This is a living blog post – as I find more restaurants and fun things to do in my own backyard, I’ll update with recommendations. I definitely need to add more pictures! Don’t forget to check back!
I’m a Southern California native – with the exception of four years at university, I’ve lived my whole life in either San Diego, Los Angeles, or Orange County. My family is in San Diego, so when I was living in LA, I’d drive through Orange County all the time. My first place I lived on my own after graduation was in Long Beach, about a mile from the OC.
I know that most people think of Disneyland when they think of the OC, but I’m not a theme park person – the crowds give me really bad anxiety. I haven’t been to Disneyland since I was in high school, so you’re not going to find any tips on visiting from me. Honestly, I find there to be a lot better ways to spend your money because I can’t believe the price of going.
I live in Costa Mesa, and there are a lot of really cute little beach towns to visit that have their own flavor. I’m going to break it down by area to help you when planning your visit. Most of my recommendations are along the coast. Both as a Californian that only recently moved here, and based on the impression that I feel other people have – I’ll try to describe the feel of the real OC outside of Disneyland. It’s very residential, barring Irvine, which I think is because there is no MAJOR city in it. LA County has LA, Santa Monica, etc. San Diego County has… San Diego… duh. Orange County is a bit of a weird in-between zone. There are areas that are certainly super posh – the Real Housewives and the TV show The O.C. definitely cover those bits. That’s not the world I live in, so the parts I’ll cover are more of the beaches, the hikes, and the fun places to get food or drink with your friends.
Where to stay – The traffic in Southern California is THE WORST. I definitely recommend picking where you’re going to stay based on the geography of what you’re going to be doing. Minimize your time on the road at all costs. I always recommend staying at a hotel that’s in your loyalty program. Since I live here, I don’t think I’ve stayed at a hotel yet. If I had to pick my favorite city where I’d recommend a hotel on the beach, it would probably be Huntington Beach because there is so much to do.
Getting here – I used to live less than five miles from LAX. I always say that it would take less time to drive to the Santa Ana airport (SNA) than it would to make it around LAX. It’s very small and easy and convenient, very short lines. There’s also a convenient train that I’ll talk about later.
You can also check out my Los Angeles Beaches Blog for general tips on driving in California and info on some nearby destinations.
I’m starting with giving my own city top billing. Even though this is a very OC summery vibe sort of town, it doesn’t actually have a beach – if you look at a map, Newport cuts over and steals our beach front property from us. If that helps me afford to live here, then it’s cool with me. I really love it here, there’s a lot to do and everything you need in close proximity. We have fancy stuff, but you don’t have to be fancy to live here or visit.
When I was first living in the area, the thing I knew Costa Mesa for the most was South Coast Plaza. This is probably the fanciest mall we have in the area. They have Chanel, Christian Louboutin, Versace, Tiffany and all the top designers. They also have some pretty nice restaurants – this is the kind of mall that you’d dress up to go to. There are two halves to the mall, and the one on the West side has all of the home stores, for the most part, which is really nice. Din Tai Fung is famous world wide for their dumplings and noodles, and we’re lucky to have one right down the street. It’s in the main part of the mall, and there’s usually a huge wait. Our tip is to go for brunch on the weekend – show up 30 minutes before they open and get in line. When they open, you’ll be in the first seating. They’re most known for their Xiao Long Bao (aka XLB, or soup dumplings) and you should totally get them and the green beans with garlic.
Near SCP there are a lot of great areas. The LAB Anti-Mall is really neat because it’s kitschy and the only chain they have is Urban Outfitters. Several great restaurants and bars, and some cool art installations that will help bring your Instagram game to the next level.
Across the street is The Camp- which describes itself as a “hip, eco-concious retail & dining spot,” which I think hits the nail on the head. There are a lot of great trendy options here. I went to Mesa for my 40th birthday (definitely trendy, and a line at night) and I really really love wine tasting at Wine Lab. Taco Asylum is great and had good craft beers – try the PB&J taco!
Did I mention that Costa Mesa has conveyor belt sushi? I should have started with that. Kaiten is the restaurant we’ve visited the most. It’s super fun – various plates come around on a conveyor belt, and you can pick up what you like, and order drinks with the waitresses. There are picture cards to help you decipher what it is you’re eating. All the plates are color coded by price: when you finish a dish you stack them up, and the waitress does the math at the end. Good sake and happy hour beer specials, but go early because this place gets a wait! Other than the gimmicky conveyor belt, this has a real authentic vibe.
Costa Mesa is also known for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts – I’ve been to a few shows there and it’s been great. If you’re in to that sort of thing, check out their schedule!
For a tasty and Instagrammable coffee, get some anti-bitch serum at Coffee Dose! It’s next to a cute consignment store and actually inside a hair studio. The original location is on Melrose. I also really like Outpost for good brunch (it’s an Aussie place!) and Social has a good brunch with craft coffee and cool murals. You can check them out in Huntington Beach too.
Brewery Tour! There are seven breweries that we can bike to from our house! Definitely a fun thing to check out if you want to mingle with locals
- Karl Strauss is a San Diego brewery and one of the founders of the Craft Beer movement. Their gastro pub is one of our go-tos for a nice easy dinner when we don’t want to cook at home.
- Green Cheek Beer Co – the newest brewery in the block, and we like it! They have a great pandemic friendly outdoor patio. They opened right as the coronavirus appeared, so glad they’ve stayed in business. We’ve supported them with the occasional growler fill. This is the location of the first brewery we came to when we moved here, which has since closed. RIP Barley Forge.
- Gunwhale Ales is right across the street and super fun. I’d almost describe it as hipster beer. Lots of IPA and wild beers.
- Salty Bear is next to Gunwhale and it’s tasty with a fun outdoor area. Bonus is that there’s a short-cut to The Camp out back! They don’t have food, but they have a bunch of menus of places that will deliver. We went there for Valentines Day 2020 and had beer and burgers and it was a great date!
Salty Bear – hit up three breweries across from each other and grab food at The Camp
- Bootleggers is in the Anti-Mall and it’s really fun. Great, colorful, arty ambiance and games and a good social spot. Whatever you do, don’t get the mint beer. It tastes like toothpaste. Everything else is tasty though!
- Technically Santa Ana River Brewery is in Santa Ana, but we bike there so I’m including it on the list. Lots of IPAs, and if you like supporting the new and small breweries, this is a great spot. They have pinball and check with them for food trucks!
- Saving the best for last – Brewing Reserve of Californians is my new favorite. Really cute space, and the beer is great. They also have craft flavored lemonade. Food trucks on the weekend, Tuesday, and Thursday night they play video games. Not a very walkable location though.
Aaaahhh Huntington. I’d describe this town as the big buff surfer dude from your high school that was super gregarious and popular and nice, and parties hard on the weekend. Wears a tank top and zinc oxide on his nose. Lifeguards in the summers. He’s a bro in a way that is more funny than annoying. It’s pretty big for a beach town, and I have a lot of friends that live here, my boyfriend used to live here, and I spent a few months working here.
The most popular thing to do in Huntington is to head to Main Street area. There is A LOT to do there, and maybe more tourists than other spots. This is where we usually take people that come in from out of town. The pier and the beach are gorgeous, but parking in general can be a pain. Enjoy watching the drum circles and this is definitely a great spot for beach volleyball. We have friends with a standing game on the weekends. You can rent bikes or surf boards for an afternoon of feeling like you’re a part of the idyllic California life style. Here’s some spots nearby I like:
- Duke’s is on the west side of Pacific Coast Highway (all the locals call it PCH) and while touristy, I find to be a pretty good spot to bring out of town guests.
- Fred’s is always crowded, because they’re up high and have a good view of the water, and the margs and Mexican food are great.
- Baja Sharkeez is a chain in the LA/OC beach towns. I have spent a lot more time at the ones in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach… if this is anything like those, it can be a shitshow. But it’s fun and the food is surprisingly decent.
- Off of Main Street is the Irishman. Total hole in the wall pub, and that’s where my group of friends usually goes. Bingo on Wednesdays is fun! Bonus, the world’s largest surf board is across the street.
- Up your basic Instagram game by getting a wing mural photo… but make it pizza! They’re at Cruiser’s Pizza Bar & Grill
- Bruxie Chicken and Waffles was a fun spot!
- Black Bull has an amazing brunch spread.
Ok, so you’ve seen the sights at the pier, and now you want to know what my absolute #1 thing to do in Orange County is? You gotta go to Sea Legs at the Beach. All I’ve got to say is frozé all day! Yes, they have rosé wine slushies! You can drive there, but parking is pretty expensive in the big lot because it’s inside the Bolsa Chica Marine Conservation Area, so if you need to drive it might make more sense to rideshare, especially if you’re drinking. I think you can park off Warner, but I haven’t figured that out yet. If you want to do what the locals do, you get yourself a bike and you ride there. Better if it’s a beach cruiser. (Bike culture is super big in Huntington). It’s really pretty, and there’s a lot of walking/biking trails in Bolsa Chica. There are also a ton of RVs camping in the parking lot by the beach. This place is all outdoors, live music, toes in the sand, and cold beer. Definitely the spot to be in the summer. Go with a group and reserve a spot! At night, there’s lots of options near here for a beach bonfire.
The 4th of July celebration in Huntington Beach is like nothing else you’ve experienced. There is no parking in the entire city after about 10am. Everyone is day drinking and out on their bikes and going to the beach. The more obnoxious you can be with your red white and blue patriotic attire, the better you will fit in. And there are so so so many fire works. Legal, illegal, who knows. I’m lucky enough to have never been in an actual war zone, but this is what I think it would be like. Last year my car was covered in ash the morning of the 5th. If you don’t like fireworks, have PTSD, or have a skittish dog, I would avoid the area for about a week on either side of the 4th. This is true for most of the town, not just near the beach/restaurants.
This is definitely a sleepy little beach. It’s immediately to the North of the louder and bigger Huntington Beach. A few miles inland there’s a place called Leisure World, which is a very large retirement community. Everything shuts down here pretty early. But the main street, which ends in a pier, is incredibly fun with lots of bars, restaurants, and shopping. It does close down early at night. It feels very small town – so much so that it was used in the American Pie 2 movie (where the guys were living near the lake in Michigan and painting houses for the summer).
This is slightly cheating because it’s Long Beach, and that’s in LA county, but I’ve got two great recommendations about a mile North of Seal Beach. One is the Ballast Point Brewery, because beer and a great patio, and the other is Tantalum Restaurant. You may think I’m weird for recommending a restaurant in a strip mall, but it’s not a chain, it’s gorgeous on the inside, it has an amazing view of the marina. The food is really good (Asian Fusion) and their thing is super chilling their beer to 29 degrees and serving it in iced over goblets – so it’s right on the verge of turning into slush and it tastes so good! Their cocktails are FAB. Ok, now I need to plan an evening there or I need to set up a brunch!
Newport Beach is somewhere that I’m not the definitive expert on, but I’d like to get to know it better. Definitely more of a fancy Real Housewives sort of place, I find it fun to come and walk around and check out the real estate.
A great place that we love to bring people from out of town is Balboa Island. It’s small and cute and has a great walking path along the bay. on the peninsula side there’s a little carnival with rides and games (Balboa Fun Zone), that’s fun to go to if you have kids. You can get to the island by car over a bridge from the north side, but it’s more fun to take the Balboa Ferry from near the Fun Zone. It only takes a handful of cars at a time, but you can use it if you’re a pedestrian or a bicyclist. From the ferry drop-off on the island, it’s a bit of a walk to the main street (Marine Avenue) but it’s really cute and worth it. When you’re there, the cool thing to do is to get a chocolate-dipped frozen banana. Yum!
If you want a cool trendy Newport restaurant where you’ll find locals and few tourists, I’d recommend Gracias Madre – very trendy and cool beach house aesthetic. The food is all plant based and organic, and the cocktails and vibe are amazing. However the parking SUCKS BALLS and it’s really expensive. For what we paid for a 2-cocktail plant-based brunch we could have gone to a steak house.
There are several different Lagunas, so be sure to know where people mean when they tell you to go there. They’re probably talking about Laguna Beach instead of Laguna Niguel, unless they’re talking about where they live. The beaches are gorgeous. I like Shaw’s Cove because it’s secluded with safe waves for the kids, and it’s fun to watch the scuba divers coming and going. Parking is a bitch though.
Laguna Beach is super artsy! It’s really great! Art-A-Fair is one of the first places I went with my bestie when I moved to the OC because it’s a rainbow ideal Instagram background. (And it shares an extended parking lot with Laguna Beach Beer Company, which I’ve been meaning to check out, which also has some cool murals). Laguna Beach is so known for being artsy because of the Sawdust Art Festival and the Pageant of the Masters.
Hiking! My new favorite is the Car Wreck Trail – at the end of which you can find a 1946 Dodge Coupe in a place that will boggle your mind on how it got there. Definitely a hike I would recommend as the first one you should do in Orange County as an out-of towner. It’s a moderate hike, so I wouldn’t take it with little kids, but it has AMAZING views of the Pacific. (Actually, from the trail head if you only want to see the views and not the wreck, that part is totally do-able with kids).
I really like the Water Tank Loop, and there are a lot of trail heads you can see along the 133 between the 73 and the ocean. Been meaning to check more of those out! (Californians talk about freeways as “the 405” without any other explanation. We also call them freeways and not highways).
We have some friends that live in Dana Point and we have enjoyed some gorgeous summer days at their surfboard shaped pool. Going to the harbor is the thing to do here, and I can’t recommend enough the locals vibe of having brunch at Turk’s. The other thing that locals know about Dana Point is that it’s the spot that you can catch the Catalina Express over to Avalon Harbor – one of my favorite things to do in either LA or OC!
I can’t think of anything to see or do in Garden Grove. But I will tell you that it’s home to one of my favorite restaurants of all time. Do you like Korean BBQ? Then Cham Sut Gol is the place for you to visit. This place is amazing, and I go out of my way to make it there! All you can eat, usually a wait to get a table, great for groups, and free ice cream!
Take the Train
If you want to beat the traffic and check out some cool spots, I really like the Pacific Surfliner. It’s an Amtrak line that connects downtown San Diego and Santa Barbara. I like taking it up to Santa Barbara and doing the Urban Wine trail – check out my other blog for details on that! My mom in San Diego and I both live near stops on this line, so it makes it easier for us to see each other without the hassle of traffic.
Here are the OC stops (North – South) with my thoughts!
- Fullerton – There’s nothing in Fullerton
- Anaheim – This stop is right in the middle of the Angels’ Stadium and the Honda Center, so it’s a great option if you’re going to see some baseball, hockey, or a concert. It’s a 15 minute drive from here to the Mouse’s House.
- Santa Ana – My stop, closest to Costa Mesa.
- Irvine – Eww. You don’t want to go to Irvine. But this stop is closer to Laguna.
- San Juan Capistrano – This was the halfway spot for my mom and I when I lived in the South Bay, so we’d actually use the train parking structure all the time. Definitely recommend brunch at Trevor’s at the Tracks or try Sundried Tomato. Lots of good restaurants and shopping nearby. And I also take for granted that we have the missions here – a good historical spot if you’re so inclined. Most California children had to do a report on the missions when we were kids, so I’m sort of meh about it since I was forced into it. Plus I’m not a fan of the way the missionaries treated the locals. (I don’t think calling for a boycott here is going to do anything to right any wrongs, if this is your thing, go ahead, but pay attention to the wrongs done and use your voice to not let it happen again). This stop is very close to Dana Point.
- San Clemente – An adorable little beach town that’s been crowded when I’ve visited. Parking is hard here, so definitely take the train if you can! We brought out of towners to Fisherman’s – right on the pier with a gorgeous view. A cute town that’s worth a visit no matter how you get there! Great to walk around, but quite hilly.
Another thing we like about San Clemente is the camping! We go to San Clemente State Beach Campground to camp for the weekend quite often, and it’s right by a beautiful beach. If you want somewhere fun to stay for the weekend but don’t want to bring your tent and gear with you, check out these cute vintage trailers you can rent! Campsites have flush toilets and showers.
Best Rated Restaurants
The local paper, the OC Register, has come up with a list of the 75 best restaurants in the OC. We’re trying to work our way through it, so here are the ones we’ve been to and a quick note.
29. Din Tai Fung – Amazing, one of our favorite restaurants ever. More in the Costa Mesa section, above
22. North Italia – A bit of a cheat, I haven’t been to the OC one in Irvine, but I’ve been to the one in Manhattan Beach. This isn’t necessarily authentic, but it’s really really good Italian.
10. Water Grill – Across the street from South Coast Plaza, we went for my boyfriend’s 35th! Pricey, but really good and amazing ambiance. We’re going to go back and check out the happy hour scene. Valet parking only ($$) unless you park at the mall and walk over the bridge.
8. Maestro’s Steak House – I went for a celebration dinner with work people and it is seriously one of the best steak places I’ve been to
5. Arc – Close to us in Costa Mesa. We had a nice date night here, and the food was good, but no way I’d put it at #5 on this list. I wasn’t even going to mention it in this blog.