great Stone Church, which was once considered an architectural gem.
Besides the Mission San Juan Capistrano, the city is also well regarded for its cliff swallows—migratory birds that breed in North America, yet spend their winters in South America. These rare birds always return and submerge themselves inside mud nests inside the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano. For decades, the birds used to swoop into San Juan Capistrano every March wowing travelers and neighbors alike. But recently, those sightings have stopped. In fact, the birds haven’t returned to San Juan Capistrano in several years. One Cliff Swallows expert speculates it may be due to two reasons: one is that renovations made to their home (the Great Stone Church) confused them and forced them to look for a new home elsewhere in Southern California. Secondly, the total number of cliff swallows in general in this region is on the decline.
Even with the cliff swallows gone from the Mission San Juan Capistrano, the site is still one of the most cultural, enlightening things about Orange County and ranks high with travelers looking for a more edifying trip.
Eat at the Anaheim Packing District
The Anaheim Packing District is what I consider the road less traveled when it comes to taking trips to Orange County. Just two miles away from Disneyland in Anaheim, the Anaheim Packing District sits in a converted packing house offering visitors a gastronomical feast—more than 20 eateries essentially offering a foodie’s bazaar. From handcrafted gelato to fresh, homemade pastries to locally crafted beer to Vietnamese delicacies to Indian cuisine, every type of food is available. It caters to all types of eaters—from the indulgent to the finicky, the Anaheim Packing District has you covered. It’s worth a quick trip if culinary tours are your thing.
Visit the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Southern California tends to be inexplicably linked to Hollywood. But, where L.A. is ground zero for the movie industry, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County offers an equally pleasing, yet different arts scene. Formerly called the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the 30-year-old center houses the Pacific Chorale, the Pacific Symphony and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. Currently, it’s undergoing a 68-million dollar campaign to expand. The center has come a long way since it was created with the help of Orange County’s most famous benefactors—the Segerstrom family. The family donated five acres in Costa Mesa for the Arts Center to be built. The Segerstrom dynasty spans back to 1898 when Charles John and Bertha Segerstrom moved to Orange County and created C.J. Segerstrom & Sons. The family, along with their visionary son, the late Henry T. Segerstrom, are responsible for the highest grossing luxury retail center, South Coast Plaza and later the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Today, it not only features a symphony, but also world-famous musicals like “The Sound of Music”, award-winning plays such as “An American in Paris”, and acclaimed performances from the American Ballet Theatre. It’s open year-round and a full list of performances with prices can be found on their website.
Art Gallery Hop on Pacific Coast Highway
Along the southern section of Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach and within walking distance from Main Beach, sits a number of art galleries. Laguna Beach has a little more than 20,000 residents, yet it has 100 art galleries and studios packed into less than 10 square miles. Because of the high number of galleries present here, art gallery hops have become a thing. Check out the free “First Thursdays Art Walk” every month from 6-9pm. It’s the perfect way to see multiple art galleries, exhibits, and purchase art. Local artists’ work, contemporary art, and international fine art are all on display. It’s a wonderful way to see an artsy side of Orange County.
Luxuriate at 5-star Retreats
If the beaches are the most photographed spots of Orange County, then these 5-star hotels are a close second. You’ve no doubt seen pictures of these luxury hideaways: the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, the Montage Hotel in Laguna Beach, and the Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point. You’ll find all of them in the priciest cities in Orange County. The Resort at Pelican Hill sits on 504 acres and boasts a world-class golf course with a golf academy. It also has a spa retreat, complete with an extensive list of rejuvenating treatments.
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point lives up to the brand’s unparalleled name. From the grand lobby to the spacious guest rooms to the 180blu oceanfront lounge, every inch of this five-diamond resort is plush and palatial. Perched on a 150-foot coastal bluff, the Ritz-Carlton has every amenity any well-heeled traveler might want.
And, if you can’t book a room at the Resort at Pelican Hill or the Ritz-Carlton, don’t worry. Two other 5-star resorts, The Montage Laguna Beach and the Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point are just as extravagant. The Montage has a spectacular outdoor pool with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. It sits on 30 acres along the coastal edge and has more than 200 guest rooms and a 20,000 square-foot spa, the Spa Montage. The Monarch is less than four miles away from the Montage in Dana Point. After the Monarch underwent a 40-million dollar renovation, guests can now enjoy an infinity pool, five restaurants, and more than 70 different types of relaxing spa treatments. Both hotels offer the latest in deluxe amenities, which can be great for tourists looking for an authentic experience in a coastal environment. Like many lavish hotels, room rates can be higher during peak seasons, with summer obviously being the most desirable and expensive time.
If you’re looking for something more budget-friendly, try these boutique hotels: Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach and Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa in Laguna Beach. The Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel is right across from the Huntington Beach Pier, which is considered a surfer’s mecca and one of the most touristy parts of the county. This property has a very laid back Southern California vibe to it. Meanwhile, the Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa is a Spanish-style enclave on the sea, turned into a bed and breakfast Inn. The decor and property is so exquisite it was recognized by the city of Laguna Beach as a Registered Historic Structure.
Lastly, the Westin South Coast Plaza is conveniently located in Costa Mesa, right next to South Coast Plaza. The Westin is often used for conferences, but it’s not just a hotel for the business traveler. It’s ideal for vacations as well. The four-star hotel is just minutes away from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, offers shuttle service to Disneyland, and provides complimentary shuttle service to nearby John Wayne Airport. It’s ideal for budget-conscious families on vacation.
Shop til you drop
Ten percent of all California millionaires live in Orange County and it’s the U.S. county with the third-highest number of millionaires. So, it has a fair share of stores catering to their discerning tastes. South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa is one of them. It has more than 300 shops and restaurants that rival Rodeo Drive. And, last year total sales from merchants were more than a billion dollars with more than 20 million people visiting annually. If you go, make sure to put on some comfortable shoes because this behemoth is 2.4 million-square-feet and features international boutiques including Hermès, Versace, Tiffany & Co., and Rolex.
Fashion Island in Newport Beach lures half as many customers as South Coast Plaza, but it boasts an upscale movie theater and a series of sumptuous restaurants. It’s an outdoor mall just minutes away from the beach. The annual fashion show, STYLEWEEKOC®, takes place here and the annual Newport Beach Film Festival takes place here and in other nearby locations. In the summer, it hosts other events and activities as well, which makes it the perfect way to spend a sun-filled day.
But, not every shopping experience in the OC has to be costly. One place to find great apparel and affordable prices is the Outlets at Orange in the city of Orange. With a prime location near Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center, and Angel Stadium, it’s one of the most accessible and easy-to-reach shopping destinations. And, since it’s essentially an outlet mall, you’ll find 120 high-end discount stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH, Neiman Marcus Last Call, and Nordstrom Rack. It’ll soon debut a 60,000 square-foot expansion, with a Bloomingdale’s Outlet. The Outlets at Orange currently has an indoor VANS skatepark, a bowling alley, and an AMC movie theater with IMAX. Unlike most outlet malls with limited choices of fast food, this outlet is different. It has 25 restaurants and cafés inside 806,000 square feet of space.
Wine & Dine
Salads and smoothies may come to mind when you think of the OC, but the reality is very different. Of course, healthy food options are all around, but you don’t have to look far to see delicious offerings for both the meat lover and the vegan. One of the best spots is this little gem—The Lighthouse Bayview Café in Newport Beach. The Lighthouse is located in the relatively new Marina Park. It sits on the Balboa Peninsula and features a 180-degree view of the bay. The ground floor features indoor and outdoor seating while the top floor features a sun-filled deck perfect for sailboat viewing and people watching. The Lighthouse serves American cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with prices starting under $10 for appetizers and average $30 for dinner. The best thing about this hot spot is the weekday happy hour $5 drinks.
SOL Cocina Mexican Restaurant in Newport Beach is the spot for travelers looking for a great place to taste authentic Mexican cuisine with a twist. Forget your typical tacos and enchiladas. SOL offers Sweet Potato & Black Bean Taco Plate, Wild Fish on Esquit,s and Grilled Garlic Eggplant Torta. You can easily fill up on tasty food for under $30 here.
Cafe Gratitude is the best place for those who consider themselves vegan, gluten-free or just a health food addict. Cafe Gratitude has locations all over Southern California, and is 100 percent organic and plant-based. But, don’t let that fool you. Everything on this menu is delicious! They even offer juice plans and meal plans for those looking for cleanses. Try the small plates like Roasted Garnet Yams and Braised Asparagus Risotto or main entrees like Indian Red Dal and Baked Tempeh, Eggplant Polpette. You might also enjoy their famous Turmeric Latte. It’s a popular staple that blends turmeric, almond milk, honey, and an essential oil of black pepper. It’s also pretty reasonably priced. Nothing is more than $20. It’s the perfect place to grab breakfast or a quick lunch if you are pressed for time, but want to eat healthy.
Attend the Newport Beach Film Festival
For 17 years, members of tinseltown have flocked south of L.A. to Newport Beach for the annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Every April, more than 50,000 people come out to screen documentaries, family movies, and environmental films. And, as you might expect, it’s coastal location tends to make it ideal for showcasing some movies with a focus on surfing and skateboarding. Last year, the festival received more than 3,000 submissions, ended up showing only 300 films from dozens of countries. And, although it’s seen as more of a regional film festival compared to the big international ones like Cannes, Sundance, and the Toronto Film Festival, the Newport Beach Film Festival does have star power. This year, A-listers Kate Beckinsale and Matthew Morrison were on hand. Morrison’s latest film even debuted at the festival. The festival has grown and continues to be a successful venture for the OC. And, plans are already under-way for the 18th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival in April, 2017.
Main Beach, Laguna Beach, California—Photo: Jukka via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Balboa Island, Newport Beach, California—Photo: Tracie Hall via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
The Mission, San Juan Capistrano—Photo: Ken Lund via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Anaheim Packing District, Anaheim, California—Photo:Michael Saechang via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California—Photo: NPDOC via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Art Gallery, Laguna Beach, California—Photo: Jeri Koegel via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Fashion Island, Photo: Courtesy: Visit Newport Beach
Lighthouse Bayview Cafe, Photo Courtesy: LighthouseNB.com
Newport Beach Film Festival Photo Courtesy: Visit Newport Beach