I was lucky enough to grow up in sunny Orange County, California- the land of the mouse, beautiful people, surfing and wonderful beaches. The food is fabulous, as is the healthy outdoor lifestyle. Although I now live on the east coast, I still feel like a Californian at heart and return at least a couple of times a year, so you can consider this a local’s guide to Orange County, California. Here are the things that I do when I come home and where I recommend to travelers that ask me for advice:
I grew up with frequent visits to Disneyland, so may be biased, but I really do think it is the happiest place on earth. I go every time I am home. It is nice to be able to escape the real world and enter an idealized place, leaving your cares at the entrance. Consequently, It really does make me feel like a carefree child. The park is often pretty crowded and packed full of opportunities for fun, so you can easily spend two days just in this park. If you can fit the long-lined rides (like Space Mountain) in right before the park closes, but after fireworks start, you will experience much shorter waits. Hint: If you are in line when the park closes, they will let you on the ride. Next year, Star Wars land will be opening and my boys are really excited! Be sure to stay for the fireworks, some of the best I’ve seen anywhere! Also, buy your tickets online, as they can sell out and you could be turned away at the gate.
Although Disneyland has some thrill rides, they are not too crazy- just my style, but if you are looking for something more adventurous, you may prefer California Adventure with the Tower of Terror and California Screaming. Soaring Over California is one of my favorite rides ever- a peaceful 4-D virtual reality ride over my glorious state!
Knott’s Berry Farms
Another place to go for roller coasters is the western-themed Knott’s Berry Farm. Be sure to try a berry pie at the restaurant at the entrance- It really was a berry farm many years ago. It is a good park, with lots of thrill rides, but I prefer Disneyland. I would go here rather than California Adventure though. However, I am more likely to spend more time hiking or at the beach than at another OC amusement park.
I think California has the best beaches around. Here are my three favorite beach towns.
This town is the closest to my heart, as I spent so much time during my teenage years here.
- Surf at the Wedge.
- Playing games and enjoying the amusements in Balboa’s Fun Zone. I have to admit this is a bit aged, not sparkly like the rest of Newport, but has tons of fun for adults and kids and won’t break the bank like Disneyland.
- Take the ferry from Balboa Island to the peninsula to do some shopping or have dinner and a Balboa Bar.
- Bike ride down Balboa Beach’s sidewalk.
- Spending an evening enjoying Balboa beach’s fire pits.
- Rent a Duffy Boat to explore the calm waters between Balboa Island and Peninsula.
- Shop at the upscale outdoor mall, Fashion Island.
- Take a walk down Balboa Pier viewing the people fishing, while sipping a chocolate shake from Ruby’s.
Laguna Beach is an art lover’s haven set between California’s mountains and cliffs looming over the Pacific Ocean.
- Stroll through town, shopping and visiting art galleries.
- Hang out on Main Beach.
- If you are in Laguna Beach in August, I highly recommend the Sawdust Arts & Crafts Festival.
- In the same month is the fabulous Festival of the Arts and Pageant of the Masters, a live recreation of famous works of art.
- Check out some aquatic life in the beach coves’ many tide pools.
- Visit 100 Things to Do in Laguna Beach for more ideas.
This beach town is best known for its great surf waves and 10 miles of flat coastline, very different from Laguna Beach. There are many piers and a more laid-back surfer vibe.
- Shop for surf clothing in Huntington’s huge shopping area, The Strand.
- Search for blue whales by going on a whale watch.
- Of course, surf (or body or boogie board).
When picturing California most people think of beaches and palm trees, but travel just a bit inland and the terrain starts turning toward desert. You will find unique scrub and interesting fauna and it is worth exploring the canyons.
This 10.5 mile hike of Newport’s estuaries is a nature lover’s dream with well-kept hiking paths (as well as biking paths) and an abundance of unique wildlife. I got married overlooking this water, which can also be kayaked and SUP on.
This is an island within an hour ferry ride from mainland Orange County- you can see it from Newport on a clear day. Its main city of Avalon has elegant dining and shopping opportunities. My first open water SCUBA dive occurred in the reefs close to the island’s shore. It is some of the best diving in the state with its abundance of wildlife, like the California marine state fish, the bright orange Garibaldi. Outside of the city, you will find undisturbed hiking trails through the California scrub among the prickly pears. There are also places to camp. I really love this place, one of the Channel Islands. To read more about Catalina check out Chillin’ in Catalina from Our Family Travel Adventures.
A must-visit, this fast food joint is really as good as rumored! My order is always a single animal style (an off-menu hamburger variation in which the meat is grilled in mustard and slathered with special sauce-thousand island dressing- and cheese), hand-cut french fries and a chocolate shake. I just referred a couple of friends there and they visited multiple times.
This restaurant specializes in deep dish pizzas and has locations on all my favorite California Beaches. I love the Sweet Pig, loaded with ham, stewed tomatoes, pineapples and mozzarella cheese. Don’t forget the Pizzokie (warm cookie in a pizza pan covered in an ice cream sundae) for dessert!
My favorite is at the end of the Balboa Pier, but you can find these 40s style hamburger joints all over southern California.
California is all about being active and health conscious. This is my favorite restaurant to get my veggie on! I love the Vegetable Lasagna, any of their salads and the not-so-healthy cheesecake with a sour cream frosting and strawberries is the best I have had on earth!
Being located within a couple of hours from Mexico and full of Mexican immigrants, be sure not to miss the Mexican food- the best I have had in the US. There are so many great places for buena comida. My suggestion is to skip the chains and hit up any number of storefronts or drive-thrus. The best ones will have menus in Spanish and offer tongue (lingua) on the menu. I love carne asada anything!
Especially for Kids
My kids always ask to go to this hands on science museum where you can experience an earthquake, a tornado or play hockey.
A manageable way to explore the west coast’s sea life near the Long Beach shoreline.
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Depending on how long I visit, I usually Los Angeles, San Diego or Santa Barbara. Subscribe to get those posts when they come out!
What are your favorite things to do in Orange County? Please let me know in the comments!