Squeezed in between scene-stealing Los Angeles and family-friendly San Diego, with one notable exception—Disneyland, obvs—many visitors to Southern California leave without ever having really engaged with Orange County, one of the West’s most compelling places. They’re making a huge mistake. From glam beach villages to up-and-coming downtowns, exclusive resorts to unique ethnic enclaves, Orange County is so much more than just the suburbs—it’s more than three million people of all kinds living in the second most densely populated county in the state, after San Francisco. Next time you find yourself in Southern California, here’s what you do.
#1 Taste the county’s exploding beer scene.
From lively weekend evenings inside the tasting room at Noble Ale Works, located in the shadow of Angel Stadium, to the world-class (and often one-of-a-kind) brews on tap at The Bruery, just minutes up the freeway, the region may take second place next to beer-crazy San Diego when it comes to volume flowing from local taps, but Orange County hopheads are easily as enthusiastic. Just check out the beer bars—they’re some of the best in Southern California. Start at the smart-casual Provisions Market in Orange, where an impressive, California-centric tap list is complemented by hundreds more bottles available for purchase. Sandwiches, snacks and locally-roasted coffee are available.
#2 Explore the historic city at the heart of the sprawl.
Home to the hub of county government, Santa Ana has always had a certain charm—it’s home to the Bowers art museum, founded in the 1930s, not to mention the pleasant Artist’s Village, featuring an array of studios alongside the small Orange County Center for Contemporary Arts and cool hangouts like Chapter One, a gastropub housed in an old bookstore and Lola Gaspar, a romantic boite with a fun, pan-Latin-ish menu. But it’s what’s happening around the corner on 4th Street that truly cements Santa Ana’s place on the must-do list for any visitor to this part of the world, starting with the 4th Street Market, a food hall offering an impressive array of good eats and drinks, a serious butcher shop, an excellent bar from the folks who run the city’s acclaimed Playground restaurant and a terrific courtyard patio with brightly-colored murals and regularly-scheduled live music.
#3 Sneak into some of the country’s finest beach resorts.
Okay, so there’s no reason to sneak around—particularly if you’re prepared to spend a little money—but too-few visitors take advantage of the gawking opportunities at Orange County’s terrific (and terrifically expensive) ocean view resorts, which draw the well-heeled from all over the world. Just because you’re not paying $1,000 a night for a room doesn’t mean you’re not welcome on-property for club sandwiches and iced tea by the Roman-style circular pool at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast; you don’t need reservations for a chilly martini on a warm afternoon on the balcony at the Montage resort’s lobby bar in Laguna Beach, either. No extra cash to burn? The coastal pathway running the length of the Montage property is—unbeknownst to many hotel guests—very much a public park. There’s even a semi-secret parking garage for park users, tucked into the hillside just south of the property. Bring a camera—the views are incredible—and don’t forget to head down to the beach.
#4 Visit the hippest mini-mall this side of Japan.
It’s Orange County. People like ample parking and courtyards with burbling fountains—yes, even the sort of people who go in for nitro, on-tap cold brew coffee, container succulent gardens and artisanal tacos. A cheesemonger, a world-class tea shop (and the county’s best coffee roaster, Portola), a stall selling only fermented foods, a spice shop, a terrific oyster bar, one of the country’s most forward-thinking Mexican restaurants (Taco Maria)—you’ll find it all at The OC Mix at South Coast Collection, hiding out on a boring back street just off the 405 freeway in Costa Mesa. It’s just about the most Orange County thing in Orange County right now—definitely stop by, at least for one of the best iced mochas you’ll ever pay too much money for. (At Portola, naturally.)
#5 Did you know Anaheim had a real downtown? You do now.
No, not that cluster of hotels and restaurants outside of Disneyland, but nearby—just minutes from the tourist-centric chaos, actual locals are shopping for actual local produce at an impressive farmers market, eating their way through one of California’s most beautiful new public market halls, tasting local brews at the Anaheim Brewery, participating in all kinds of events for all ages or just laying out in the sunshine in a nicely-designed, two-acre park, where yoga classes are held on weekends. Just a couple of years old, the Anaheim Packing District project seemed wildly ambitious on paper, and it was—would anyone show up? The answer was yes. In droves. Centered around two beautifully redone historic buildings and paying tribute to Anaheim’s agricultural past, the district has become a favorite on weekend afternoons, but it’s easy to avoid the crowds—the market is open daily at 9am. Just two blocks north, the Center Street Promenade features an interesting selection of shops and restaurants, along with a small but interesting art museum, MUZEO. At the far end, stop in for a taste of Hawaii at Pokinometry, featuring very-popular build-your-own poke bowls that are a cut above the poke joints that seem to be cropping up all over.
#6 Cutting back on carbs? You’re screwed.
Visitors often assume—incorrectly—that everyone in Southern California is super health-minded and lives only on salad. Sure, it’s eaten often (taste those fresh California vegetables and you’ll see why), but staying trim can actually be really difficult here. The dirty little secret: Some of the best donuts in the world are found in Southern California. Don’t believe us? Get in line at Sidecar in Costa Mesa—you’ll see. Asian bakeries are everywhere, too, and it seems as if everyone’s addicted—you probably will be too, after your first taste of the Taiwanese specialties at 85 Degrees, almost as ubiquitous as Chipotles in these parts. (Okay, not quite, but they’re getting there.) Try the flaky Portuguese egg tarts, a dim sum staple, a steal at $1.50; try everything that looks good, actually. Then there are the sweet, custard-filled buns at Cream Pan in Tustin, a classic, Japanese-style institution, not to mention the fruit tarts and pain au chocolat at Le Croissant Dore in the vast Little Saigon area, or the world-class pan dulce and tamales at La Poblana Bakery in Orange. However you’re looking to carb it up, there’s an enabler standing by.
#7 One of the country’s best Chinese restaurants is located at a fancy mall, near the Uniqlo. Does this surprise you? You’re probably new around here. Costa Mesa’s glittering South Coast Plaza isn’t just any mall, either—marketed heavily to California’s scores of international visitors, South Coast is now one of the top tourist destinations in the West. Shoppers gotta eat somewhere, right? Might as well be a sparkling branch of Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese import known for juicy xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, typically filled with pork, or pork and crab. Other places in the country, people line up for eggs and toast on weekend mornings—around here, the most daunting brunch line may well be at DTF, which now has a handful of locations around Southern California. Time-saving tip: Don’t come in large groups and always ask if there’s room at the bar, where they serve the full menu.
#8 Hit Little Saigon for the popular night market—or any time, really.
The bedroom communities of Westminster and Garden Grove have been transformed over the past decades into the largest hub of Vietnamese life and culture outside Southeast Asia. Just over fifteen minutes from Disneyland and you’re in the heart of Little Saigon, a vast business district crammed with shopping centers and very good restaurants. From traditional soups at Pho 45 to grilled pork rolls and more at the smart but affordable Brodard to cheap sandwiches (banh mi) and strong coffee everywhere plus an abundance of tasty French pastry at a wide variety of bakeries, it’s all here and it would take months to sort through. A great introduction is the neighborhood’s popular (and tasty) Night Market, held Friday, Saturday and Sunday until 11pm at the Asian Garden Mall on Bolsa Avenue, beginning in June and running into fall.
#9 Escape the crowds without going anywhere.
Headed to the beach? You’d better—these are only some of the best in California. But the county’s many see-worthy stretches of sand are only the beginning of its coastal assets. In some cases, the real magic happens when you cross back over the Pacific Coast Highway. From the miles of trails to explore above Crystal Cove to those wide-open spaces at Bolsa Chica—1,200 acres of wetland on the edge of busy (and, by the way, increasingly glammed-up) Huntington Beach—to the wilds of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, steps from the multi-million dollar homes that crowd by the water, not to mention the kayaking opportunities along Newport’s magnificently mellow (and rather vast) Back Bay, the fun doesn’t stop when you turn your back on the ocean. Not in the least. For a county this crowded, you’ll be impressed by the amount of open space.
#10 Explore Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
Disneyland crowds got you hangry? Just minutes from the Mickey & Friends parking structure and you’re in the middle of one of Anaheim’s longest-running ethnic enclaves. Located along Brookhurst Avenue near Ball, start with lunch at Aleppo’s Kitchen, a pleasant Syrian restaurant that’s among the newer and more visitor-friendly stops along the strip. In a rush? Grab savory meat or spinach pies to go at the nearby Little Arabia Lebanese Bakery & Cuisine. Not feeling adventurous? Amid it all, Cortina’s Italian Market draws hordes for its superbly-affordable pizzas, big plates of pasta and other tasty American-Italian staples.
Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for cheap airfares to Southern California, start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites at once with BookingBuddy. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. If you’re just after the best Disneyland hotel deals, start your search at Hotels.com or Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor. If you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing in just a couple of clicks.