With its wide beaches fringed by skinny palm trees, year-round sunshine, and relaxed vibes, Orange County is the quintessential image of Southern California that so many travelers picture they think about this part of the Golden State.
But there’s more to this stretch of California than just a pretty face: it boasts a thriving art scene, beautiful outdoor areas, and surfing culture. Orange County is an urban area with over 30 cities, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t find a quiet coastal paradise here.
With so many things to do in Orange County, it is not easy to narrow down your focus. But the good news is that you are in good hands:
I’ve traveled to Orange County several times and enjoyed my visit every time I went there. In this article, you will find advice from me and fellow travel bloggers on some of the best things to do in Orange County.
Best time to visit Orange County
Thanks to perfect sunny weather year-round and an endless amount of sunshine, there is no bad time to visit Orange County.
Still, there are some factors to consider when planning your trip to this part of California. One of them is the season. While summers typically have 80-degree weather with a mild breeze, the colder season lasts from October through February, and even brings some rainy days.
Still, winter is a good time to explore this destination, as rain is relatively scarce and temperatures still hover in the 60s.
How to get around Orange County
Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, Orange County is one of the best California road trips. To get around the area and see all the small beach towns and enjoy some of the best things to do in Orange County, you will need a car which you can easily rent at major airports in the area such as John Wayne in Santa Ana, Lindbergh Field in San Diego or LAX.
I recommend DiscoverCars.com that offers a great inventory in many destinations in the United States, including Orange County.
Best things to do in Orange County
1. Enjoy Laguna Beach
Where to stay: Crescent Bay Inn
Pacific Coast Highway winds along the coast and eventually straight through one of the best coastal towns in California, Laguna Beach. This small community is filled with shops, restaurants, art galleries, great hikes, and of course, beaches.
Laguna Beach boasts stunning coastline views which is why visiting this place is one of the best things to do in Orange County. From Thousands Steps Beach with a cool sea cave to Shaws Cove with the perfect surf break, this area offers a taste of quintessential California.
One of the prettiest beaches in the area is Victoria Beach. It has the distinction of having a pirate tower that looks more like a place where you would find Rapunzel rather than Blackbeard.
The tower is a 60 foot tall, stone turret that was built in 1926 as an enclosed staircase to the beach. The years have given it a weathered look that adds old-world elegance to this picturesque California beach.
Getting to Victoria Beach is a little complicated due to the lack of parking. Find a spot on Pacific Coast Highway, then walk down one of the side streets to the stairs. Use Google maps to find it.
Once on the beach, you may have to walk over rocks or through the water to get there. Arrive before the sunset for the best photo opportunities.
Contributed by Jenifer from the Evolista
2. Spot some wildlife at Orange County Tide Pools
Where to stay: Laguna Beach Oceanfront
Many areas around Orange County are known for their tide pools where you can spot many aquatic animals year-round. Some of the most well-known tide pools in Orange County can be found in Dana Point, Laguna Beach, and Crystal Cove.
When you visit tide pools, always make sure to keep your distance from the animals – as it can scare them and disturb their rest time. Many areas have posted signs about it but be sure to enjoy these beautiful creates from afar.
Address: 375 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
3. Take a day trip to Balboa Peninsula
Where to stay: Balboa Inn
Balboa Island is an iconic destination and one of the most popular things to do in Orange County for nature lovers.
The quaint and charming island draws both Orange County locals as well as tourists thanks to stunning scenery and tons of activities. Whether you want to grab a bite at one of the quaint restaurants, stroll along Marine Avenue, or shop till you drop in those cute boutiques, you will fall in love with this island.
Best tours of Balboa Peninsula
After breakfast, go for a stroll around the island. On your walk, you will pass the Balboa Island Ferry. For a small fee (about $1.25 per person), the ferry will take you to the Balboa Peninsula, which has a fun zone, a Ferris Wheel, shops, beaches, and a bike path.
Here you can rent a jet ski, standup paddle board, or even a Duffy boat at the marina. When you have had enough fun, take the ferry back to Balboa Island and finish your walk around the island. And before you head back to your car, make sure you get one of the delicious Balboa ice cream bars.
Contributed by Michelle from The Trav Nav
4. Discover Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve
Where to stay: Newport Beach Hotel
Hidden within a residential community of Newport Beach, the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve is a 752-acre coastal wetland.
The reserve includes an estuary where fresh and saltwater mix to create a home to close to 200 species. Here you can spot migrating birds such as pelicans, terns, and egrets or rare and endangered species like the least Bell’s vireo or the Ridgway’s rail.
As seasons change in the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, the types of animals you might spot change too.
There are several activities for visitors, including a visit to the Peter and the Mary Muth Interpretive Center, walking/jogging, kayaking, biking, and bird watching. There are a few walking paths, including the 3-mile scenic Back Bay Drive, where you can get close to the water.
If you prefer to get out on the water with a guide, the Newport Bay Conservancy, in collaboration with Newport Aquatic Center, offers a guided kayak tour ($25 per person) every Saturday and Sunday from Northstar Beach. Reservations are required.
Address: 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach, CA
Contributed by Michelle from The Trav Nav
5. Enjoy the nature at Crystal Cove State Park
Where to stay: La Casa Del Camino
With over 3 million people, Orange County is a densely populated area of Southern California, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t escape the urban sprawl and enjoy the great outdoors.
Spanning over 2,400 acres of backcountry, Crystal Cove State Park is one of the best things to do in Orange County for nature lovers as it features 3.2 miles of undeveloped beach as well as tide pools, towering bluffs, and space for hiking, camping and picnicking.
One of the best ways to explore the beautiful wilderness at Crystal Cove State Park is by hiking the 9-mile Park Perimeter Trail Loop. If you are visiting for the first time, download an offline map and bring plenty of water and snacks, as you will be hiking under the hot California sun.
If hiking is not your forte, you can visit the Historic District with 45 beautiful rustic cottages that were initially built as a seaside colony. Many cottages are used for educational programs and visitors services, a few of them are rented out to visitors. These accommodations book up very quickly, so you will be lucky if you can snag that coveted reservation.
Another cool activity at Crystal Cove State Park is scenic Moro Canyon, a relatively easy 3-mile hike that begins at the Ranger Station and takes you to the scenic backcountry. Make your way back to the beach for an epic sunset to enjoy the incredible colors.
Crystal Cove State Park is open from 6 a.m. until sunset. The entrance fee is $15 per vehicle.
Address: 8471 N Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
6. … And visit other state parks in Orange County
If you are craving more adventure, Orange County offers plenty of other state parks where you can hike, enjoy the wilderness, and disconnect. Here are a couple of options for your future trip to Orange County:
- Dinosaur Park Laguna Hills
- Santiago Park Nature
- Citrus Ranch Park
- Top of the World in Laguna
PRO TIP: Consider purchasing California State Parks Pass to save money. You can purchase the pass at one of the parks or online ahead of your visit.
7. Get your surfing game on at Huntington Beach
Where to stay: Comfort Inn&Suites Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach, one of the most popular places for surfing in Orange County is a popular destination year-round. It’s a perfect warm winter getaway in December and January!
Nicknamed “The Surf City USA,” Huntington Beach is California’s capital of surfing with many local shops offering surfing lessons. Whether you are a newbie or an experienced surfer, grab your board and give it a go!
Take a surfing lesson in Huntington Beach
Rent a bike from a vendor on the pathway and pedal as far as you like. All along the path, you’ll find casual food stands where you can grab a bite and a cold beverage.
Surfing reigns supreme as evidenced by the history displayed along the Surfing Walk of Fame. On the same walk, you’ll find many cool surf shops to browse. If you can’t find a certain piece of surfing gear in Huntington Beach, it probably doesn’t exist.
Even if you haven’t been bitten by the surfing bug, Huntington Beach is a great place to just chill out and enjoy the Southern California vibes.
Contributed by Lori of Travelinmad.com
8. Learn about surfing culture at Surfing Walk of Fame
Where to stay: Huntington Surf Inn
A testament to Orange County’s surfing culture, the Surfing Walk of Fame is the landmark featuring plaques of many surf legends, some of which come from Orange County. Also nearby, there’s the International Surfing Museum where you can learn everything about the history of surfing and the evolution of the surfing culture throughout the world.
Exhibits featured in the museum are mostly focused on some of the most prominent surfers and major events that took place throughout the history of surfing. Although this museum is especially popular with surfing fans, it’s a fun place to visit because all exhibits feature a fun and engaging way of narrating the history of this sport.
Address: 101 Main St, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
9. Check out the Painted Ladies of Huntington Beach
You probably heard about the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, but did you know that Huntington Beach also has its own Painted Ladies? While they might be less famous, they are just as beautiful, and the best part is you will not see tons of tourists here like in San Francisco.
If you like colorful architecture and want to snap a few cool photos, this is a good stop for your Orange County itinerary.
Address: 313 21st Street in Huntington Beach, CA
10. Spend a day in San Clemente
Where to stay: Casa Tropicana
One of the most beautiful towns along Orange County’s coast, San Clemente has been dubbed “the Little Spanish Village by the Sea” because of its heavy Spanish influence.
Spending a day in San Clemente is one of the best things to do in Orange County if you are looking for an epic sunset from the historic pier and want to enjoy a slower pace of life that this beachside town is known for.
San Clemente also has a strong surfing culture and is home to some of the best surfers in the world. Here you can find the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center, a museum dedicated to the evolution of the surfing culture.
Want to spend a lazy day at the beach? San Clemente offers a variety of wide beaches with enough room for everyone. San Clemente State Beach, Califia Beach Park, and Riviera Beach are some of the options.
Or head to Avenida Del Mar and El Camino Real, the two main streets in Downtown San Clemente where you can shop and enjoy food at local restaurants.
Located along California’s Pacific Coast Highway, San Clemente is also a stone’s throw away from many nearby coastal towns such as Dana Point and Laguna Beach.
11. Visit best surfing locations in Orange County
Speaking of surfing, if you ever wanted to learn this type of sport, there’s no better place to learn it than Orange County. Blessed with perfect surfing conditions, mild climate, and plenty of sunshine year-round, this is the place to grab a board and ride the wave.
Throughout Orange County, dozens of beaches are great for surfing, however, conditions can differ depending on location and weather. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Huntington Beach
- Newport Beach – one of the most popular surfing areas in Orange County
- San Onofre Beach
- Trestles Beach
- Laguna Beach
12. Enjoy the outdoors in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Where to stay: Pacific Edge Oceanfront Hotel
Located near Laguna Beach, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a 7,000-acre wilderness that makes for a great escape from the urban area if you want to enjoy the unspoiled views of Southern California’s coastline. Landscapes here range from the stunning mountain views to wind-carved bluffs that tower above winding canyon trails.
If you come here for just a couple of hours, you might as well spend your entire day here: Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is a true outdoorsman paradise with over 40 trails where you can hike, bike, or watch wildlife, all free of charge after paying just $3 for parking.
Spending time here is one of the best things to do in Orange County for nature lovers.
Address: 18751 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA, 92651
Hours: 7 a.m. – sunset
13. Go for a picnic in Heisler Park
Where to stay: Seaside Laguna Inn&Suites
A must-stop in Orange County, Heisler Park is a beachside area with trails on top of the sandstone bluffs and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
Taking a stroll through Heisler Park is one of the best things to do in Orange County if you are craving some beachy vibes and some relaxation. It’s also a popular spot for water sports like surfing and body-boarding as well as picnicking.
Heisler Park is one of the most popular places to visit in Laguna Beach and once you come here you will understand why. Weekends can get particularly busy at Heisler Park as scores of locals and visitors make their way here to enjoy this spectacular oceanfront park. But the visit is still well worth it. The park is open from 5 a.m. until midnight.
Address: 375 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
14. Learn local history at Casa Romantica Cultural Center
Where to stay: San Clemente Inn
One of the unmissable highlights of San Clemente, Casa Romantica Cultural Center, and Gardens is one of the biggest cultural landmarks of Orange County.
Originally known as the home of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente, today Casa Romantica is a non-profit organization established by a charter of the city of San Clemente, and that strives to preserve the cultural heritage of this town.
Address: 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, CA 92672
15. Go on a whale watching tour in Dana Point
Where to stay: Dana Point Marina Inn
The capital of whale and dolphin watching, Dana Point is a small coastal town in Orange County that attracts travelers who are interested in close encounters with these marine giants.
Thanks to its location along the Pacific, Dana Point boasts quick access to the areas frequented by migrating gray whales and blue whales in spring and summer. Several companies offer daily whale watching tours such as Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari and The Ocean Adventure Catamaran cruise.
Best whale watching tours in Orange County
Seeing a whale is never a guarantee, as these marine creatures can be tricky to spot at times. If you want to learn more about marine wildlife, head to the Ocean Institute at 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive in Dana Point.
16. Get fresh fruits at Irvine Farmers Market
Irvine Farmers Market is one of the best places in Orange County for buying fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Here you can buy plenty of fresh produce that was grown and handpicked by farmers on the Great Park Farm as well as other farms in Orange County. Here you can also find arts and crafts, artisan cheeses and pastas.
The Farmers Market takes place in Great Park every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., weather permitting.
Parking and admission are free.
17. Adore Mission San Juan Capistrano
Where to stay: Best Western Capistrano Inn
No trip to Orange County is complete without visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano.
This historic building is one of the 21 Spanish missions in California, religious outposts that were constructed in coastal areas of the state by Spaniards to convert the Native American population to the Catholic religion.
The 21 missions comprise California’s Historic Mission Trail that goes along El Camino Real (The Royal Way in Spanish) that was named to commemorate the quest of the Spanish monarchy to expand its empire.
Established in 1775, Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the most prominent landmarks of the region, and visiting it is one of the best things to do in Orange County if you want to learn the history and culture of the region.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular venue for exhibits, events, and photography. It also offers guided tours and various events. Make sure to check the schedule ahead of your visit.
Address: 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
18. Walk around Los Rios Historic District
Los Rios Historic District is another proof that Orange County is not just about beach vibes (although who doesn’t like them). The district features many historic buildings some of which date all the way back to 1794, and is considered the oldest occupied neighborhood in the entire state of California!
The history of the Los Rios Historic District is closely linked to Mission San Juan Capistrano, and it’s a good idea to combine these two places in one visit. When you explore the town, keep your eyes peeled for information plaques that talk about the history of this place.
Address: 31831 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
19. Try local wine
Orange County might not be the top wine-producing region of California, and yet, there are some excellent wineries here, where you can find a great assortment of wine from across the state.
For example, Laguna Canyon Winery is an award-winning establishment that is an excellent place if you are looking for a casual atmosphere.
Join best wine tasting tours in Orange County
Stone’s Throw Winery in San Juan Capistrano is one of the bigger and most popular wineries in Orange County that makes for a great day trip combined with a visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano. And finally, Cowboy Canyon Winery tucked in the eastern hills of Orange County specializes in handcraft wines and is an excellent stop on your itinerary.
20. Relax at Doheny State Beach
Where to stay: Dana Point Marina Inn
Looking to learn about wildlife and marine creatures of Southern California?
Doheny State Beach specializes in educating its visitors about avian and marine animals native to this part of California. When you enter the park, make your way to the visitor center, where you can find several interpretive programs, talk to a ranger and pick up some brochures.
Aside from enjoying wildlife, this is an excellent place to spend a day at the beach and do some picnicking.
Address: 25300 Dana Point Harbor Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629
21. Watch birds at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Where to stay: Best Western Surf City
If you are an avid bird watcher, visiting Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is one of the best things to do in Orange County. This wetlands area located along the Pacific Coast Highway is frequented by many local and migrating birds and provides a great insight into conservation efforts.
Stop by the interpretive center to learn more about educational programs and check out exhibits.
Address: 18000 CA-1, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
22. Explore Orange County street art
If you are looking for free things to do in Orange County, look no further than local art walks. Orange County has a thriving art community, and you can find gorgeous murals on many streets in coastal towns.
For example, The Costa Mesa Art Walk is home to the local art scene, and it’s a great way to explore the city before deciding what to do next.
Many towns across Orange County have weekly art walks that are free to visitors. Here are a couple of ideas:
PRO TIP: Keep in mind that the timing and dates of each walk tend to change from time to time, so make sure to visit their websites before making any plans.
23. Soak up some sun at Salt Creek Beach Park
Where to stay: Laguna Cliffs
A great spot to learn surfing or spend your day at the beach, Salt Creek Beach Park is one of the most popular destinations among surfers in Orange County. If you are looking to relax and soak up some sun, visiting this place is one of the best things to do in Orange County.
The area is located near the Pacific Coast Highway, so you don’t have to drive too far to enjoy this little slice of paradise.
Address: 33333 Pacific Coast Hwy, Dana Point, CA 92629, USA
24. Get cultured at Bowers Museum
Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express Santa Ana
One of the most popular cultural venues and one of the best things to do in Orange County for any art lover, Bowers Museum offers a wide array of artifacts from different periods.
Here you will find a good variety of artworks dedicated to Orange County and enjoy events, book readings, and talks organized by this museum. Bowers Museum is often called one of the best museums in Orange County, and it’s one of the best places to explore all things art and culture in Orange County.
Address: 2002 N Main St, Santa Ana, CA 92706, USA
25. Visit Old Courthouse Museum
Where to stay: Hampton Inn&Suites Santa Ana
If your Orange County Itinerary includes a stop in Santa Ana, the county’s capital, make sure to visit the Old Courthouse Museum. It is one of the most famous landmarks in Orange County, where you can learn the history of the region. This building is in Historic Downtown District on Civic Center and Broadway streets.
Address: 211 W Santa Ana Blvd, Santa Ana, CA 92701, USA
26. Have a lazy day at Old Town Orange
Where to stay: Orange Tustin Inn
The quaint town of Orange sits smack in the middle of Orange County and offers a glimpse at what a proud and diverse community makes this place. The historic district of Orange is particularly worth a stop as it offers beautiful architecture, shopping, and many events.
The City of Orange (or Orange Circle as it’s called by locals) and its Old Town District is the great destination for a weekend day trip if you want to grab a bite at one of the unpretentious eateries, check out antique shops and relax on a bench.
FUN FACT: The Old Town’s Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, and includes more than 1,300 homes and other buildings.
27. Chill out at Fullerton Arboretum
Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express
Think you need to break your bank to have a fun vacation in Orange County? Thank again!
There is a surprisingly high number of free things to do in Orange County, and Fullerton Arboretum is just one of them. While donations are suggested, visitors can enter for free and enjoy this 26-acre botanical garden with a great collection of plants from many corners of the globe.
Home to more then 4,000 plants, Fullerton Arboretum is dedicated to wildlife conservation and preserving species that are rare or face extinction. It’s a great place to visit if you want to take a quick break and enjoy a nice tranquil atmosphere.
Address: 1900 Associated Rd, Fullerton, CA 92831
28. Dive into art culture of Costa Mesa
Where to stay: Cozy Inn
Nicknamed “The City of The Arts,” Costa Mesa is considered the art capital of Orange County thanks to its art galleries and artist residency community for visual artists. This city is the primary spot where artists come to present their work in exhibitions, workshops, residencies, and other public events.
The Costa Mesa Theater District boasts Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Arts Plaza, and the city continues to attract many spectacular artists who come here show their art.
29. Take a trip to Catalina Island
Where to stay: Catalina Canyon Inn
Taking a day trip to Santa Catalina Island is one of the most underrated things to do in Orange County, and yet, more visitors are starting to find out about this hidden gem of Southern California. One of the best things about this place is you can totally unplug and disconnect here, and spend your day hiking, and exploring the wilderness in places like Two Harbors or Blue Cavern.
30. Enjoy the views along the Pacific Coast Highway Drive
If you like a scenic drive, hop in your car and make your way from Seal Beach toward San Clemente – one of the most scenic drives in Southern California that will spoil you will gorgeous views.
The road will take you past many beaches and plan fringed boulevards. Make sure to allocate extra for your trip through, as you will most likely want to stop and explore one of the places along the way.
Where to stay in Orange County
If you are planning a getaway to Orange County, you will have a lot of places to choose from. From small motels to Airbnb’s and luxury hotels, there are tons of options to choose from.
To make the right decision, I recommend choosing your place by selecting a specific town that has the most things to do in Orange County that you are interested in.
Hotels in Orange County generally tend to be on the pricey side, however, some cities in Orange County are more expensive than others.
How to get around Orange County
Orange County doesn’t have a good public transportation system, so if you need to get around quickly, and scratch some of the best things to do in Orange County off your list, you will need a car.
If you don’t have your own car or car rental you can simply take Uber to around.
Public transportation in Orange County
You can purchase tickets from the bus driver or through the OC Bus Mobile App.
Another option for getting around Orange County is Metrolink Trains that serve 11 stations around the region. This is a good option if you are traveling between Orange County and other destinations in Southern California. To can purchase tickets at train stations or through the Metrolink app.
Tips for visiting Orange County
- Budget your trip – Orange County is expensive. You can spend a pretty penny here without going on a splurge, that’s why it’s better to plan your trip ahead of time. Platforms like Agoda.com and Hotels.com are great for finding bargains on accommodations.
- Parking can be expensive – Orange County is one of the most densely populated areas in California, and although you can find plenty of things to do in Orange County on a budget, you often have to pay for parking. Parking lots fill up quickly, and you can expect to pay between $15-20 for a spot. If you are going to an event, or one of the most popular places to visit in Orange County, arrive ahead of time.
- Use rideshares – using a rideshare will allow you to escape the hassle of finding a parking spot and paying for it. You can also use public transport to save time and money.
- Get California Explorer Annual Day Pass – If you are staying in Orange County for a longer period of time, or if you planning to drive along the California Coast, get California Explorer Annual Day Pass. In order for it to pay off, you will need to visit (at least 13 beaches in California as well as other attractions). This is a great way to cut down on parking.
- Get outside – Some of the best things to do in Orange County are FREE. Spend some time exploring Orange County beaches and state parks to enjoy the beautiful sunny weather that Orange County has to offer.
- Orange County is more than just Disneyland – When you visit Los Angeles, you will often hear locals talking about taking weekend trips to Orange County to visit Disneyland and other popular attractions. Although a trip to Disneyland is one of the most classic things to do in Orange County, there’s a lot more to this part of California than a famous theme park.
- Combine Orange County with other places in SoCal – Orange County is one of the best road trips in Southern California. If you are exploring the region, spend a few days here before going to Los Angeles or San Diego.
Is Orange County worth visiting?
Yes! Orange County is absolutely worth your time! Not only it’d home to some of the best beaches in California, it also has plenty of history and culture to keep you busy for days. I highly recommend including Orange County in your California itinerary.
Final word on visiting Orange County
Orange County is one of the best places to visit in California, and an unmissable stop on your itinerary if you want to take a road trip around the state. Whether you are craving the great outdoors, culture, or some local restaurant scenery, this is one of the best destinations in California that has it all.
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