The best things to do in Orange County! Enjoy everything this sunny part of California has to offer with this Orange County bucket list.
Known for its stunning coastal views, beautiful beaches, and gorgeous weather, Orange County is the quintessential image that most people think of when they think of California.
Spanning 34 cities and taking up the space between Los Angeles and San Diego, there’s a lot of ground to cover in Orange County (and a lot of things to do within the area)!
To make it easy for you, we’ve put together an ultimate bucket list for the best things to do in Orange County – from the best beaches to outdoor activities, local experiences, and where to eat and drink.
Whether you’re looking to devour delicious churros, get your tan on at a pristine beach, or ride a rollercoaster or two, we’ve got you covered in this post.
Pack your summer things, get ready for some of that California sunshine, and enjoy your time in Orange County!
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Best Things to do in Orange County, California
Spend the Day at the Beach
If there’s one thing you can’t miss with a visit to Orange County, it’s the beach.
Orange County beaches are some of the most beautiful beaches in all of California.
Combine their surf, tide pools, pristine upkeep, and often sunny weather and it’s hard to have a bad day at the beach in Orange County.
This is also one of the best free things to do in Orange County (although you usually have to pay for parking).
And with 42 miles of coastline, there’s a whole lot of beaches to explore in this part of California.
Try to visit a few while you’re in Orange County to truly get a feel for its beachy culture and laid back nature.
These are some of the top beaches in Orange County that are worth a visit:
- Doheny State Beach (Dana Point) – California’s first state beach (opened to the public in 1931)! It’s a popular surf spot with tide pools, outdoor volleyball courts, aquariums (at the visitor center), and campsites. This is one of Orange County’s most popular beaches with close to a million visitors per year. Parking is $15 per vehicle.
- Salt Creek Beach (Dana Point) – Another Orange County beach that’s great for surfing. This beach has outdoor showers, restrooms, and tide pools as well. Parking is $1/hour.
- Seal Beach (Seal Beach) – Seal Beach is not only a beach, it’s also a pretty beachside city within Orange County. And with its proximity to Disneyland, this is one of the most popular beaches to visit for those who are also visiting the Disneyland parks. This beach is another popular surf spot (are you sensing a theme here?). With its usually windy nature, it’s also a good place for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Parking is $3 for two hours or $6 for the whole day.
- Huntington State Beach (Huntington Beach) – Another beach city within Orange County. The nickname for Huntington Beach is “Surf City USA,” which probably gives you a clue for what it’s known for. Besides its world-class surfing, the state beach features volleyball and basketball courts, 200 fire rings for bonfires, a beachside trail, and the beautiful Huntington Beach Pier (which is also the perfect spot to watch the sunset). Parking is $15 per vehicle.
- Main Beach (Laguna Beach) – You might know of Laguna Beach from the famous TV show from the early ‘00s, but it’s also where you’ll find one of the best beaches in Orange County. Although usually pretty busy, Main Beach has a small-town charm with a scenic boardwalk, nearby boutiques, and basketball and volleyball courts. Street parking is metered.
- Table Rock Beach (Laguna Beach) – If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, Table Rock Beach is a good option. With its hidden nature and many steps to get down to, it’s the perfect beach to visit if you’re looking for a more local experience. Just note that swimming isn’t recommended here due to riptides. There’s free street parking near the beach, along the Pacific Coast Highway.
If you have more time, a few other beaches to check out include the following:
- Corona del Mar State Beach
- San Onofre State Beach
- San Clemente City Beach
- Thousand Steps Beach
- Crystal Cove State Park beaches
- Crescent Bay Beach
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Eat an Ice Cream Taco
In recent years, rolled ice cream has become a thing in Orange County.
Colorful, crazy flavors, fun shapes (perfect for kids or kids at heart), Instagram-friendly, and delicious too.
And the latest trend in rolled ice cream is ice cream tacos!
Not too far from Disneyland, you’ll find Sweet Rolled Tacos in Garden Grove (there’s also one in Huntington Beach).
This place serves up rolled ice cream in colorful taco-shaped waffle cones.
These sugary tacos are perfect for those hot Orange County days, whether you’re traveling in Orange County with kids or simply looking for a fun treat to satisfy your sweet tooth.
My personal favorite flavors? Vietnamese Coffee or Cookies & Cream.
Sip on an Iced Vietnamese Coffee from Little Saigon
Spanning across Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, and Westminster, you’ll find over 4,000 Vietnamese-American businesses that make up an area in Orange County called Little Saigon.
Orange County’s Little Saigon is not only the largest Little Saigon in the US, it houses one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.
It’s also home to some of the best Vietnamese food and Vietnamese coffee in California.
The first time I tried a Vietnamese iced coffee I was in Little Saigon, completely unaware of the magic I was about to put into my mouth in the form of (very) strong coffee and condensed milk. It was love at first sip.
To this day, I still haven’t tried a better Vietnamese iced coffee than that first one I tried in Little Saigon.
To get the most out of a visit to Little Saigon, I’d recommend spending a morning or afternoon seeing the sights and filling your stomach.
To start, grab a Vietnamese iced coffee from Phin Smith.
Enjoy Disneyland and California Adventure
Established in the 1950s by Walt Disney, Disneyland attracts millions of visitors every year and is one of the most visited theme parks in the world.
Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most popular Orange County tourist attractions and for good reason – it’s a place that still encapsulates the magic of childhood.
From thrill rides to favorite costumed Disney characters and themed fantasy worlds to get lost in for the day, Disneyland is easily one of the most fun things to do in Orange County.
Although I always recommend starting with Disneyland if you haven’t been to either park, Disneyland’s sister park, California Adventure, is worth a visit as well.
California Adventure is seen as the more adult version of Disneyland with more thrill rides and the option to drink alcohol if you want.
And if you’re looking for things to do at night in Orange County, don’t miss the Main Street light show and fireworks at the end of the day in Disneyland.
It’s one of the coolest fireworks shows I’ve been to.
The show usually starts around 9:30 pm, but it’s good to check the official Disneyland schedule online to make sure the fireworks are running during your visit.
Local tip: The FastPass feature at the Disneyland parks is a game-changer. This feature lets you sign up for a specific time slot where you can skip the line at a specific attraction.
You can only sign up for one FastPass at a time, but it helps save you a ton of time from waiting in line for every single ride.
Although you can manually walk to each ride to get a FastPass, it’s well worth it to download the Disneyland App and purchase the Disney MaxPass feature.
It’s only $20 for the day and it allows you to sign up for FastPasses from your phone instead of walking to each ride – a huge time saver with how big the parks are.
Get Your Thrills at Knott’s Berry Farm
Looking for more fun places to go in Orange County?
If you’re looking for even more thrills, make a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm for some serious roller coasters.
Located in Buena Park, this was California’s first theme park and features adrenaline-inducing rides, seasonal events, and plenty of interactive experiences.
Although the park’s main draw is its crazy rollercoasters, it offers a decent chunk of kids rides as well so the whole family can enjoy the park.
For more slippery thrills, there’s also Knott’s Soak City right across the street for those who like a good waterslide.
Local tip: During October, they make the park into “Knott’s Scary Farm,” which is basically one huge haunted house. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you enjoy getting scared and want to get into the Halloween spirit, this is the place to go.
Stroll Around Downtown Disney
As the name suggests, the Downtown Disney District is another Disney-related activity that’s perfect after a visit to the park or if you want to skip Disneyland all together but still want to experience some Disney magic.
Downtown Disney is the area you walk through to get to either Disneyland or California Adventure.
It’s completely free to visit and a fun place to walk around, even if you’re not visiting the parks, with various dining options, live music, caricature drawings, and shops.
Downtown Disney is definitely on the touristy side but worth visiting at least once for the full Disney experience in Orange County.
Local tip: Parking is free for 15 minutes if you want to just hop out and walk around quickly. Otherwise, you can park for free for up to three hours if you spend at least $20 from any shop or restaurant. Or, you can park for up to five hours for free if you dine-in at any of the Downtown Disney restaurants.
Find the Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach
Although this isn’t as much of a hidden gem as it used to be with its popularity on Instagram, finding the Pirate Tower at Victoria Beach is still a fun thing to do in Orange County.
The scenic tower, also known as “La Tour,” was built in 1926 for beach access from the house that was built above it.
It was basically a very fancy staircase down to the beach when it was in use, but it has since become a famous Laguna Beach landmark to visit.
Today, it’s closed to the public but you can still view the Norman-style tower from the north end of Victoria Beach. Just make sure you go during low tide.
Hike at Crystal Cove State Park
If you’re looking for more outdoor activities in Orange County, don’t miss Crystal Cove State Park.
This is the most stunning state park in Orange County, offering up coastal views, plenty of easy hiking trails, tide pools, and historic buildings.
Situated between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach and spanning 3.2 miles of coastline, there’s a lot to explore at Crystal Cove.
It’s an Orange County bucket list destination and deserves at least half a day if not more.
Start with tackling a hiking trail or two, maybe go snorkeling or walk around the tide pools, and then have a picnic on the beach to finish off your day at the park.
Parking is $15 per vehicle for the whole day. Make sure to go early since the parking lot fills up fast, especially on weekends. This is one of the most popular tourist spots in Orange County so expect it to be somewhat crowded.
Local tip: If you can snag one, book an overnight stay at one of the Crystal Cove Cottages. These 24 historic cottages were built in the 1930s and were part of the seaside colony that existed here from 1920 to 1940. You can book a cottage via ReserveCalifornia.
Tour Mission San Juan Capistrano
One of the 21 Spanish missions you’ll find up and down the coast of California, Mission San Juan Capistrano is a look back at colonial times when California was occupied by Spanish missionaries.
This particular mission was founded in 1776 and is one of the oldest Orange County landmarks that is still standing today.
It’s also one of the most beautiful California missions, nicknamed the “Jewel of the California Missions,” and one of the most visited with about 300,000 annual visitors.
During a visit to the mission, you can tour the grounds to view the many artifacts, artwork, permanent exhibits, and unique American Colonial architecture on display.
Before you leave, visit the Serra Chapel and spend some time relaxing in the gardens.
Learn More About OC History at the Bowers Museum
If you’re going to visit one museum in Orange County, make it the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
Established in 1936, the museum features exhibits on the early history of Orange County, as well as art from all corners of the globe in the form of textiles, sculptures, and paintings.
This is one of those museums that has a little something for everyone with 100,000 objects in their permanent collection and a unique variety of rotating exhibits.
It’s one of the best activities to do in Orange County if you’re looking for an artsy experience and to learn more about the history of the area.
Do a Self-Guided Craft Beer Tour
One of the more unique things to do in Orange County is checking out the local craft beer scene.
For decades, San Diego has been known as the spot for craft beer in California. But, in recent years, Orange County has been giving San Diego a run for its money in terms of quality craft breweries.
There are various breweries to visit around Orange County, although a good chunk of them can be found in Anaheim.
To explore the local craft beer scene, you can either hop on a guided beer tour with OC Wine & Brew Tours or do a self-guided tour yourself.
This goes without saying, but if you’re doing a self-guided tour please make sure you have a designated driver or use a share ride service to get to and from the breweries.
Here are a few of the best breweries in Orange County that I’d recommend visiting:
- Bottle Logic Brewing (Anaheim)
- Noble Ale Works (Anaheim)
- The Bruery (Placentia)
- Brewery X (Anaheim)
- Docent Brewing (San Juan Capistrano)
- GameCraft Brewing (Laguna Hills)
- Four Sons Brewing (Huntington Beach)
Eat all the Churros
If you’re looking to take a break from sightseeing in Orange County, find a churro truck and dig in.
Besides ice cream tacos and Vietnamese iced coffee, one of my favorite things to consume in Orange County is churros!
The best churros are those you’ll find at the churro food trucks that pop up on the corner or in random places around the county.
Eat them with filling (Nutella, vanilla, chocolate, etc) or with some Champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate made with corn), either way they are sure to be delicious.
If it’s your first time trying churros in Orange County, I’d recommend starting with Don Churros Gomez in Anaheim (although, really, any local churro truck will do).
Explore the Artsy Culture of Costa Mesa
Tucked away just a mile from the coast, Costa Mesa is a vibrant and eclectic city to explore in Orange County.
It’s a place that’s known for its hipster and artistic vibe, unique shopping, and colorful street art.
To start off an afternoon in Costa Mesa, I’d recommend walking through LAB Anti-Mall.
As the name suggests, this is an “anti-mall.”
It’s an outdoor area that features trendy fashion boutiques, local restaurants, hair salons, and a record store and art gallery.
It’s a fun place to go shopping or simply walk around sipping on an iced coffee while you window shop the unique boutiques.
Afterward, you can go on a street art hunt to check out the many public art sculptures and colorful murals around the city.
For sculpture and public art pieces, I’d recommend going on this self-guided art tour.
And for murals, installations, and artsy utility boxes, you can go off of this list.
Get in Touch With Nature
Some of the best Orange County attractions are those that allow you to get in touch with nature.
Case in point – there are quite a few reserves, nature centers, and conservation areas around Orange County that will allow you to get to know local plants and animals in a peaceful environment.
One of the best places to visit for untouched nature is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
Right next to Huntington Beach, this 1300-acre reserve is a must-see in Orange County.
It features mudflats, salt and freshwater marshes, open water, dunes, and it’s home to over 200 bird species, making it a popular destination for birdwatchers.
It’s also the perfect place to go for an easy hike.
If you’re looking for more nature attractions in Orange County, Shipley Nature Center is another spot that’s worth a visit.
The center was established in the 1970s and features 18 acres of native plants and animals and is a good place to learn more about the natural history of the area.
And finally, another good place to go to immerse yourself in nature is the Dana Point Headlands.
These headlands are part of a conservation area and a beautiful place to go for a hike and watch the sunset.
Within the headlands, you’ll find over 150 different plant and animal species that are native to this part of California.
Take the Ferry to Balboa Island
A short ferry ride, drive, or walk away from Newport Beach, lies the man-made Balboa Island.
This scenic island is filled with local shops, delicious eateries, and is a popular year-round destination for locals and tourists alike.
Walk along Marine Avenue to take in the local shops, dine on fresh seafood at one of the restaurants near the water, or try one of the island’s famous desserts – the Balboa Bar and the Balboa Frozen Banana (anyone else a fan of Arrested Development?).
Whatever you decide to do, taking the ferry to Balboa Island and spending the day exploring this little oasis is one of those classic Orange County things to do and always a fun day out.
This is especially the case if you’re looking for things to do with kids in Orange County.
The Balboa Peninsula houses the Balboa Fun Zone with arcade games, a ferris wheel, and plenty of kid-friendly activities.
Plus, who doesn’t love a frozen banana on a hot day in Southern California?
Explore the Coastal Canyons at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
There are clearly a lot of things to see in Orange County, but another one that shouldn’t be missed is exploring the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
Tucked away in the San Joaquin Hills near downtown Laguna Beach, this huge 7,000-acre park is where you’ll find some of the last standing natural coastal canyons in Southern California.
It’s also where you’ll find the only natural lakes in Orange County, scenic views, and plenty of hiking trails.
If you’re looking for good hikes in the area, this is an ideal place to start with over 40 miles of hiking trails.
Don’t miss out on visiting the Nix Nature Center before setting out to learn more about the history of this area and its local flora and fauna.
Walk Around Old Towne Orange
If you’re wondering where to go in Orange County to get off the main tourist trail, I’d recommend heading to Orange.
And, more specifically, Old Towne Orange.
Old Towne Orange is a charming and historic downtown area situated around a traffic circle at Plaza Park.
It only covers one-square-mile, but there’s still a lot of small-town charm to enjoy.
The district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 and features plenty of historic buildings (including over 1,300 historic homes), restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and antique shops.
It’s a fun place to walk around and one of the best things to do around Orange County if you want to feel like you just stepped onto the set of Gilmore Girls or One Tree Hill.
Go on a Day Trip to Catalina Island
Lying 22 miles off the coast of Orange County, Santa Catalina Island is one of the most popular places to visit near Orange County and a fun day trip or weekend trip to experience in the area.
The island has two main hubs you can ferry to – Two Harbors and Avalon – although Avalon is its main town that most tourists head to first.
Once you arrive on the island, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve been transported to another time with the number of historic buildings, quiet trails, and the very few cars you’ll come across.
And there’s a lot you can do once you arrive.
From walking along the waterfront to shopping at local boutiques, snorkeling or going on one of the glass-bottomed boat tours, sunbathing, finding scenic viewpoints, and touring the famous casino, there’s plenty to keep you busy for the day or a full weekend on the island.
If you’re looking for a bigger adventure, one of the most popular multi-day hikes in California can be found on Catalina Island – the 37-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.
And there are a lot of shorter trails to enjoy as well for those who aren’t up for that big of a trek.
The one downside to Catalina is that it’s not the cheapest to get to or stay on.
Prices on the island come at a premium for most things and the ferry ticket itself is $75 roundtrip for adults.
If you can work it into your budget though, a visit to Catalina Island is well worth the price and one of the best things to do near Orange County.
Local tip: With its lack of cars and its many hills, most people get around Catalina Island by golf cart. There are usually places to rent golf carts near the ferry dock once you arrive.
Just note that they’re not the cheapest, so it’s best if you can split the cost between a few people if you want to rent one for the day. Golf cart rentals on the island are generally priced around $30/hour or $115 for the day at the low end.
More Fun Things to do in Orange County
- Step back in time at Heritage Hill Historical Park
- Kayak in Newport Beach Harbor
- Go whale watching
- Catch an Angels Game
- Road trip the Orange County coastline along the PCH (and take in stunning views from every direction)
- Learn how to surf or watch the surfers at Huntington Beach (and visit the International Surfing Museum)
- Surround yourself with greenery at the Fullerton Arboretum
- Snorkel the coves around Laguna Beach
- Hike to the top of Saddleback Mountain
- Have a sunset picnic at Inspiration Point
- Go art gallery hopping in Laguna Beach (the city holds over 100 art galleries!) or, if you’ll be in town on the first Thursday of the month, go on a First Thursdays Art Walk.
- Rent bikes in Newport Beach and ride along the beachside bike path to Huntington Beach and back (~2 hours roundtrip)
Where to Eat & Drink in Orange County
- Morning Lavender Cafe
- Phin Smith
- Contra Coffee & Tea
- Banzai Bowls
- Gen Korean BBQ House
- Porto’s Bakery & Cafe
- Mamma D’s Italian Kitchen
- Din Tai Fung
- Taqueria El Zamorano
- Sushi Imari
- Sup Noodle Bar
- Cream Pan
- The Blind Rabbit
- Vacation Bar
- Mission Bar
- The Cauldron
- TAPS Brewery and Barrel Room
- The Drake
- Strong Water Anaheim
What to Pack for Orange County
One of the best things about Orange County is its near-perfect weather.
Orange County has that quintessential California weather that allows you to wear shorts and flip flops pretty much all year.
The one exception is the dense morning fog that tends to hug the coastline, especially in the summer. However, this usually burns off by the afternoon to clear, sunny days.
It can also get chilly near the water at night, especially in the winter and spring, so it’s good to bring layers for when the temperatures change.
As a general rule of thumb, layers are always your friend in coastal California.
This is what I’d recommend packing for a trip to Orange County:
- Breathable short-sleeved shirts and/or tank tops
- Shorts and/or skirts
- Pair of pants, jeans, or leggings for cool mornings or nights
- Flip flops/sandals
- Nice outfit and shoes for going out to bars or a fancier restaurant
- Bathing suit
- Hiking shoes and a hat if you’re going to hit some of the local hiking trails
- Good walking shoes
- Jacket to layer up if need be
- Usual toiletries, electronics, and chargers
Best Time to Visit Orange County
With its temperate weather year-round, Orange County is a great destination to visit at any time of the year.
This area of California barely gets any rain and rarely goes below 60 F in the winter (during the day).
With that said, if you’re looking for a specific timeframe, my favorite time to be in Orange County is mid to late fall.
The weather is still perfect every day, the crowds have dissipated a bit, and the “June Gloom” of super foggy mornings in the summer isn’t quite as bad.
Spring is another beautiful time to visit but there might be some rain during your trip (although it’s still pretty rare).
How to Get Around Orange County
Orange County, and Southern California as a whole, isn’t known for its public transportation.
And with more than 30 cities that make up the county, it can be tricky to get around.
As much as I hate encouraging adding to the traffic in Orange County, the best and fastest way to get around is by car.
Ideally, you’ll have your own car (or rental) to get around, otherwise, ride shares like Lyft and Uber are a common way to get from point A to B as well.
OCTA only operates within Orange County and costs $2 per ride with one free transfer. They have 77 buses that run throughout the county and you can view their schedules here.
Metrolink has three lines and 11 stations in Orange County and is a good way to get around the greater Southern California region if you’re looking to tackle an Orange County day trip – from Ventura to Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange County, and down to San Diego.
The fares for Metrolink are based on distance so you’ll need to know how far you’re going when you purchase a ticket.
For the bus, you can purchase tickets with exact change directly from the bus driver when you get on, or download the OC Bus Mobile app to purchase tickets on your phone.
For Metrolink trains, you can either purchase tickets from kiosks at the station or from the Metrolink app.
Unfortunately, Orange County doesn’t have any kind of universal transit card that you can reload (that I know of).
Local Tips for Visiting Orange County
- Parking is often hard to find and expensive – Although many of the top things to do in Orange County are free and outdoors, the one thing you can always expect to pay for is parking. And parking usually isn’t cheap with many lots charging up to $15-$20 for parking. Also, with how popular of a place Orange County is to visit, parking lots fill up quickly and it’s often hard to find parking if you’re visiting a top attraction. Parking hassles are probably one of the biggest downsides to visiting Orange County and a good reason to either use public transit or rideshare apps whenever possible (even if they’re not always the most convenient).
- Get the California Explorer Annual Day Use Pass if you’re going to visit a lot of Southern California beaches or doing a coastal California road trip – Speaking of parking costs, one of the best ways to cut down on them if you’ll be visiting a lot of beaches or coastal attractions is to get the California Explorer Annual Day Use Pass. You’ll need to visit at least 13 beaches and other California attractions in order for the pass to pay for itself, but if you’ll be in Orange County for a lengthier period or if you’re doing a full Pacific Coast Highway road trip, this pass can be well worth it. Learn more about it here.
- The best things to do in Orange County are completely free and outdoors – As I mentioned above, the best things to do in Orange County involve the outdoors and are often free. Make sure to bring a sense of adventure and comfortable walking shoes to get the most out of what this sunny destination has to offer.
- Be prepared for that endless summer feel – Temperatures drop a little in the winter and in the evenings, especially near the water. However, for the vast majority of the time, Orange County really does have that endless summer feel. This is one of the reasons why it’s such a popular vacation spot, it’s hard to beat the weather in this part of California.
- Orange County is all about the chains – And no, I’m not talking about snow chains. This is actually something that could be said for Southern California as a whole, but Orange County, especially, has tons of statewide and nationwide chain restaurants, stores, and businesses. You’ll find local shops as well, but chain stores and strip malls are everywhere and are very much the norm. It’s just more of a reason to support small local businesses when you’re in town (when you can find them).
- People don’t really call it “The OC” – Although you may have first heard about Orange County from the popular early ‘00 show called “The O.C.,” locals don’t really call it that. Similar to locals in San Francisco disliking it when people call the city “San Fran” or “Frisco,” locals in Orange County aren’t a fan of people calling their home “The OC”. Obviously, you can call it what you want, but if you don’t want to sound like a tourist, don’t call it “The OC.”
Where to Stay in Orange County
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