This sunny county just south of LA is so much more than a place for housewives or privileged teens. And each of its 34 cities have their own unique vibe. From Little Saigon to Laguna Beach, we’ll tell you how to explore the “real” OC over a three-day weekend.
Day 1 // Friday // Beyond the Characters
A little place called Disneyland is the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Anaheim. But this city has grown up and now has marvels to rival that of the “Happiest Place on Earth.” The Anaheim Packing House is perhaps the biggest draw. The Packing House is a couple of restored buildings in downtown Anaheim, housing 20+ artisan eateries, live music, and events. If you’re craving sweets, try the bubble tea at Mini Monster; not only is it delicious, but you can get a cotton candy spun cloud on top (it’s basically begging you for an Instagram post). If salty is your thing, grab some poutine (a Canadian dish of hand-cut fries topped with gravy & curds) at the Kroft. The long line outside says it all. Enjoy your treats while walking around the two-acre Farmers Park just outside.
We won’t blame you if you want to stick around and check out Disneyland for the rest of the day (that’s a whole different guide) but we’ll head west to Little Saigon to grab some Vietnamese. Nestled between Garden Grove and Westminster, Little Saigon holds the largest population of Vietnamese (189,000) outside of Vietnam (read: the food is as authentic as it gets). There are tons of options but one of our faves is Mai’s Kitchen. Definitely get the Banh Beo (steamed rice cakes) for an appetizer. Quick tip: the restaurant is cash only. And if you’re specifically looking for pho (Vietnamese noodle soup with stock that gets its flavor from simmering 12+ hours), try Pho 79. Pho real, it’s delicious.
If you have little ones with you (or if you just like animals), hop in the car and spend a few hours wandering around the Santa Ana Zoo. Fun fact: when donating his land to the zoo, Joseph Prentice stipulated that the city must have at least 50 monkeys at all times. Because of this, the zoo has a wide variety of primates from all over the world (and never less than 50).
Before heading out, be sure to take some time to explore Santa Ana’s downtown as its turn-of-the-century architecture is a reflection of the city’s rich past. Wander on your own or sign up for a guided tour. And don’t miss the Grand Central Art Center. A former market built in 1924, this building is now run by CSU Fullerton’s Art Department. While small, the rotating exhibits are always sure to peak your interest.
Orange County also has a plethora of shopping centers. While many will head to Fashion Island or South Coast Plaza, we recommend checking out the LAB. Billing itself as the “Anti-Mall,” the LAB is an indoor & outdoor complex whose shops & restaurants have less of a “big box” feel. Snack on an adorable macaron (everything from Hello Kitty faces to corgis) from Honey & Butter while hanging in one of the patios. You’ll get a similar hipster vibe from shopping center the Camp (just kitty corner to the LAB). Try Mesa for tapas-style dinner & cocktails (like their Lychee Martini which is a lighter spin on the classic). The ambience here (retractable roof, multiple fireplaces, and old movies projected onto the walls) draws a young, trendy crowd. Hot tip: “Social Hour” as they call it ends at 7pm—worth coming to solely for the $7 Brussel Sprouts covered in chorizo & sweet chili sauce if you as us.
There are always lots of events going on in Orange County so make sure to check in advance to see if your dates have anything going on. We’d recommend checking out an Anaheim Ducks hockey game, see a musical or symphony at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, or catch a concert at The Observatory.
Day 2 // Saturday // Brunch n’ Views
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: no weekend is complete without brunch. So start your Saturday off with the traditional brunch fare and coffee at Alta Coffee. Their coffee is roasted fresh everyday, the food is healthy yet hearty (avocado is abundant), and the vibe is super cozy. Next on our list to try is their lip-smacking good looking toffee latte.
Ready to take on the day? Grab some water & trail mix and take the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) down to Laguna Beach. On your way, take a quick stop at Crystal Cove State Park to explore Laguna’s infamous tide pools (hot tip: parking is pretty steep at $15 so only do it if the tide is low). While Crystal Cove has a number of trails, for the best views drive down the coast a little farther for the Top of the World hike. This park has many different routes & trails so you can make it as long, short, easy, or hard as you please but any route you take will have great views of both the canyons and peeks of the ocean. For a larger ocean-view hike, also trek up the nearby Valido Trail. While fairly short, it gets a little steep but the views at the top make it completely worth the effort.
Cool down after all that effort by driving into Laguna Beach for acai bowls at Banzai Bowls. Basically a smoothie in a bowl with copious toppings (fresh fruit, granola, honey), acai bowls are the new “it” food (you can kiss that frozen yogurt goodbye). If fruit bowls aren’t your thing, you can always walk over to Gelato Paradiso for more traditional desserts. Whatever you choose, the beach is only a block away so you can enjoy your sweet treat with your toes in the sand.
Old historical monuments can be something of a rarity in California (it is relatively “new” after all), so the ones that do exist are definitely worth seeing. Just south of Laguna is the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The Mission was originally built in 1775 (it’s older than the USA!) and was re-founded by Spaniards of the Franciscan Order in 1776. But beyond the history, this Mission has gorgeous gardens, fountains, and exhibits that you’ll want to meander through for hours.
Every local knows that the best food in town can be found at Nick’s Laguna Beach—and the longest wait (get a reservation in advance if you can). With a varied menu (everything from Chicken and Waffles to Mac N Cheese to Chilean Sea Bass) and unpretentious vibe, everyone is sure to find something they like.
For the finest view in town, rest your weary legs at the Rooftop Lounge at the Casa del Camino. While there’s no happy hour during the weekend (only Mon-Fri 3-5pm), the Sangria is still a perfect pairing with the sunset.
Day 3 // Sunday // Cruise the Coast
A little more Vitamin D could never hurt so head on over to the coastal cities to get in some beach time. First stop, Huntington Beach (or “Surf City” as it has come to be known). Even if you’re not visiting during the annual US Open of Surfing (July 29-August 6), there is plenty to do in this chill beach town. And plus, it has great brunch (need we say more?).
To start your day, stop by Duke’s Huntington Beach to nom on their awesome Sunday Brunch. Do it right and get the all-you-can-eat buffet (make a reservation for the dining room) with options like Hawaiian Poke, Coconut French Toast, and free mimosas. The ukuleles, hula dancers, and plethora of Hawaiian shirts, will put you directly on Island Time.
We’re not looking for our brunch to reappear, so before doing anything too active, walk on over to the International Surfing Museum (admission is a bargain at only $2). While small, this quaint museum takes you on a deep dive of surf history, both past and current.
The best way to see Huntington Beach’s 10 miles of coastline is by bike, so stop by any of the nearby beach rentals, and grab a ride. Ride up and down the paved path lining the coast while making sure to stop along the way to check out the Huntington Beach Pier, play a quick game of beach volleyball, or pet some pups at the Huntington Dog Beach (a 1.5 mile stretch of beach reserved for our furry friends to wander free of leashes).
Once you’ve tired yourself out, hop in your car, maybe grab a 6-pack (or bottle of wine) and some snacks, and head down to Newport Beach to rent a Duffy boat. Seating 8-12 people, these little boats (equipped with stereos) travel at about 5 MPH and can be rented for a couple of hours (prices vary by company—anywhere from $70-$200). Most let you take your own food and beverage aboard so you can create your own happy hour on the water. Sounds like paradise.
End your stay with dinner at the nearby Beachcomber Café or Ruby’s Shake Shack. Deciding between the two depends on what you’re looking for. At Beachcomber, you can watch the sun set over the Pacific from the patio while noshing on burgers and fresh seafood. Ruby’s is a pretty small diner but the burgers are bomb (not to mention the Date Shake) and if you can find a seat on the back patio, the view is just as good.
Where to Stay
We’ve found each of the following hotels to be awesome & unique places to stay:
- Hotel Irvine Jamboree Centre – this modern hotel has an all-local 24-hour marketplace in lobby, hip vinyl record happy hours, and a parlor room that is a time machine into the mad men era.
- Avenue of the Arts Costa Mesa – really knows glitz and glamour. Stay in this opulent hotel to enjoy the lux life.
- Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel – located right on Huntington Beach, you can easily take full advantage of this surf paradise.
- Paséa Hotel & Spa – also in Huntington Beach, just a few minutes from the pier, this super chic hotel offers complimentary wine
But if you’re looking for a screamin’ deal, check out the latest rates on Hotwire.
You’ll definitely want to have a car to drive around as public transportation is limited. See here to find a great rental in the area.
Best time to visit:
All year round! But the Sawdust Festival happens in Laguna Beach all summer (June 30-Sept 3) & the US Open of Surfing is July 31 – August 6 in Huntington Beach, so timing your visit with one of those events will give you even more to do.
- The Anaheim Packing House
- Little Saigon
- Santa Ana Zoo
- Downtown Santa Ana
- The LAB
- The Camp
- Anaheim Ducks Hockey
- Segerstrom Center for the Arts
- The Observatory
- Tidepools at Crystal Cove State Park
- Top of the World hike
- Valido Trail
- Mission San Juan Capistrano
- US Open of Surfing
- International Surfing Museum
- Huntington Dog Beach
- The Kroft
- Mai’s Kitchen
- Pho 79
- Alta Coffee
- Nick’s Laguna Beach
- Duke’s Huntington Beach
- Beachcomber Café
- Ruby’s Shake Shack
- Rooftop Lounge at the Casa del Camino