Costa Mesa, California/United States - 07/30/2019: A look at a rustic corridor at the anti mall known as The Lab
Photograph: Shuttertock/The Image Party

The 14 best things to do in Orange County

From Huntington Beach to Anaheim, Irvine and everywhere in between—here are the best things to do in Orange County

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Spanning from San Clemente in the south to Seal Beach in the north, Orange County has a whole lot going for it. And we’re not just talking about Disneyland (though we love it); from the cities of Anaheim, Irvine and Santa Ana to the beach towns of Laguna, Newport and Huntington, Orange County is buzzing with attractions. 

Here you’ll find immaculate shopping centers, glitzy boat rides, theme parks galore and some seriously good dining options. You’ll find fantastic long stretches of beach (arguably some of the best in California) and days and days on end of beautiful sunshine to enjoy it with. Peek behind the Orange Curtain, and you’ll discover numerous noteworthy destinations—mouse ears optional. Here are the best things to do in Orange County. 

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Kai Oliver-Kurtin is Kai Oliver-Kurtin is the San Diego & Southern California correspondent for Time Out. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines

Best things to do in Orange County

1. Disneyland | Anaheim

It’s still the happiest—though starting to feel like the most expensive—place on Earth. Say what you will about the House of Mouse; Disney is wondrous, immersive lands still provide a joyous escape for everyone from budding princesses to nostalgia buffs. Venture into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye with Indiana Jones, soar over London’s twinkling lights en route to Neverland, and speed through the galaxy aboard Space Mountain’s interstellar coaster.

2. Mission San Juan Capistrano | San Juan Capistrano

Known as the birthplace of Orange County, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the seventh of 21 missions across California, founded more than 200 years ago. Today the historic landmark, chapel, museum, and garden welcomes visitors and tour groups year-round. Next door, the Inn at Mission San Juan Capistrano is a must-visit destination hotel in the overly charming town of SJC. Here you can stay in stylish hacienda-style guest rooms, admire the mission's Great Stone Church ruins from the hotel patio, and sip wine from within the Inn’s serene olive grove. The grove has a decidedly romantic vibe with twinkling lanterns, firepits, and picture-perfect sunsets. No visit to the mission or Inn is complete without a meal at Ysidora restaurant (named for the mission’s matriarch, Ysidora Forster) to enjoy upscale Spanish cuisine like patatas bravas, grilled octopus, and juicy steaks. Don’t skip the olive oil tasting or wine pairings! 

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3. Huntington Beach Pier | Huntington Beach

Located in the heart of downtown Huntington Beach, this iconic pier is one of the longest and most photographed on the west coast. Bud & Gene’s casual American restaurant sits at the end of the pier with killer views. From this “Surf City, USA” landmark, there are nearby shops, restaurants, and bars, as well as walkable attractions like the beachfront mall Pacific City, Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, and cozy fire pits situated directly on the beach.

4. Taco María | Costa Mesa

In a land of taquerias, this upscale Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa offers Mexico City sophistication and, according to the late beloved food critic Jonathan Gold, the county’s best meal. OC-born chef Carlos Salgado cooked in rarified kitchens (including San Francisco’s three Michelin-star Coi) before turning his attention to the cuisine of his heritage. Taco María’s midnight blue, handmade tortillas serve as de facto plates for exquisite combos such as smoked albacore with marinated cucumber and chile ancho, guinea hen with braised lettuce and smoked habanero, and grilled pork belly with grilled nopales. 

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5. Heisler Park | Laguna Beach

This ridiculously scenic oceanfront park in Laguna Beach should be the first stop for anyone who questions why people pay so much to live in California. Take the tropical paradise of Hawaii, remove the lava, and you have Heisler Park. Stroll a paved path that meanders alongside mesmerizing beach coves and through lush seaside gardens brimming with towering palms and enough succulents to crash Pinterest. Kids will enjoy splashing around in the tide pools. 

6. Duffies | Newport Beach

Load up the cooler with rosé, and set sail around the islands and mansions of Newport Harbor aboard your own private touring boat. Posh Newport Harbor is chock-full of mega yachts and Thurston Howell III types. For the rest of us, there’s Duffies, the sporty pleasure boats with canopy tops, ice chests, and cushy bench seating for friends. Enjoy a leisurely cruise around Balboa and Lido Islands, docking at numerous watering holes such as Billy’s on the Beach for Mai Tais and raucous fun. The boats fit up to 10 people and come with free ice for your cooler. 

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7. Anaheim Packing District | Anaheim

Sat within a repurposed 1919 Sunkist packing facility, this stylish Anaheim food hall bustles with eateries, bars, and Millenials. Centered around a light-filled atrium packed with greenery and bench swings, the two-level former warehouse packs in 25 vendors whose culinary offerings span the globe. Get a taste of Japanese-style crepes at Crepe Coop, snap pics of Mini Monster’s fantastical boba tea topped with Fruity Pebbles-sprinkled cotton candy, and seek out the hidden entrance for The Blind Rabbit’s sexy cocktail den.

8. Sugar ‘N Spice | Balboa Island

Fans of the Bluth family will take pleasure in the sprinkle-adorned treats at Balboa Island’s “Original Frozen Banana Stand.” The kitschy inspiration for the beachside stand on “Arrested Development,” Sugar ‘N Spice has been dunking frozen bananas in chocolate and rainbow sprinkles since 1945. They also lay claim to the Balboa Bar, a block of chocolate-dipped ice cream whose invention is challenged by Dad’s Donuts & Bakery, the rival frozen banana stand a few doors away.

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9. Crescent Bay Beach | Laguna Beach

It’s tough to go wrong with any patch of sand in Laguna Beach, but this crescent-shaped stunner is one of the best. With shockingly clear, azure waters backed by palm tree-lined bluffs, this wide, sandy beach cove feels more far-flung than its SoCal setting. Pleasantly warm waters teem with frolicking kids, snorkelers, and scuba divers. Parking by Crescent Bay Beach is limited to nearby residential streets, but the extra walk is worth it to spend an afternoon here.

10. The Lab | Costa Mesa

While Real Housewife types preen for South Coast Plaza’s lavish boutiques, the cool-kid set hangs down the street at this hip cluster of Costa Mesa shops and eateries. Billing itself as the anti-mall when it opened in the grunge-drenched 90s, the Lab’s atmospheric, open-air grounds delight the current generation with vintage airstreams, street art-embellished walls, and light-strung garden courtyards—the preferred spot for sipping mojitos from fresh coconuts. Head across the street to The Camp, whose Frontierland-like property features similar offerings with an outdoorsy theme.

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11. Downtown | Santa Ana

Visitors love that this revitalized, walkable hub is packed with hip food and drink options—and isn’t a mall. You’ll find OC’s buzziest bars and restaurants in “SanTana”, which makes for a fun, food-fueled bar crawl. Pair pints with a game of pool at Mission Bar, nosh on tacos and small plates at Perla Mexican Cuisine, and sit down for killer sushi at OMG Omakase by Gino

12. Lido Marina Village | Newport Beach

Newport Beach’s chic waterfront collection of shops and restaurants redefines shopping malls for the Instagram set. Awash in sleek white shiplap and nautical flair—including photo-ready graphics that proclaim “Let Your Dreams Set Sail”—the Lido Marina’s al fresco shopping center exudes the breezy vibes of a luxury cruise liner.

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13. The Cellar | Fullerton

This time-warp, subterranean eatery in Fullerton was designed in 1969 by the same team that created Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride and has the atmosphere to match. Sure, the old-school Continental-style dishes are fine, but you’re at the Cellar for the dramatic, windowless interiors—made to resemble an Old World wine cellar—and surprisingly up-to-date craft cocktails. Slide into a plush booth in the rock wall-enveloped lounge, order a pitch-perfect martini, and savor the retro-kitsch surroundings.

14. Naugles Tacos & Burgers | Fountain Valley

This 1970s SoCal Mexican fast-food brand was resurrected by a devoted blogger who fought a big chain to bring back the food he missed. Acquired and subsequently jettisoned by fast-food chain Del Taco, the Naugles brand was won in court and rebirthed by local hero Christian Ziebarth. At their Fountain Valley and Stanton locations, savor the nostalgia with cult menu items such as cheesy beef burritos, taco salad cups, and bun tacos, all packaged in the brand’s hyper-70s orange, yellow and brown colors.

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