Many might hear Orange County and think of shows like Laguna Beach, The O.C., and The Real Housewives of Orange County, but I remember life in Orange County before all the hype. I remember watching all those reality shows (or junk television as my husband calls them) and asking myself, “is that really how it is here?” Well, kind of, but not really.
I’ve gained many memories from spending nearly 20 years in Orange County, so this list may be personal, but I think the items here signify some of the greatest things to do in the area, including some landmarks you’ve probably all heard of, mixed in with a few hidden gems from my own experience.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many activities and attractions that are worth the drive to Orange County, but I think the area may be best experienced by beginning with the following.
List starts after the jump!
The happiest place on earth has gotten crazy expensive, but it is one landmark that draws hoards into Orange County every year. Many of my friends from high school had passes to Disneyland, somehow I didn’t join the masses. This place can be very magical especially when you have a child to share it with. I’m sure the majority of us know how busy this place can get, so it might be wise to plan a visit when school is in session. Make sure to go on It’s A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park was a favorite amongst my friends and I growing up. I loved the park’s large wooden roller coaster (GhostRider); one of the world’s longest and tallest wooden roller coasters. The kids can enjoy Camp Snoopy and lovers of the West can stroll through Ghost Town. Make time for a meal at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant or a quick, sweet treat at Cinnabon.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana offers first class exhibits, lectures, art classes and other community events. Growing up I remember family outings to this museum followed by lunch at any one of the numerous nearby restaurants. Since opening in 1991, the Bowers Museum has hosted over 80 exhibits including Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt and Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur, Secret World of the Forbidden City. Try checking out the museum for first Sunday of each month courtesy of TARGET Free First Sunday.
Balboa Island is home to many fine restaurants, shops, real estate and more. If you’d like your day in Balboa to begin on an extremely leisurely note, catch the Balboa Island Ferry from either the Newport peninsula side or the Island itself. Try whale watching and then choose from any of the Island’s boutique restaurants before you head back to Los Angeles.
Downtown Fullerton was a favorite hot spot for my friends and I on any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. It’s been at least six years since I’ve been to any of the bars in DTF, but I gathered many fun memories from bars such as Slidebar (owned by Lit’s guitarist.) If the bar scene isn’t your thing there are many great area restaurants including Knowlwood and Rutabegorz. Knowlwood is always great for burgers, chili and salads and Rutabegorz is great for large portions of healthy food with an abundance of vegetarian options.
Fashion Island in Newport Beach offers an upscale shopping experience with fantastic panoramic views of the ocean and palm trees. I never did much shopping whenever my family and I went to Fashion Island, but I did enjoy looking at the koi pond that was added in 1968, a year after this outdoor shopping center made its debut and buying caramel corn.
This outdoor shopping center in Irvine is a great place to catch a movie, a good meal and some ice time. The Spectrum on Ice, located in Giant Wheel Court is open until February 16, 2015. You can catch a ride on the Ferris Wheel before you put your skates on and whish away inside the ice-covered tent.
Adventure City might be the best kept secret in Orange County. Everyone knows about Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, but few widely recognize the small amusement park in Anaheim. In all honesty, I would take my two-year-old son to Adventure City over Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm any day. At just $16.95 per person you could spend all day in this amusement park that won’t have parents running for the hills. This place rarely gets busy, so your child won’t have the frustration of waiting too long in line for their turn. We’ve been twice and each time has been a complete joy.
One of the first dates with my now husband took place at Medieval Times in Buena Park. The only disappointment was that I wasn’t old enough to drink a beer. The experience is really fun especially the part about eating with your hands and watching knights joust in an arena that’s small enough to be considered intimate.
On the corner of California State University, Fullerton is a 26-acre botanical garden featuring plants from around the world. The arboretum features community gardens where 26 plots are leased on a yearly basis. This won’t benefit Los Angeles County residents, but it’s nice to see what people have done with a limited amount of space. Other interesting features are the bamboo garden, large orange trees, lake and really any of the pathways that lead to horticultural wonder.
Downtown Disney is the place to go when you can’t afford entry into Disneyland, but still want a part of the Disney experience. This outdoor promenade features many dining, shopping and entertainment options. I suggest trying Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for some Louisiana cooking including dishes that include duck.
San Juan Capistrano
Visit this southern Orange County city for attractions such as Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Los Rios District for small businesses and an atmosphere that capture the simpler times of life. Visit Zoomers Petting Zoo for pony rides and then the Hummingbird Cottage for a collectable.
Old Town Orange
This one-mile square area of Orange is like stepping upon Main Street USA. “The Antique Capital of Southern California” is centered around the historic Orange Plaza and is dotted with many restaurants and modern businesses such as Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Starbucks. If you’d like to have an old-fashioned dining experience try Watson’s where you can order a banana split or malt from the soda fountain.
Orange County Zoo
This has to be one of the cheapest zoos in the county. This particular zoo is incomparable to the San Diego Zoo and zoos of similar size, but this zoo is a perfect trip for small children who might get bored easily. On the ground’s of the 477-acre Irvine Regional Park, you’ll be met by animals native to the southwestern United States and a peacock that just might follow you to your car.
Anything you like to do down in Orange County that’s not on our list? Let us know in the comments below!