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The Ultimate Orange County Travel Guide

By AFAR Editors

03.12.19

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The Southern California ideal of easy living along the coastline may have originated in Orange County.

Amanda Friedman, AFAR Media

The Southern California ideal of easy living along the coastline may have originated in Orange County.

From surf towns along the Pacific Coast to the amusement parks of Anaheim, Orange County is home to many of Southern California’s most popular sights.

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If California’s Orange County were a state, it would have a higher population than the 20 smallest states—in fact, more people live in the 800-square-mile county than live in Alaska, Montana, Vermont, and Wyoming combined. So you can imagine that what may look like a small corner of the Golden State on a map, tucked just south of Los Angeles, offers a lot for travelers.

For many visitors, the main draw is the Pacific Coast and the beach towns along it: Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and Newport Beach among them. Families will likely want to include a stop in Anaheim with its amusement parks including Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in nearby Buena Park. Golfers can choose from many of the country’s best courses and, despite all those residents, the OC holds some undeveloped corners of Southern California, which can be explored via visits to parks and nature preserves. There are even some stops for armchair historians, including the Mission San Juan Capistrano, famous for its swallows, and the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.

What AFAR Recommends

  • Starting along Orange County’s coast, Laguna Beach’s Art Museum has more than 3,000 works and is especially strong on modern and contemporary California artists.
  • Continuing north, Newport Beach’s Balboa Island makes for a perfect day by the sea with a collection of shops, waterfront restaurants, and even a signature frozen dessert: the Balboa Bar.
  • Huntington Beach is popular with surfers and others who loves its no-attitude beach-town vibe.
  • Inland, Anaheim’s most famous attraction is Disneyland, while Knott’s Berry Farm in neighboring Buena Park is more of a local favorite.
  • From the ersatz history on display at Disneyland, explore the real thing at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of 21 missions in California built by Spanish friars between 1769 and 1823.

Orange County Communities to Explore


Laguna Beach: This seaside town began as an artists’ colony, and painters and photographers continue to settle here, drawn by the area’s magical light and the picturesque coastline of tidal pools and coves. Their works can be found in Laguna Beach’s many galleries, and the town also offers visitors some 100 restaurants and 20,000 acres of protected wilderness crossed by many trails.

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Newport Beach: Halfway between Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, Newport Beach is a casual beach town that is also home to one of Orange County’s most famous shopping destinations, Fashion Island. Manmade Balboa Island is ringed by a pedestrian path ideal for a harborside stroll with a rest stop at one of its waterfront restaurants.

Huntington Beach: At the northern end of the county’s coast, Huntington Beach is famous among surfers for its consistent waves. Even if you aren’t looking to hang ten, Surf City offers a ten-mile oceanside strand to stroll and explore while the Bolsa Chica Wetlands draw birders with some 390 different species waiting to be spotted.

Irvine: Just inland from Newport Beach, Irvine is one of the county’s largest cities. The University of California campus here helps give it a college town feel, while at the Orange County Great Park you can soar in a hot-air balloon for bird’s-eye views or take a ride on a vintage carousel. Forty percent of the city’s residents are of Asian descent, and whether you are in the mood for dim sum or noodles, the city’s restaurants will serve you a meal to remember.

Anaheim: The original Disneyland Park helped put Anaheim on the map. It was later joined by Disney’s California Adventure Park. Beyond the parks, one of Southern California’s two NHL teams, the Anaheim Ducks, takes to the ice at the Honda Center.

When to Visit Orange County

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There is a reason why California dreaming is a common pastime: Orange County rarely gets too hot or too cold. The area’s high season is summer, coinciding with school vacations. (If your travel dates aren’t dictated by school schedules, the crowds are smaller though the weather almost as sunny and warm in September as it is in August.) You are less likely to want to spend a day on the beach in the winter, but the temperatures are still mild enough that a day hiking or window shopping doesn’t require bundling up.

Food and Drink


Orange County has three culinary trump cards: access to some of the country’s best produce from the farms and orchards of California, a diverse population with restaurants serving everything from sushi and dumplings to favorite Latin dishes, and cosmopolitan diners willing to trust adventurous chefs. A short list of places to start when making reservations: Marché Moderne in Newport Beach for classic French; Playa Mesa in Costa Mesa and Puesto in Irvine for excellent Mexican fare; and Vaca in Costa Mesa for paella and other Spanish favorites.

Culture


Laguna Beach’s many galleries and the Laguna Art Museum are cultural highlights of Orange County, and the town also boasts one of the country’s best regional theaters, the Laguna Playhouse established in 1920. The Irvine Barclay Theatre, part of the University of California at Irvine, hosts both classical and contemporary musical performances. In Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum is dedicated to celebrating cultures from around the world with exhibits focused on everything from the ceramics of western Mexico to young Chinese fashion designers.

Getting Around Orange County

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Orange County’s international airport, John Wayne Airport, is served by nine carriers with non-stop routes from 20 cities throughout North America. The smaller Long Beach Airport has flights from 17 cities in the United States. Los Angeles’s airport (LAX) is almost as convenient—it is less than an hour by car from Anaheim or Huntington Beach.

While many Orange County cities have excellent public transportation and Uber, Lyft, and local taxi companies operate there too, it is far easier to rent a car if you want to explore several different destinations.

Practical Information


There are no special documents required to travel to California or any general health concerns. In recent years, the state’s wildfires have been unusually large. While they are impossible to predict with any certainty, wildfire season typically runs from summer to early fall.

Local Resources

  • The Orange County Register covers news, cultural events, and restaurant openings throughout the county.
  • OC Weekly is the local alternative paper which is distributed for free and posts most of its content on its website.
  • SoCalPulse’s coverage extends north to Los Angeles and south to San Diego, but it is rich with ideas of things to do and see in Orange County.

The Best Places to Stay


- The Best Luxury Hotels in Orange County

The Best Things to See and Do


- The Best Things to Do in Orange County
- The Perfect Weekend in Newport Beach
- The Best Stops for a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway
- The Perfect Weekend in Laguna Beach
- How to Do Disneyland—and Anaheim—in Style
- Coolest Travel Jobs: What It's Like to Be a Disney Imagineer

The Best Things to Eat and Drink


- The Best Restaurants, Bars, and Cafes in Orange County

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