Here is the ultimate Orange County bucket list with over 150 suggestions (written by a local) on things to do, see and eat.
Here in Southern California, we have two of the most well-known cities in the USA (I may say in the entire world): Los Angeles and San Diego.
Nevertheless, between those cities, and its respective counties, lies another Californian jewel: Orange County.
You may not have heard about the county but I am sure you are familiar with Disneyland, Richard Nixon, and Gwen Stefani. All of them have roots in Orange County.
Compared to its mammoth neighbors, this extension of land may look small. However, it has been said the best things come in small packages. And, let me tell you, this county packs a big punch.
If you enjoy beaches, history, theme parks, food, and shopping, here I am to tell you all about the places to go in Orange County!
Table of Contents
Places to Go in Orange County
Orange County has a population of about 3 million and it is considered the third-most populous county in California and the sixth in the country.
The county does not have a defined urban center and, as a consequence, the population concentrates in the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Huntington Beach.
The county used to be part of Los Angeles but a new county was formed in the late 1800s due to population growth.
Nowadays, Orange County is famous because of its theme parks, beaches (42 miles), and roles in music and TV.
Cool Cities and Neighborhoods
These neighborhoods offer beachy vibes, trendy eateries, open-air markets, and vintage stores.
- Huntington Beach (boardwalk and pier)
- San Clemente (beach and pier)
- Downtown Anaheim
- Downtown Santa Ana
- Downtown Fullerton
- Seal Beach (beach and pier)
- Old Town Irvine
- Old Town Orange
Those who prefer arts and culture have a lot to choose from.
- International Surf Museum
- Newland House Museum
- Laguna Art Museum
- Orange County Museum of Art
- Casa Romantica
- Mission San Juan Capistrano
- Los Rios Historic District (oldest residential district in the county)
- Newport Harbor Nautical Museum
- Muzeo (Anaheim)
- Irvine Museum
- Children’s Museum at La Habra
- Heritage Hill Historic Park
- Bowers Museum
- Centennial Heritage Museum
- Discovery Science Center
- Marconi Automotive Museum
- Richard Nixon Library and Presidential Birthplace
- Balboa Island Museum
As Los Angeles, diversity is one of the assets of Orange County. Get a taste of other countries in these neighborhoods.
- Little Arabia (Anaheim)
- Little Seoul or Korean District (Garden Grove)
- Little Saigon (Garden Grove, Westminster, largest Vietnamese community in the US)
- Little India (Artesia)
Food, Delicious Food
If you like food (and who doesn’t?), come prepared with your stretchy pants. The food scene in Orange County is outstanding.
- The Packing House (Anaheim)
- 4th Street Market (Santa Ana)
- Union Market Tustin
- Union Market Mission Viejo
- Pacific City (Huntington Beach)
- The OC Mix
- McFadden Public Market
- Trade Food Hall
- The Crab Cooker (some say they have the best chowder on this side of the country, I am not convinced)
- Watson’s (drugstore and soda shop)
- Ruby’s Shake Shack at Crystal Cove
- The Hobbit (house converted into restaurant)
- Taco Maria (one of the best restaurants in the county, famous for its black tortillas)
- Mastro’s Steakhouse (so good!)
- TJ’s Woodfire Pizza
- Din Tai Fung
- Manpuku Tokyo BBQ
- Beachwood BBQ
- Los Sanchez (Sonoran Style Mexican Food)
- Anepalco on Main
- El Farolito
- Gabbi’s Mexican Food
- Ramos House Café
- Slapfish (Lobster Rolls!)
- Mil Jugos (Venezuelan food)
- Portos Bakery & Café (stop by, please)
Festivals and Markets
It is impossible to mention all the events that take place during the year. Here are some of the most popular (but there is something going on every weekend).
- Tet Festival (Costa Mesa)
- Fiesta de las Golondrinas (Return of the Swallow’s, San Juan Capistrano)
- Newport Beach Film Festival
- Spring Citrus Festival
- Orange County Fair (Costa Mesa)
- Doheny Blues Festival
- Strawberry Festival (Garden Grove)
- Tustin Street Festival
- Sawdust Festival (Laguna Beach)
- Festival of Arts
- Laguna Art-A-Fair
- Pageant of the Masters
- La Habra Corn Festival
- International Street Fair (Orange)
- Surf City Nights
- Silverado Days
- Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade
- Orange County Market Place (Costa Mesa, the area’s most famous swap meet)
- 626 Market
- Santa Ana Art Walk
Los Angeles is full of glamorous hotels but Orange County has never been behind in this aspect. The main cities are home to top-notch hotels that appear every year on glossy (travel) magazine’s “best of” lists.
You do not have to stay in one of these hotels to enjoy them. A visit to the restaurant(s) or lounge would be a nice experience.
- Montage Laguna Beach
- The Resort at Pelican Hill
- The Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel
- Monarch Beach Resort
- Pasea Hotel and Spa
- Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (the (non-luxurious) historical cottages are very hard to rent)
- Avenue of the Arts
- Balboa Bay Club
- Anaheim Hotel
- Disney Hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel)
Orange County has a ridiculous number of good beaches. Pick your favorites!
- Seal Beach
- Surfside Beach
- Bolsa Chica State Beach
- Huntington City Beach
- Huntington Dog Beach
- Huntington State Beach
- Sunset Beach
- Balboa Beach Pier
- Cameo Shores Beach
- China Cove Beach
- Corona del Mar State Beach
- Little Corona del Mar
- Crystal Cove (many beaches to choose from)
- Newport Dunes Resort Beach
- Newport Municipal Beach
- Beach around the Newport Jetty
- Capistrano Beach Park
- Dana Point Harbor Beach
- Dana Strand Beach
- Doheny State Beach (camping is allowed)
- Salt Creek Beach
- Crescent Bay Beach
- Main Beach (Laguna Beach)
- Thousand Steps Beach
- Treasure Island Beach
- Calafia Beach
- San Clemente State Beach
- San Onofre State Beach
Piers (North to South)
Strolling on a pier is a Southern California classic. There are multiple options for sunset watching.
- Seal Beach Pier
- Huntington Beach Pier
- Newport Pier
- Balboa Pier
- San Clemente
The County has plenty of outdoor recreation too. As a matter of fact, we love being outside (even in winter).
- Mile Square Regional Park
- Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
- Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
- Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve
- Fullerton Arboretum
- San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
- Santa Ana River Trail
- Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary
- Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park
- Dana Point Headlands
- Orange County Great Park
- Drive the Ortega Highway
- Crystal Cove State Park (do not miss this place! It is gorgeous!)
- Balboa Ferry
- Balboa Island (and try a famous Balboa Bar)
- Duffy boat rental (Newport Beach)
- Newport Beach Back Bay and Dunes
- Surf in Huntington Beach
- Gondola Ride on Newport’s Bay
- Pacific Marine Mammal Center
- Trabuco Canyon
- O’Neill Regional Park
- Davey’s Locker (fishing and whale watching)
- Hortense Miller Garden
- Irvine Regional Park
Centers of educations have beautiful campuses and interesting museums.
- University of California, Irvine
- California State University, Fullerton
- Soka University of America
- The Art Institute of California
Anaheim is the theme park epicenter of the world since it is where the first Disney park opened its doors. As a consequence, you will have the opportunity to explore a wide area dominated by all things Disney. Plus, there are other big parks located nearby.
- Disney’s California Adventure (different than Disneyland, separate or park hopper ticket need for entrance)
- Downtown Disney (free of charge are full of stores, restaurant, and cafes)
- Knott’s Berry Farm
- Knott’s Soak City
- Pirate’s Dinner Adventure
- Medieval Times
- Orange County Zoo
For those who love the action!
- Angel Stadium
- Honda Center (Home of the Anaheim Ducks)
If you love to shop, you have come to the right place. The shopping complexes in Orange Country are huge and varied (way better than the ones in Los Angeles). You can plan an entire vacation around this theme.
- South Coast Plaza
- The LAB Anti-Mall
- Irvine Spectrum
- Fashion Island
- The Block
- Irvine Spectrum
- Old World Village
- MainPlace, Santa Ana
Music and Theater
For those who want to keep the soul happy, here are some options.
- House of Blues
- Segerstrom Center for the Arts
- Laguna Playhouse
- Irvine Barclay Theater
- South Coast Repertory
Here are some more options for those who want more of life (like me!)
- Balboa Fun Zone
- Sherman Library & Garden
- Crystal Cathedral
Orange County has enough to keep people busy for a long time (weeks and months) but I know there are some overachievers out there. Distances were calculated from Anaheim.
- Downtown Los Angeles (25 miles)
- Santa Monica (40 miles)
- Venice Beach (40 miles)
- Long Beach (25 miles)
- Malibu (60 miles)
- Big Bear (90 miles)
- Northern San Diego County (70 miles)
- San Diego (95 miles)
- Palm Springs (90 miles)
- Temecula (60 miles)
For more information about the city, I recommend checking the following resources. They may help you to get discounts or deals for events and restaurants.
- Orange Coast Magazine
- The Orange County Register
- OC Weekly
- Eater LA (has articles on Orange County hottest eats)
Get ready for a day of sightseeing by bringing the right gear. Here is a list of the items I pack to explore cities and towns in California.
- Walking Shoes – Comfortable walking shoes are a must. I recommend investing in a good pair. My go-to brands are Clarks, Tevas, and Sketchers.
- Anti-Theft Bag – Keep your belongings safe by keeping them in an anti-theft bag. The ones manufactured by Travelon have a 5-points security system including an RFID blocking pocket. >>Check out their crossbody bag here If you prefer a backpack, this one is a good option
- Sweatshirt – A sweatshirt is a must to keep me warm during chilly mornings and nights. >Click to see this California appropriate option here
- Sun Block – Do not leave the house (or the car) without applying sunblock. I repeat, always wear sunblock when outdoors. >Buy sunblock here
- Lip Balm with Sunscreen – Protect your lips by applying a balm with sunscreen. >Get one of the best lip balms here
- Wide Brim Hat – A wide brim hat is a great way to protect your scalp, face, and neck. The ones manufactured by FURTALK come with an anti-UV function. >Buy this amazing hat here
- Hand Sanitizer – Do not forget to pack hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
- Sunglasses – These are another must when it comes to protecting from the sun. A polarized, sporty pair works better outdoors. >Take a look at this wonderful pair
- Water Bottle – Do not forget to bring water! Keep yours cold by taking a beautiful Hydro Flask water bottle. >Check out the insane options here
- THERMOS Tumblers – I have been a fan of the THERMOS brand since I received a tumbler as a gift. The tumblers keep drinks hot for hours. >>Buy THERMOS insulated tumblers here
- Camera – I have never gotten used to taking pictures exclusively with my phone. I prefer to use the Sony Alpha a6000. It is compact and takes gorgeous pictures. >Buy Sony Camera here
- Tripod – A compact tripod to take your photos and videos to a different level. >>Check out this popular option here
- Portable Power Bank – It is a pain to keep phones charged on trips (more if you are taking pictures, posting on social media, and navigating). Having a power bank is a lifesaver. The Anker portable charger can charge a phone 5 times. >Buy this incredible power bank here
More of Southern California
Wait! There is more! If you are in the area check out my guides for Los Angeles and San Diego.
And, if you want to get more insight into Orange County Beaches, check out this post:
Residents, how many of these have you visited? Visitors, which of these would you like to experience? What other places to go in Orange County can be added to the list?
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