The best thing about Orange County is when people visit, which they do with some frequency due to Nicest Weather Ever Syndrome, because then we get to go do fun things. Keep in mind, the weather is constantly amazing / perfect / drought-y, so outdoor activities are the major focus.
Here’s a partial and evolving list, for future visitors and / or interested travelers:
Hikes & Beaches
— Back Bay Loop Trail is nice for biking or walking or getting dive-bombed by motorized model airplane enthusiasts. It apparently loops around Newport Beach and the other way (through Irvine) to the mountains, but we’ve only made it as far as the grocery store to date.
— Thousand Steps (yes, a thousand) is an awesome beach with a neat cave area (and a thousand steps down – and up!).
— Corona del Mar is a great, slightly more walkable, beach with (much-contested) bonfire pits.
— We like Holy Jim Falls Trail, which was recommended to us by the good folks at REI (the US equivalent of MEC). Pro Tip: DO NOT DRIVE YOUR PRIUS past the gravel road. It makes bad noises, and turning around was very difficult and took a team of three encouraging people. But the hike is great, and relatively easy (even for first time hikers!). Bring water and snacks. And a first aid kit (whoops). Also, it’s easiest to get there when there’s a drought, but this may also lead to quasi-disappointing water fall photos, because drought.
— Crystal Cove State Park is a nice place to spend a day, either hiking or on the beach. It has historical area, a restaurant, and campgrounds. Well worth the $15 for parking if you spend the day there. There’s a steep (but not completely perilous) walk down to the beach depending on where you park. We’ve seen whales off the coast here, and we usually see people pulled over on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) where the signs say “DO NOT PULL OVER.” They’re generally looking back in the direction of Crystal Cove at what I assume are whales or other visible sea–I mean ocean–life.
— We haven’t gone to George F. Canyon Nature Preserve yet, but thanks to lurking around MeetUp.com, I know that it exists. Also, I didn’t do the group trail run, but I found out about Peters Canyon Regional Park, which is another nice, relatively easy hike, depending on the route you take (there are some hills, because it is in the foothills of the mountains!).
Towns & (More) Beaches
— Balboa Island is very cute and touristy, with lots of little candy shops, pubs, restaurants, and junk food venues, including competing chocolate covered banana stands, like in “Arrested Development.” There are beautiful houses on the water here. It’s nice to walk around and not get hit by cars. (True story: the majority of vehicles tend to stop for pedestrians.) Also has a little historical society house which has never been open when I’ve been visiting, but someday!
— Laguna Beach is cute, touristy, and arty, with a small historical society house and nice beach areas. Very walkable little town. The consignment shops that I’ve been in are more $hoppe$ and less consignment, but the Coffee Pub is reasonably priced and set in a cute little shopping center where you can pick up postcards and other touristy necessities.
— Newport Beach has a lot of parking and great beach access, as well as a few piers, a fish mart, and several rental and restaurant-ing options.
— Huntington Beach has a pier with a kite shop and fun diner – both reasonably priced and excellent to visit. It’s probably our fault for visiting on a Friday night, but it seemed to be mostly bars on the main street near the pier. Nice beach, though, and good parking rates if you pick the right lot (aka don’t go where all of the RVs are because you’ll have to pay the $15 a day fee for camping, but the rangers will usually let you turn around if you mess up).
— Santa Ana has a free art walk the first Saturday of every month, with food trucks to accompany your stroll. There are other events in the downtown, as well, and its way more pedestrian friendly than some of the neighbo(u)ring towns (I’m looking at you, Irvine).
Restaurants (Eat, Drink, Repeat)
— The best pizza that we’ve found is at Sgt. Pepperoni’s in Newport Beach (get the garlic knots) and Ciao! Deli & Pizzeria in Costa Mesa (authentic Chicago decor!).
— Pick up some award-winning Lette macaroons in Fashion Island (possibly the only reason to venture into that place).
— Playground is a fantastic, experimental restaurant in Santa Ana. It’s a bit pricey, but well worth the innovative and delicious menu items that are reinvented every day based on the fresh ingredients that arrive each morning.
— There’s a nearby lunch place called Avacado that has good sandwiches, and a nice dinner place called Phan 55 that has an excellent happy hour.
— We’re not far from boba tea, fondue, a mysterious hooka bar that appears in a parking lot at certain hours that we don’t know, conveyor belt sushi, and other grad student delicacies.
— Paradise Perks WAS a coffee shop that was open shockingly late for Irvine, and hosted various shows during the week (music, comedy). I only enjoyed their tea / coffee / snack options, but it WAS a cool place to hang out, with a pretty decent board game collection. (Addendum: They are currently closed for what I hope are renovations!) (Double Addendum: Someone on Yelp got close enough to read the sign and apparently it’s closed forever. Sad!)
— Silverado has a delicious diner. I recommend the cinnamon bun. It is huge and best split at least three ways. We’ve only gone for brunch a few times, but they have lots of different specials.
— Rooster Cafe has great breakfast burritos and meatball sandwiches. Grab some food to take to the beach! (They serve very generous portions – I have never finished anything I have ordered from here in one sitting.)
— OC Wine Mart is nice for tastings, but closes astonishingly early (in my opinion). Luckily, they sell bottles, so you can buy some wine to take home and enjoy after 6 pm.
— Mitsuwa is an EXCELLENT market in Costa Mesa with any kind of Asian food you could want – very inexpensive and delicious.
— We had an excellent lunch at Urban Plates, a very nice, organic, fresh, relatively inexpensive cafeteria-style restaurant (with, of course, a bar inside, because Orange County). They have good veggie options, too.
— It’s California. You’re kind of obligated to eat at In-N-Out (good burgers, fries, and shakes with a free Bible verse suggested on the bottom of every cup). Go animal style or go home! (The vegetarian option is grilled cheese — also available animal style. Can’t beat the quality for the price.)
True story: A friend was visiting from Australia, and someone at Target was like “Omigod, I heard they don’t have In-N-Out there!” (Please note: they don’t have In-N-Out in most of the world, including most of the states that aren’t California.) Her anguish at the lack of In-N-Out in Australia might be illuminating.
— When we first got here (and still a little bit now), I’d ask everyone I encountered about their favo(u)rite thing(s) to do in Orange County. A possibly alarming number of people suggested the Happy Hour at Yard House, and while we’ve never managed to make it to happy hour, it’s a nice establishment with a very wide beer selection and decent appetizers.
— The groups over at MeetUp.com are always proposing neat activities, so I like to lurk there and see what’s on in terms of current events. There are stand up comedy shows, musicals, movies in the park, hikes, you name it (but you might have to drive for it, cry cry).
— You can check out the Disney fireworks in Anaheim. (Visible from outside of the park.)
— You can go outlet mall shopping, anti-mall shopping (at a mall that pretends to not be a mall?), regular mall shopping, and just straight up non-stop shopping shopping. Or, my favo(u)rite, comic book store exploring.
— The Pacific Coast Highway is cool to drive (along the coast!), just don’t take it all the way to LA unless getting there in a timely fashion is not really your goal.
— Stand up paddle boards, kayaks, and bikes are all available for rent near / in / around Newport Beach (and along the coast generally).
— You can go bowling or visit Boomers, which has go carts and games and small carnival rides.
— There are a lot of museums, cultural centers, and historical societies around that we haven’t visited yet. There are lots of free days, too. (Usually on the second Sundays or first Thursdays or something.)
— It seems like every building around here has a hot tub and swimming pool – drought be damned! You can also go to 24-hour LA Fitness gyms. There is one about every 10 feet.
— If you like manicures, pedicures, tanning, waxing, Botox, or fertility treatments, you are in luck! I’m not saying that Orange County has more of those facilities per capita than any where else on the planet, I’m just saying that if someone said that it did, I would not be even a little surprised.
— Orange County Great Park is nice to walk around. They have a farmer’s market, a hot air balloon ride, and a small community museum. (It is, unlike everything else listed here, FLAT. Used to be a military base.)
— If you look for signs on your way out of Silverado, you might stumble upon a neat hummingbird sanctuary called Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s at the end of a pretty small road and doesn’t seem to get crowded. Well worth a stroll.
— There are, perhaps not surprisingly, 2942039482093 theaters and cinemas and whatnot in the area. You can catch a local theater performance (which will inevitably include at least 3 actors who have been on CSI or Buffy) or see movies from cheap to artsy and everything in between. There are outdoor shows, outdoor performances, and film festivals all over the place – just check yer trusty ole Internet.
— We are a bit far from Riverside, but if you find yourself over that way, Sevilla in the Historic Mission District (right near the Amtrak / Metrolink Station) has great sangria and tapas.
As another plus, Orange County is really close to Los Angeles and San Diego (and relatively close-ish to Santa Barbara). Greatest hits posts for both cities coming up next month!