In this post, I’ll cover the top 25 fun things to do in Orange County, California from the best beaches, to where to stay, to the coolest free things to do, and everything in between. I’ve visited Orange County over twenty times now and below I include top attractions as well as off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Orange County is what most people picture when they think about California. Picturesque coastlines dotted with mansions, palm-tree-lined private streets, sprawling mountains, and perfectly manicured suburbs and city centers alike. Located in Southern California, right between Los Angeles and San Diego, Orange County is the sixth most populous county in the entire United States.
While filled with natural wonders, don’t expect this region to be remote or secluded in any way. Orange County includes 34 different cities, including some incredibly famous cities like Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and Costa Mesa.
Thanks to this variety of places to visit, you’ll essentially never run out of things to do in Orange County.
With fantastic weather, stunning beaches, beautiful nature, and a booming economy, Orange County is a popular destination for both tourists and its residents. Some may compare it to paradise. Orange County oozes wealth, opportunity, and beauty.
It’s also filled with both diverse culture and nature, though many of its carbon copy suburbs may suggest otherwise at first glance. With 20% of the population being Asian, and 32% being Hispanic, Orange County has a lot more to offer than surfers and mansions if you’re willing to stray from the typical Orange County tourist attractions.
Orange County boasts delicious, foodie-approved restaurants, beautiful local art, trendy marketplaces, and contrasting neighborhoods as well as the iconic, picturesque beaches and glittering viewpoints that make it so famous.
When it’s the best time to visit Orange County?
Thanks to Orange County’s prime Southern California location, you can count on great weather year-round. If 80 degree days and never-ending sunshine isn’t exactly your thing, I’d recommend visiting November through April. During this time you’ll have fewer crowds and milder weather, but you’ll still be able to enjoy all of the best Orange County attractions.
If sunshine is what you seek, and beach days are your idea of the perfect vacation, then the summer months will be the best time for you to visit. May through October brings consistently hot days with little to no rain.
What is Orange County famous for?
Orange County gained international and national fame alike with the hit TV drama “The OC,” followed by the incredibly popular reality show “Laguna Beach.” Show business aside, Orange County is most known for its spectacular beaches, competitive surfing industry, Disneyland, and Knott’s Berry Farm.
While Orange County may contain numerous cities, there are certain places that are more famous than others. The most famous Orange County cities, and the most popular with tourists, are Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and San Clemente. Most of these cities are famous for surfing but they all boast their own industries, attractions and vibe.
25 awesome things to do in Orange County
You can’t go all the way to Orange County and not visit the ‘happiest place on earth.’ Disneyland is arguably one of the most famous places to visit in Orange County. You can stay in the adjoining Disneyland hotel and visit both Disneyland and California Adventure over a few days, or just go for a one day visit. If you don’t have time for Disneyland, or if it’s not in the budget, be sure to stop by Downtown Disney instead. Here you can soak up all the Disney magic for a fraction of the price.
See a baseball game at the famous Angel’s Stadium
Home to the famous Los Angeles Angels, seeing a baseball game at the Angel Stadium is a must do for any sports fan. They offer a variety of seating and pricing options that make seeing a baseball game accessible to most.
Explore Crystal Cove State Park
Beaches, hiking, and views galore, this expansive recreation area is not to be missed. Unlike the rest of the highly developed Orange County, Crystal Cove State Park provides a beautiful respite from the outside world.
Ride the Balboa Fun Zone Ferris Wheel
The Balboa Ferris Wheel is iconic- it’s been around since 1936! This is one of the best family activities in Orange County, fun for both adults and kids. Grab an ice cream cone and admire the stunning views of the Balboa peninsula from the top.
Visit the Sherman Library & Gardens
Located in Corona Del Mar, the Sherman Library & Gardens is a local favorite and one of the more unique things to do in Orange County. As quirky as it is photogenic, guests can enjoy the beautiful gardens for a day or check out the historic research library inside. They even offer different classes and workshops, including yoga and painting classes.
Learn some history at the Mission San Juan Capistrano
Founded in 1775, the Mission San Juan Capistrano is an institution bursting with history. Here you can take a guided tour, enjoy various exhibits or simply take beautiful photos of the exterior and the grounds.
Admire the Fullerton Arboretum
The largest botanical garden in Orange County, Fullerton Arboretum boasts 26 acres of beauty. If you’re a fan of plants and flowers, this is not to be missed. You can also check out Cal State University while you’re on the campus.
Check out the art at Bowers Museum
The perfect activity for any fine art lover, the Bowers Museum is iconic and beloved in Orange County. Located in Santa Ana, Bowers has over 100,000 objects to view and various collections.
Shop til you drop at South Coast Plaza
You truly haven’t been to a mall until you’ve visited South Coast Plaza. Located in Costa Mesa, this massive mall is home to hundreds of luxury shops- the epitome of upscale shopping. If you’re coming to Orange County to shop, you also need to check out Fashion Island in Newport Beach.
Beat the heat at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Waterpark
One of the oldest amusement parks in California, and one of the most famous in the US, Knott’s Berry Farm is one of the best places to visit in Orange County. In the summer months however, the best thing about the park is it’s adjoining waterpark- Soak City. This is a great way to cool off and a fun activity for the whole family.
Go Wine Tasting
California is known for its exceptional wine. If you’re a wine lover, visiting one of the many wineries and tasting rooms should be one of your top things to do in OC. While I can’t possibly narrow down a winery, some great places to start are Laguna Canyon Winery and The Cellar.
Hike through Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Another fabulous recreation area, you can find stellar hiking and animal sightings throughout Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. There are over forty miles of trails here and it’s home to some of the last remaining canyons throughout Southern California.
Visit Richard Nixon’s Former Home
Political scandal may be this former president’s biggest legacy, but Richard Nixon happened to be born in Yorba Linda, Orange County. His former home has been preserved and turned into the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. You can book a tour with the museum’s docents. It’s worth a visit if you’re in the area and into history.
Gallery Hop in Laguna Beach
Downtown Laguna Beach boasts fabulous boutique shopping and even more fabulous boutique art galleries! It’s a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Have a beautiful beachside lunch then peruse the numerous local art galleries. Most galleries are free to visit, and there are numerous different art festivals in the summer. You can also visit on the first Thursday of each month to check out the Laguna Beach Art Walk.
Check out Orange County Great Park for community events
This incredibly photogenic park in Irvine is home to a never ending list of activities. From farmers markets, to outdoor movies, to sports games- Orange County Great Park hosts numerous fun things to do in Orange County. Plus it’s a great way to meet locals and get involved with the community.
See a show at the Five Point Amphitheater or the Segerstorm Center of the Arts
The Five Point Amphitheater is a gorgeous outdoor venue in Irvine. It’s perfect for concert lovers to see a show while in Orange County. Segerstorm Center of the Arts is another beautiful theater in Costa Mesa that hosts both indoor and outdoor events. You can see a local symphony or the ballet here.
Enjoy some culture in Old Town Orange
An official historic site, the historic district in Orange is worth a visit. Orange boasts beautiful architecture, vintage shops, and several notable festivals in the summertime. If you’re a wine lover, you have to take the OC wine trolley. One of the best things to do in Orange County at night, the wine trolley blends wine tasting with sightseeing and some interesting historical information.
Catch a sunset at San Clemente Pier
A quaint surfing town, San Clemente offers one of the more romantic things to do in Orange County. The San Clemente Pier is particularly photogenic, peaceful and offers an incredible sunset view. Grab dinner nearby and then stroll down the pier to soak up the views.
Go Surfing in Huntington Beach
Known fondly as “Surf City USA,” you truly can’t go to Huntington Beach without surfing. You can take surfing lessons from numerous different surf shops here, or if you’re already experienced, rent a board and get out there! Just be warned- these famous waves typically aren’t for beginners. Orange County is famous for its surfing for a reason, and the waves throughout the region aren’t typically suited for those just starting out.
Schedule a Hike at Limestone Canyon
Essentially Orange County’s own Grand Canyon, you can only visit Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve on a scheduled hike or tour with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. It’s well worth the effort however for any nature lover. This is one of the coolest places to see in Orange County, and something that the average tourist doesn’t typically know about.
Stroll down Newport Beach Pier and Balboa Pier
If you’re a fan of the OC or Laguna Beach, then this should be at the top of your Orange County bucket list. The Newport Beach Pier is one the most popular places to go in Orange County, thanks to its picturesque harbor, great restaurants, incredible views and fantastic photo spots. Don’t just stop at the Newport Beach Pier, continue on down to the Balboa Pier where you can find the ferris wheel mentioned above.
Take a craft beer tour
Craft breweries are huge throughout California, and Orange County is certainly no exception. It’s pretty overwhelming to even know where to start your craft beer experience, so taking a planned craft beer tour is your best bet. You can find numerous offerings from local guides throughout the region.
Enjoy the views at 1000 steps beach
One of my favorite areas in Orange County, Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna Beach offers panoramic views that make the climb to and from worthwhile. Here you’ll find fantastic tide pools, gorgeous rock formations and even beach volleyball.
Visit California’s oldest courthouse
The Old Courthouse Museum is over a century old, located in Santa Ana. You can visit numerous exhibits and learn all about Orange County’s history at this historic site.
Relax at Balboa Island
Just off the coast of Newport Beach, Balboa Island is the quintessential place to relax and be a tourist. Enjoy the famous frozen bananas, check out the local artisan boutiques or go whale watching- one of the top attractions on the island. You can take the ferry easily to and from the island any day of the week.
Free things to do in Orange County
Have a beach day!
There may be a lot of stuff to do in Orange County but the best thing to do is also free! Orange County is filled with beautiful beaches and all are free to the public. Most even have free parking, you just might have to walk a little ways. Having a beach day is my personal favorite activity in Orange County and it’s certainly the most photogenic. It’s also a great way to compare the various coastal cities throughout Orange County and admire their diverse, natural terrain.
Throughout Orange County you can find a variety of hiking trails, both coastal and inland. Some of my personal favorites are Saddleback Mountain, El Moro Canyon, and Top of the World. There are so many different hikes in Orange County, and they are accessible to a wide range of fitness levels.
Check out the Costa Mesa Art Walk
This is a fantastic, fun and free activity in Costa Mesa. The Costa Mesa Art Walk is home to fantastic local art and it’s a fun and free way to explore the city.
Explore the beautiful Tide Pools on throughout the coast
Thanks to Orange County’s expansive coastline, tide pooling is a great activity in this region. You can find the most tide pools in Laguna Beach and its surrounding areas.
Pay a visit to the Bolsa Ecological Reserve
This coastal estuary spans over 1,300 acres. Bolsa Ecological Reserve is the perfect place for animal and nature lovers, with numerous different types of terrain to explore and enjoy.
Day trips from Orange County
As we mentioned before, Orange County is made up of thirty-four different cities. You’ll definitely have your hands full just trying to check off all of the things to do in Orange County while visiting. If you do have time to see more, however, there’s no shortage of Orange County day trips thanks to its prime location. My two favorite nearby cities are:
Los Angeles: Orange County is roughly 1.5 hours from LA, mostly due to traffic. Since LA is massive, I’d suggest picking one part of the city to explore if you’re going for a day trip. If you’re coming from one of the coastal cities in Orange County, I would recommend checking out Manhattan Beach, Marina Del Rey, Venice, or Santa Monica. If you’re coming from the inland cities in Orange County, a trip to trendy Downtown LA, Hollywood, or Silverlake is a must.
San Diego: Just an hour away, San Diego makes the perfect day trip from Orange County. Here you’ll find spectacular hikes at Torrey Pines or Mission Trails, gorgeous beaches at Mission Beach, stellar sunsets at La Jolla Cove, and foodie approved restaurants throughout downtown.
Best Orange County beaches
A notable surfing spot, Trestles attracts surfers from all over California. Close to San Onofre, a great camping area, it’s the perfect place to spend the day and people watch. You’re better off staying on the beach however, than getting in the water- unless you’re a strong swimmer or surfer.
Laguna Beach is as iconic as you can get and it’s home to numerous filming sites. The town’s namesake beach is located right at the heart of things, next to great shopping and eating to complement your sun tanning and swimming.
Huntington City Beach
Most famous for hosting the yearly Vans US Open of Surfing, Huntington City Beach is a must see. It is home to, well, great surfing, an iconic pier and tons of space to lounge in the sun.
Dana Strands Beach
Dana Strands lies beneath some of the biggest, most photogenic mansions you’ll see in Orange County. With great viewpoints where you can soak up the beauty of the area, jagged cliffs, and bright blue water, it’s one of the best beaches in Orange County.
Crystal Cove Beach
With 3.2 miles of beach to explore, as well as surrounding coastal hiking trails, Crystal Cove Beach is a must-see. This is a great spot to soak up the natural beauty of the area and escape tourist crowds.
Best Hotels in Orange County
The best places to stay in Orange County greatly depend on your budget and which city you’re most interested in visiting. While Orange County is generally on the higher end of things, some cities are more expensive than others. When choosing accommodation, you also have to consider whether you want to stay inland or on the coast.
In general, it will be much more cost effective to stay inland in places like Irvine, Anaheim, or Orange. It will be the most expensive to stay in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point. If you’re set on staying in a beach town but your budget isn’t very high, then I would recommend Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa or San Clemente.
Also if you’d rather rent an apartment, which is most of the time more cost-effective, you can find many amazing vacation rentals in Orange County to choose from. In my guide to the Orange County Airbnb I have selected what I consider the coolest homes to rent in the post popular areas. I hope it helps.
If you prefer hotels, here below are some notable hotels within the region for a variety of budgets:
High-end: Montage at Laguna Beach
As luxurious as you can get, if you have the money, then staying at the Montage is absolutely worth the splurge. Located right on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach, the Montage has its own private beach access and unforgettable property. Even if you can’t afford to stay here, I would highly recommend stopping by for a drink at the hotel bar.
Mid-range: Kimpton Shore Break Huntington Beach
The Shore Break is a retro, surf-inspired hotel by the Kimpton brand. It’s as California as you can get, and located only a block from the beach, in a prime location. This is a great choice for those looking to surf, swim and enjoy the beachy culture of Huntington Beach. While the price may seem a bit on the higher end, for Orange County, this is definitely mid-range.
Orange County Hotels Map
Budget: Ayres Hotel Orange
This vintage boutique hotel in Orange is central, beautiful, and most importantly, a bang for your buck. Ayres Hotel gives you a budget-friendly option while still being an incredibly high quality and enjoyable hotel. It’s the perfect place to stay when exploring the historic district (and enjoying the wine trolley). It’s also only a few miles from Disneyland and the Angels stadium.
Orange County is a diverse, sprawling, beautiful place to visit. Whatever you choose to do, and wherever you choose to stay, a visit to Orange County will not disappoint.
About the author: Alicia Briggs
A full-time traveler since 2018, Alicia is a writer and blogger, specializing in travel, social issues, and sustainability. She’s lived in over 70 cities and 25 countries, with expertise in California, Oregon, Mexico, Vietnam, and South Africa. Alicia is a self-described extroverted introvert, trying to balance her love of a great happy hour with her love of an isolated mountain top. You can follow her journey on her slow travel blog, Learning the Local Way